Karl Marx. There is a name that conjures strong opinion. And whatever your opinions are it is undoubted that his thinking has had a major effect on the world for the last 150 years or so. For good or ill. At various points over the last century something like one third of the world’s population lived in states influenced by the Marxist ideas of socialism and communism.
Marx believed that people should be equal. He argued that eventually society would evolve to a state of communism where people would live equally. This would be a society with no ownership and no money. It would work by the principle of ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability’. In effect this would mean firstly that people would be provided for – all our needs would be provided for free; food, water, shelter, clothing and anything we need. Secondly it means that people would work at what they were good at, not for money, but for the satisfaction that they were helping others. A more altruistic, less selfish society would emerge.
I know there are lots of arguments about whether this is possible or even desirable but the problem I want to explore is how it may be possible that we get to this state of equality or communism or whatever you want to call it.
For Marx, getting there is problematic. His route firstly involves revolution (bloody or otherwise). Writing in the nineteenth century he predicted that workers would become so impoverished that they would rise up and overthrow the bosses who were exploiting them. The workers would then run things collectively for the benefit of everybody. This you could describe as socialism. Of course this didn’t happen in England, where he thought it would happen first, because this was where the industrial revolution was happening. His ideas did however influence revolutions in many other countries long after his death (Russia, China, Cuba etc).
Now the problem really comes with the transition from a socialist society, with ownership, money and where the state runs things on behalf of the people, to a truly communist one. In a truly communist one there would be no state, no government and things would be run communally and, as I have said there would be no money or ownership. Marx didn’t really explain how this transition would take place. It’s almost as if it would just evolve somehow by itself as people realised that it would be best.
And I would say at his point that such a society hasn’t happened. The nearest we have come, some argue, were the Kibbutz communes in Israel. On the scale of a nation it hasn’t ever happened. Don’t be fooled when people describe countries like China or Cuba or North Korea as ‘communist’; these countries are not. They may have ‘communist’ parties but at the very best they are socialist. At worst they are cruel dictatorships or oligarchies masquerading as communist in order to maintain power and privilege in the hands of the few (hang on…that sounds like capitalism…).
If you want to read a good fictional account of a communist world try ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula Le Guin. A damn good science fiction read.
Anyway, my question is whether a true communist society as Karl Marx described it is possible in reality? And if so how will we get there?
Well, I think the answer lies in a science fiction idea. Many of you will have encountered the idea of self-replicating machines. Scientists argue that future space exploration may be possible through self-replication. Imagine sending a spaceship out there that can mine resources from asteroids and make more spaceships.
On Star Trek they have replicators that can reassemble matter and make anything you desire, from a cup of ‘earl grey hot’ (Captain Picard’s favourite tipple) to component parts of a new shuttle craft.
Such machines seem far fetched but the beginnings of them are already here. For example there are computer controlled machines that have been built that can actually replicate themselves. Look up ‘RepRap’ machines on Google. Now these are not autonomous machines but they can replicate themselves and are pretty nifty 3d printers, where you can put plastic waste in one end and any shape you design comes out of the other.
Now imagine the future. Where machines collect all our waste and take it to other machines that recycle/reform those raw materials into anything we need. And all we have to do is ask them to. Machines could grow our food, transport us where we want to go, run the power stations and repair themselves. And these machines could make more machines to do all of this for us.
In this scenario us humans would not need jobs. We would not need money and everything would and could be provided for us. Capitalism would be over.
Now this idea has been used in science fiction for some time (check out the ‘culture’ novels of Iain M. Banks, for example).
It is not inconceivable that a society where machines do the work could well become a reality in some not too distant future. Some argue that we would become bored and our lives become meaningless. That we would have nothing to strive for. Perhaps we would be fat and lazy like those people on the spaceship in the animated film ‘Wall-E’.
But I like to think that human beings are more imaginative and intelligent than that. In such a future communist world of equality wouldn’t we be truly free to learn and create? Instead of selling most of our lives to someone else for the necessity of wages we could actually spend our lives pursuing the things we love…
What do you think?
