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I have heard opposing arguments about whether or not Communism was intended to be an unreachable ideal, or a workable system. Has Marx ever commented, either in the communist manifesto or otherwise, on which one is true?

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    Most of the times I've heard this argument it was in relation to the argument that communism fails every time it is tried but it could be talked about in other situations too. Dec 15, 2021 at 19:24
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    re: "failure every time" rests (IMO) on some pretty shaky No-True-Scotsman logic needed to discount China. Doesn't affect the OP question in any case.
    – Pete W
    Dec 15, 2021 at 21:08
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    @PeteW given China's gini coefficient I'd love to hear the Marxist-economic rationale behind calling them Scottish in this case ;-) Dec 15, 2021 at 22:19

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The main thrust of Das Capital is that Communism is not only a workable system, but an inevitable consequence of the flow of history, and of the instabilities inherent in the capitalist system, which would result in a series of crises ending with the radical overthrow of the system and establishment of communism. In later works he seems to think it possible that countries will reach the same state by gradual processes rather than violent revolution.

Its less clear whether he considered communism to be an ideal, or merely "better than what we have now". He doesn't consider a post communist world, which suggests that he considered communism to be a natural and stable system, and the one to which countries would evolve if history is allowed to take its course.

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    Incidentally, the failure of every communist system is rather irrelevant here, since Marx died before any revolution claiming to be communist.
    – James K
    Dec 15, 2021 at 20:52
  • Directly related is Lenin's thinking in his famous pamphlet What is to be done ? The main plank here concerned the need to educate the proletariat in the doctrine of Marxism, and he talks about a "Vanguard" party, selected from dedicated Marxists who will form an initial revolutionary government that will carry the message to all. It is not a direct answer (and I doubt anyone knows of one, since Marx focuses little on the practicalities) Hence I have not posted it as such, but it is closely related to the topic.
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:29
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    @JamesK, wait, even the 1871 Paris commune? I think Marx had a lot to say about that.
    – code11
    Feb 8 at 21:06
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As best I can interpret Marx, it's a mistake to think of Marxism — referring to that ultimate form of political community — as a particular system, structure, or process. Marxism is any of a set of systems that might occur when all class distinctions are erased and the ideal of liberty is achieved. For Marx, the failure of capitalism is the same as the failure of socialism, or of feudalism, or of most any form of political economy: one group in a society takes control of the tools and resources necessary for material production and social sustenance, and uses that control to exploit other groups. For Marx, if we eliminate the notion of class — remove the possibility that one group might take hegemonic control over resources that the entire community needs, so that no one suffers any existential threats — then whatever form of government or economics the community chooses to implement will be intrinsically non-oppressive and non-exploitive.

In simplistic terms, Marx is pointing out that we cannot cow happy, secure, well-fed people into doing something they don't want to do. We can't coerce them into low-paying jobs out of fear they might not get any job at all; we can't convince them to work exhausting hours or in dangerous conditions; we have no economic stick to drive people forward, so the society as a whole has to lean towards the carrot. We end up having to treat everyone as people-just-like-us, with all the same kinds of needs and desires, and that creates the conditions for fairness and justice.

As to whether this is a practical ideal... This approach has been used fruitfully within monastic orders and faith communities across any number of religions, through most of human history: Christian communes, Buddhist monasteries, Orthodox Judaism, Quaker and Mennonite communities, certain Islamic sects, etc. It's clearly feasible within small, dedicated communities, and it's part of the Liberal ideology that informs most of the modern world, but it seems to be a far off state in the current large-scale political-economic environment. It smacks of an idealism that jaded cynics like myself tend to scoff at. This is why, I think, Marx focused so heavily on the labor-revolution model. For Marx, getting people to see that they are part of an exploited class — at least people within liberal societies, steeped in lIberal values — was the first necessary step in getting them to reject exploitation and demand their own place in society.

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    I had a professor of European history, I think Soviet era was his specialty, that suggested that many western capitalist countries didn't see as much Communist influence because of unions and guilds. That workers fought their employers for concessions through unions and therefore were not motivated as much by Communist ideals, that unions are just part of the capitalist system. Possible that a capitalist's headache prevented his nightmare?
    – RomaH
    Dec 17, 2021 at 22:01
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    Modern Hutterite communities might be the best example of what Marx was referring to when he talked of socialism and communism, for they are about as classless as any society today. Feb 13 at 3:01
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Marxism is considered a workable system, but people forget that in works like Critique of the Gotha Program and Das Kapital, Karl Marx considered reaching the final stage of communism to be a process. From capitalism, some form of lower stage communism/socialism would form (the dictatorship of the proletariat, Permanent Revolution, syndicalist worker's cooperative, etc.) to guide the common workers towards the final stage of communism & a stateless, moneyless society. As socialist thinker Philip Gasper puts it: "Marx and Engels never speculated on the detailed organization of a future socialist or communist society. The key task for them was building a movement to overthrow capitalism. If and when that movement was successful, it would be up to the members of the new society to decide democratically how it was to be organized, in the concrete historical circumstances in which they found themselves". So while communism was considered a workable system by Marx, true communism was supposed to be the end goal after capitalism was overthrown, some type of anti-capitalist state/cooperative/worker's union was formed as an alternative, and that successful revolution defeats capitalism to create a true communist community. As I stated in a previous answer, that was kind of the goal of many of the socialist revolutions we saw in the real world throughout the twentieth century: form a socialist state to compete with capitalism, defeat capitalism, then have the state erode away through a final revolution or natural human advancement in order to reach a clean, stateless communist society at the end of everything.

