Tag Archives: Friedrich Engels

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

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Lenin, Engels and Marx. (Original author: unknown; Source: here)

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Well, here’s a happy topic and one which you have been looking forward to, no doubt, with some eager anticipation: Communism. This was a political ideology that a lot of people around the world used to believe in when there were political ideologies to believe in. Some countries are still called ‘Communist’ but it has fallen away so quickly since 1990 that it is becoming difficult for many people to remember just what Communism was all about. And it is almost impossible to recall just how frightening and threatening the Communist system was to those of us growing up in the Western world, the world of capitalism and democracy, a world fighting an epic battle for ‘good’ against ‘evil’. People recall things like, ‘They built a wall, didn’t they?’, but the general view is that ‘It failed, so it can’t have been much good’. But what was Communism all about? Why did people believe in it? Why was it so frightening? And why did it ‘fail’? So here begins a quick look at the most famous left-wing policy of them all.

‘Communism’ as a word that looks very like ‘commune’, ‘common’ and ‘community’, which is just as it should be for its focus is on the community over the individual. There is nothing unusual in stressing the importance of community in human history, of course, for every family, tribe and settlement has been a reflection of the human need to belong to a group. No child can survive without someone to care for them. Few, if any, individuals have all of the knowledge and skills needed to survive completely in isolation. It is natural for people to give to a group in some way and to receive from it. So where did this ‘frightening’ ideology come from if it was in some ways an expression of something so natural?

‘Communism’, or ‘Marxism’ as it is often known,as a political system is the name for the extreme left-wing ideology originally developed by two Germans, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), in the middle of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly have heard of Marx, a German philosopher, journalist, historian and revolutionary, although you might not be aware of Engels, his main supporter and collaborator. In simple terms, Marx did the writing and the thinking while Engels provided the money and other support to allow him to work. Before we look in more detail at these two fascinating characters, we should have a photo of the memorial to them in Berlin which reminds us of just what fine facial hair these two revolutionaries developed. They are a serious contrast to the modern, image obsessed politicians who lead most modern governments.

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A close-up of the statue of Marx and Engels in Schlossplatz, Berlin. (Author: Manfred Brückels; Source: here)

There was some graffiti painted onto this statue after the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1989: ‘It was not our fault!’ This was a very reasonable point, really, as what came to be called ‘Communism’ was rather different from what Marx and Engels intended. The truth is that the system which we know as ‘Communism’, the system of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of the USSR, China and North Korea, the ideology that so threatened the West in the Cold War era, was a long way from being that envisioned by Marx and Engels. There was definitely a breakdown between the ‘planners’ and the ‘producers’ when it comes to communism. There was actually a rather heated debate in Berlin about whether or not this monument to the ‘founders’ of Communism should be kept or removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it was surely both a good and a necessary thing that it has remained in place as it would have been too easy for people to deny or ignore the past. In a world lacking ideology and integrity in the political world, the statue is a reminder that people have thought differently in the past – even if their ideas have not been successful or accepted. If success were the only criteria, it might be logical that all religious iconography in Western Europe would be torn down for a start – and as for the split between the original visions of the religious founders and the modern expressions of their ideas…well, that is a whole other story.

