Sunday, May 22, 2011

Can Communism Avoid Collapsing Into Tyranny?

Question: Can Communism work with a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat?” Will it always
devolve into tyranny of one?

Works Considered:

Karl Kautsky, Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Vladimir Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
The State and Revolution


Marx's political theory is a source of fascination for me. I'm not greatly shocked that communism would prove popular in areas that are truly destitute, where peasants' living conditions almost could not be worse and where communism at least offers a glimmer of hope for improvement. What really amazes me is that there are people in the Western world who could be suckered into this belief system. It has a great deal to do with the fact that many supporters of Marxism have never actually read Marx or considered the implications, but there are still many academics who have read his works and passionately support his platform.

The problem with Marxism does not lie in the tearing down of the state; that much is fairly easy. However, Marxism promises a better life after the Revolution and it is here the problem lies. Once society is overthrown, what follows? Marx and his disciples are short on details to describe this period. Such chaotic situations are beneficial for the strongest thugs, not the most just rulers, to gain power; to create such chaos with the intentional goal of destroying a class of people (the bourgeois) is a perfect recipe for creating a totalitarian state, not a stateless and classless society. History has vindicated this (Stalin, anyone?), but this should have been obvious to any literate member of society without historical examples to rely upon.

Mr. Kautsky, to his credit, foresaw this problem. Marx's vagueness on the famous concept of "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" is a big stumbling block for socialists, as some see this dictatorship in the common political sense of the word while others like Kautsky fear such a political leviathan. The traditional strongman at the head of the Dictatorship, as supported by Lenin, was needed in order to wipe away the hated "oppressing" class, but the power of such a man could just as easily be turned on socialists unwilling to dedicate themselves to the particular man in charge. Socialism is not a monolithic concept; dissent exists within its ranks. As Hayek pointed out later, those who achieve dictatorial powers are those ruthless enough to grasp for it. Such people will be loathe to relinquish such power and almost inevitably the revolution will began to devour itself as dissenting socialist elements become targeted.

That anyone is impressed with Lenin's writing amazes me. Lenin's fanaticism in the infallibility of Marx rivals the most passionate fundamentalist of any religion; often, a quote from Marx is considered authority in and of itself. Obviously, we have the benefit of hindsight, so we know that Lenin's "scientific" political beliefs in the ripeness for revolution in Russia was anything but scientific. But again, even without this knowledge, one should have been wary of Lenin's books. He goes into detail about the destruction of the bourgeois state, but what follows the creation of a classless society is largely glossed over. Indeed, about the only real detail I could find in either book was that somehow mankind will come to love labor, which will keep the economy going and create riches for everyone. Now, never mind the problems of knowing what to produce, how much, and all of the other basics of economics: how on earth do we convert mankind from people who love leisure into people who love labor?

Lenin's books are not worth reading. It is easy to be a cheerleader for the destruction of society. Anyone can point out problems and generate anger about exist problems, but to demand we completely start society over is outrageous, especially if one lacks a realistic plan for the aftermath. Kautsky's book, however, is worth consideration. Kautsky calls for a revolution by the ballot rather than the bullet; without popular support, any violent revolution would either lose or devolve into tyranny anyway. He also realized that "the" revolution is unlikely to be global and instantaneous. Lenin's revolution in Russia was just that, limited to Russia; so long as the rest of the world was constituted of nation states, the Soviet Union would have to remain as a political entity to protect the revolution from outside forces. Rather than seeing a withering of the state, such a hostile international system would actually require a strengthening of the socialist state. With more power being concentrated in the government, controlling the government becomes a bigger and bigger prize that once obtained would be too valuable to give up. And while not mentioned by Kautsky, it should be pointed out that nationalism and religious intolerance could very easily be stronger forces pushing the international working class apart than the label of proletariat could be at pulling them together. Even if all nations overthrew their bourgeois governments, national antagonism might prevent the withering of the state and create future wars between purportedly socialist governments.

Perhaps Kautsky's most important point is that the failure of Capitalism that is the focus of Marx and his apostles does not in and of itself lead to Socialism. Marx's magnum opus, Das Kapital, is about just that, the flaws of capitalism. A socialist equivalent of von Mises' Human Action, describing how exactly the favored economic system will work, does not exist. To overthrow capitalism (on in Russia's case, pseudo-feudalism) in the name of Socialism without a solid economic and political plan risks creating chaos, again in the name of Socialism, which for obvious reasons would make Socialism look god awful in the eyes of the world. Kautsky is amazingly honest about the source of wealth to make people want to join socialism: the capitalists! Their wealth is needed in order to be redistributed; without it, Socialism has nothing to offer. Land reform is pointless, as you will be moving land from a productive bourgeois minority to an ignorant and less productive proletariat/peasant majority. Given the lack of excess food at the time to begin with, such a move could create devastating famines, à la Mao's Great Leap Forward and Mugabe's land reform efforts.

While Kautsky is more realistic, his theory presents problems of its own. Lenin's system leads to a pretty clear moment at which property stops being private, while Kautsky must worm his way through a parliamentarian system. Classical Liberalism, with its notions of property rights, would be a hindrance to creating a complete socialist system through democratic means. At some point in time, the majority would have to make radical redistribution of land and property, as having a unanimous decision is highly unlikely. How and to whom this wealth will be redistributed will undoubtedly lead to contentions within the majority faction. As Hayek noted, such wrangling may make reaching a decision impossible, with calls for an economic dictator to complete the redistributive aspects of the revolution. At this point, we are back to having the one strong man that so plagues Lenin's version. Further, just because the decision was made democratically does not mean socialism has solved the problems of calculating prices, distributing resources in an efficient manner, providing proper motivation to work, and all of the other economic criticisms of centralized economic planning.


Marxist thought finds its strength in the jealousy of the lower classes and in its ability to criticize current problems without offering a concrete set of alternatives. Once it is actually implemented, however, that lack of detail as to how socialism will really work proves itself to be fatal. The concentration of power and resources into the "dictatorship of the proletariat" makes such a position, whether it be one man or an administration of equals, a prize worthy of the cruelest means to obtain for those willing to stoop to such levels. Such societies will, rather than creating a classless society, create a most unequal pair of classes, those of the governing bloc and those of the oppressed subjects.

Lenin's books are not worth reading. Apart from the fact that his "scientific" predictions are nonsense in the light of history, his unflappable faith in Marx's infallibility should disturb any open minded person. Further, he offers little in the way of positive contributions for a future socialist society, focusing instead on how to create a revolution to overthrow the current order. Such short sightedness is particularly dangerous when the immediate plan is to overthrow all stability.

While I disagree with Kautsky on the values of socialism or its ability to work, I do believe his book is worth a gander for those on the Left, in particular the few hardcore Marxists remaining in this world. His views are similar to many European leftists and not a few in America. While his views on a ballot rather than bullet revolution are admirable, it would likely prove difficult to implement, as traditional rights concerning property and liberty would need to be undermined without the use of force. Whether those losing those rights would be so willing to part with them at the behest even of democracy is uncertain.

No comments:

Post a Comment