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The best know quotation on this by Marx himself would be the — rather surprising for many — excerpt from The German Ideology:

Der Kommunismus ist für uns nicht ein Zustand, der hergestellt werden soll, ein Ideal, wonach die Wirklichkeit sich zu richten haben wird. Wir nennen Kommunismus die wirkliche Bewegung, welche den jetzigen Zustand aufhebt.

[Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. (— English translation)]

Die deutsche Ideologie, MEW 3, p. 35


Big caveat: This book alone can be quote-mined for the term "communism" for – hm, quite a lot of instances? That's of course no wonder at all, given the centrality of the concept within his thought. But that also gives a firm warning not to use this one quote to explain 'Marx on communism as ideal or process' once and for all. Marx elaborates quite a lot over the concept over the years and neither Marxists nor other historians must fall for the 'myth of coherence' over one quote from 1846 to describe Marx' view on the subject matter in total.

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I'll repeat the quote posted by @Tyler Mc

Marx and Engels never speculated on the detailed organization of a future socialist or communist society.

It's an important point because since Marx never proposed a complete system he had nothing to comment upon as the question asked. What is called Marxism most of the times refers to several different system proposed later by other philosophers or leaders often with conflicting opinion, so there is not a single framework anyone agrees upon.

Just to give an idea how much Marxism as it is understood deviated from the original ideas I can point out that in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx spoke against the systems based on a strongly centralised bureaucratic machine. He knew them well because he had to do with the French and the German ones for a big part of his life.

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Marx basically had a philosophy of history and saw various polities such as hunter gatherers, villages, city states, feudalism and industrial capitalism in a progressive line in light of this philosophy.

He took economics as his bedrock motor of change and its the various crises of economics that propelled the change from one kind of polity into another. He called the stage after capitalism, communism and it will be the crises of capitalism into the next stage.

In line with Hegel, he understood the progressive changes in these polities as furthering the emancipation of man. Steven Pinker, who is no communist but a psychologist has argued that on many indicators, human life has increasingly flourished. This is evidence for Marx's thesis.

Marx saw this progression as inevitable. So, yes, he did think communism was achievable. He did not lay out a programme how this might be achieved. When, gor the sake of argument, we consider feudalism lasted in Europe for a thousand years and suppose the next stage, because of increasingly rapid change, would last half that. Then we get a figure of around five hundred years for industrial capitalism. Given that the industrial revolution began in England roughly two hundred and fifty years ago, then we're merely half-way through this period and there's another two hundred and fifty years to go. These are obviously very rough and ready figures. But its really to give a sense of historical perspective to Marx's thesis.

This philosophy of history, which Marx took from Hegel in broad outline, is so identified with Marxism that Fukuyama, an American political scientist, wrote a book on the dissolution of the Soviet Union titled The End of History meaning the end of Marxism.

Personally, I think Marx is correct. I don't see it being 'utopian'. After all, had you told a medieval peasant that people will be able to fly, have fresh water, light at the flick of a switch, instant world-wide communication, he would only snort and say, "what do you take me for? A fool!?"

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  • As if one can't be a psychologist and communist! But Steven Pinker is neither; "cognitive psychology" is very, very different to what is usually understood as "psychology". (And anyway, he's more of a linguist). But this is tangential; the main point is: flourishing mankind does not, in any way, confirms Marx' theory of inevitably changing social formations. We've seen degradation, we've seen societies 'skipping' formations he believed were inevitable, etc... And even if it did line up perfectly, it could have been mere correlation.
    – Zeus
    Feb 9 at 5:32
  • @Zeus: A general trend upwards does not imply that at every moment the the graph is upwards, but only that the trend is upwards. It's quite possible to have major or minor swings downwards but these are counter-acted by major and minor swings upwards; with, on balance, the swings upwards more than counterbalancing the swings downwards. I very much doubt it's just 'correlation' because human beings are intentional beings. Science didn't spread at random but because people saw the advantages. A cognitive psychologist is still a psychologist - my post isn't about how to pigeon-hole Steven Pinker Feb 9 at 7:41
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Communism was not invented by Marx. He just improved it. Marx was a materialist and all of his ideas were realistic. That's why Marx thought communism was reachable.

But there are a lot of complicated technologies needed for that. Look to the Star Trek series. It's reachable, but will take a long time.

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  • If technology had anything to do with socialism, capitalism would have ended a long time ago. We live in a highly technological world already. Economic systems are based on class, not technological development. Feb 13 at 3:13
  • @beginner-biker Capitalism that Marks can see ended a long time ago. Now we speak about universal basic income - not about barracks or reduction of the working day to 8 hours
    – GrimCap
    Feb 13 at 18:40

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