A Farewell to Marxism

Marxism, that body of political thought based on the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, has had a hard time of it. When it’s been tried, it has failed to bring about its most fundamental goals. Only rarely has it improved the condition of the proletariat. More often, it has resulted in the rise of a new ruling class that exploited its people as badly as the old one.  Often Marxists argue that the failure of the system has been caused by improper implementation or by capitalist meddling. But now, as we move from modern to post-modern society, Marxism as a political philosophy has become irrelevant.

The world has changed. No longer do we exist as citizens of nations of industrial workers exploited by those who hold the means of production. Rather, we industrial workers now number ourselves among the very rich of the world. The vast majority of the population of this global community lives in abject poverty– but not necessarily because of exploitation by capitalists.

Roughly half the world’s population lives by subsistence agriculture. That’s the half that lives on less than $2.50 a day. They exist primarily outside the capitalist system, growing enough food for themselves and perhaps a little to trade or sell to someone else. They own their means of production: hand tools, and if they’re very lucky, perhaps a draft animal such as a water buffalo.  And though the agri-giants of the capitalist world seek alternately to sell them things they don’t need, or throw them off their land completely, they exist in conditions largely unchanged for decades.

The main challenge of such people is overpopulation, which causes their subsistence plots to get smaller with each generation. They’re not often exploited by cannibalistic capitalists, but they are politically marginalized by urban politicians.

What they need is not a centralized system of socialization or rescue by a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather a devolved political system that allows them self-determination. Call it subsidiarity (as the Catholics do– decisionmaking at the lowest possible level) or gramswaraj (village-based government, as the Sri Lankans do), but the principle is the same: decisions that can be made locally are made locally, and each community has equal input into the regional and national government.

A secondary challenge for such people is meddling from outside. Development agencies, economists, capitalists, and even some Marxists want them to give up their means of production and join the ranks of industrial workers. They can, it is argued, triple their income by working in a factory. Â  And that’s true– but without self-produced food and the family plot of land, they sink ever deeper into poverty.  I’ve seen places where so many factory workers live, they have to sleep in shifts because there isn’t room for them all to lie down on the floor at the same time.  It’s hard to argue that the economic system causes this problem: when subsistence farmers abandon their farms for the realm of industrialization, they trade a self-sufficient life for dependence upon someone else’s management, and they get poorer.

That such an approach increases poverty is not its worst failure– centralized government attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all solution that ignores differences in culture, ethnicity, language, and religion.  It favors (no surprise here) those who are in power, regardless of whether the system is capitalist or otherwise. The result, from Chiapas to Jaffna to East Timor, is conflict as people try to reclaim their right to self-determination from a government that by its very centralization has only its own interests at heart.

The political challenge of the 21st century is not to create kinder, gentler centralized governments, but rather how to devolve power to the community level. Its goal is not centralized orthodoxy (capitalist, Marxist, Maoist, or otherwise), but community self-expression and self-determination. There are groups all over the world now working diligently toward that end, each in its own individual way.

Marxism, in its orthodox form, dictates a strong central government.  It tells people how they ought to think and how they should relate to each other. That, like nationalism and colonialism, is an idea whose time has passed.