is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 10 of An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995).
An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach,
protest that, in our discussion of communism, we have not mentioned
the feature that is generally considered the hallmark of that system:
the slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according
to his needs." This phrase seems to contradict our view that
the essence of the communist society is a secularized religion rather
than economics. The locus classicus, however, of Marx’s proclamation
of this well-known slogan of French socialism, was in the course
of his vitriolic Critique
of the Gotha Program in 1875, in which Marx denounced the
Lassallean deviationists who were forming the new German Social
Democratic Party. And it is clear from the context of his discussion
that this slogan is of minor and peripheral importance to Marx.
In point 3 of his Critique, Marx is denouncing the clause
of the program calling for communization of property and "equitable
distribution of the proceeds of labour." In the course of his
discussion, Marx states that inequality of labor income is "inevitable
in the first stage of communist society, … when it has just emerged
after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never
be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural
development thereby determined." On the other hand, Marx goes
In a higher
phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination
of individuals under division of labour, and therewith also
the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished;
after … the productive forces have also increased with the
all-round development of the individual, and all the springs
of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then
can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind
and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to
his ability, to each according to his needs!
It should be
evident from this passage and its context that Marx’s final sentence,
far from being the point and the culmination of his discussion,
was stated briefly only to be dismissed. What Marx is saying is
that the key to the communist world is not any such principle of
the distribution of goods, but the eradication of the division of
labor, the all-around development of individual faculties, and the
resulting flow of superabundance. In such a world, the famous slogan
becomes of only trivial importance. Indeed, Marx proceeds immediately
after this passage to denounce talk among socialists of "equal
right" and "equitable distribution" as "ideological
nonsense about “right” and other trash common among the democrats
and French Socialists." He then quickly adds that "it
was in general incorrect to make a fuss about so-called ‘distribution’
and put the principal stress on it.",
misery and horror of the ultimate stage (and a fortiori of the
beyond-ultimate stage) of communism should now be all too apparent.
The eradication of the division of labor would quickly bring starvation
and economic misery to all. The abolition of all structures of
human interrelation would bring enormous social and spiritual
deprivation to every person. And, even the alleged "artistic"
intellectual and creative development of all man’s faculties in
all directions would be totally crippled by the ban on all specialization.
How can true intellectual development or creation come without
concentrated effort? In short, the terrible economic suffering
of mankind under communism would be fully matched by its intellectual
and spiritual deprivation. Considering the nature and consequences
of communism, to call this horrific dystopia a noble and "humanist"
ideal can at best be considered a grisly joke, in questionable
taste. The prevalent notion, for example, that Marxian communism
is a glorious ideal for man perverted by the later Engels or by
Lenin or Stalin, can now be put into proper perspective. None
of the horrors committed by Lenin, Stalin, or other Marxist-Leninist
regimes can match the monstrousness of Marx’s communist "ideal."
Perhaps the closest approximation was the short-lived communist
regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia which, in attempting to abolish
the division of labor, managed to enforce the outlawry of money
– so that for their tiny rations the populace was totally
dependent upon the niggardly largesse of the communist cadre.
Moreover, they attempted to eliminate the "contradictions
between town and country," by following the Engels goal of
destroying large cities, and by coercively depopulating the capital,
Phnom Penh, overnight. In a few short years, the Pol Pot group
managed to exterminate one-third of the Cambodian population,
perhaps a record in genocide.
ideal communism everyone could and would have to do everything,
it is clear that, even before universal starvation set in, very
little could get done. To Marx himself, all differences among individuals
were "contradictions" to be eliminated under communism,
so that presumably the mass of individuals would have to be uniform
Whereas Marx apparently postulated normal intellectual capabilities
even under communism, to later Marxists, it seems that difficulties
could be alleviated by the emergence of superhuman beings. To Karl
Kautsky (1854–1938), the German Marxist who assumed the mantle
of the top leadership of Marxism upon the death of Engels in 1895,
under communism "a new type of man will arise … a superman
… an exalted man." Leon Trotsky waxed even more lyrical:
"Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body
more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical
… The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a
Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights new peaks will arise."
