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The definition of Communism:

Communism is a political and economic ideology that positions itself in opposition to liberal democracy and capitalism, advocating instead a classless system in which the means of production are owned communally and private property is nonexistent or severely curtailed.

The way I understand classless system is that we won't have any higher level or lower level working people, for example in a office we won't have General Manager, Assistant General Manager, Manager, Assistant Manager, and so on. So, it is very unintuitive that GM will do their job, workers will do their jobs and at the end of month everyone will get the same salary. How is it possible?

Even if we disallow modern era class system, in 19th century we had classes in Army, for example, Lieutenants, Majors, and soldiers. And it is natural that Lieutenant was a promoted post, so how come all of them get the same payment (may it be money or just the essentials) when one is higher than the other?

It could be the case that I'm misunderstanding the whole idea of Communism, but I have tried and every time I get this same problem. So, please try to explain me the things the way they were and are.

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    You write "the" definition of communism, but that link is to Investopedia, which is a site about the stock market. Have you looked at definitions from sites which are more about politics? Aug 3, 2020 at 4:11
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    @KnightadmiresChappo Just using the simplest definition might not be the best idea if (I assume) you are actually interested in definitions used by people who consider themselves communists, or perhaps definitions used by people fighting something they consider communism, or something like that.
    – Nobody
    Aug 3, 2020 at 12:23
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    Fair enough -- that first paragraph seems to bring up some key terms. But as you saw, it goes on for pages (on Victor D'Hupay, Chineese pig iron, and Stalin's death. Huh?) without explaining what that 1st para promised to. Maybe the whole thing, including the first para, wasn't well thought-out? Aug 3, 2020 at 18:21
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    I grew up in a country ruled by a communist party. The leadership of communist party was pretty much a class of its own. I don't even mean the central committee, but local communist leaders too. They'd have these people everywhere from kindergartens to factories and universities. I happened to know many local leaders, and they certainly had a life style and a setup of an upper class, every feature you can think of a priveleged wealthy class would have. For instance, they had access to goods and services that normal workers didn't, since everything is rationed, and they controlled distribution
    – Aksakal
    Aug 4, 2020 at 20:12
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    @Aksakal Indeed, most communist parties were not communist at all May 3, 2023 at 9:55

6 Answers 6

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When Marx used the term 'class', he wasn't referring to hierarchical organizational structures. He was referring to more-or-less permanent and impermeable social distinctions. For the sake of the argument, assume it is well accepted that a company of any reasonable size must have (at minimum) a chief executive making global decisions, an assortment of managers implementing those decisions, and an array of workers carrying out the implementation to produce whatever the company produces. The question is this: where do these people come from? If we have a situation such as the following:

  • Chief executives are always chosen from within a specific group: e.g.: business owners, other chief executives, their children and extended family members.
  • Managers are always chosen from within a second group: e.g., people who have the financial means to attend college and achieve an MBA; distant relations of the first group; entrepreneurs who were able to bankroll their own success.
  • Laborers are always chosen from the rest of the population.

These then represent three distinct classes of people. The classes aren't defined by the positions per se, but by the fact that it is extremely rare (if it happens at all) to see someone from the third group rise to the level of the first group, or someone from the first group to fall to the level of the third. This lack of social mobility naturally concentrates wealth and privilege among the highest class, where even the most incompetent member of the highest level lives in luxury and comfort inaccessible to even the most competent and talented member of the lowest level.

Marx held that the basis of class structures in all societies was control of the 'means of production': that (whatever it is) which is an essential prerequisite for production to occur. In the Feudal era this was land ownership: land was essential for agricultural production, and land was owned by the aristocratic class, who wielded political authority and took the bulk of the profits. In the Industrial Capitalism era, the means of production was 'the factory' (since no individual can effectively compete against a factory), and so those who owned factories — the industrial capitalist class — held de facto political, social, and economic power.

