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Reading The Communist Manifesto in 2016: The failings of Communism

Lilly Birdsong By Lilly Birdsong Published on October 26, 2016

If you read my assessment of the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto, you'll see that Marx and Engels were particularly spot-on when describing early Capitalism and its failings.  It's eerie how similar our present is to the predictions Marx made of 150 years ago.  If you replaced "Bourgeoisie" by 1% and "Proletariat" by 99%, you could be reading a declaration made by the Occupy movement.

If we can agree that Marx was uncannily correct about the direction that we were moving in, then why is it that Communism failed so terribly to address these concerns?  Let's take a closer look at the proposed solutions in the Manifesto.

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

To put this into modern terms - the aim of communism is to create a party that is wholly devoted to the 99%.  The communist party aims to wrest political power away from the 1%.  That, above all else, is the one aim of communism.  Instead of looking at this as a "dirty" word, let's try to understand its worth.

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If we look at leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they have fought tirelessly to wrest control of the markets, the economy, and political policy away from the banks, special interests groups, lobbyists, and the super-rich and try to put the power back into the hands of the people.  The irony of the current Democratic process is that, technically, there should be nothing that prevents them from being able to do this.  No matter what party they belong to, or whether they declare themselves as an independent - the fact that we, as a people, have the power to elect our representatives means that if 99% of us choose to be represented by someone, then we win.

However the problem with the 99% is that we don't always know what's best for us.  It's so easy for the 1% to manipulate the system, whether it's the huge amounts of donations they make to political parties and the favours they expect in return, or whether it's the media and the way they choose to represent the candidates.  Everyone, every single person in the 99% knows that they don't like the status quo.  We can see we're heading for an iceberg.  Question is, which direction to turn?  When you blur the lines, making it difficult for people to understand the possible solutions, you just get endless infighting and a tug of war that results in no significant deviation from the current path.

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels say that when looking at creating a communist party in a country, its application will by necessity be different.  After all, there are many variations in cultures around the world that will prevent things from being implemented in a specific way.  However, some generalities will persist.  They recommend the following general rules:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. 
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. 
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance. 
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. 
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. 
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. 
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. 
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. 
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country. 
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

In reading these rules, surely all of us will have some rules that we can agree with and some that seem inherently abhorrent.  Let me pick these apart in some more detail.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. 
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. 
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance. 
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. 

When it comes to people owning property, Communism isn't inherently against ownership but they are against ownership by the 1% - the bourgeoisie.  The point is, that we should all be on more or less an equal footing.  All of us should be able to live in a house that's more or less equal in value.  

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The only way to really achieve that, in their mind, was to abolish private ownership and recommend that the government take care of distributing property and land as appropriate.  If you wanted to move, you could apply to move, your application would be reviewed, and when approved you could simply move.  You wouldn't have to "worry" about being able to afford your house, you wouldn't have to pay rent.  It would just be... free.  

The same concept goes for passing land or property from one generation to another.  Today, if your parents die, you probably pay some kind of inheritance tax (which can still be gouging in some places) but you more or less get to inherit what they had.  This makes sense to a lot of us, somehow we feel as though we have "earned" our parents' property just by the fact that we were born into our family.  However if you ignore your own situation for a moment - your family home, to which you are emotionally attached - and simply look at this from a purely materialistic sense, what this means is those who are born to rich parents are then also born into a naturally superior position to those who are born into families of less means.  This is by definition what aristocracy was all about.  This is how Trump was born.

Imagine instead if we all had more or less the same access to property.  If you look at the above chart, for those who are the poorest, the highest majority of their income goes into paying for property, and that is also the largest portion of the debt they own.  Imagine if you simply didn't have to worry about property at all.  The mere idea of property alone is a thought experiment worthy of attention - and thus one of the reasons that Communism focused so much on this.

The only country I'm aware of right now that still has this kind of a system in place is, for better or worse, North Korea.  If you're interested in reading about this further I'd recommend The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a personal account written by a man who escaped from North Korea after being imprisoned there in his youth.  He describes how his family migrated there as Japanese-born Koreans.  When you move to North Korea, you give up all rights to your own property and you get assigned a place to live.  In order to move from one location to another, you need a permit.  Unfortunately, although they have benefits from this, it results in a completely closed-off society and one in which people can't even move from one place to another.  Practically, in a modern world, this just doesn't work.

