We the People—Part 5 (The People and the Proletariat)
Updated: Jun 13
Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
This series began by observing the absurdities of North Korea’s official website, which claims:
“The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a genuine workers' state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression. The workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals are the true masters of their destiny and are in a unique position to defend their interests.”
We have come full circle.
In the prior post we explored the traditional conservative/Madisonian response to the question of how best to secure the liberties of “the people” in a civil society. In short, James Madison viewed “the people” as various factions and advocated a republic—a form of government in which citizens elect representatives to speak on their behalf—as the best means of securing both peace and liberty. Madison was persuaded that it was futile to seek to remove the causes of factions and instead suggested a republic could mitigate their destructive effects.
Madison wrote, “there are…two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” It should be noted that wherever communism has been tried its leaders have used Madison’s first “method” to bring about the second. From the Soviet Gulag to the Khmer Rouge killing fields to the Vietnamese reeducation camps, communists have went so far as mass genocide to enforce equality in the supposed best interest of “the people.” This should come as no surprise. Madison warned that the second method was “impracticable;” and any political solution that is impracticable must use a certain amount of coercion to attempt enforcement.
Nevertheless, communists have long insisted they speak on behalf of “the people” in enforcing global equality. Whether or not this is so depends entirely on how we’re defining “the people” and who speaks on their behalf. The Communist Manifesto opens with the line, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” of which two classes are specifically identified: the proletariat, which comprise the working class of farmers and low-skilled factory workers, and the bourgeoisie, which are the wealthy who own most of the means of production. As such, communists have made a modest improvement of the oversimplification of defining “the people” as nothing more than a headcount by reducing humanity into an epic class struggle of the haves and the have nots.
Yet this too is far too simple a definition of “the people.” It may be correct to identify tensions between classes as a cause of human upheaval, but it doesn’t follow that is the sole or even primary cause, or that we are capable of mitigating the cause. Communism is dangerous in the same way all “us” vs “them” ideologies are dangerous: it gives us someone to hate—someone to hold responsible for all that’s wrong with the world—all the while absolving us of our own responsibilities.
Nor does it follow that humanity’s highest aspiration is material equality. In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk put the question this way: “Are the radicals right when they say that the perfection of society requires equality? Would civilization, and would the poor, gain from the establishment of equality? What is the relationship between progress and equality?” The Left often takes it for granted that progress is married to equality. To say that one is for equality sounds admirable; but upon further examination it becomes evident equality can only take us so far. Kirk continues:
“Equality Is the death of progress. Throughout history, progress of every sort, cultural and economic, has been produced by the desire of men for inequality. Without the possibility of inequality, a people continue on the dreary level of bare subsistence, like Irish peasants; granted inequality, the small minority of men of ability turn barbarism into civilization. Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. In a densely-population civilized state, it means near-starvation for the poor.”
There’s a dark irony in the sort of centralized control communists call for to benefit “the people.” Those who are weak or underprivileged or impoverished are held up as the poster child of why governmental intervention is necessary. If not for the government, how would this poor lot ever get ahead or avoid exploitation from greedy capitalists? And yet, it is often the government intervention itself that leads to the sort of crony capitalism that harms the very groups they are supposedly designed to benefit.
Former CEO of Hewlett Packard and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina put it best when she observed, “Crony capitalism is alive and well and flourishes under big, powerful government. Because the bigger government gets, the more powerful and complicated it becomes, the more true it also is that only the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected can handle it and the small and the powerless get crushed.”
Government intervention doesn’t absolve the problem of “the people” achieving a sense of material wellbeing. As Thomas Sowell observed in his book Basic Economics, “Too often a false contrast is made between the impersonal marketplace and the compassionate policies of various government programs. But both systems face the same scarcity of resources and both systems make choices within the constraints of that scarcity. The difference is that one system involves each individual making choices for himself or herself, while the other system involves a smaller number of people making choices for millions of others. The mechanisms of the market are impersonal but the choices made by individuals are as personal as choices made anywhere else.” It may be that a small number of government officials have altruistic intentions. But how long could we reasonably expect that to last?
Communism works as an abstract theory; the idea of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” is quite functional and may even be desirable in a family. Most families don’t operate as a democracy, but as a sort of benevolent dictatorship where the parental order has central authority on all the revenues and expenses. The parental order also enforces equality among their dependents. They may even divvy out responsibilities in accordance with their maturity and ability. In return, they care for their dependents’ needs.
I don’t mean that all families function in this way, but that examples of functional families employing this kind of communistic model exists whereas we have no such examples of communist nation-states worth emulating. And that is because what exists in perfection as an abstract theory doesn’t necessarily work in practice in an imperfect world. As we noted in Part 3, conservatism is careful to weigh abstract theories against relevant circumstances. And communism fails that test on at least two levels:
It’s not scalable. What is good for the parts isn’t necessarily good for the whole. What may work in a family setting quickly breaks down when it’s applied to a larger group because the amount of oversight and trust required to keep such a system in check is unattainable. It turns out “the people” don’t exist in some uniform brotherhood of man or as the proletariat whose greatest aspiration is to seize the means of production but as a complex network of factions so that no one person or system can perfectly administer their needs and desires.
It grates against our nature. There’s something alienating about defining your sense of cultural constructs—your sense of being—from some cold, distant, and impersonal central government. Communism is not only impractical, it’s impersonal. “The people” are not interchangeable complex machines, but humans with a profoundly spiritual sense of home no human system could ever hope to replace.
In all fairness, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels never advocated the sort of totalitarian dictatorships communist regimes ultimately produced. Hilariously, they even predicted a withering away of the State under communist rule. Many Marxist today acknowledge the failings and brutality of so many tried communist regimes, but obstinately hold to the idea communism would work just fine if the right people were in charge. But communism’s failure isn’t from lack of trying but from lack of correctly defining “the people” and representing their interests.
Communism is a vast and complex worldview, and I do not mean for this to be an exhaustive critique. Rather, I hope I have demonstrated in this series that the conservative understanding of “the people” and who speaks on their behalf is superior to competing worldviews. And while this might be a good place to end things, there is still one stone I dare not leave unturned for fear it would provide an unbalanced view of what conservatives believe: where does “the individual” fit into all this talk of “the people”? That is the final question we will attempt to answer in the last part of this series.
This article originally appeared in The Millennial Review.