If the beyond ultimate stage of communism ever lasts long enough
to breed a new super-race, we may safely leave it to the communist
theoreticians of that future day to resolve the problem of whether
the "contradiction" of "permitting" a super-Aristotle
to tower over an Aristotle may be allowed to exist.
libertarians be taken in by the Marxian goal of the "withering
away of the State" under communism, or in the use of the phrase,
borrowed from the cherished aim of the French free market libertarians
Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer: a world where the "government
of persons is replaced by the administration of things." There
are two major flaws in this formulation from the laissez-faire libertarian
viewpoint. First, of course, as the Russian anarcho-communist Mikhail
Bakunin (1814–76) insistently pointed out: it is absurd to
try to reach statelessness via the absolute maximization of state
power in a totalitarian dictatorship of the proletariat (or more
realistically a select vanguard of the said proletariat). The result
can only be maximum statism and hence maximum slavery. As perhaps
the first of the "new class" theorists, and anticipating
the iron law of oligarchy of Michels and Mosca, Bakunin prophetically
warned that a minority ruling class will once again, after the Marxian
revolution, rule the majority:
Marxists say, this minority will consist of the workers. Yes,
no doubt … of former workers, who, as soon as they become
governors or representatives of the people, cease to be workers
and start looking down on the working masses from the heights
of state authority, so that they represent not the people but
themselves and their own claim to rule over others. Anyone who
can doubt this knows nothing of human nature … The terms "scientific
socialist" and "scientific socialism," which
we meet incessantly in the works and speeches of the … Marxists,
are sufficient to prove that the so-called people’s state will
be nothing but a despotism over the masses, exercised by a new
and quite small aristocracy of real or bogus "scientists."…
They [the Marxists] claim that only dictatorship, their own
of course, can bring the people freedom; we reply that a dictatorship
can have no other aim than to perpetuate itself, and that it
can engender and foster nothing but slavery in the people subjected
to it. Freedom can be created only by freedom.
a believer in the preposterous necromancy of the "dialectic"
could believe otherwise, that is, could believe that a totalitarian
state can inevitably and virtually instantly be transformed into
its opposite, and that therefore the way to get rid of the state
is to work as hard as possible to maximize its power.
But the problem
of the dialectic is not the only, indeed not even the main, problem
with Marxian communism. For Marxism shares with the anarchists
a grave problem of the higher stage of pure communism, assuming
for a moment that it could ever be reached. The crucial point
is that, both for anarchists and for Marxists, ideal communism
is a world without private property, and that all property and
resources will be owned and controlled in common. Indeed, the
anarcho-communists’ major complaint against the state is that
it is allegedly the main enforcer and guarantor of private property
and therefore that to abolish private property the state must
also be eradicated. The truth, of course, is precisely the opposite:
the state, through history, has been the main despoiler and plunderer
of private property. With private property mysteriously abolished,
then, the elimination of the state under communism (of either
the Marxian or anarchist variety) would necessarily be a mere
camouflage for a new state that would emerge to control and make
decisions for communally owned resources. Except that the state
would not be called such, but rather renamed something like a
"people’s statistical bureau," as has already been done
in Khadafy’s Libya, and armed with precisely the same powers.
It will be small consolation to future victims, incarcerated or
shot for committing "capitalist acts between consenting adults"
(to cite a phrase made popular by Robert Nozick), that their oppressors
will no longer be the state but only a people’s statistical bureau.
The state under any other name will smell as acrid. Furthermore,
it will be inevitable, under the iron law of oligarchy, that "world
communal decisions’ will have to be undertaken by a specialized
elite, so that the ruling class will inevitably reappear, under
Bakuninite as well as any other form of communism.
And, as we
have indicated, in the "beyond-communism" stage, the stage
of universal no-ownership and therefore of no action and no use
of resources, death for the entire human race would swiftly ensue.
his followers have never demonstrated any awareness of the vital
importance of the problem of allocation of scarce resources. Their
vision of communism is that all such economic problems are trivial,
requiring neither entrepreneurship nor a price system nor genuine
economic calculation – that all problems could be quickly
solved by mere accounting or recording. The classic absurdity
on this matter was laid down by Lenin, who accurately expressed
Marx’s view in declaring that the functions of entrepreneurship
and of allocation of resources have been "simplified
by capitalism to the utmost" to mere matters of accounting
and to "the extraordinarily simple operations of watching,
recording, and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who
can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic."