So, back to our finely bearded protagonists, especially Karl Mark. Marx was a German, born in 1818 in the town of Trier, near the border with Luxembourg and France. He was from a Jewish background being the son of a rabbi in a family of rabbis. His family can be described as upper-middle class family and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Marx went to the University of Bonn before moving on to the University of Berlin where he came under the influence of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel had said, ‘Philosophy is its own time raised to the level of thought’ (in ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’), a phrase open to much debate but one which the young Marx and others took as a call to action that challenged the established order in Germany. Hegel believed that the only way to understand things in the present was to see them as a part of some unrelenting or irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. This idea suggested that human freedom would come about as a result of this ‘progress’. Alongside this ideology, the rejection of religion as a valid means of understanding or addressing life and real issues was a key theme, centred on the work of another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx’s radical ideas did not go down well in the university and he was blocked by the authorities from continuing his academic career and so he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. In Paris, Marx met up with many German thinkers and activists who had left their country to escape the oppression of living under a dictatorship. In France just half-a-century after the French Revolution, his radical ideas were considered more ‘normal’ than in Prussia. Marx saw a more aggressive and, for him, advanced working class challenging the control and oppression that they suffered at the hands of the powers in the state, such as the politicians, church authorities and business leaders. He studied History and Social Sciences, both in Paris and, later, in Brussels, developing his observation that the more workers contributed to the capitalist system, the more they were alienated from the final outcomes, namely, the rewards, the profits. The workers might create great things through their skills and labour but they never had the chance to own them or to share fully in the profits; these belonged to the oppressive ‘bosses’ of society, the owners, the authorities. This sense of injustice and inequality in the means of wealth production became the heart of his idea of a ‘class struggle’; the alienation of workers seen in the control and exploitation of the proletariat by the landowners, nobility and the bourgeoisie under capitalism was to become the background for revolution.

By the time he met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels had already spent some time in England, much of it in England. With its many cotton mills, Manchester stood at the heart of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and, therefore, represented an expression of capitalism in its fullness. Industry had transformed the British landscape and society and, through its huge and growing Empire, it was shaping change across the globe. The population of Britain was growing and moving from the countryside to the towns; mechanisation was revolutionising employment; fortunes were being made but many of the people were being thrust into poverty. The experiences of Britain were being echoed in the rapid changes of European economies, too. Engels was actually from a reasonably wealthy family that was involved in mills and textile production, one of the bosses or ‘exploiters’. It is interesting to note that it was only through the money he made as a boss that Engels was able to support Marx in his revolutionary work. He is far less famous than Marx, so a proper picture might help at this point, especially as it gives another chance to admire his beard, an absolute gem of its kind. Actually, let’s put Marx in as well as they were such a team. You could lose a couple of small squirrels in their facial growth and they wouldn’t feel a thing.

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Karl Marx (Author: unknown; Source: here) Friedrich Engels (Author; unknown: Source: here)

The reason why Engels knew England so well was that, in the early 1840s, he had been sent to Manchester to help run his father’s cotton mill. While he was there he became interested in the condition of the workers, believing they struggled under inhumane conditions. His studies led to the publication of an important book, which was ignored by most people at the time. This was, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). It’s interesting to compare Engels’ findings with those of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree some fifty years later because it shows how so much in life is about having the right message for the right audience at the right time. Engels’ message was a clear warning of what Booth and Rowntree later identified but for some reason his work had little impact at the time; it’s really not the validity of what you have to say so much as the willingness of the audience to hear it which matters in so many areas of life.

Anyway, Engels was horrified by the terrible living conditions he found in places like Saint Helens, Oldham and Manchester itself. The depth and the extent of poverty amongst the workers was frightening, their poor health was a great concern and, most of all, the injustice was intolerable in his eyes. The gap between rich and poor was stark and growing greater each day as privileged employers exploited the workers for profit. Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844 and they struck up an immediate friendship based on their sense of injustice about the impact of industrial change with Marx coming at it from a philosophical angle, Engels from his practical experience. At about the same time, Marx also made contact with the ‘Communist League’ which had developed from ‘The League of the Just’, an organisation set up by German workers who had emigrated from their homeland in the previous decade. While in Brussels in 1847, Marx joined Engels in attending a conference of the ‘Communist League’. The speech that he gave there was an expression of their ideas as formed over the previous years and it was published the following year as the ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most famous documents of the century.

