IN 1516, ENGLISH nobleman Sir Thomas More completed his fictional work Utopia. Written in Latin and published in Belgium that year, the book was a brilliant satire containing some intriguing ideas that would ensure its posterity for the next 500 years.
The piece is an imaginary dialogue between More and a traveller returning from newly discovered land Utopia. More, the Lord Chancellor of England, used the story to chastise European high society for its avarice, apathy and injustice, contrasting it with the ideal state.
It was the first major work that explored and articulated the idea of communism – in its purest utopian form. The traveller in the story tells More: “I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organisation of human life, until you abolish private property altogether. So long as it exists, the vast majority of the human race, and the vastly superior part of it, will inevitably go on labouring under a burden of poverty, hardship, and worry.”
More provided his own antidote to the argument: “I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system. There’d always tend to be shortages, because nobody would work hard enough.”
Centuries before communism became a political reality, More had captured its essence and flaws in one little book. To put it in the simplest way, communism concerns itself about fairness in wealth distribution, but it falls short on answering how to raise efficiency in wealth production when you remove the incentive for competition. The contradiction would dominate political debates for 500 years. Various people in Europe and America tried to set up their own utopian communes following the publication of this book. But it was in the hands of Karl Marx during the 19th century that communism developed into a full-blown political theory. The collaboration between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels culminated in the formidable work, Das Kapital.
Today many people react strongly whenever Marx’s name is mentioned, but few have actually read his work. Marx was an original and insightful thinker who showed an impressive command of philosophical thinking and was thorough in his research. Marx spent most of his time combing through British parliamentary and statistical reports in the reading room of the British Museum. Few could accuse him of being sloppy.
Despite his obvious talent, he did have a propensity for making sweeping and hasty pronouncements. At times, he even showed a tendency towards utopianism, which he scorned in others. Marx was also a polemicist who refused to compromise. For all his brilliant critiques of capitalism, he never addressed the question of what political and legal institutions should be formed after the proletariat revolution. He did not explain how to protect individual liberty in face of an omnipresent centralised power.
Anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin, provided the sharpest critique of Marx’s work. Bakunin questioned how a centralised economic power could exist without political coercion. When Marx claimed that only a proletariat dictatorship could bring people freedom, the Russian replied: “A dictatorship can have no other aim than to perpetuate itself, and that it can engender nothing but slavery in the people subjected to it. Freedom can be created only by freedom, that is by a rising of the whole people and by the free organisation of the working masses from below.”
Marx’s idea was further radicalised by Vladimir Lenin. Following the Russian Red October revolution 99 years ago, communism quickly spread across the world. For a while it did look like this is going to be the future of mankind. But as Bakunin predicted, absolute power only bred corruption and stagnation.
Today, only four countries nominally still practise communism and three of them are in Asia. Incidentally, all three share the same cultural roots. So, is Marx still relevant today?
Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet world, it looked like Marxism and communism were destined for the dustbin of history. In his book The End of History and The Last Man published in 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared not only the death of Marxism but the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. In its elegant balance of liberty and equality, mankind seems to have found the key to eternal happiness. Only boredom with peace and prosperity could threaten the brilliant future of liberal democracy, Fukuyama claimed.
The following 24 years were anything but boring. The rosy outlook of liberal democracy started to fade after a golden decade. While the world economy had been expanding at an enviable speed, growth was lopsided. Wealth is now increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 1 per cent. The financial crisis in 2008 triggered a worldwide backlash against liberal economies. Many realised that a free market is only free for elites.
This has been a year of the rise of populist movements around the world and the trend will continue in 2017. History, it seems, is on the march again. This wave of populism can no longer be defined in the traditional ideological sense of right, left or centre. It is a rebellion against the establishment and political norms. Its candidates deliberately attack political correctness and sometimes resort to crude language to do so in order to differentiate themselves against the intransigent elite.
As a political theorist, Marx has perhaps reached his historical limits. His work, for all its brilliant insights, is a product of the Industrial Age. Yet, Marx is still relevant today as a moralist thinker, though he would have hated to be called a moralist. He thought he had uncovered the “scientific truth of history,” which would move forward regardless of the petty moral standards of society. Ironically, he discovered nothing of that sort, but his value as a moralist may outlive his theory.
Born into a rich German-Jewish family and married to a prominent Prussian aristocrat, Marx could have led a comfortable gentleman’s life and picked up a respectable position at a university or in the government. Instead, he railed against the injustice and cruelty he saw in the early days of capitalism and chose to be a champion for the underdogs. Marx spent his life looking for a solution to address the question of fair distribution of wealth. One of his fiercest critics, Karl Popper, rejected his formula but nevertheless paid tribute to the moral basis of his philosophy. Marx’s “burning protest against these crimes,” Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies, “will secure him forever a place among the liberators of mankind.”
Thinkers like More and Marx come from an elite class, but their intellectual agitation is based on a moral concern for the poor. With the world in its current turmoil, we need more thinkers like them. ■
Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations