A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 14 November 2015

How Successful Have Communists Been?

Towards the end of the second chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels set out ten policies which they see as necessary to the establishment of communist societies. This post is a brief look at how far these policies have been implemented in what we generally think of as capitalist countries.

(This post is intended partly as an exposition of the limited extent to which Western societies can be called "capitalist", but also as a response to hyperbolic claims by libertarians - including my past self - who like to suggest that these have been completely enacted).

1: Abolition of Private Property in Land, and Application of Rent to Public Purposes
This is the case in a limited and perhaps misleading sense. It is true that the biggest landowner in the US is the Federal Government, but the areas which it owns are not for the most part areas where people actually live - rather, they are vast and inhospitable deserts which are used for testing nuclear arms and such.

What about the second part, of taxing away rents? This does not happen, and so far as I can tell the main people advocating for it to happen are in fact the Marxists of the Adam Smith Institute.

2: A heavy progressive income tax
What counts as heavy? The highest rate of income tax in the UK is 45%, although there are of course other taxes which reduce people's take-home pay; National Insurance and Corporation Tax are the biggest, although for anyone my age or younger who went to university (which will include the vast majority of future higher-rate taxpayers), there's also a 9% tax to repay your tuition fees. I'm a bit hazy on how it all interacts, but I'd guess that we're close to if not past the topmost point of the Laffer Curve. (And the fact that maximising government revenue is seen as an acceptable aim for policy is itself pretty indicative). Let's say that this one has been achieved.

3: Abolition of all rights of inheritance
There are taxes on inheritance, it is true, but this was true for centuries before Marx was writing. Back in 2010, I remember Labour's intention to raise inheritance tax ("the Death Tax") being a major campaigning point for the Tories. To the extent that this has been achieved, I don't think one can honestly credit/blame Marxists.

4: Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
The US taxes the wealth of those who renounce citizenship, but at a relatively low rate. Certainly it's far short of full confiscation. More normal practice is for taxation to be continued upon emigrants regardless upon where they are earning, but such a policy would have been utterly unenforcible in 1848. I think it's best to regard this proposal as obselete.

And rebels? I guess that occurs to an extent - if you leave the UK to fight for ISIS, you won't be allowed back in and your assets will likely be frozen - but again this hardly seems like a specifically Marxist policy, and more a policy of any government which wants to disincentivise rebellion.

5: Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
This is the one that gets Austrian economists all excited, but I think that claiming the Bank of England to be fulfilment of this policy is a somewhat dubious interpretation of Marx. The state intervenes in investment markets, but it does little to decide where private capital actually goes. Influence is not at all the same thing as deliberate determination of who receives investments.

6: Centralisation of the means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state
This used to be the case, certainly. Then along came successive Tory governments, which have gradually privatised railways and the Royal Mail. I guess that a lot of public transport is still state-owned or controlled (the difference on the quality of bus services in Birmingham, where every route is a council-granted monopoly, and Manchester, where there are four different competing bus companies, has to be seen to be believed), and in places other than the UK (including my current abode of Budapest) there is still literal nationalisation. So let's count that as achieved.

With the means of communication, though, you again can't really attribute nationalisation to communism. The US constitution, of all documents, grants a federal monopoly on postage. Indeed, the maintenance of such a monopoly has been a key priority of governments for centuries, since controlling communication makes censorship and surveillance possible.

7: Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
Honestly, this reads like "Do good stuff, don't do bad stuff"-type rhetoric. Ultimately, Marx is just saying that there ought to be economic growth, which is hardly a uniquely Marxist policy.

8: Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially in agriculture
I'm not certain what exactly he has in mind here. The bringing of women into the workforce occurred, but this hardly due to Marxism. In general the effect of left-wing governments - which are not the same as Marxists, it is true, but are surely the medium through which Marxist policies have been implemented - has been to take people out of work, both deliberately (through the expansion of pensions, lengthening of education) and as a side effect (due to minimum wages, for example). The workforce has also been reduced by increasing the number of people classed as disabled, but this happened mainly under Thatcher.

9: Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
Well, that hasn't happened. The Green Belts remain firmly in place, and once again it is the Marxists of the Adam Smith Institute who are pushing for their loosening or abolition.

10: Free education for all in public schools. Abolition of children's labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production
Okay, this has happened. 93% of the population is educated in state-run schools, and when you ask people why this is they'll tend to justify it on grounds of equality and such considerations. Again it's hard to establish that there's a causal link between Marxists pushing this and it happening - the fact that the principle of state education is so universally accepted could be a reflection of Marxian success, or a reason to doubt that the Marxists have any role in this becoming policy. Given that one of the sacred cows of the modern left is the abolition of the few remaining private schools, I'll grant this one.

Of the nine policies which are meaningful and still relevant, I am willing to say that Marxists achieved three, that a further four have occurred but aren't really attributable to Marxists, and two haven't really happened. (Can we still count something as a step towards Marxism if it wasn't implemented as a result of Marxists? I don't think so, since many of these policies are aimed less at achieving social justice and more at achieving security for the state apparatus - i.e. to maintain non-Marxist government).

I do think that this shows how silly it is for Marxists to label the system we have as "capitalism"; however, it's not really fair to label the system as "socialism" either. Perhaps one might describe it as a mongrel hybrid, since we have all the worst parts of socialism without either of the two key Marxist policies which are actually worth having.

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