Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Pres. Obama's Manifesto, and that Other One

Now that the White House has released the text of the President's speech welcoming America's youth back to school, the notion that it is some sort of socialist proclamation can be laid bare as utterly delusional. The speech extols hard work and individual responsibility as the patriotic duty of all Americans and a means towards individual self-advance that will have the side effect of improving the economy for all. It is, in essence, a bourgeois manifesto.

The irony here is head-spinning. The actual Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels makes the opposite point. Though written over 160 years ago, the Manifesto remains a powerfully insightful document--and in its diagnostic if not its prescriptive elements--it is arguably more relevant to our times than President Obama's homey advice. Consider the core points of the opening (and to my mind most trenchant) chapter of the Manifesto:

On the economy: Capitalism, to succeed, requires ever-expanding markets, and thus globalization until it precipitates the collapse of global markets, in continual cycles of boom and bust.

On health care (and more): Under capitalism, the bourgeois imperative "has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers."

On the shrinking middle class and increasing wealth disparities: "entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence."

And so on.

To be clear, Marx and Engels were wrong about some important things. To give just one example, their belief that global political struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat would render irrelevant the prior divisions of nationality and religion has proved wildly and tragically inaccurate.

Likewise, the Manifesto's prescriptions were disastrous. There is a legitimate debate about the extent to which the totalitarian communist states of the 20th century were the logical culmination of the Marxist program or perversions of it by corrupt ruling elites that used the language of the proletarian vanguard to advance their own venal interests. I tend to take the former view, mostly because I think the test of any political idea is how it is actually implemented in the real world, but also because it is not difficult to see in the original Marxist programs the tendency towards totalitarianism. (Consider item number 6 in the Communist program as sketched by Marx and Engels: "Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.")

It is, therefore, understandable that many people--and especially those who themselves or whose family suffered the deprivations and persecutions of actual 20th century Communist regimes--would see in the record of Communism sufficient grounds for disdaining the Communist Manifesto as a source of any sort of wisdom. Understandable but regrettable, because Marx and Engels were in important respects astute observers of the actual functioning of capitalism. (To dissociate themselves from the Communists' affirmative political program, modern-day academic followers of Marx in the West often call themselves "Marxians" rather than "Marxists," though I suspect that the distinction is lost on Glenn Beck and his listeners.)

History has yet to prove Marx wrong in his core contention that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction: For a couple of generations now, the advanced countries of the West have avoided class struggle by outsourcing proletarianism to the developing world, where wages that would be considered far below poverty level to us are regarded as a blessing. If Marx and Engels are right, this third world proletariat will eventually rise up. However, they may yet be proven wrong: Perhaps global prosperity can be achieved while bringing first-world living standards to all, although if so, it is hardly clear that the natural environment can sustain that level of consumption. Admittedly, that is more a Malthusian than a Marxian point, though one that Marx does not contradict.

As for our own politics, perhaps some good will come of the bizarre reaction against President Obama's speech: Provocative high school social studies teachers might ask students to compare and contrast Obama's message with that of the Communist Manifesto. But schoolteachers be forewarned: Doing so could get you into hot water with your principal and the parents in your district.

Posted by Mike Dorf