Monday, March 22, 2010

Marxism: Imagining Utopia


Karl Marx, taking a materialist perspective, saw that the world was driven by material and economic needs. As feudalism was replaced by capitalism a new class system emerged, which formed according to a division of labor. There were the laborers or the exploited working class proletariat and the ruling class bourgeoisie, who were the "the owners of the means of capitalist production" (Communist Manifesto, 25). In order to acquire capital, the bourgeoisie paid the laborer a wage for his labor power (or his labor potential) and then sold the goods produced by the laborer at a profit, obtaining a surplus value (Das Kapital, 25). In order to increase profits, the bourgeoisie would try to pay the laborer as little as possible while squeezing as much work as possible from him or her. As a result, laborers often worked long hours under terrible conditions for very little pay. In order to maintain the profitable status quo, the bourgeoisie would flood the labor market with immigrant labor and child labor and destroy any attempt made by the proletariat to form unions or political organizations to improve working conditions.

Karl Marx proposed a solution that would liberate the proletariat from capitalist slavery— unification of the working class proletarians from all different countries around the world in order to revolt against the oppressive bourgeoisie so that private property would be abolished in favor of a collective sharing of resources (Parker, 187-194). He and Friedrich Engels outlined their proposal in the Communist Manifesto.

When I read the Communist Manifesto, I remembered certain passages from Sir Thomas More's Utopia, a political satire, in which he discusses the economic problems of his time and then talks about a fictional society that found a solution to the economic problems by abolishing private property and distributing all of the resources equally. He states, "all goods be shared equally by all…the one and only path to the welfare of the public is the equal allocation of goods; and I doubt whether such equality can be maintained where every individual has his own property" (47). More also states that once men are freed from the constant struggle for survival, then they can, "devote their time to the freedom and cultivation of the mind, for that they think, constitutes a happy life" (66). This is the goal that the socialist, Dr. Shleimann, in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle has in mind for the post-revolutionary socialist society. He states that once man is freed from his constant need to work in order to survive, he will be free to pursue academic interests and improve his mind (354).

Although the socialist model is a beautiful one and seems to be the best solution to capitalist exploitation, the model set forth by Marx and Engels makes no provision for dealing with the worst of all human faults—greed—and does not account for the possibility of power and wealth being amassed in the hands of a few enterprising individuals in the new system. There are no checks and balances to protect the new system from corruption. Fully aware of the problem of greed, More states, "since there is plenty of everything and no one need fear that anyone would want to ask for more than he needs? For why should anyone be suspected of asking for too much if he is certain he will never lack for anything…in the Utopian scheme of things there is no place at all for such a vice" (68). According to this statement, then, there will be no Utopia because without the elimination of greed or the implementation of a system that could effectively deal with this vice, the system Marx proposes and world More writes about will remain the stuff of dreams, existing only as a fictional Utopia, which means both "good place" and "no place" (very upsetting thought for a democratic socialist such as myself).

I included a YouTube clip of John Lennon's song,"Imagine" as the lyrics seem relevant to this topic.

Works Cited

Lennon, John, "Imagine," from the album Imagine, 1971

Marx, Karl, Das Kapital, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Marx, Karl and Engels Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, New York: Pocket Books, 1964

More, Thomas, Utopia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2003.

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