Buchanan, Obama, and Marx

In a op-ed supplied below, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan is claiming that Obama is a socialist because he is advocating a progressive income tax. He backs up his argument with a quote from the Communist Manifesto: “A progressive or graduated income tax.”

It is true that Marx and Engels advocate in the Communist Manifesto a progressive or graduated income tax. It is a recommendation in a list of ten which includes these that have also been achieved in modern capitalist society:

Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.”

You will note that these ideas – progressive income taxation, public education, and so forth – have been folded into capitalism with no movement towards socialism, which is defined as a social system that involves the redistribution of productive assets from non-producers (capitalists) to producers (workers).

This is because these items are not particularly socialistic. Think about it. Do Americans reject public education because two communists recommend it? Do Americans reject child labor because communists said we should reject it? Shall we return to child labor so as not to be socialist?

Moreover, other items on Marx and Engels’ list are not particularly socialistic:

Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.

Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

All of these are compatible with capitalism and have functioned to preserve capitalism in crisis (and could function to entrench capitalism). State ownership of banking, for example, has been necessary to preserve the financial system attendant to capitalist production.

Just as saying that the progressive income tax is socialist is nonsense, so, too, is the claim that nationalization of banks is socialist. Nader’s claim that we have socialism for the rich while we have capitalism for the poor is thus inaccurate. While it would be true that such nationalization would be socialist in a society based upon a socialist mode of production, in a capitalist mode of production, such nationalization is capitalist.

Some of the other items on Marx and Engels’ list are more arguably socialistic:

Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

If land is publically owned and proceeds from the value of that land are distributed to the public, then this is an example of a socialistic arrangement. The assumption in all these things in the Communist Manifesto is that they concentrated in the hands of and administered by a workers’ state and this really is the key to understanding Marx and Engels’ argument.

Then there is this slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” What should we make of this? Does this follow from Obama’s “spread the wealth around” idea?

The line comes from the Critique of the Gotha Program, which Marx penned in 1875 in response to a document produced by representatives of the contemporary socialist movement. In fact, Marx did not coin the spirit of this phrase. It is found throughout socialist literature going back to the 1840s.

Early variations on the theme of a different model of redistribution are found in the work of Saint Simon, whom we have talked about in this class (he was Comte’s mentor). Saint Simon argued that what citizens receive in wages should reflect the value of their productive output.

Marx assumes that Saint Simon’s formulation is appropriate to socialism, the lower phase of communist society, whereas his statement of principle in the Critique of the Gotha Program concerning distribution based on need is appropriate to the higher phase of communist society.

Here is what Marx writes about “the higher phase of communist society,”

[A]fter the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Marx is talking about the world after the socialist transformation takes humankind to a higher level sufficient to free individuals from particular and necessary labor in order to explore labor efforts in the creative realm, to achieve self-actualization, something capitalism systematically precludes for the majority.

In the early stages of the transformation – what Marx refers to as socialism – “The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.” That is Saint Simon’s formulation. Marx explains further in this passage:

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

Marx sees this as a problem to overcome in the socialist phase. He notes that

these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

To summarize, under communism, once the highest phase has been achieved, citizens redistribute the social product on the basis of need. If a family has ten members, then it will require a larger dwelling, more food, more energy – in short, a larger social provision – compared to smaller families. This is because the need is greater. A solitary man does not need the same provision that a family of ten does, therefore he will receive less (this is the way it was in ancient society).

What will be required from all, if they are able bodied, is to produce the social surplus; but, with that production put to the task of need, technology will be put in the service of freeing citizens from most necessary labor.

Finally, it has always been of particular interest to me, having grown up in the church (my father was a Church of Christ preacher, as was my maternal grandfather), that Marx’s slogan resembles most closely passages found in the New Testament.

In Acts 2:44-45, it is written:

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

In Acts 4:34-35 it is written,

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

These passages are found in the description of the principles and character of the first Christian church, which was a commune in which all members held property in common and distributed the proceeds from that wealth on the basis of need not productive effort. In fact, these passages contain the case of a man and his wife who withheld from the church a portion of the wealth derived from the sale of land and were executed for their crime by church members (clearly, the early Christians were serious about their redistributive scheme).

Christian socialists have argued that Marx’s formulation is a secular version of the Christian principle that lays emphasis on sharing of wealth, indeed of afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted, a principle that finds its expression through the New Testament in the condemnation of concentrated wealth and privilege.

Ironic, isn’t it? What would the author of the op-ed I have supplied below say if we were to note that the slogan upon which he so enthusiastically heaps piles of scorn comes from the gospels he so enthusiastically embraces?

Demagogues have long depended on the failure of adherents to foundational texts to actually study the texts about which they so faithfully adhere.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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