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Marxist Communism for Today's World
By Sherwin Lu
2018-05-05 12:41:54


Today marks the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’ birthday. And this year also sees the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Currently, with the world communist movement in its serious setback after one to two centuries of surge and spread from the capitalist West to the global East and vigorous state-sponsored practices of its theories over half the world, and with the global capitalist system heading fast towards a full exposure of its negative consequences and its historical doom of a final breakdown, Marxist communism is undergoing a fresh rebirth and re-attracting the attention of contemporary younger generations.

To carry forward Marx’s yet-to-be-accomplished noble cause, the world’s believers in communism need to look back into history and draw profound lessons from the inspiring great successes as well as painful failures experienced by the past generations of his followers. 

For this purpose, here are listed some major viewpoints of an article entitled A Critique of Communist Ideology by one of The New Legalist team members. Comments and criticisms are welcome.


I. How to assess Marx’s accomplishments and faults

On one hand, we should confidently reaffirm the reasonable and noble core in Marx’s theories on communist faith, that is, to finally eliminate from the globe any social system allowing class exploitation and oppression. Although all gaps in the distribution of social wealth are not because of class exploitation, which will be defined in later context of this essay, class exploitation has indeed been existing all over the world and almost all the time. Just imagine, if the communist ideal were really a bundle of negatives or even unpardonably vicious, as some people allege, how could it keep a foothold and spread with a bang over half the globe for almost a whole century?

On the other hand, we should also look squarely into the defects and inadequacies of classical theory on communism as revealed in the century-long world-scale practices with shockingly disastrous consequences (as well as world-shocking achievements), make a duty-bound and true-to-fact critical review and revision of it, and be better prepared theoretically for a resurrection of the cause leading to the realization of its core ideal.


In Marx’s time and in the part of the world where he lived, with the industrialization, technicalization, socialization, and commoditization of material production, with unprecedented expansion of social production in scale and unprecedented increase in productivity, with production relations becoming unprecedentedly complex – with all these and, in particular, with capital, especially big capital, dominating labor and the whole society, class exploitation and oppression also became unprecedented in scale, severity, covertness and social harmfulness (as compared with primitive, undisguised personal possession of slaves and serfs). It was Marx who, with life-long efforts starting from dissecting the new historical phenomenon of capital’s domination of social life, revealed the underlying contradictions of the capitalist society as displayed in social relationships centering round the exploitation and oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Many of his insightful ideas have profoundly impacted Western academia, promoted later reforms of Western capitalist system and at the same time helped reveal those structural faults lying deep under the system which are beyond repair through reforms, thus accelerating its disintegrating process. This shows that Marx has basically accomplished the historical mission entrusted to him by his time and deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest thinkers in human history.

Meanwhile, the test of his theories in his followers’ world-scale practice for almost two centuries has also brought to light the faults inherent in the system of his thought. While what is greatest in Marx is his sincere and noble ideal for the emancipation of mankind, his biggest failure lies in the following two aspects closely related to this ideal:

First of all, his productive-force-centrist view of social history or “historical materialism” has doomed his communist idea of “emancipation” to be no more than one in the materialistic sense only or material-centrist. The kind of “class exploitation and oppression” he opposes is also to be understood as economic exploitation, political oppression and spiritual enslavement which all are centered round material interests only and the kind of prospect he looks forward to is the distribution of material wealth “to each according to his needs”. As to such other prospects as “labor becoming the first need in human life”, “all-round development of human individuals”, and contribution “from each according to his ability”, none of these have transcended the materialistic core concern about producing enough material wealth for distribution “to each according to his needs”. By taking man-nature confrontation for granted without a spiritual sense of man-nature unity and harmony, this has actually rationalized humans’ unrestrained desire for acquisition of wealth from nature. That is to say, Marx’s theory on human emancipation, being short of transcending material and economic concerns, lacks a purely spiritual dimension, i.e., lacks concern about humans’ ultimate spiritual wellbeing or the peace of mind to be derived from a transcendental awareness of spiritual unity with all existence, transcendental in the sense of reaching beyond all the perceived differences of the material world, including that between human beings as the conqueror and nature as the final but permanent target to be conquered.

