You Don't Know Marx

Philosopher and cultural critic Dr. Slavoj Žižek famously proposed that the function of ideologies is to create words that have vague enough meaning that politicians can use them to collect support from voters without actually communicating any information to those voters or making a commitment to any position. 

When I asked several people for an example of a communist nation, they had no trouble naming two or three countries. Those same people had a significantly harder time when I asked them to define communism. 

Communism is one of the words that Žižek describes as “signifiers without a signified,” because it has enough meaning that politicians can use it to motivate people into attacking, without having enough meaning that people could actually start to question whether it is something we should attack. 

What is rather funny is that this systemic deception on a societal scale can be completely undone just by teaching people the literal meaning of the words, so that they can identify when a politicians chooses to use them incorrectly.

Let’s start with the basics. An ideology is a collection of beliefs on how society should be. All ideologies have three parts: a political system, an economic system and the philosophical core that justifies these systems.

A political system is an institution that is responsible for the distribution of power within a society, where power means “the ability for one to have their desired outcome happen.” There are three types of power: liberty, hard power and soft power. 

Liberty is the ability to do what one wants. If I want to eat pizza for dinner, and I decide to make pizza, then I am expressing my liberty. Usually liberty is talked about in terms of freedoms people have, but the existence of technology is also a way people can have liberty. 

Hard power is the ability to have other people do what one wants through coercion. If I want to eat pizza for dinner, and I give someone money to make a pizza for me, then I am expressing my hard power. In international relations, hard power is usually expressed through military or economic threats.

Soft power—which is a little hard to describe because it is such a novel concept to Western political thought—is the ability to have other people do what one wants without coercion. If I want to eat pizza for dinner, and I convince my roommate in culinary school that making me a pizza is good practice for them, then I am expressing my soft power. Anyone who really wants to understand soft power should study China. Their use of “ping-pong diplomacy,” which is when China invited American ping-pong players into China, is undoubtedly the single greatest use of soft power in the modern age.

An economic system is an institution that is responsible for the distribution of resources within a society, where resources means “entities that possess value.” There are two main theories on what defines value. The simpler is the marginal theory of value, which holds that value of anything is its price, meaning the amount people are willing to pay for it. It should be noted that, according to this theory, value is socially constructed.

In contrast, the labor theory of value holds that value is an intrinsic property of a good. The value of an object is how much labor—which is usually measured in hours—it takes to create that object under normal conditions. 

Let’s say a team of 10 worker spends 10 hours each, turning a large lump of wood into a boat, and then their boss sells this boat for $100. The marginal theory of value says that the value of a boat is $100, because that is how much it sold for; the labor theory of value says that the value of a boat is 100 hours, because that is how long it takes to make a boat, and $1 equals one hour.

Something rather unsettling becomes apparent when we analyze how much the worker’s labor is worth, however. Let’s say that the boss kept $1 for himself and pays each of those workers $9.90, making their hourly pay rate 99 cents per hour. This means that, according to the labor theory of value, the boss is ripping the workers off, paying them 99 cents for every $1 worth of work they do. 

This is not something you can easily get around. The only way the workers can be given a fair wage is if the boss kept nothing for themselves, which can never happen since the boss needs to make money to feed their own family. The math simply works out that way.

I can just imagine many saying, “Let’s just remove the boss from the equation entirely.” If we did that though, then the things the boss brought to the table, namely the original lump of wood and the tools needed to carve it, would have to be provided by someone else, who would then themselves be the new boss.

The only way you can get around having the boss is to have the workers be the ones who own the raw materials and tools. The problem with that solution is rather simple; what I just described is the definition of communism.

Communism is an economic system where laborers own the means of production that they use. Means of production simply means whatever is needed to do work, namely raw materials and tools. The communist society of Karl Marx, where people do work because they enjoy working, is an example of a society that has a communistic economy, but it is by no means the only possibility. 

I wish to stress this: any nation where people own the objects they are working with and working on can accurately be described as a communist nation. Saying a nation is communist says absolutely nothing about how the rights of individuals are treated or how the individual can express themselves.

So why is it that when I asked people about communism, they described dystopias where people are slaves of the state? The answer is Stalinism.

Stalinism is an ideology where the economic component is communism, the political component is totalitarianism, and the philosophical component is Lenin-Marxism.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a dictatorship is established with the intention of creating an ideal society. The intrinsic danger of totalitarianism is that it is formed to create a better society, not to be a better society. This allows the dictator to elevate themselves above any criticisms, based on the past or present. When someone comes to them complaining about genocides, famines, repressed speech, or limited freedoms, the dictator can simply respond by acknowledging that these things are evil, and then make the comforting claim that they will be absent from the society of the future. The argument they form will usually make use of “the ends justify the means” logic.

The fact that totalitarianism is a form of government focused on transitioning to a utopian society is very important to understanding Stalinism. 

Marx put forward a theory called historical materialism, according to which human societies progress through three phases defined by their economic systems: agricultural, capitalistic, and communistic. 

At the time of the Russian Revolution, Russia was an agricultural society, which left Lenin in a rather awkward place. If he remained loyal to Marx, he would have to make Russia capitalist, which was a system Marx also believed to be inherently exploitative. For this reason, Lenin developed a philosophy called Lenin-Marxism, which said that the capitalistic stage could be skipped if a totalitarian government is established.

It is worth noting that the U.S.S.R. has never actually completed the transition to a communistic economy. In fact, the only societies that have actually achieved communism for a significant amount of time are several small farming communities in Israel called kibbutzim, and even that is debatable.

Almost all criticism of communism by U.S. politicians is actually criticism of totalitarianism, which is just weird. Why would politicians choose to raise valid objections to a political system, while claiming to be criticizing an economic system? 

I would love to say why, but for now, this will suffice. I will continue in my next edition of this series.

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