Marxism - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Amina Hussain - Feb. 24, 2024 - 7 min read - #Politics

The mere mention of the word communism, and subsequently Marxism, is enough to send shivers down many people’s spines. Chilling images of red flags, sickles, and Soviet gulags haunt even the most level-headed, upstanding middle-class citizen. Tentatively putting aside the atrocities it has overseen, communism at its core is merely an economic model. 

Under the communist model, workers own the means of production and members of a community contribute according to their needs and abilities. It is important to note that the abolition of property ownership under this model only includes private property (capital or the means of production), and does not include personal property (consumer and non-capital goods and services i.e. one’s home). Marxism is Karl Marx’s interpretation of the ideal communist system, and his criticisms of our current capitalist one. 

Prior to reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s The Communist Manifesto, I had the most frightful nerves, expecting a declaration of a New World Order and the upheaval of all that was familiar. Although Marx proposed some fairly radical notions, the book was altogether underwhelming, comprising 60 odd pages of what I could only describe as a campaign pamphlet: the campaign to undo capitalist hegemony and establish a communist eutopia. 

Surprisingly enough, Marx does not criticise capitalism in its entirety. He praises its ability to reveal the extent of human innovation, citing some of our best accomplishments: “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”. This is because capitalism is a vital step in the Revolutionary Sequence.

Without capitalism, the proletariat would not be able to gain the necessary class consciousness to realise the injustice of their situation and ultimately overthrow the bourgeoisie. 

The Good

Marx accurately predicted the divisive and discriminatory nature of capitalism. Under it, the rich have gotten exponentially richer and the poor poorer. The World Inequality Report 2022 has revealed that the poorest 50% of the population own just 2% of total net wealth. In the UK, wealth inequality has increased by 1.3 percentage points to 35.7% from fiscal year ending (FYE) 2021 to FYE 2022. Most of us can agree the capitalism relies on competition and ruthlessness. Outsourcing manufacture to the cheapest labourers results in the greatest profit margins – as well as the world’s most exploitative industries.

Another correct Marxist prediction is the boom-and-bust economic cycles that capitalism thrives off of. The economy expands to reach peaks of financial success followed by recession, depression, and then recovery. We’ve seen such cycles in recent history: the Great Depression 1929, followed by the economic boom post-WW2, the 80s recession, ‘00s boom, and most recently the 2008 recession. Such instability in the economy can be brought on by stock crashes, shocks (unpredictable events like 9/11 and the COVID pandemic), or simply by natural fluctuations in the free market (called static effects). It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that when the economy crashes, millions if not billions of lives are destroyed; unemployment, (hyper)inflation, and extortionate price rises send many to the streets and more to their graves. 

My last complimentary nod to Marx is his forecast of globalisation and corporate monopoly. He states in The Communist Manifesto that, “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” For a 19thcentury revolutionary living in a mostly feudal world, such hypotheses are impressive. And indeed, we are a global world controlled by a handful of enterprises such as Google, Meta, and Visa, to name a few. 

The Bad

Marx, in his innocent 19th century, fresh-faced world view terribly underestimated the regenerative nature of capitalism. See, he previously predicted the market would saturate and collapse because people would run out of things to buy, once they had everything they need. Yet, as we witness ourselves, capitalism generates its own demand. My Politics teacher uses the very corny example of the iPhone, which supposedly reinvents itself every year and perennially revolutionises the world of tech. It generates demand through the status symbol that comprises much of its price tag and subsequently creates billions of dollars of profit. In this way, it is impossible to wait capitalism out. It won’t wither away for lack of consumerism. It would need to be plucked out from the roots and thrown into the compost. (I apologise for the horticultural semantic field.)

Another thing Marx failed to realise is that socialist reforms are possible under a capitalist economic model, making life adequate for many. The abject fear of communism after the Russian Revolution and during the Cold War led many capitalist states to adopt socialist policies (pension schemes, national health services and social housing) perhaps as a form of popular appeasement. They were certainly not going to surrender to a communist model but they could concede a few support systems here and there. Because of this, many people’s lives have seen improvement despite capitalism, with the number of people in absolute poverty (NB: not relative poverty) falling by one billion since the 1980s. 

Lastly, Marx’s view of class conflict is quite outdated, even the notion of the class binary with the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has long eroded. Social class today is much more complex, divided into 6 levels according to the NRS social grade (A, B, C1, C2, D, and E). Other models have seven different social classes. This economic Battle of Seven Armies would prove a feat even Tolkien would shy away from. Additionally, the makeup of the classes has shifted, with greater embourgeoisement now. 70% of British citizens own their homes and consider these homes economic assets, or private property as opposed to personal property. In Marxist terms, this would make the majority of our society petty bourgeoisie, not proletariat. Now, that’s hardly a mandate for worldwide social revolution. 

The Ugly

Now to address the elephant in the room: communist dictatorships. Although this extends slightly beyond Marxism, it is still intrinsically related. It is the objective truth that self-acclaimed communists have also ran some of the most notorious authoritarian regimes - the Soviet Union, Cuba in the 50s, modern-day North Korea. They have overseen mass oppression, persecution, famine, and economic calamity. Millions continue to suffer today either directly or indirectly due to said regimes.

Still, it must also be understood that correlation does not equal causation. Dictatorships oftentimes start out as purely dictatorships, then leaders must find a suitable ideology to scrape together the semblances of legitimacy. Sometimes, that’ll be communism, other times nationalism or religion. It is also important to note that anything vaguely socialist has long been demonised in Western media. If we are to condemn communism for its dictatorships, we must also be prepared to do the same for religion, nationalism, money, chicken feet or any other half-baked excuse dictators will use to maintain their regimes.