Why Marx’s prescription is elitist, contradictory, and unrealistic
The strong allure of Marxism is hard to avoid.
I too was a hardcore Marxist as a teenager. I would often be found in the streets of Dhaka in my beret and a large Che poster was always on the wall of my room. Behind a stack of books in my bookshelf was The Communist Manifesto, hidden safely away from the poring eyes of my mother.
However, I started to get disillusioned from the ideology when I got to university. I was startled when my professor said: “If you are a Marxist, you have not studied enough economics.” This was his prelude to teaching us the theories of value in a political economy class. He pointed out the glaring errors of Marx’s labour theory of value, borrowed from earlier philosophers such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith.
“If labour was really the source of value,” he said, “the industries that are most labour-intensive would be the most profitable.”
Truly, the value of commodities cannot stem from the labour put into it. If I put a lot of labour into producing something that has no demand, it will certainly have no value. On the other hand, if I find a random rock on the street that sells for millions in the market, it has an immense value.
However, Marx is not exactly hailed as an economist. He is primarily seen as a political theorist.
But his political theory is also faulty. In The Communist Manifesto, he contends that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This, of course, is not true. The history of all societies is much more diverse than just class struggle.
Societies precede economic classes. The history of societies, therefore, are the histories of nationalism, religion, castes, creeds, emotions, relationships, and conflicts. Boiling this complex experience down to a single catchphrase is an oversimplification done for political purposes.
Also, the working class is more diversified than Marx projects. The working class has struggles within the class. Like any group, the working class has its leaders and its followers and their interests are not the same. The class is divided by race, gender, sexuality, caste, and ideologies. As such, it is erroneous to assume that the working class constitutes one cluster.
Also, Marx is often projected as the vindicator of the proletariat. However, there is a section of the proletariat that he was very derisive towards. In the Eighteenth Brumeire, Marx claims that peasants are “much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.”
Not only does he downplay their diversity in this thesis, he also claims that they have no wealth of social relationships and lack diversity of talent. As such, they lack the ability to come together and start a rebellion. However, this could not be further from the truth.
The peasants are very much able to band together and start a rebellion. Just in Bangladesh, many successful rebellions originated from the peasant communities. Starting from the early Santhal Hool and the Indigo Rebellion to the recent Phulbari Revolt and the Chunarughat movement, peasants of the country have been at the forefront of resistance against oppressors and agents of change.
Another binding force of rebellion and social change Marx denounces is religion. He contends that religion is the opium of the masses. However, religion has often acted as a great binding force for many movements. From the very Marxist diaspora, liberation theology has inspired many rebellions and movements for social change. For example Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador used the power of religion to lead a force for social change.
But coming to the core of Marx’s theory, the chronology of his political project seems to be quite a hotchpotch. He contends that the political system would transform from the capitalist form to a dictatorship of the proletariat, and then the state would wither away. However, this sounds contradictory.
In simple words, the theory states that in order to abolish the state, it must first be transformed into its largest possible version -- a dictatorship -- and then shrink down to the smallest possible and wither away. This never seems to happen. Like an elastic, it is quite impossible to shrink a state once it expands. Those in power of the dictatorship are never willing to let go of power and thus the transitory dictatorship results in a downright totalitarian state.
Also, the fabled dictatorship of the proletariat is seldom lead by the proletariat at all. In most societies that have seen a communist rebellion, the revolution has been lead by the upper classes. The October Revolution in Russia was lead by a middle class lawyer (Lenin), the Cuban Revolution was lead by another middle class lawyer (Castro) and the Grenadian New Jewel Revolution was lead by yet another middle class lawyer (Bishop). All of these leaders were born in the middle class or the upper class. None of them were members of the proletariat.
This happens because it is hard for the members of the proletariat to take out time out of their busy lives to take part in political activism. They are busier making their subsistence. As such, political leadership becomes difficult for them unless the activism is absolutely necessary for their subsistence.
What results from this is a substitution of re-presentation with representation as theorized by Gayatri Spivak. The former (Vertretung) means “stepping in someone’s place,” what Marx had dreamt of. But what results in reality is representation (Darstellung) in the sense of “political representation,” or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody. Placed in a power position of dictatorship, this often results in the leaders positioning their own ideas as that of the proletariat. This is what vanguardism stems from. As such, Marx, hailed as a hero among the leftist quarters of our political diaspora, is worthy of meticulous re-examination.
It is true that Marx has made important contributions to our understandings of the caveats of capitalism and the need for a new system, but the system he prescribes is contradictory, elitist, and unrealistic.
Therefore, we should read twice before accepting Marx as our ideological North Star.
Anupam Debashis Roy is a sub-editor at Dhaka Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected]