Karl Marx’s theory of socialism died in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It died in all but name in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in the summer of 1989.
Marx’s theory came as an overreaction to the evils of capitalism that grew and prospered in the Age of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and later in the United States. Like capitalism and evolution, Marxism was born in the era of the belief in absolutes. All these “isms” were like the religions that came during the age of religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries between Catholics and Protestants.
Capitalism’s basic beliefs are the emphases on private property, private profit, private ownership of the means of production (owners building factories to produce goods), risk-taking and competition.
In direct reaction to capitalism, Marx’s socialism was based on the absolute belief in public property, public profit, public ownership of the means of production, the state doing the risk-taking rather than individuals and cooperation rather than competition.
Marx believed that there was an absolute sequence of history, the first three in turn being overthrown by violence and revolution:
1- Caveman socialism, where people worked together in tribes to survive.
2 – Feudalism, where the nobility controlled the land on the backs of serfs and peasants.
3 – The rise of the bourgeoisie or the educated middle class/business class.
4 – The dictatorship of the proletariat where factory laborers would be ruled over by leaders until this state gradually “withered away”.
5 – Communism, where there was no government or need for government because humans would have evolved to such a point of self-discipline that no government was necessary.
The reason’s Marx’s theory took root is because it appeared to work in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Revolutions beginning with the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. Millions worldwide were convinced Marx was right and it would only be a matter of time before the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would “wither away” into Marxist utopia.
Unfortunately, the last two cycles didn’t work out as Marx predicted. Under Stalin in the USSR, the dictatorship actually got stronger, as it did under Mao Dse Dung in China in the 1950s.
The capitalism of the United States and Western Europe proved far more innovative, flexible and productive. Beginning in 1978 Deng Xiao Ping, China’s new leader after the death of Mao, saw the need to change direction toward more freedom and capitalism.
By the late 1980s and 1990s both the USSR and China were in crisis. The Soviets could no longer maintain their control of a restive Eastern Europe and at the same time fulfill the needs for more consumer goods for the Russian people. The Soviet Union had overextended itself. In China, youth were demanding more political freedom.
With the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and subsequent massacre, the pace toward capitalism increased, while at the same time, the government maintained tight political controls over the populace to preserve Communist Party survival.
In the late 1980s Soviet President Gorbachev tried to adapt and cut costs by pulling Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, restructuring both the economy and the government in what he called perestroika and opening up society with glasnost. The shifts were too great and the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight in 1991.
Capitalism had won, or had it?
The ideal of capitalism is that there is little government control of the economy. The purpose of government is to provide infrastructure for commerce (roads, bridges, private property) and protect the nation from outside and inside attacks.
The problem is that the poor are still around both nationally and worldwide. In the United States wealthy corporations have been able to disassemble many of the Great Depression regulations through lobbying and influence peddling in politics. The rich continue to get richer while the poor and middle class stagnate at best.
What’s to prevent a revolution against the abuse of the capitalists? The only answer seems to be to regulate capitalism to prevent the reasons for the rise of Marxist socialism.
Reinstate many of the Great Depression era laws like the Glass-Steagall Act, which put a barrier between commercial banks where average people put their money and investment banking, which is a form of casino banking.
Reinstate campaign finance laws to keep the wealthy from buying elections.
Pass legislation to replace the decaying infrastructure. This will help create middle class jobs and improve commerce at the same time.
Karl Marx was mainly wrong, and his theory died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The problem we face in the 21st century is the same problem with capitalism that Marx pointed out in the 19th century: How to balance capitalism while meeting the needs of all Americans, not just the super wealthy.