Taking on the ruling ideas in society
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained how the "ruling ideas" of a particular society come to be--and what they represent.
THE RULING ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class, wrote Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the Communist Manifesto.
The ruling ideas, however, are never sold as such.
Laws that are designed to protect the rich and powerful and keep the poor down are put forward as "eternal laws" and apply equally to all. "Freedom of the press" disguises the face that my "freedom" to say what I think and actually be heard can't compare to the owners of a multibillion-dollar media and publishing empire.
"Your very ideas," Marx and Engels wrote of the ruling classes of their day, "are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of existence of your class."
Marx and Engels devoted a whole section in the Manifesto to challenging the "ruling ideas" used to discredit socialism. Much of what they had to say remains important today--because many of the arguments meant to discredit socialism are the same ones Marx and Engels had to deal with in 1848.
The most common argument, still put forward today, against a common ownership of the means of production under socialism is that there would be a no incentives to work--"all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us," as Marx and Engels summarized.
Yet under capitalism, those who work the hardest get the least, and those who work the least get the most.
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"ACCORDING TO this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work," Marx and Engels wrote.
The truth is that, in our society, people do drudge work all the time without any pay at all. They take out he garbage, do dishes, clean floor and bathrooms, week yards, feed and clean animals and so on. Moreover, they do this work most often in addition to working a regular job. It's only the rich who pay others to do these things for them.
Another common argument against socialism is that it will do away with personal property. "We communists," Marx and Engels wrote, "have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man's own labor."
In answer to this, they first argue that capitalism itself constantly drives small property owners out of business and favors the largest.
Moreover, they point out, modern capitalism depends upon wage labor. Wage workers--the vast majority of us--have no property to speak of. On the contrary, the employers depend upon the fact that they own the vast majority of the means of production--the buildings, the machinery and equipment, the computers and tools--and we don't own any. So we must sell our ability to work.
Our wages afford us the means to reproduce our existence, more or less. The bosses' ownership of the means by which we work allows them to appropriate the rest of the value of what we produce.
In a brilliant passage, Marx and Engels sum up their argument:
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.
In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
The argument is not at all about depriving most people of the meager possessions that they have been able to acquire--their house, their furniture, car or appliances. It's about depriving anyone of the "power to subjugate the labor of others" through their monopoly on the means of production
First published in the March 3, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.