Understanding Marxism: The Enemy of Being is Having

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Capitalism is the source of all evil. If we can just get rid of the capitalist system, we can eliminate poverty, inequality, exploitation, class conflict, and war. This is what Karl Marx believed, and many today still follow his lead. But is his utopian vision possible? And would we want it even if it were?

Watch more videos in this series:
Understanding Marxism: From Each According to His Ability
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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Why does anyone still care about Marxism?

Karl Marx has been dead for well over a century. 

Everywhere Marxism has been tried, it has left death and destruction in its wake. In fact, nothing in the last thousand years comes close to the amount of tyranny, terror, and mass murder brought about by Marxist regimes.

Yet Marxism lives.

It may present itself today as postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, or critical race theory, but it’s still Marxism. 

So, there must be good reasons why it has endured — even flourished — in the face of unremitting failure. 

Say what you will about Marx the economist, he was a master psychologist. He recognized that there are many people in every society who, like himself, are motivated by envy and resentment.

Marx speaks directly to them. He tells them they are not responsible for the misery in their lives. That responsibility belongs to our remorseless pursuit of money; that is, the capitalist system. If we can just get rid of that, he promises, we can eliminate poverty, inequality, exploitation, class conflict, war, and alienation. 

Not a bad list if you’re looking to start a revolution.

But there’s more: Marxism assures us that this socialist utopia is close at hand — available to all, not in some distant future, or in the next life, but here and now.

All we have to do is overcome one little obstacle — human nature.

Marx expressed his deepest views on this subject in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. They can be summed up in one phrase: The enemy of being is having. In other words, the desire to own things makes you a bad person. However, you’re not to blame. The blame belongs to capitalism.

The most common interpretation of Marx’s philosophy suggests that he opposed capitalism because it creates an unjust world of inequality, exploitation, and class conflict. Marxism, according to this view, is all about equalizing income and social status.

This is true, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Marx saw the accumulation of material wealth as dehumanizing.

The more money and material possessions one acquires, the more estranged one is from his true humanity.

And what was that?

In the philosopher’s socialist paradise, one gets to eat, drink, and go to the theatre free of charge and without having to earn a living. Best of all, you get to do it without the guilt of being a moocher. 

All you have to do is enjoy yourself. Or, as Marx put it:  “[you can] do one thing today and another tomorrow…hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, [and] rear cattle in the evening…”

Yes, rear cattle in the evening. That’s how in touch Marx was with reality. 

But who cleans out the sewers — does the “dirty jobs” that keep a society functioning? Ironically, in the evil capitalist society, the sewer cleaner freely chooses to take on this job. In the socialist “paradise” coercion is almost always required.   

Marx never bothered with such messy details.  He left that to others. Unfortunately, those others always turn out to be megalomaniacs like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and Hugo Chavez. They were the ones who brought Marx to life and in the process caused tens of millions to suffer and die. 

Contrary to Marx’s claims, work freely chosen brings both money and dignity. Furthermore, most people work best when they pursue their own self-interest, an idea Marx despised. 

To him, self-interest turns everyone into Ebenezer Scrooge: greedy, grasping, and unfeeling. Not only is money — that is, capital — inherently corrupting, but the acquisition of it can’t be done honestly or fairly. The rich got rich by exploiting the worker.  For Marx, there’s no other possible explanation. 

For many today, there is no other possible explanation. For these people, Marx offers a philosophical justification for their anger — even their rage. From generation to generation the formula never varies: only by bringing the "privileged" down, can the "underprivileged" be brought up.

The venom that pours out of Marx’s pen stems ultimately from the fact that reality wouldn’t conform to his world view. It never seems to have occurred to him that people are complex beings with different talents, ambitions, and desires. 

It may be more accurate to say, he didn’t care. 

If people wouldn’t conform to his world view voluntarily, then the State would just have to use other methods of persuasion — like murder and terror. 

It all made sense to the philosopher as he toiled away in a corner of the British Museum or in his squalid London apartment.

What is astonishing is that millions came to believe him. What is tragic is that millions more suffered and died because they did. What is scary is that millions continue to believe. 

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