People today want to be able to move around freely, to enjoy the benefits of globalisation. Although the concept of all land being government-owned doesn't practically work, the way that private land ownership is so disproportionate now doesn't work, either.  We've seen so many proposed solutions over the years, from subsidized housing to co-op projects.  But we've never seen a system of land ownership that is both fair and free.

If someone can crack that nut, then maybe Communism would have worked.

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5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. 
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. 
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. 
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

Points 5, 6, 7, and 10 are all about state-owned enterprises, specifically in relation to banks, communication, transport, production, and education.  I think if Marx and Engels were writing this in 2016, he'd probably also include energy and health care in that list.

As we've seen often in the past 150 years, some industries seem to lend themselves to public enterprise better and some seem to work better with privatization.  Communication is a perfect example of an ultimate fail - at least in Canada.  I've lived both in the United States and in Canada, and I can tell you for a fact that even though there are at least 3 major telecom companies in Canada, together the 3 of them all charge outrageous amounts for a level of service that is on par with the US at a much cheaper price.  There is no logical reason why they charge so much, other than that they have a small, captive audience for their services.  In this case, a public option may have worked better.

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However the downside of public industries is that they don't tend to evolve as quickly.  In Canada, having public health care has worked overall quite well for us - although there are some things that still lend themselves better to private such as preventative care.  

What it comes down to is this: things that we think should be an inalienable "right" of the people should be public.  End of story.

Today you will see many people that are arguing in favour of the fact that access to the Internet should be a "right."  Although at first this seems preposterous, when was the last time you tried to go without Internet?  When travelling recently I got terribly lost and when I was disconnected, not speaking the language of the people around me, I had literally no way of finding out what I needed to know.  We are now so dependent on these technologies, and with the Internet of Things we will become only more so.  

The problem that we still need to solve is how can we have a free, public option for these services but still have them managed effectively and efficiently.  Once again, not an easy nut to crack.

8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. 

One of the greatest problems that we have today is the fact that not all work is equal, and so naturally to progress financially and socially we constantly have to choose types of work that will enable us to improve ourselves.  If all work were equal, then we might see more young people choosing to invest themselves into necessary careers like agriculture.  

We are finding more urban solutions to these fundamental issues, like Lufa Farms that are building networks of rooftop farms.  By using technology, we can connect together small producers and get around the idea that we need to have large, industrial agriculture.  However still, the amount of money that a person can make by labouring 8 hours a day in front of a computer should be roughly equal to the amount of money a person can make working in a field.

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9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country. 

In large part due to the previous point, because there's such a wealth inequality between urban and rural areas, and because we put such emphasis on wealth in terms of our "social success," this results in young people moving more and more to the city instead of living and working in the country.  This results in some hardships on urban communities in being able to keep up with the exponential growth in their areas and in the services they now need to provide.

If you ask young people, not all of us want to live in the city, either - many of us are there by necessity, in order to have access to the type of work we want to do.  The Internet has made access to online jobs and remote work a lot easier, but we still haven't solved it to the point where we can work remotely just as well as we could in person.  If we had solved that, then perhaps I'd be working from the country instead of from the city.  

Concentrated urban areas result in an unequal distribution of land wealth, as well.  One of the major factors in how much property costs is its proximity to points of interest - to your workplace, to shops, to places you like to go to hang out.  

The irony of it is that at the time Marx was writing this, the Internet wasn't even going to be thought of for another 100 years, and yet the Internet age is uniquely suited to addressing this issue.

...the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.

What we really need is a group of thought leaders to get together and go back to basics.  Only if we get back to the root of what makes us happy, healthy human beings will we be able to truly design a governmental philosophy that works for us all.

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Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs

If we go back to the basics of human motivation, and take a look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, then there's no reason why in 2016 we shouldn't be able to reasonably provide for the basic needs of our communities.  If we can reasonably provide food, water, shelter, and security to all people, then our world would be a very different place to how it is today.

I am a Sci-Fi writer. I love drinking whiskey, hanging out with my 2 cats, and kickboxing. Check out Children of RIVA if you're interested in my work. Oh, and in my spare time I work ... Show More