The argument of the Republican Party for decades has been that communism is an existential menace to any nation that calls itself free. What they believe to be the corollary to this is the claim that they are the only political organization that is capable of resisting. Over time, this has turned into the belief that anyone who disagrees with any aspect of Republican ideology must be a communist, communism being in this view anything that a right winger disagrees with, be it green energy, Social Security, the Federal Reserve, or requirements to keep poison out of drinking water. And with the rise of Donald Trump, labeling someone a communist all too often is a troll’s game, a tactic to disrupt the conversation and shut down civil society.
To those of us outside school of thought, however, this can look like a desperate attempt to hide the danger signs that their economic system is sending. If the right would bother actually to read Marx — admittedly, his devotion to Hegel makes his writing needlessly dense and tortured — they would find that Marx’s predictions are a warning that anti-communists would do well to hear.
Marx’s view was that history has a direction, a propulsive force contained within each era that builds until the internal contradictions cause an overthrow of the present system that will resolve into a new formulation. The move of Europe from feudal societies to mercantilism and then capitalism is for him an example of these forces in action. He predicted that the last of these, the economic model that was coming into its own in his days, would itself collapse under its own weight to be replaced with a final paradise in which no classes stop one atop the other in a structure of exploitation. At this point, history as he understood the term would end.
Two of Marx’s most perceptive points were to observe how workers are turned into commodities and to predict that unrestrained capitalism would lead to increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Which is to say that genuine Marx, as opposed to the right wing’s straw man, was a good analyst, someone the world would do well to listen to. This is especially the case as the current obsession with laissez-faire anarchy careens toward disaster.
We live in an economy in which the very few possess the majority of our society’s wealth. We see daily reports of the armed agents of the state being used to shut down protest against our structural inequalities. Despite the efforts of the centrist Democratic Party to guarantee healthcare for all, many Americans are still without adequate medical services and 68,000 died per annum prior to the recent pandemic for that reason. And as the right wing keeps chipping away at protections for employees and at government services, the percentage of workers in the gig economy — workers who are on their own with regard to unemployment, injury, or eventual retirement — continues to grow.
In other words, the Republicans and their Democratic enablers are doing everything they can to fulfill Marx’s prophecy of a revolution of the proletariat. As Trump blunders through his presidency, smashing trade relations that should have been revised but were providing farmers especially with access to more markets, cutting taxes and regulations on the wealthy, calling for violence against protesters, and pushing for wave after wave of new infections whose costs, economic and otherwise, will be staggering, his party slavers along behind, and the Democrats do the barest minimum to object to his criminality, while swallowing wholesale the philosophy that lies at the heart of the right wing’s economic ideology.
An interesting observation has been made that revolutions happen when enough of the population has had a taste of prosperity, but is denied any just share in the overall wealth. For a long time, we have passively accepted the idea that the capitalists are what makes the economy go and the implication that they deserve as much of it as they can grab, but the dissatisfaction with this system is showing among young people and with the shrinking of the middle class, the future of things as they are is in doubt.
In previous times of crisis, be they the uprisings of the nineteenth century or the Great Depression in the twentieth, governments adopted policies that either co-opted what Marx and Engels had proposed in their list of ten immediate steps toward communism or instituted other programs that were designed to make the lives of ordinary people at least tolerable and to give them at least the illusion of a ladder upward. We now have progressive taxation on income and taxes on estates, public schools, a federal system for guaranteeing credit and bank accounts, and — in much of the developed world — universal healthcare. The latter was supported in Germany by Bismarck, hardly a revolutionary demanding socialism.
If we are to save any form of capitalism — any system that allows economic freedom for business owners, for example — we will have to repeat the compromises of the past. Universal healthcare and higher education, strengthening unions, guaranteeing income in a pandemic, and promoting renewable energy production are obvious and minimal ways to go about this. And yet both the Republicans and the Democrats obstruct these, the Republicans out of greed and the Democrats out of a nagging fear of what might happen if the great unwashed were allowed any improvement in their lives. As John Kennedy explained in his speech on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, his program of cooperation with Latin America, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” His warning was a comment on the repressions of landowners and politicians against peasants, but he could just as well say this to American CEOs and politicians today. If we ignore the omens of discontent, if we dismiss objections to the present system as “communist” without addressing their just analysis, we invite genuine communism, and no number of police officers or National Guard soldiers will be able to hold back the tide of revolt.