In a classless society there are still hierarchical political and economic positions, but no particular group holds dominance over the highest levels. Every person in the society has the same base chance of becoming a political or economic leader, based solely on his/her skills, talents, and inclinations. The point of nationalizing industry in this model is take control of the means of production, so that the means of production cannot be used by one group to wall off people of other groups. It isn't about bringing everyone to the same level; it is about allowing the natural abilities of everyone to express themselves without being restricted by some artificially imposed conditions based solely on accidental characteristics of social position and birth.

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    Marx's ideas mostly apply to the conditions prevalent during his life, where the economy was mostly dependent on industrial production. So, a question: how does this relate to a service-based economy (I mean, from a "modern communist" point of view)? For example, is a computer the "means of production" for a graphics designer or a programmer? Or is modern day communist theory still focused only on industrial production? Aug 4, 2020 at 18:23
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    @Noctiphobia: That depends on whom you ask, I suppose. Some traditionalists still hold the line at industrial production of material goods, but it's increasingly clear that 'intellectual' property and 'information' property are significant issues. Service workers can still fit under the 'industrial' model (since service workers generally rely on an 'owner' to provide them with the materials they need to perform their services), but how do we account for ownership of personal information, software, elements chronic media, or other intangible 'things'? it's a knotty problem. Aug 4, 2020 at 18:51
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    @TedWrigley Quite right. The Means of Production in the modern information age is not the computer we type on or the office we sit in; it is the mind that composes the information product. This truly does belong to the worker. Perhaps Marx's dream has been arrived at and we haven't noticed. Aug 5, 2020 at 13:52
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    @OscarBravo: Ah, that's not really correct. Whatever we 'think' or 'imagine' — products of the mind — still has to find some way of being offered to the world. If one imagines a new car one still needs a factory to produce it; if one imagines a software app one still needs a computer to code it and a commercial center to distribute it; if one imagines a great novel one still has to type it up and have copies printed and sold. The mode of production have have changed is certain sectors, but there are always ways to alienate people from their means of production. Aug 5, 2020 at 14:00
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    @OscarBravo you may be a screenwriter for example; you may be able to write screenplays at home, but without the means of production that are the connections to influential people who decide which movies to produce (i.e. movie company CEOs), they are worthless. May 3, 2023 at 9:57
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Marx defines class in relation to means of production. Instead of "typical" division into "upper", "middle" and "lower" class, there are only two classes: "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat".

Proletariat are the labourers, those who do the work and actually produce value in form of goods and products. They don't, or very rarely, own means of production.

Bourgeoisie are owners of means of production. "The rich" or "the 1%" if you will. They don't work, they don't produce value. They derive income from mere fact that they own things. Owner of company derives income from hiring labourers, paying them fraction of what their labour is worth and pocketing the difference. Landlord derives income from owning and renting out properties, and again generates no value (as a side note, I'd like to point out that that even "father of capitalism", Adam Smith, considered landlords to be parasites), because those properties already exist, nothing new is created or added through renting out.

Classless society, is a society where those two classes don't exist, because labourers themselves own means of production (for substitute within capitalist framework look up "worker's cooperative"), hence there is no "fat cat" at the top pocketing the difference and every labourer receives full value he or she generated through labour.

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    "there are only two classes: "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat"." That is true only for capitalism. In general it is false (read the Manifesto).
    – user33085
    Aug 4, 2020 at 2:45
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    "The rich" or "the 1%" is not really the point. They might even work. The biggest distinction is being the hired labour (proletariat) and the hirer of labour ('the exploitator'). A struggling small shop owner may be poorer than a skilled worker, but is still a 'bourgeoisie' and must be eliminated.
    – Zeus
    Aug 4, 2020 at 9:01
  • Doesn't a landlord provide value through various forms of building maintenance? Aug 5, 2020 at 6:42
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    @eyeballfrog No, it's the tradesmen contracted for repairs who create value.
    – M i ech
    Aug 5, 2020 at 7:41
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    @eyeballfrog I mean when they hire someone to do the maintenance, they pay the maintenance costs, and keep the associated profit. (You didn't think your rent was equal to your landlord's costs, did you?) When they do maintenance themselves, they keep both the maintenance costs (like a worker) and the profit (like a capitalist). May 4, 2023 at 17:58
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Classes are defined according to their access to the means of production and to what they do with their ability to work. It has nothing to do with ranks in the army or on the work place.