Ludwig von Mises wryly and justly comments that Marxists and other
socialists have had "no greater perception of the essentials
of economic life than the errand boy, whose only idea of the work
of the entrepreneur is that he covers pieces of paper with letters
Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York:
International Publishers, 1938), p. 10. The critique was first
published by Engels in 1891, after Marx’s death. The Lassalleans
were followers of the late Ferdinand Lasalle (1825–64)
a blowhard and dandy who was extremely popular in Germany, especially
beloved by the working class, and the preeminent organizer of
the proletariat. Typically, Lassalle died early in a most unproletarian
and aristocratic way – in a duel over a lady. One of Lasalle’s
two major deviations from Marxism was his ultra-Malthusian devotion
to the Malthus-Ricardo subsistence theory of wages as determined
by population growth, which he popularized in the most rigid
form, and allegedly named the "iron law of wages,"
in which form it won widespread fame. In reality, Lassalle dubbed
it the "brazen law of wages" (in the sense of "made
of brass"), and his most common locution was "the
brazen and gruesome law of wages" (das eherne und grausame
other and more important deviation was his embrace and worship
of the state. Marx saw the state as a tyrannical instrument of
mass exploitation which required a violent revolution to overthrow.
Lassalle, in Hegelian fashion, on the other hand, worshipped the
state as a guide and developer of freedom, as the fusion of man
into a spiritual whole, and as an eternal instrument for moral
regeneration. The only problem with the state, for Lassalle, was
the fact that it was not yet controlled by the workers, but this
could be rectified simply by enacting universal suffrage, after
which the state would be run by a workers’ party and the workers
would then become the state and all would be well. The
state would promptly transfer the control of production to workers’
associations which would thus circumvent the brazen law by appropriating
to themselves the surplus profits now extracted by the capitalists.
See Gray, op. cit., note 16, pp. 332–43.
Actually, Marx goes on to make a useful point: that distribution
always flows from the "conditions of production" and
cannot be separated from it. One would like to think that this
was not only an argument against the "vulgar socialists"
but also an implicit slap at J.S. Mill, who thought that while
production was bound by economic law, "distribution"
could be separated from production and reformed by state action.
See the excellent discussion of this point in Tucker, op. cit.,
note 8, p. 200.
The Soviet people were spared the full cataclysm of communism
when Lenin, a master pragmatist, drew back from the early Soviet
attempt (1918–21) to abolish money and leap into communism
(later deliberately mislabeled "war communism"), and
went back to the largely capitalist economy of the New Economic
Policy. Mao tried to bring about communism in two disastrous surges:
the Great Leap Forward, which attempted to eliminate private property
and to eliminate the "contradictions" between town and
country by building a steel plant in every backyard; and the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which tried to eliminate the
"contradiction" between intellectual and manual labor
by shipping an entire generation of students to forced labor in
the wilds of Sinkiang. On the myth of "war communism,"
see the illuminating discussion in Paul Craig Roberts, Alienation
and the Soviet Economy (Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 1971), pp. 20–47.
In an amusing note, during the New Left period of the late 1960s,
the Liberated Guardian broke off from the quasi-Maoist
journal, The Guardian, in New York City, on the ground
that the latter functioned in the same way as any "bourgeois"
periodical, with specialized editors, typists, copy-readers, business
staff, etc. The Liberated Guardian was run by a "collective"
in which, assertedly, every person performed every task without
specialization. The same criticism, followed by the same solution,
was applied by the women’s caucus which confiscated the property
of the New Left weekly, Rat. Both periodicals, as one would
expect, died a mercifully swift death. See Murray N. Rothbard,
Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor (Menlo
Park, Calif. Institute for Humane Studies, 1971), pp. 15n, 20.
See von Mises, op. cit., note 15, p. 143. Also see Rothbard,
op. cit., note 34, pp. 8–15.
and Anarchy: quoted in Leszek Kolakowski, Main
Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), I, pp. 251–2.
See also Abram L. Harris, Economics
and Social Reform (New York: Harper & Bros, 1958),
N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his literary
2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
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