Marx’s above major failure then leads to another one: Due to lack of ultimate spiritual concern, all exploiting classes are regarded only as culprits for and beneficiaries from social injustices, hence only to be eliminated via social revolution as stumbling blocks on the road towards human emancipation, thus being excluded from human beings to be emancipated. In other words, in spite of the spirit of fraternity in the broadest sense as shown in the slogan of “emancipation of all humanity”, his specific doctrine about how to achieve it seems short of that spirit (or distorted by his followers in their interpretation) and presents itself as a doctrine for emancipation of the exploited classes only. This might be the theoretical origin of such extreme ideas and practices of “holding onto class struggle as the key link” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” as seen in former socialist countries.

These failures, however, will not eclipse Marx’s historical status as a great thinker, because the faults in his thoughts were basically dictated by the general ideological environment of his era. On one hand, the unprecedented scale, severity and covertness of capitalistic exploitation and oppression mentioned above engrossed his mind, making it impossible for him to pay attention to the spiritual dimension of human emancipation, including that of exploiters and oppressors from moral degradation. If this can be deemed as an objective practical reason for his remissness, then on the other hand, the Western thought tradition, in which Marx was immersed in and which is typically characterized by mind-matter split, physical-metaphysical discrepancy, and man-nature confrontation, should be the objective ideological root of his theoretical defects.

Marx’s era was not seeing the decline of capitalism -- its inherent contradictions had not been fully revealed yet as was witnessed by another century of world history after that. This dictated that his historical role is more on the side of raising doubt about the existing social system through critical revelations, than exploring the contours of a new system and the way to achieve it. This explains the fact that, as compared with his discriminately meticulous analysis and criticism of immediate reality, his vision and presentation of a communist future and the path leading towards it was somewhat indistinct and in general terms, short of showing any perfectly clear prospect and road map that could guide practice. But this fuzzy roadmap based on a view of the not yet fully revealed reality of the capital West was put into practice by some vanguards in the East, who had an even more obscure view of capitalism that was yet to develop there, in the hope of blazing a new trail leading towards an ideal society that is different from capitalism. No wonder, inevitably, there must be much inadequacy in what they thought and much blindness in what they did. That means that all the mistakes in Chinese (and probably also former Soviet) communists’ theories and practices were not rooted in Marxism, some of which might have nothing to do with Marx. And, as a matter of fact, some of Marx’s followers did obviously distort Marx’s ideas, thus pushing them to extreme or further extreme (e.g., Marx regards capitalists’ management activities as part of productive labor though related to their exploitative activities, but Chinese communists regard them as totally exploitative; and Marx compares religion to opium in a neutral sense, but Lenin and Chinese communists mis-read it as totally negative).


II. Positive and Negative Sides of Dialectical Materialism

Marx’s theories are all founded on “dialectical materialism”. All materialists, dialectical or not, regard the human-perceived world as a purely “objective world independent of human consciousness and observation”. Marx’s materialism, while “dialectically” admitting that “mind” can react on “matter”, insists that, finally speaking, “matter” has a decisive effect on “mind” and therefore is “primary”. This kind of dialectics does not deny that, before being reacted upon by human mind, the material world has primarily exerted decisive effect upon it, i.e., it does not deny the metaphysical belief that regards the “matter” that is independent of “mind” as the ultimate origin of the world.

However, not only have Buddhism and Daoism long since believed but modern theoretical science has also proved that matter is formless and intangible before it is observed. This status of being has been named “chaos” (混沌); and this author calls it “infinite potentialities”. In other words, any result of observation in a visible or tangible form depends on the observing action of a specific agent; which means that it is constrained by the “subjective” conditions of the observing agent and hence not some external existence that is totally “objective”. Therefore, there exists no purely “objective material world” that is independent of human consciousness; the material world that materialists talk about as independent of mind is actually no longer independent of human consciousness. That is to say, what is supposedly perceived but actually “molded” subjectively in a way (化现) by human mental structure is not “purely objective material existence”. Consequently, the materialist view that mistakes it as the ultimate origin of the world is essentially no different from an idealist view. Mind and matter are fundamentally inseparable and indistinguishable; therefore, there is no existential basis for either materialism or idealism.