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    @KnightadmiresChappo No, loosely speaking everyone who draws a salary is working class. The upper class is defined by owning the means of production and hence not working for a salary (they live off passive income, aka "rent" instead). That's the class communism seeks to abolish.
    – user141592
    Aug 2, 2020 at 17:00
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    @Johanna Incomplete. It's not that "bourgeoisie" lives off of rent, but off of labour of others (where rent is one of the ways of siphoning money off from labourers), while producing no value themselves.
    – M i ech
    Aug 3, 2020 at 0:58
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    @JCAA That's a very weird way to look at the problem. Just because everybody gets goods according to their needs doesn't mean everybody gets everything they want. Marx isn't very specific about his utopian communist society, for obvious reasons. He doesn't talk about voluntary exchanges between the people, but that's a far cry from saying there will not be any! Of course, Marx isn't exactly consistent, so you'll find quotes talking about how people will only work for enjoyment etc., but that's already kind of true today in much of Europe - I don't have to work to get what I need for life.
    – Luaan
    Aug 3, 2020 at 10:03
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    @JCAA: "Everybody gets goods according to their needs" is a minimum, not a limiting prescription. Practically, that may work out as free housing, so you don't need money for that. But above needs we have desires. Marx is rather quiet on them. You can't assume blindly that communism doesn't use money to distribute desirable goods and services. Of course, Marx didn't foresee that we would have so much wealth that desirable goods now outnumber essential needs.
    – MSalters
    Aug 3, 2020 at 11:31
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    @Luaan "people will only work for enjoyment etc., but that's already kind of true today in much of Europe - I don't have to work to get what I need for life." - Where in Europe are you living that this is actually true? And how do you know it applies to "most of Europe"? Aug 3, 2020 at 12:58
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Types of social systems (according to Marxists)
As the other answers have already stated, the classes are defined by their relationship towards the means of production - that is the material and the tools used to produce wealth. The particular form of these relationships depends on the existing social and economic system. Specifically, Marxists distinguish several different social and economic systems, briefly reviewed below, which evolve one into another:

  • primitive society is supposedly classless, although split along the lines of families, clans, tribes, and possibly age.
  • slavery this should not be confused with slavery as practiced in colonial times, but rather as it existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The slave-owner owns the means of production as well as those who perform work. There are two classes: slaves and the slave owners.
  • feudal society is characteristic of the middle ages. The main classes are the land owners (the aristocracy) and those who work the land (the peasantry). The peasantry either directly work the land of the land owner (serfdom), with all the produce belonging to the latter, or they work the land given for their individual use, and share part of the produce (free tenants).
  • capitalist society is characterized by detaching the ownership of means of production and the product via money exchange. Thus, the emphasis is no more on the ownership of specific means of production or the produce, but on owning the money/capital. The classes are then bourgeoisie - those who own the capital, and use it to acquire means of production, and proletariat - those who work using the means of production, but who do not own them and neither the fruits of their labor.
  • socialism/communism is an idealized system where the means of production belong to everyone and everyone benefits from the the fruits of the labor using these means of production. Marx used terms socialism and communism interchangeably, although his followers usually distinguished them as different stages of the post-capitalist society. Socialism in Marxist sense should also not be confused with social democracy or welfare state, which is essentially a form of capitalist society, as those existing in modern Europe (although one could apply this qualification to all capitalist economies that implemented Keynesian reforms in the wake of the Great Depression, like the Roosevelt's New Deal.)

