October 19, 2002

· Sociology

Christine Niles digs up her copy of the Communist Manifesto and finds Marx’s list of goals for his revolutionary movement laughable:

And to think I actually used to like this stuff. Scary. Note especially #4. This should really lay to rest any arguments that economic freedom has no bearing on political freedom.

Let’s take a look at the goals of the most incendiary political document of the 19th century.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.. Probably not much support for this one these days, and with good reason.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. A core element of the political economy of the majority of the advanced capitalist democracies. Doesn’t sound all that radical to me.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance. Wouldn’t garner much support either. Of course, it’s not just evil communists that think inheritable property is a major impediment to equality of opportunity. Ideas about redressing the balance, either in the form of a stakeholder grant or a Basic Income Guarantee are increasingly important policy options in Europe and also have a very interesting history in the United States.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. This is a scary one all right. No call for treating emigrants and rebels this way. We can just declare them Enemy Combatants instead. Sorry! Sorry! That was a cheap shot!

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly. Interesting one, this. The history of credit is fascinating, but I don’t know enough about it off the top of my head to answer the question I have in mind. Obviously there aren’t many state banks with exclusive monopolies on credit, but the role of the state in guaranteeing and underwriting credit (and other financial instruments) is very large. And financial markets are also embedded in politics. I need to go back and reread Bruce Carruthers’ City of Capital. We can score this as a miss for Marx for now, though.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state. No longer fashionable, but rather common until the 1980s.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. See 6.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. A little vague on the first sentence. Second sentence doesn’t sound too good.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country. Well, if planned by the state it sounds like the Cultural Revolution, which I think we can all agree was A Bad Thing. If not planned by the state, it sounds like modern suburban America.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc. And to think I actually used to like this stuff! Whoops, I mean, maybe abolition of child labor, free education and vocational training don’t sound all that awful.

What’s interesting about this list of goals is the way they hang together from Marx’s perspective (and that of his few readers in 1848). They’re all uttered in the same breath. All are equally radical planks in a revolutionary strategy. From our point of view, some are commonplace, some still absurd or disastrous. But it doesn’t work to say, with the benefit of hindsight, “Well, of course income taxes and the abolition of child labor are obviously reasonable, but industrial armies and the abolition of inheritance are clearly sheer batshit insanity. And that’s what any sensible person would have said in 1848, too.” Reflecting on the history of each goal is really an object lesson in the theory of social change. Overall, Marx looks like he’s batting about .400, maybe a bit higher, which on the whole is not so bad for long-range social forecasting or implementation of a political program.

As for Christine, she has abandoned the foolish adherence to Marxist dogmatism that sullied her youth. Now she adores… Hayek. I guess for some people, it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing, as long as it’s blowing good and hard.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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