by Rainer Ricardo
There are two ways in which Karl Marx’s work could be read. First, we can look at the economic branch of The Capital to see Marx as the historian of dialectic materialism. In this perspective, Marx argues that the historical development of material conditions of existence, in relation to the appropriation of means of production, has followed a teleological evolution in different historical stages of development: 1) primitive communism; 2) slavery; 3) feudalism; and 4) capitalism. Then, he follows the argument by indicating two other stages within a Communist system (lower and higher). The first stage is associated with socialism, as understood by Marxist-Leninists, and is considered a transitional stage that will lead to the second and final stage of development: scientific communism.
In this latter historical stage, we return to the community, as the Biblical dust from where we came from, but with the technological and moral tools that will put an end to people’s alienation under a proletarian dictatorship. It is important to remember that Marx was inquiring about the first capitalist crisis in England and argued that crisis is inherent to the capitalist system. Why? Because of the dialectical process; that is, every political system creates its own internal contradictions. From this point of view, the capitalist system is producing continuously the forces that at some point in its evolution will destroy it. So, from a Marxist perspective, the end of Capitalism will lead to a new stage of development, a transitional stage, that will open big the door to the final scientific and human revolution. This is the Marxist road to the end of history.
There is still another way of reading Marx’s work; let’s say a more political way of reading Marx. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx is calling all proletarian forces around the world to unite and to emancipate, i.e. to accelerate the process of human development in society. And it is precisely here when everything collapses. Marx’s comprehension of history, politics, and economics, was rooted in a naturalist approach to scientific activity, as everyone else did in those times. While criticizing another naturalist, Sr. Adam Smith, who had been arguing since the 17th century that the market was a natural systemic force that pushes individuals to pursue their egotistical interests, Marx was creating another scientific “truth” about social reality. Yet, more interestingly is the idea of emancipation as a way of breaking social order and establishing a new transitional one. By bringing back the revolution, Marx is going against the natural flow of progress and history.
Marx, the historian of materialism, was right. He did well in explaining the contradictions of capitalism and showed the way for better conditions of labor for a great number of workers around the world. Sure, they had to fight for that, but this is not in contradiction with Marx’s theory, which sees “struggle” as the engine of history. Marx did not live enough time to see by himself how much he was right. The conditions that proletarians enjoy today in developed countries are far better than they were at the time of Karl Marx’s inquiry in the 19th century. Much progress has been done in this matter, not globally, but surely in the most regulated and developed capitalist countries, as Marx predicted. The capitalist system is surely trying to respond effectively to its own internal contradiction and this is in itself a positive evolution for proletarians around the world. Sure, there is not a global trend, but a lot of water has to pass under the bridge. Even capitalists are seeing the well-being of workers as the main factor in terms of human productivity. Capitalist enterprises around the world are thus becoming more and more aware of these issues in order to stay competitive in a free market, which is only “free” in its theoretical conceptualization. In reality, the market is regulated.
If Marx was right, then Communists are wrong. We can point to two reasons. The first one is that Communists really believe at the end of history in the same way as Christians believe in life after death. But this is not science! If we take science seriously, we have thus to ask questions about Marx’s thesis: every system produces its own internal contradictions. So, how it is possible for Communists not to recognize the internal contradictions of the system they built and support? The answer to this question leads us to the second reason: theoretical mystification. Communists are wrong in thinking that a theory could become a powerful ideology and lead to the end of history. Yet, theories are cognitive maps that create meaning by selecting a number of things from complex reality. This is why theories are generally plagued with flaws. So, those who are mythicizing Marxist theory are ignoring those flaws and, by doing so, are building political systems plagued with the same flaws inherent to the theory. In the process, society becomes the social laboratory within which some humans, those possessing political power, do social experiments with other humans, mostly disempowered.
For Communists to be right, they must understand one simple thing: a social theory cannot survive ideological mystification. Ideologies do not allow for contestation. So, when Communists do what they normally do, they are going against Marx’s thesis of “struggle” as the fuel of progress and development. What is more, scientific activity is the product of an eternal “struggle” between distinct explanations about the world we live in. Without the possibility of contestation, it would be impossible to have scientific progress of any kind. This is why social theories must respect the principle of falsification. If Communists understood this, they will surely be more receptive to alternative ontologies and epistemologies coming from society and will renounce more easily to the dictatorial ethos of the socialist state.
Yet, mystification is not exclusive to Communists. Liberals, post-Modernists, Conservatives, they are all praying somewhere their religion. And for most of us, science has become the new religion. It is our modern opium. And yet, science is built upon “tools”, not “truths”. In this matter, I am another kind of Christian. I really believe in science, but as a “tool-kit” which offers me different “tools” to deal with reality. As tools, theories are not competitive narratives about what reality is and should be, but complementary ones. Plurality gives rise to a system of “checks and balances” in terms of knowledge and power. And we have to embrace plurality to fully accept the complexity of the world as well as our own biases. If not, we will produce and reproduce the same social order we are trying to change so radically. Those against a society divided into classes will become progressively an oppressive class when political power is held. Those against dogmatism will become dogmatic when dealing with ideas that go against their belief system. So, Communists are wrong because they believe that, one day, a supreme “truth” will be established forever. But this escapes to human imagination.
*Ph.D. candidate in Political science and International Relations. University of Montreal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org