Class struggle
The lower class (slaves, serfs or proletariat) obviously resents the power and privileges of the ruling class, and tries to improve its social and economic position, while the upper class resists this. This resistance takes different forms:

  • justifying the existing system (in the name of birthright or racial superiority in case of slavery, in the name of God in case of feudalism, and in the name of liberal values/individual rights in the case of capitalism.)
  • splitting the lower class into factions, e.g., along the racial/national lines, religion, party membership, by granting privileged status to parts of the classes (like creation of higher-earning middle class or intelligensia), etc.
  • by redistribution of wealth, in order to calm discontent - as is done in modern social democracies. E.g., the modern western population can be seen as labor aristocracy enjoying a much higher level of life and income than the proletariat in the wealth-producing countries (mainly in Asian and Africa.)
  • by encouraging political participation, via the notion that the improvement in the class conditions can be achieved by peaceful means, without reforming the system and destroying the existing classes.

Marxists claim that the full resolution of the class conflict is possible only via full destruction of the social and economic order, i.e., the class system. The opposition of the ruling class means that such a confrontation is necessarily bound to be violent (aka revolution.)

The new class
Achieving the common ownership of the means of production and the fruits of labor turns out to be problematic - classical Marxism supposes to achieve this via nationalization of the principle means of production, which are supposed to be run by the strong central authority (state/government), formed of people specifically trained in the principles of communism (the party). These people also control the distribution of the fruits of labor, i.e., decide who needs/merits more of those. In practice this results in a formation of a new class, as it happened in all the states that attempted to implement the Marxist principles. See, e.g., The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System by Milovan Djilas (also New class in Wikipedia.)

Alternative theories
Note that the above theory of social evolution via class struggle is specifically Marxist invention. The alternatives include:

  • Anarchists, notably Bakunin, who foresaw the problem of the strong central authority alreday in Marx times, and therefore advocated that a classless society must be also a stateless society
  • Vilfredo Pareto (the economist, known for Pareto law and Pareto distributionn) argued that no egalitarian system can exist, that every sociaty is dominated by an elite (see Elite theory) and revolutions/social upheavals correspond to change of elites, but not genuine improvement of the living conditions for the majority of the population. Such improvements take place only as much as the current elite needs support of the population to remain in power.
  • Finally, modern western economy and sociology prefer descriptive rather than normative description of the existing social systems, i.e., they do not engage in speculation of whether existing social and economic order is good or bad (and who are the good/bad guys in it), and whether it must be superseded by a more just system.
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  • I didn't want to butcher with the definitions in feudalism anymore than is absolutely necessary as I think edits should not temper with the intent of the author. But you might want to look into these specific relations as serf afaik didn't have land of their own and depending on the scope of the land given by the land-owner you might already talk about "vassals" which are a sort of "middle class" in the sense of lower aristocracy which received land from an owner but isn't working it by themselves but letting serfs work the field.
    – haxor789
    May 4, 2023 at 13:12
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Marx never actually implemented communism. In fact, Marx never made a direct clear statement of any law or policy being desirable. So the only answer would be people attributing their own opinions to Marx.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/ The issue of Marx and morality poses a conundrum. On reading Marx’s works at all periods of his life, there appears to be the strongest possible distaste towards bourgeois capitalist society, and an undoubted endorsement of future communist society. Yet the terms of this antipathy and endorsement are far from clear. Despite expectations, Marx never says that capitalism is unjust. Neither does he say that communism would be a just form of society. In fact he takes pains to distance himself from those who engage in a discourse of justice, and makes a conscious attempt to exclude direct moral commentary in his own works. The puzzle is why this should be, given the weight of indirect moral commentary one finds.

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    It is often forgotten that Marx didn't really try to outline communism - he just developed a historical theory of how the inevitable economic development will result in communism (and often disparaged democratic socialists as delaying that development). He was reportedly quite unhappy that "communism" was taken up by the poorest, least developed nations, while his prediction was that communism will form naturally from the richest, most developed nations. He considered capitalism a necessary stepping stone to socialism, and socialism another step on the natural way to communism.
    – Luaan
    Aug 3, 2020 at 10:11
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I think to explain the concept you've got to start it little broader. Like if you were to supply for yourself it's all simple, you produce, what you consume and your production is done, planned and performed by you and necessitated by your needs and desires.

