• The Dialectic of Destruction

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    This article
    is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 10 of An
    Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
    An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach,
    is available
    for download

    Some might
    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![1]

    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."[2],[3]

    The absolute
    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.[4]

    Since under
    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
    and interchangeable.[5]
    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.[6]

    Neither should
    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:

    But the
    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.[7]

    Indeed, only
    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.[8]

    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.

    Marx and
    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
    and figures."[9]


    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
    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.

    Bakunin, Statehood
    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),
    pp. 149–50.

    On self-ownership and on the impossibility of communal ownership,
    see Murray N. Rothbard, The
    Ethics of Liberty
    (2nd ed., Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities
    Press, 1983), pp. 45–50.

    Italics are Lenin’s. V.I. Lenin, State
    and Revolution
    (New York: International Publishers, 1932),
    pp. 83–4; von Mises, op. cit., note 15, p. 189. Also see
    Harris, op. cit., note 36, pp. 152–3n.

    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
    executor. See
    his books.

    2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
    Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
    full credit is given.

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