“Does my beard look big like this?”
© 2012 Simon Poore
2 thoughts on “Marx, Replicators and the Future of Communism”
Human beings do not strive on equality, they strive on power. So whatever Marx thought, it will NEVER come true. We are smart, but we are also animals. We fight for domination. We fight for control. The idea we can survive on being nice to each other and write poems all day is completely absurd. Capitalism is not perfect, but it teaches that if we all pursue our individual goals, we will create a sustainable society where happiness can be reached. The promise of a heavenly land at our fingertips without anyone having to work for it sounds completely illogical. Even if robots did everything for us, we would still need people to maintain the robots. And even if robots maintain other robots, we will need people to maintain these robots. If life really ends up being a big lazy land of fat asses and clueless brains, I call death a better redemption than any of that cheap Marx crap.
I do not believe in socialism. I do not believe in communism. Communism does nothing for the self preservation of talented and smart individuals. It actually hinders their progress, and allows stupidity and laziness to become the norm. We create great things because we want to accomplish something to be proud. Not to be nice to each other. Simple example: put two people on a deserted island and ask them to survive. I bet you they won’t help each other. Maybe at first, but after a while, they will kill each other.
If you were given a spouse without having to date or make efforts, why would you take care of yourself?
It’s the truth of our nature. We are meant to rule or serve. And only under dominion we can exercise our independence and fight for our freedom.
Thanks for your comments. I knew this post would provoke some strong reaction, which is good in the spirit of healthy debate. And obviously, as you would expect, I disagree with much of what you say.
You seem to be arguing that it is in our ‘nature’ to strive for domination; to fight for it. Well, for me it seems clear that humanities’ natural state is to be hunter-gatherers. For the vast majority of our existence as animals on this planet that’s what we did. Civilisation is a mere short lived experiment compared to the time we spent doing that. In times of plenty there was no need for hunter-gatherer societies to fight or ‘dominate’ each other. It was scarcity of resources that caused conflict, it seems to me.
There is nothing ‘natural’ about any of the systems of organising social life we have invented since. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the slavery of the Roman Empire, or Capitalism, or indeed for that matter Socialism or Communism.
Capitalism does not create a ‘sustainable’ society, it uses resources for profit until they run out. Oil for example, will run out. Capitalism depends on growth. Growth is not unlimited, that isn’t possible in the long run.
Capitalism does make it possible to have massive progress and provide comforts and happy lives that people from the past would have thought unbelievable. I benefit from this as do you. The problem is that those benefits are clearly not shared by all. We live in a world where people still die of starvation. There is easily enough food for all. Where people die of preventable diseases. Where people die in pointless wars. Something like half the planet have had no education and cannot read and write. Where children work in sweatshops everyday to make clothes for us in the west. There seriously are countless more examples like this. All of which we could decide to change or prevent. Tomorrow. We do not. Progress?
You talk of communism ‘hindering progress’; for me if such incredible injustice exists in our world then that isn’t exactly progress. What about all the talented people who cannot achieve because they are born into hopeless poverty?
I agree that we create great things to be proud. This is not incompatible to a more equitable society. There is nothing in what Marx actually described that would hinder creative talent. The idea that there is is a myth. There would be nothing stopping you striving to achieve anything you desired under true communism, as Marx described it. Right now most of us are wage slaves, without the time to realise our real dreams. Do you have time to do or be all that you want to be?
If it is the ‘truth of our nature’ that we are ‘meant to rule or serve’ then why aren’t the majority of out there killing each other? Maybe because we have progressed and we choose to live by the rules. We have morals and can think. So we work together to be happy, in families, in communities.
You say “…only under dominion we can exercise our independence and fight for our freedom.” In a truly equitable society you wouldn’t have to fight for it, it would be your right and you would be independent to search out your own happiness, not what Capitalism teaches you happiness is…
“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” Karl Marx ‘The German Ideology’ 1846