The problem is that it is terribly inefficient. If you would ACTUALLY do everything all by yourself and not just pretend that and use other people implicitly, by idk having an income and buying stuff, but really actually do everything yourself. Then you'd probably not get beyond a very primitive life that is mostly concerned with immediate survival.

And that's already ignoring that you have to start from somewhere and that if you were just dropped into this world with no parents and support you would probably just have died before you could have had the first thought that you remember. Like even the development of the most primitive tools might have been the result of longer research by trial and error.

So instead of doing it all by yourself, you form social groups. And here thing gets more complicated, because while you can increase the production manifold and develop capabilities that the individual would not be capable off on their own, you now have to negotiate these questions from before. Because they are no longer self-evident. Like what do we want to produce, why do we want to produce it, how do we want to produce it, who plans and who enacts the plan, how is the product distributed within society and who decides all that and how do we do that.

Now as far as I know Marx argued that the distribution of the power to decide that is largely based on the material conditions and production processes. Which is not a given, the social factors and dynamics in society may also play a huge rule but they weren't the key focus of Marx.

Now for a simple hunter gatherer society things are still relatively simple. It's still possible to formulate a collective goal (gather food) and it's still easy to distribute work and loot (if all do roughly the same thing and have roughly the same needs).

Enter specialization and support roles and things get more complicated as you've now a variety of unique roles, situations and desires. So the direction in which the collective is heading is no longer the same in which the individual would want it to head based on their own personal situation. It's rather a compromise between individuals. Also some roles might take priority over others. Like idk the smith is important but if there are no farmers, hunters whatsoever the smith is without food, without strength and ultimately without any use.

So as all need the food, all contribute to the production of the food, but some directly and some indirectly, so you can end up with a situation where those with direct access to scarce and necessary goods may lay claim to them and use the power of deprivation to coerce the rest of society to their will. Like idk offer to give part of the stuff that you claimed to a handful of goons if they accept your property and coerce the rest to do the same. The other problem is, that while the collective workload is "non-transportable" and difficult to manage as an individual, once it's condensed into a product, you can take that and run. Like it takes an impossibly large amount of labor for an individual to build a car, but it takes close to no effort to steal one.

Which becomes relevant when you move from hunter/gatherer to agriculture as it takes a large amount of labor and time to cultivate the fields and it takes much less time and labor to harvest it. So it almost naturally follows to invent something like "property", either in the abstract or in the practical sense of staying at a place and guarding it against intruders.

Meaning from the mode of production, investing time to grow and then harvest, having a period of toil and scarcity and then a period of wealth where you need to keep it together to sustain the period of scarcity. A lot of social consequences follow. As said, suddenly concepts like property make sense, which would have been pointless if you're wandering. Same for the idea of military strength and human adversaries. Like previously you could simply evade conflict and move elsewhere or do a hit and run, now you're bound to a place and have to work with that. So extortion rackets could emerge as the farmers might not have the time and power to guard their property. Giving rise to modern proto-states and monopolies of violence or the fight to establish them.

And once those grow the mobsters find themselves in a position where taking stuff isn't as straight forwards as the more they take now the less they can take later and the more resistance they face and the less alternative they have. So they have to develop new means to more effectively exploit their subjects. Like actually providing services to ease acceptance or improve production and letting farmers keep stuff if possible to make them invest and grow.

So you have a large collective of people that produces, distributes and consumes products, but it's divided into those that produce and those that extort and distribute.

And from other such data points Marx conjectured that history could be sketched as a series of class struggles and that societal processes can be conjectured from the material conditions under which they produce stuff.

So idk the feudal empires were often capped in size by the sheer limit of technology, like if it takes weeks to move an army or days to send a carrier pigeon to notify someone to send an army, then the scope in which you can operate is naturally limited. So people had to share power and agency. While claiming to be king of the realm, in reality they split the realm and gave vassals a share in return for loyalty and fees and either tried to keep those in-check by pitting them against each other or the other way around the vassals themselves put up a king to serve as a puppet and front for their goals.