Although Marx was the thinker and visionary, Engels played a crucial role in bringing the ‘Manifesto’ into existence. He supported Marx financially during these years, giving him the royalties from his book as a way of supporting his friend while he developed his philosophy. Engels’ support enabled Marx to commit himself entirely to his reflections as it allowed him to read, write and travel free from any financial pressure. The publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was actually a development of a piece of Engels’ own work which was called ‘The Principles of Communism’. Marx took this and developed it into the manifesto itself, foreseeing a class struggle which would end with ‘World Revolution’ and the overthrow of the oppressive business owners and landowners, the so-called bourgeoisie. The ‘Workers’ or the ‘Proletariat’, would rise up and establish a new system where everything was shared in common; there would be a classless society of total equality. This utopian ideal was rooted in the injustice Engels had seen and smelt in the slums of northern England; its goal was justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all at the expense of the privileged few. Apart from the expected violence which would be necessary in the initial stages of the revolution, the vision was almost religious in its aims and values.

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‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, February, 1848. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published in February, 1848, just as Europe was on the verge of one of the most traumatic years in its history. The pamphlet seemed to be truly of its time because risings of workers in 1848 threatened every major European country except Britain – and, even there, tensions rose with the revolutionary demands of the Chartists. It was known as the ‘Year of Revolution’ as France, Spain Austria and Germany all experienced major political change and radical social upheaval loomed large in the political consciousness. Having spoken of risings of the workers, it all seemed set to come true and Marx and Engels were among those happy to see the uprisings which threatened to tear the continent apart during the summer of 1848. Their ideas expressed a new vision which came to inspire many intellectuals and idealists, as well as the lower classes, but made enemies of the established ‘powers’, the politicians, the monarchs, the churches and the business leaders. In the face of these troubles in Europe, and the inflammatory nature of their words, both Marx and Engels were expelled from Belgium.

Without going into great detail about the ‘Communist Manifesto’ itself, it might be interesting to see a summary of the demands of the Communist Party in Germany from this period. They indicate something of the goals of the party if not their strategies or arguments. Not all of these arguments seem very frightening today but in the mid-19th century, they terrified many leading figures in politics, society and the churches.

Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single indivisible republic.
  2. Representatives of the people (MP’s) shall be paid so that workers also can sit in the parliament of the German people.
  3. Universal arming of the people.
  4. The estates of the princes and other feudal estates, all mines, pits, etc., shall be transformed into state property. On these estates, agriculture is to be conducted on a very large scale and with the most modern scientific means for the benefit of all society.
  5. Mortgages on peasant holdings shall be declared state property; interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.
  6. In the districts where tenant farming is developed, land rent or farming dues shall be paid to the state as a tax.
  7. All means of transport: railway, canals, steamships, roads, post, etc., shall be taken over by the state. They are to be converted into state property and put at the disposal of the non-possessing class free of charge.
  8. Limitation of the right of inheritance.
  9. Introduction of a steeply graded progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumer goods.
  10. Establishment of national workshops. The state shall guarantee a living to all workers and provide for those unable to work.
  11. Universal free elementary education.

Having been forced from Belgium, Marx and Engels made their way to London, where Marx himself would settle for the rest of his life. London was a very tolerant and open society for revolutionaries in those days, and many outsiders from Europe found their way there. Marx eventually died in 1883 and is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery alongside some other famous names including Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti and Douglas Adams. Key places linked with him in London include: the Reading Room at the British Museum where he wrote his famous work, ‘Das Kapital’; Covent Garden where meetings of the First International took place; and Hampstead Heath where he used to enjoy trips out with his family on Sundays. While Marx was in England, he was protected by the British Government of the time on the grounds of allowing people to express their ideas, which is an interesting situation as he was effectively considered to be a terrorist by some states. Britain’s interest was always in its Empire and helping rebels who annoyed the European powers was almost a pleasure for the Government at the time. Marx was not allowed back to Germany but Engels did return there to  work for his father but regularly visited London and he continued to support Marx financially.

