Understanding Marxism: From Each According to His Ability...

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Private property, wage labor, competition, and profits — under Karl Marx’s world view, these would have to go. Instead of self-interest, everybody would work for the benefit of everybody else. For many, this is a very seductive idea. Is this the dream we should aspire to? Or would it be a nightmare?

Watch more videos in this series:
Understanding Marxism: The Enemy of Being is Having
Understanding Marxism: Change the World

Presented by C. Bradley Thompson, author of “The Redneck Intellectual” on Substack, and America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It.

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In a remarkably short period of time, the philosophy of Karl Marx changed the course of history. 

At the height of its power, half the world fell under its dominion, kept there by a combination of fear, terror, and brute force.  

Then suddenly in the late 1980’s, it imploded.

By all rights this should have been the end of Marxism. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

From environmentalism with its rejection of free markets to Critical Race Theory which sees white patriarchy as the source of all evil, you’ll find Marxism at its root. The leaders of Black Lives Matter, for example, openly acknowledge their devotion to Marxist ideology. 

How do we explain this fascination for something that has so utterly failed everywhere it’s been put into practice?

We can find answers in one of Marx’s most enduring epigrams.

“From Each According to his Ability, to Each According to his Needs.”

Marx was a poor economist, but a talented journalist, the only actual job he ever had. He knew how to turn a phrase. But what does this slogan mean? According to what ability? According to what need? And who determines anyone’s ability or anyone’s need? 

Marx never bothered to answer these obvious questions. He had much bigger things on his mind: nothing less than the creation of an entirely new kind of world for an entirely new kind of human being.  

Marx believed that by altering man’s economic and political institutions, he could alter — or even better — rewire the human brain; he could conjure a new consciousness that would replace the old “false” one. This new man would be less selfish and acquisitive and more altruistic and communal. In short, he would be a superior type of man.

Of course, this new man could only reach this goal if he wasn’t preoccupied with having to earn money.  According to Marx, money and the pursuit of it ruined everything. Marx hated money – maybe because he never found a way to make it. Getting rid of it was central to his world view. Once a person’s subsistence — one’s daily bread — was distributed on the basis of need rather than greed, man’s natural communal affections — long suppressed by his capitalist overlords — would be renewed.

This is Marx channeling the 18th century French social thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the few people Marx admired. According to Rousseau, this is what you must do if you want to create a new society.  

“He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing…human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which . . . the individual receives his life and his being…”

Understand this and you understand not only a key feature of Marxist thought, but the dark history of the twentieth century. 

Marx took Rousseau literally: human nature had to be returned to its allegedly pure, selfless state before capitalism, with its Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian values, “corrupted” him.

But creating this “new man” would be a formidable task. Marx anticipated that many would object, especially the owners and managers that had a large stake in the capitalist system. Friendly persuasion wasn’t going to get the job done. Only the ruthless application of State power would be up to the task.

Marx was all for it.

Private property, wage labor, competition, and profits — these would have to go. The State, now run by the workers themselves — The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, as Marx called it — would control production and pricing. It would wisely manage the economy: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

And imagine how wonderful it would be — no more ego, no more self-interest; instead, everybody working for the benefit of everybody else. Peace. Love. Harmony. 

For many, it’s a very seductive idea. Who wouldn’t aspire to live in such a world?  “Look around,” a Marxist might say. The powerful exploit the weak, crushing the majority’s noble aspirations (your aspirations), just so they can have more. It’s unfair and unjust. How much better if we just start over, start clean. 

That’s the Marxist, socialist dream. 

In real life, it’s a nightmare. 

Needs become demands.

And demands become rights. 

The best are mocked.

And the worst exalted.

Innovation withers, while the government grows ever larger. 

Eventually, the productive become virtual slaves to the unproductive… and the society collapses — economically, intellectually, and morally. 

And then the real horror starts. 

If you think I’m exaggerating just ask someone who fled the Soviet Union or Cuba or Venezuela. 

For all its risk and inequities, they prefer freedom. 

And we should, too.

I’m Brad Thompson, Professor of Political Science, at Clemson University, for Prager University.