So as colonialism and the industrialization yet again changed the economic condition so did the social conditions, where the middle class of merchants, craftsmen and other capitalists dethrowned the agricultural aristocracy, demystified their lore and took their place. Though as they also increased the ruling class in size and broadened participation, sporting ideas of freedom and equality. Marx apparently made out a trend that the social progress goes from authoritarian to libertarian and from the rule of the few to the rule of the many.

Now with the advent of mass production and industrialization, arts, crafts and specialization where becoming obsolete and production was made more easy, yet more effective. So while previously politics (deciding the direction of society), education, research and cultural participation was largely restricted to the upper class who had the time for that now it was possible broaden the to include even more people.

Though while it could mean a decreased workload and a more equal participation, it could also mean more profit for those with the ownership of the means of production and a different form of servitude for the rest. So the simple demand is for the workers to take ownership of the means of production and thus have that agency over their production and distribution of what they produce and where not already happening by capitalists the destruction of the feudal oppression.

So as a result society would again collectively fulfill it's collective goals, but this time they'd have excess stuff so they would be free to actually have agency and due to equal ownership and democracy they would be able to decide that directly among themselves. Without a materialist necessity from a group to take priority. So without classes. At least in theory.

So to think of that in terms of "wages" is already wrong. Because wages are a facet of the capitalist system where the owner tries to prevent co-workers from being co-owners by giving them a share of the loot rather than sharing the source of the loot. In the end you'd probably still would have to distribute the stuff that is produced so you'd also get some sort of "wage" but if you are owner it would depend on the actual output and you'd be part of those negotiations.

Also whether managers perform an important job is kind of a matter of perspective. Like what these hierarchies of managers do moderately well is to provide 1 "head of state/government" with some level of control over a vast empire. Like they are kind of what the feudal society used to be. A king can't rule the realm, but he can keep a bunch of vassals in check and they a bunch of lower vassals and so on till the individual farmer or lower level of vassal looks up and sees a vast empire despite it being more or less fractured. That's how this 80/20 society works where a minority rules a majority. And the higher up the more powerful the person as they command lots of people, by proxy. Though the question is rather, "is that a good system to begin with". Do we want one or a few leaders to have that level of control, isn't that actually far too complicated for so few people to decide in the first place. Like their job is hard, but is it necessary? Do we want someone working constantly and being super rich and powerful or do we want to spread that agency over more, up to all people instead.

So do we even want to have jobs that include fucking over the supply chain and to squeeze ever more work out of employees to make profit. Like if your own profit involves your own exploitation then you might self-regulate that less profit for less exploitation is a better trade-off. While if exploitation and profit involve two different classes of people,... yeah ... you kinda have good faith in them not being assholes.

Same for armies. Do we want them in the first place? Like they don't produce nice things and they taint the nice things that we have. But even if we do decide to have them, this hierarchical structure largely served to give a king control over the entire country. So is that intended? And even if you decide that fast decision making and streamlined processes are required more than individual agency and freedom... again why is the military a good idea in the first place if you don't absolutely need it? Even then why should a general earn more? Like with regards to the importance it's a job like any other, in fact they usually have a safer position then anybody else and have agency unlike most, so in fact they should probably earn LESS than the rest. Like their "profession" is LITERALLY todays childsplay. Like modern real time strategy games are probably more complex than generals work generations prior.

So that's just a rough overview, also Marx was most likely way to optimistic in his historical materialism, there's plenty of opportunity to bomb oneself or others back to the stone age and in terms of fascism, not even due to material necessity, but just out of spite and fanaticism. And while not necessarily endorsed by Marx "just take over and do it yourself" usually let to the expected result of having to cope with the same problems as the predecessors and having it worse because of a lack of experience, legitimation and support and violence is not a good workaround.

Not to mention that humans have kinda put a question mark behind the question as to whether fulfillment of ones desires is even an attainable goal to begin with or if fulfillment of goals creates more goals. But at least to give some credit to Marx here, he didn't argue it's the utopian end, but just the next step and the description of the problems and chances of that would be the job of people living in that novel conditions.

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