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Essay: Dialectical Materialism Pamela AuCoin

Professor Lewis: Socialism 7/16/07

Today, “communism” (or some version of it) only survives in small

pockets of the world. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would be disappointed.

Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping of China adopted capitalist reforms

to keep them economically competitive. Worse still, China is communist in

name only: it has gradually transformed into a country that has an ever-

growing gap between the rich and poor, a record of human rights abuses, and

some of the poorest-paid factory workers among industrialized nations. A

proletariat transformed by their ownership of the goods they produced did not

happen. The very government installed to liberate them has oppressed many,

through a loss of political freedoms, and inequitable distribution of income.

Globalization is currently bringing working and middle class wages down, while

the capitalist elite is becoming wealthier and wealthier. Whether or not the

working classes will unite on an international level has yet to be seen. But the

future does not look bright. If anything, people have proven they are more

provincial, and nativist in their perspectives. Immigrants often face hostility in

their host countries. They are rarely seen as part of the greater struggle for

greater worker benefits for all.

Communism was supposed to catch on in industrialized nations.

Naturally, Marx and Engels expected its’ spread in countries like Germany and

France, where there was already a growing movement.


Marx’s descriptions of these respective governments’ approaches to

socialism are fascinating ethnographic studies. The French understood that only

through bloodshed, could they attain the human rights the Enlightenment

glorified. They duly practiced what was preached. The French were indeed

pragmatic in their application of violence to achieve liberation, and the

Revolution’s Reign of Terror remains to one of the bloodiest civil wars in the

West. The result was a transformation of French society and culture.

Secularism won out, and France remains defiantly secular to this day. The

Revolution defines present-day France: their national holiday is Bastille Day,

and the Marseillaise is their song. The French remain famously feisty. Worker

strikes are not only common, but tolerated. Their social welfare benefits were

hard-won, and heartily defended by an active citizenry. This is the legacy of

the French Revolution.

Marx and Engels’ analysis of the German socialist movement was also

astute. Leftist, pro-democratic working class Germans threatened to challenge

the dictator Otto von Bismarck. But Bismarck was a few steps ahead of them.

Bismarck understood that without concessions, workers would revolt. So, he

pacified them with socialized programs. Adolf Hitler used the same strategy.

He eased the Germans into fascism by offering additional social welfare

programs as a palliative. How did Hitler appeal to leftist workers? By expanding

welfare benefits to all “good Germans.” Once again, much of the labor

movement was pacified. Many of the Communists who were not sent to camps
often conspired with the Nazis to expose their former comrades. (The Racial

State: Germany 1933-1945, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman).

Despite the abundant socialist literature in those countries, and France’s

revolutionary past, Marx’s vision did not materialize in either country, nor any

other industrialized nation. The boldly capitalist United States shrewdly

recognized the threat, and supplied these devastated countries with enormous

sums of money, under the Marshall Plan. The Americans successfully managed

to keep these nations from getting too friendly with the Soviets. The

bourgeoisie won in Germany and France.

Russia and China had their revolution, but they were exactly the

countries that lacked the requisite technology that Marx claimed was an

essential step, in order to create the proletariat which would eventually rebel

and claim ownership of industry and the fruits of their labor. The actual

process of industrialization was traumatic for many Russians peasants, who

resisted collectivization and were oppressed under the weight of Stalin’s Five

Year Plans. Ironically, the Soviet Union proved incapable of rallying the

international proletariat. Stalin even abandoned the effort, and the Soviet

regime took an oppressive turn. Intellectuals who were hostile to the regime

were frequently sent to gulags, or executed. Kulaks were seen as class

enemies, and many were unable to redeem their status as “class enemies”

under the Communist system. The Soviets actually became arguably as

ruthless some of the Western imperial powers, imposing their will throughout

much of Eastern Europe and Asia. That is not to say there were no believers in
Soviet Russia. But Soviet satellite states such as Hungary’s and Czechoslovakia’s

efforts for democratic reforms were violently put down by the Soviets.

To return to Marx’s and Engels’ case studies, France and West Germany

remained committed to market capitalism throughout the Cold War, and

Germany was a prominent NATO member. Both countries were allies of that

other “Evil Empire,” the United States: that great enemy of the Soviet Union.

The French and Germans kept their market reforms, with just enough social

programs to keep the working and middle classes reasonably satisfied.

Furthermore, most former GDR comrades are the most socially

conservative voters post-Unification. Germany’s new Chancellor, Angela Merkel,

promised a fiscally and socially conservative agenda which emphasized some

cooperation with the radically conservative George Bush. Where is her loyalty

to her socialist past? France has also taken a turn to the right, with their new

President, Nicholas Sarkozy. He ran on a campaign that includes lowering taxes

and tightening immigration policies. Symbolically, he has emphasized the need

for people to work more, suggesting that the French could lose some vacation

time, and work hours could increase.

Finally, there has been a disturbing global trend: the ever-widening gap

between the rich and the poor. Globalization is the real international

movement, which unites much of the corporate world in the exploitation of

cheap labor abroad. Both unskilled and skilled labor has been outsourced to

Third World countries. Why would a clothing company pay a French worker

minimum wage, when they could pay far less to a child laborer in Indonesia?
Immigrants from western software companies can find highly skilled workers in

India who will gladly work for a pittance. Such corporate practices inevitably

lessen the bargaining power of the working classes, lowering their wages and

empowering the industrial elite. This is happening in all Western countries.

It is true that legislation in the West led to greater worker rights. Free

public education and health care are considered essential policies in most

industrialized countries.

But, there is little, if any sense of an international movement towards

worker liberation. Marx and Engels predicted all workers would unite. In many

western countries, immigration has come under attack. Foreign workers are

often seen as a threat to the natives, rather than partners in a common cause.

This is partly because communism has become a dirty word. Socialism

sounds less threatening. But communism necessitates instability and bloodshed,

which makes most people wary. The future is a global economy that rewards

the few over the many, and the CEOs that profit from cheap labor overseas.

China, the future behemoth of the world, is a true vanguard of this realm. To

many workers’ credit, there have been protests: but muchn of this opposition

has proved ineffective against monolithic corporations. Finally, Marxism has

lost its cachet. Little wonder, since the most powerful communist empire

collapsed and only a few poor countries boast Communist regimes. To many

Westerners, and the disillusioned former satellite states, communism has been

discredited with the fall of the Soviet Union. It is difficult to imagine an

empowered proletariat, at least in the near future.