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Marx’s Grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘Workers of all lands unite’. (Author: here; Source: here)

After Marx’s death, Engels publicised his work, writing commentaries and making it more suitable for publication. Neither lived to see the ‘Communist Revolution’ and they would have been shocked to see what happened in Russia and the world in the years after 1917. They had fully expected revolution to happen in an advanced industrial country, such as Britain or Germany, where the exploitation of the masses created the conditions for a true uprising. They had thought that revolution had come in 1848 when Europe was thrown into turmoil, and were dismayed that the moment passed without the sweeping changes they expected. They both died having changed politics and philosophy but without seeing the fulfilment of their dream – and they would almost certainly have had some questions for Lenin and others in terms of what was done in their name in the Twentieth Century.

Obviously Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who wanted the overthrow of oppressive powers in society but would they have recognised or approved of what came to be known as ‘Communism’? Would they have been admirers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro? Was the Communism of the USSR and China, North Korea and Cuba, what Marx had in mind? Did these systems address the issues as Engels saw them? It seems highly unlikely that they would have been in total agreement with the reality of ‘communism’, but that’s what tends to happen when other people get hold of your ideas in a different place and at a different time. It’s a bit like writing a song, releasing it yourself to no particular acclaim and then discovering that it’s been covered by Chris de Burgh, Lady Gaga and Primal Scream; the words might be the same but you never thought it would come out quite like that. You get the idea, anyway.

So, what was ‘Communism’ supposed to be? What was it supposed to change? In the ideological world, ‘Pure Communism’ was to mean a number of things: there would be no private ownership of property or business; people would work according to their skills and be paid according to their needs; people would live in the same accommodation as each other and there would be no classes; there would  be no nations due to people being united by their bond as ‘workers’ rather than any idea of nationality; there would be no need for democracy and elections as there would be unity amongst the people, a shared vision and absolute freedom as all would be united in one community. The words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon come to mind in some ways.

One particular area of controversy was Communism’s approach to religion and the churches. For Marx and Engels, there would be no organised religion as this was a tool by which the powerful in society controlled the people, allowing them to believe that troubles here on earth might bring pain but they would eventually be compensated by the glories of heaven. The churches, therefore, preached a message of cooperation with the authorities which allowed exploitation and oppression to be maintained. In return, the leaders of the churches were allowed privileges alongside the highest in the land as long as they ensured the people were loyal, committed and passive; in the mean time, the powerful could enjoy their rewards here and now. Marx’s view on religion was expressed in one of his most famous quotes but one which is usually misquoted: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Just so you know it but don’t show yourselves up by misquoting it, here it is in full:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

It should be noted that this is not quite as negative about religion as it might sound. It speaks of religion as the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’. At the time, opium or heroin was commonly used as a pain-killer so Marx was saying that organised religion acted as an anaesthetic against the pains of everyday life for the poor. The real evil for Marx lies in the system, capitalism, and not with religion which seeks to help alleviate the suffering of so many oppressed by that system. The religious authorities, though, collaborated with the economic and political powers, emphasising the glories of the next world over the need for justice in this one, and so allowed religion to support the oppression of the workers. In this, Marx would probably have been concerned by the aggressive actions of Lenin, Stalin and others in seeking to destroy the churches. Khrushchev’s decision, for example, to take his first wife’s coffin over a wall rather than have her carried through a Russian Orthodox Church on the way to her grave would have struck Marx as foolish, unnecessary and misguided.

It is obvious to see why Communism made enemies and, in the end, failed. Taking the second point first, Communism failed because most people are, to a greater or lesser extent, selfish. As long as you care more about people you know than people you don’t know, Communism cannot work as people do not see everyone in the world as equally important or as their ‘brother and sister’. Full unity is not possible when family ties, nationality, race, culture, language, gender, age and a dozen other factors can cause divisions that are anything from a hindrance to an insurmountable obstacle. Marx never really took full account of the individual in his system; the dream of being special is there in most people, and being or feeling at least slightly different, slightly better, slightly wealthier, slightly better dressed and slightly happier than others means that true equality does not appeal to many people, if any.

