When President Bill Clinton said “It’s the economy, stupid,” during his 1992 campaign, he uttered what is without question the finest political motto of our generation. But the famous motto is really just a clear paraphrase of the “historical materialism” voiced by the bearded German thinker, Karl Marx.
The idea is this: If you want to understand how a political system works, you better first understand the economic system behind it. Human development is advanced by economics — duh.
This self-evident notion is not that clear for first-time readers of Marx’s “Das Kapital,” the dense and dreary book that undergraduate students are sometimes required to read in their Mosaic II general education course.
“Das Kapital” is a difficult read, especially for a gen-ed course. In this work, Marx synthesized all his previous writings into a theoretical composition. Students should be familiar with his early writings before jumping in. Otherwise, Marx would be impenetrable.
Mosaic instructors should instead add to their syllabi Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto,” a pamphlet that predated most of the ideas discussed in “Das Kapital,” in a more engaging prose. In turn, students will be able to judge Marx as a fine critic of capitalism and grasp what he conveyed by socialism and communism.
“In the United States, if you say you are a ‘socialist,’ people say you support Fidel [Castro], or a Soviet-style communism,” political science professor Joseph Schwartz said. “Given all the misconceptions about Marx, it is important to study with someone who reads Marx not in their way but in Marx’s way.”
There are plenty of faulty beliefs surrounding Marx’s teachings, namely in “The Communist Manifesto,” that Mosaic instructors should clarify to students.
For instance, Marx was not against capitalism. While this might run contrary to popular belief, he thought, that for a certain phase of history, capitalism was essential — being the most innovative and dynamic productive system ever envisioned — to generate the wealth necessary to move into a classless society marked by the abolition of private property.
When people think of communism, the Soviet Union or China usually come to mind. Since an industrialized nation was what Marx considered the best scenario for a workers’ revolution and the implementation of communism, he never would have sympathized with the premature Russian revolution — done in a peasant and backward society — or the despotic Chinese communist party.
Rather than Mao Zedong, Lenin or Stalin, “workers are supposed to make history, not great man,” Schwartz said.
Moreover, Marx was a believer of individual freedom as the basis of communism; in the “Manifesto,” Marx writes that “the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all.” In his view, we are alienated from ourselves as productive creatures — we don’t have a claim on what we make — under any system of social organization before communism.
What can be gained from the “Manifesto” goes beyond merely clearing up common fallacies. Studying Marx’s signature texts reveals economic policies that have been implemented throughout time, and alternative explanations for our recent economic woes.
Think of globalization. Marx foresaw all of its ramifications more than a century ago. Capitalism transforms the world into a single market, with the nations of Europe, Asia and the Americas competing with each other. For Marx, failure to compete can lead to social disintegration.
Second, capitalist growth is tension-ridden and irregular. As a consequence, it creates new problems as it overcomes old ones, thus affecting people’s living standards along the way.
In this regard, our country experienced the humanization of capitalism through the betterment of the living standard of working people. Labor laws, welfare benefits, progressive taxation, minimum wage and public education were reforms proposed by Marx, which under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration proved to be necessary for the survival of our capitalist society.
As in Marx’s time, we relate freedom to economic wellbeing and the absence of pressing needs such as shelter and food. Marx assessed freedom considering not just people’s choices but the conditions under which they happen. After all, are you really free when your life revolves around making ends meet?
Economic stability leads to another of Marx’s insights with enduring appeal. He thought the gap between the wealth of capitalists and the impoverishment of the working class would generate class conflict and the triumph of workers’ revolution. This is the so-called “class warfare” some conservative legislators and media personalities refer to when they accuse President Barack Obama of being a “socialist” anytime he tries to narrow such gap by raising taxes on the rich.
But how many private companies or banks has Obama nationalized? Zero.
Temple students should not be fooled by these type of claims. Once again, it is imperative to combat misconceptions regarding Marx and socialism, the best way of which is studying his signature text.
If taught properly, Marx’s “Manifesto” can help us understand our own role in the power relations that sustain our current economic system, the conditions that influence our decisions, and how we can avoid being marginalized.
Laura Ordonez can be reached at email@example.com.