Based on the above, if we extend the list of observing agents to cover all possibly living things, ranging from life in space beyond our observation (just as we human beings are beyond the “senses” of parasites within our body) to cats and dogs on earth and, further, to life forms as tiny as microorganisms (If the ultimate infiniteness of the world of existence, whether tangible or intangible, is considered, the difference in size between human beings and germs is totally insignificant) , that is, if we regard all living things as observers, it would be easier to understand: The human-perceived world, which includes the very much limited existence of human life, is only one of the infinitely possible varieties of unfolding of “chaos”. That means: the physical world to the “chaos” is a derivative to the origin, the specific to the general, or the particular to the universal. This relationship is described by Buddhists as “conditional emergence out of intangibility” (缘起性空), while this ultimate reality is named as “the Dao” by Daoists.

Hence, what Buddhists and Daoists believe in is the ultimate truth about the universe and human life, which are seemingly tangible but ultimately intangible. From this ultimate truth has been derived by Daoists the principle of ultimate rationality for understanding and handling the human-perceived world, that is, the line of thinking and acting for achieving in a dynamic way comprehensive balance of all existence as a multi-dimensional whole, together with the accompanying spirit of humbleness and tolerance as the topmost moral guidance. In stark contrast to the variety of secular ideologies whose core concern is competition for material interests in disregard of the ultimate truth, the Daoist and Buddhist faith, by taking the universe and life as it is, sweeps away all superstitions and delusions preventing people from seeing the natural world and human society as they are, so that it helps people to develop true wisdom for meeting their spiritual needs and proper material needs as well. All materialist theories lack this kind of ultimate faith and the wisdom of ultimate rationality rooted in it. When the commanding role of such supreme wisdom is absent, all rules of instrumental rationality in materialist and idealist ideologies are doomed to be fragmented, providing guidelines only in mutually isolated areas of thought, leaving the results contradicting each other even when they are somewhat positive while adding to each other’s negative effects, thus inevitably bringing about calamities to mankind. This is where Marxism’s inadequacy and communism’s failure in practice also lies.

Because of the ultimately dualistic nature of the Marxist thought system and in spite of the fact that, by correlating mind and matter in a dialectic way, its philosophy has mechanically mended their dualistic divide in a degree and thus reached the highest possible epistemological height on the physical level, still it fails to transcend the physical world to reach the metaphysical acme and, mistakenly regarding itself as having attained that height, wrongly rejects all discourses on metaphysical faith by generally labeling them as “idealism” and indiscriminately denouncing all religious beliefs as “superstition”. In fact it is contrary to the truth. This author believes that human emancipation is mainly and primarily in the spiritual sense and those thousands-of-years-old religions and nonreligious metaphysical beliefs have been playing a more or less significant and irreplaceable role in the humanity’s long march towards spiritual emancipation.


III. Two tiers of spiritual life

Spiritual emancipation means not being spiritually fettered or deluded, no suffering from spiritual pains or worries but feeling at ease and happy all the time....as far as human capability is concerned, to produce enough necessities for everybody on this planet is not a problem at all today. Why, then, are so many people still suffering from hunger, cold and homelessness, while those who have more than enough are still pursuing more and more material wealth tirelessly or even so relentlessly as to trigger widespread life-and-death violence everywhere, and terror acts, wars and slaughter, and nuclear threats and ecological disasters, all involving loss of innocent lives and destruction of material wealth, not to say a lot of spiritual sufferings?

Finally speaking, it is because, under the indulgent influence of the cultural atmosphere that is typical of the commercial society dominated by big capital, people are universally obsessed with self-satisfaction of all sorts of extravagant material desires in disregard of others’ well-being. 


it is obvious that the liberation of mankind from such an evil system can hardly be achieved by simply overthrowing the political rule of the existing exploiters through armed revolution. The practice of communism in the last century has shown that a simple shift of political power has failed to prevent the power-holding revolutionaries from degenerating into a new exploiting class. Then, “class struggle as the key link” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” became struggle against and dictatorship over old and new proletarian classes by a new-born capitalist class. The new struggles, dictatorship, exploitation and oppression have been even more ferocious, vicious and shameless than the old exploitative and oppressive regime.

