Has The Communist Manifesto replaced the Constitution?
By: George Hawley
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded two years later, Americans sighed a breath of relief. Seemingly overnight, our debilitating fear that a horde of T-72’s would blitz through the Fulda Gap evaporated; the world realized a nuclear holocaust would not be the Cold War’s coup de grace. What’s more, the Cold War’s conclusion freed millions of souls from Soviet oppression. We were right to be relieved. American conservatives, who were eager to take credit for USSR’s demise, were feeling particularly triumphant at that time. We had finally reached the “end of history,” and “democratic capitalism” reigned supreme. It remains to be seen, however, whether post-Cold War conservative chest thumping was truly justified.
Although all freedom lovers should celebrate the downfall of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the peaceful death of the Soviet Empire did not necessarily indicate the demise of Marxism as a force in the world. In fact, a strong case can be made that the United States is more Marxist now than ever before. It is true that a socialist revolution did not occur, as Marx predicted, via an apocalyptic struggle between workers and the bourgeoisie, but a socialist revolution of sorts nonetheless occurred. To those who believe Marxism has been relegated to “the dustbin of history,” I can only point to the words of Marx himself. The world we inhabit is not so different from the one Marx envisioned.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, which provided an introduction to the Marxist theory of “historical materialism” and famously provided the clarion call, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” The world remembers Marx’s sharpest phrases, as well as the mountain of corpses his disciples constructed in the subsequent 140 years. More frequently forgotten, however, are the specific policies Marx promoted in his seminal work. Section II of the Manifesto explicitly declared what the Communists sought to achieve. Even a cursory examination of the United States today refutes the notion that Marxism is an exhausted intellectual force.
The ten program points from The Communist Manifesto:
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
Although Americans still enjoy basic property rights, the state’s power of eminent domain (reinforced in 2005 by the Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London) ensures that our right to our own property is subject to the state’s whims. Zoning laws determine how property may be used. Heavy property taxes require you to pay what amounts to an annual rent on land you ostensibly own. Yes, you may own property, but only if the state does not think that property can put it to better use and only if you can afford to keep paying the state for the privilege.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
The Constitution’s 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, provides the federal government the power to levy an individual income tax. As Marx wanted, that income tax is highly progressive and redistributive. The top earners in the United States pay a far higher tax rate—up to 35 percent of their income—than the rest of the population.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
Although all rights of inheritance have not been abolished, the federal government and several of the states impose large estate taxes – called “death taxes” by opponents. When Americans die, much of their accumulated wealth is simply confiscated by government rather than being inherited by their descendants. The federal estate tax goes as high as 45 percent—and of course, if the estate is not liquid, the inability of heirs to pay the tax in cash can result in the loss of property. This is another way family businesses and childhood homes get taken away.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
As the United States has not experienced a massive exodus of wealth, this is not presently a major issue. But if America’s economic decline continues, and people with means rationally decide to leave the country, do not be surprised if this Marxist notion finds a new multitude of proponents. Already the United States employs the highly unusual practice of taxing its citizens who live abroad.
5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
The Federal Reserve Act was passed in 1913. The Federal Reserve is America’s central bank. Although privately owned banks still exist, the Fed sets interest rates, regulates private banks, provides financial services for the U.S. government, and controls the money supply. Although our system of public and private cooperation is more convoluted than Marx might have imagined, the Federal Reserve has much more in common with Marx’s vision than with a truly free banking system.
6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
The Federal Communications Commission, established in 1934, grants television and radio licenses and has broad regulatory powers. Thanks to new technologies, the government’s ability to influence our communications and media consumption has taken a blow in recent years. Nonetheless, the expansion of NSA wiretapping powers, efforts to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine,” and FCC demands that the media take steps to “promote diversity” make it clear that the state is not about to abide truly free communication. What’s more, if passed, the recently introduced “Cybersecurity Act of 2009” will grant the federal government broad powers to censor free speech on the internet and violate internet-users’ privacy rights if the president declares, for whatever reason, a “cybersecurity emergency.” The FCC also seems to be moving closer to regulating the Internet under the guise of “net neutrality.”
Meanwhile, the United States Department of Transportation, created by Congress in 1966, has broad powers to regulate transportation and create highways. Offices within the Department of Transportation include the Federal Aviation Administration (thank the FAA the next time you experience arbitrary hassles at the airport), the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Most means of transportation not controlled and maintained by the federal government are controlled and regulated by the states. Marx would be pleased.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
One of the less publicized consequences of the recent auto industry “bailouts” is the degree to which the government now has much broader powers to influence decisions made by American car manufacturers. The federal government owns majority shares in General Motors. The distinction between public and private is being slowly eroded thanks to our current economic crisis.
Although most major American industries are still under private ownership, it cannot be understated the degree to which Big Business and Big Government are in bed with each other. Rent-seeking runs rampant and appears to be getting worse over time, regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House. Furthermore, President Eisenhower’s warning about the “military-industrial complex” is more relevant today than ever—defense contractors are dependent upon, in some ways as good as owned by, the federal government, while they in turn as good as own many congressmen. It is true that our current corporatist arrangements are not Marxist per se, but it would be equally erroneous to say the United States enjoys a truly free market.
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
Mercifully, our nation’s leaders have (so far) ignored this particular suggestion.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
Again, we have not witnessed such a development, and it is unlikely that we ever will. If anything, our population is more crowded into major urban centers than ever before.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
Both demands have been met. Education is not only “free” (that is, paid for with other people’s tax dollars) but compulsory. For most of America’s history, public education was generally decentralized, with the most important decisions regarding policy and curriculum made at the local and state level. This is increasingly less the case. Although conservatives once promised to abolish the Department of Education, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act pushed us perilously close toward complete nationalization of K-12 education.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union was a great strike against tyranny, but it did not signal the end of Marxism. Although totalitarian communism is not the threat to human freedom it once was, we continue to move unabatedly toward greater collectivism and centralization. The United States bears a closer resemblance to Marx’s “utopian” vision than most Americans care to acknowledge. Marx was mistaken about the means required to meet his ends; we now know that socialism can be realized without a bloody revolution. As the great economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, socialism is also perfectly compatible with democracy—an insight further reinforced by the American public’s apparent acceptance of many Marxist policies.
One thing remains unchanged: Marxism is incompatible with liberty. This is true even if Marxist goals are achieved incrementally and democratically rather than through blood-soaked insurgencies. The increasing centralization of power in Washington, D.C. is a threat to our prosperity and all of our fundamental freedoms. Although Marxism remains a relevant intellectual force, anti-Marxist scholarship remains equally relevant. Socialism unfortunately survived the Cold War, but the anti-socialist critiques of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard are no less valid than they were at the time they were written. Centralized government control of our nation’s economy and basic infrastructure is no less problematic than it was a century ago—a fact reinforced every time the state’s “solutions” to our economic troubles only makes things worse.
Most conservatives and many libertarians were content to rest on their laurels when the Soviet Union fell; they assumed America’s triumph signaled the victory of freedom over Marxism. They were wrong. Marxism is very much alive. Many Marxist policies are now so thoroughly institutionalized that few American politicians and pundits dare challenge them. In 2008, the American electorate was given the choice between two socialist visions that differed only at the margins. Despite a few hopeful signs, such as the recent “Tea Party” demonstrations, it is clear that freedom advocates still have a long road ahead of them.
George Hawley [email@example.com] is a graduate student at the University of Houston.