Of equal importance in the failings of Communism was that fact that its enemies were many and they were powerful. It’s easy to see who they were and why they were unhappy. They were the established authorities who had status, power and influence in social, economic, political and religious terms. Communism did not choose its enemies wisely, raising anxiety amongst landowners and business leaders, monarchs and the nobility, church leaders and politicians. And alongside these groups were many individuals who aspired to belong to those groups, living by values which were in direct contrast with those of Communism. It is possible to see Marx and Engels as incredibly naïve, rooting their theory in the idea of unity amongst peoples who would define themselves as ‘workers’, embracing unknown ‘others’ against those with whom they already had some bond: language, religion, race, culture, family, friendship. And the idea that such a unity might exist for ever after the removal of the common enemy, the oppressive leaders of society and industry, was equally extreme.

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The response shown by so many people at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a rare example of an outpouring of emotion for someone few people actually knew – but it was an emotion not shared by everyone. (Author: Maxwell Hamilton; Source: here)

The fatal flaw in Communism, therefore, was its failure to grasp what motivated real people. As mentioned above, people usually care more about people they know rather than people they don’t know. They tend to be selfish and look for their own survival (individually and as a group) which is why ‘true’ martyrs are so rare, those who will die for an idea or to save someone they do not know at all. People are more than theories and ideals; most need something real and practical too. The highly committed believers may meet, debate, argue and really live out their ideology but most people see them as ‘fanatics’, and get on with their own lives: work, home, food, leisure, competition, savings, dreams and so on tend to dominate life for ordinary people. When fanatics take over, be they religious, political or whatever, then ordinary people tend to get bored, confused, angry and demoralised. One only has to see what happens when the ‘World Cup’ comes along every four years. The committed football fan gets excited; the majority at best tolerate it, maybe watching the odd game, during which they will probably annoy the true fan by asking questions that are either distracting, simplistic or irritating: Which team’s in blue? Why do they kick each other? Just what does ‘off-side’ mean? They are not as bothered or as obsessed as the true fanatic. Marx, Lenin and others never grasped this fundamental issue and the failure to convince ordinary people of the nature and benefits of ‘true’ Communism was a key to its eventual demise.

Despite these problems, Communism can and does exist but only rarely and on a small scale. It can be seen in highly motivated, ideological communities, two examples being some religious communities (monasteries) and on a kibbutz. Looking at a monastery, those who enter do so of their own choice and make a life-long commitment, although that can be broken. They take various vows: poverty means not seeking or receiving particular rewards for your work, which brings a clear form of equality; obedience means that your own ideas and values are not imposed on others or used to argue with others, as you accept your role within the running of the larger community, another form of equality; a vow of chastity is often taken, not just an issue around marriage or sex, but a commitment of equality in friendship and belonging with all in the community. The leader of the community is chosen by the community itself, serving the whole group in a way that protects them and leaves them free to do what they need to do. The leader serves for a set period of time before returning to the ranks as an ordinary member of the community. Communism is possible and has worked in the past but it is rare, not for all and requires certain conditions to be met. It demands total commitment and belief in the system and the values it proclaims. It must also be freely chosen and not imposed on the unwilling. Many people are religious and have enough belief to go to a church, mosque or temple regularly; but the majority are not motivated to give their lives over to it. In the same way, Communism appealed to a core group ideologically, made sense to some in particular circumstances but never appealed to the majority as a way of life. It does not mean the ideology itself was ‘bad’, it just never had enough rewards or made enough sense to people who had other values.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not ‘bad’ men, as some people try to portray them. In many ways they were visionaries who expected change in the name of justice and equality for all. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s just that too many key people thought they were wrong; they ignored certain things about ordinary people and made enemies of too many powerful people because that ‘justice and equality for all’ thing’ is just a bit too much to take. In many ways, their are many people suffering because of capitalism today who probably wish their full vision had come to dominate the world. Exploitation and oppression remain but, with rampant individualism and consumerism in the ascendancy, communism is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in history for some time to come.