This author does not indiscriminately oppose all armed revolutions, because wherever the state mechanism for violent political oppression is in the hands of exploiting classes it is absolutely necessary and unavoidable to overthrow the ruling class by violent means, as usually it has always been those who are reluctant to give up exploitation who are the first to use violence to suppress non-violent opposition from the exploited. However, as has been proved by recent history, the revolution which can finally and completely put an end to the exploitation system should be in the spiritual realm. Although there is always ideological revolution going on during a violent political one, the spiritual revolution which would take root can never be achieved until after long years of society-wide spiritual cultivation under a revolutionary regime backed by the rule of law which follows the Dao of dynamic balances in all social relationships. According to this basic principle of the Dao, spiritual emancipation of mankind lies in their spiritually transcending exclusive materialistic concerns. Spiritual transcendence does not mean a total divorce from material life but means material life should be guided and regulated by the transcending spirit.


A Chinese scholar wrote in his book (孙志海:《自组织的社会进化理论:方法和模型》,中国社会科学出版社, 2004,12-14): "There are two tiers in human’s spiritual life: one related to human’s material life and the other purely spiritual." And "The purely spiritual tier, which has nothing to do with one’s material life, determines on a deeper level one’s view on human life and its meaning and how one thinks about and judges on the society and the life one is living, and, further, determines what kind of emotional life one leads..." This scholar has discovered that "One’s material life would bring about happiness and satisfaction only when it is in harmony with one’s outlook on life and concept of values. Otherwise, it would only cause sufferings.... While many of those who enjoy good food and dressing, luxurious houses, high social status and an unrestrained sexual life would not feel happy or could even end in suicide, so many other people in history have been willing to and did give up material enjoyments or even their lives for what they believed to be a good cause." However, this same scholar went on to point out that social theories existing so far have been exclusively concerned about maintenance of humans’ material life and physical wellness. Unfortunately, as this author finds, it is also the case with Marx’s theory on human emancipation. But the above quoted scholar may have neglected the fact that there HAVE been existing all the time in both the East and the West explorations and researches into humans’ purely spiritual life, their spiritual attainments and practice of spiritual faiths, i.e., explorations and practices of the Supreme Way that transcends a materialistic life-style, such as done by Daoists and Buddhists in the East and Christian theologicians in the West, in spite of varying differences in their degree of transcendence.

If we look more closely into the three kinds of wealth enjoyed by people in their material, sub-spiritual and purely spiritual life, we will find that, while sub-spiritual wealth, such as scientific knowledge and humanistic theories, might be monopolized or rejected by people of rivaling interest groups and, thus, cannot be shared by all human beings, and material wealth, being exhaustible, has been fought for by such rivaling interest groups, only purely spiritual wealth can be shared by all human beings without being “consumed” or exhausted at all. Since present-day humanity is so starved for purely spiritual nourishment, we have no reason to cast away purely spiritual wealth like a pair of worn-out shoes.

Of the whole purely spiritual wealth of morally nourishing qualities, the most precious and urgently needed in today’s world can be generalized as humility, tolerance and balance-seeking mentality.


 Viewed in the light of the above Daoist balance-oriented way of thinking, the two most critical failures in the theory on communism are:

    1. On exploitation: Marx’s theory on exploitation was based on his labor theory of value and on an outlook which views relationships between man and nature, between man and man, including between capital and labor, and many other social relationships as all confrontational, thus serving as the theoretical rationale for ultra-leftist practices. This author holds that the core issue in class exploitation is not exactly the quantitative distribution of social wealth but rather in the balanced or imbalanced (dominating vs. dominated) relations between different classes. If such relations are roughly balanced, then the distribution of social wealth between them would not be too far from a balanced one, i.e., basically without exploitation of one class by another. If capital and labor enjoy equal rights in running businesses (that means their relations are balanced), then any possible discrepancies that are incurred by imbalances between supply and demand in the capital and labor markets should not be regarded as exploitation.

    2. The imbalances in the relationship between the state leadership/administration and those under it have caused many a life-loss tragedies in various local places and damaging impacts on the society. And what is most ironical on the whole is that many members of the proletarian vanguard group who had professed their purpose of helping eliminate the exploitative system have turned out to be the greediest, most corrupted, most shameless, and most vicious members of a newly emerged exploiting class. This shows that the relationship between those who govern (Party and government officials) and those who are being governed but having nominal sovereign rights (the masses of people) constitutes the key dimension in the socialist political and state systems. The fundamental cause for the disintegration of the world socialist movement and the biggest failure in the theories on communism just lie in the negligence and mistreatment of this dimension.



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