Taiwan, Karl Marx and communism

By Jerome Keating  / 

Thu, May 17, 2018 - Page 8

As Taiwan continues in its democracy, it is natural and fitting that it takes note of the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, coauthor of the Communist Manifesto.

This is important not only because Marx has had a significant impact on today’s world, but also because China, Taiwan’s main regional adversary, claims to be a communist state. All this gives Taiwanese much to ponder.

Taiwan had its own brief flirtations with communism during the Japanese colonial era and the following Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) one-party state period. During each period, it managed to avoid their communistic pitfalls. It later also broke free of the KMT’s one-party state dominance. With such experiences, Taiwan can see more clearly than most.

One lesson learned is how the KMT has changed, and revealed its thirst for power and wealth. During the one-party state period, KMT leaders found it acceptable to “kill 100 Taiwanese to find one Communist.” Now that the same leaders are out of power, they have reversed their position. They would betray Taiwan’s democracy to curry favor with communist China’s one-party state.

A second lesson is how most communist leaders hide behind the facade of proletariat concerns. If Marx could see today’s world, he would turn in his grave.

Marx’s cherished dream of the improvement of all the world’s workers, and a classless and stateless society is gone. In its place are narrow, autocratic regimes, catering to oligarchs and bent on maintaining personal power and wealth.

The evidence is there. In Russia and China, the two largest former and current communist nations, communism is certainly dead.

The Chinese Communist Party could easily — and ironically — change its name to the Chinese Capitalist Party, the Chinese Corporate Party or even the Chinese Corrupt Party without changing its initials, and each name would be recognizable and fitting.

Marxist communism did not die for lack of an ideal; the ideal had merit. It did not die for lack of sacrifice; millions upon millions died in its formative process in both Russia and China. It did not die for lack of effort or lack of preaching; untold energy went into both.

It died because, ideologically, its host nations simply could not find a lasting way to counter the subjective realities of human nature, whether they be greed or the lust for power and control.

A major shortcoming of communism has been, and continues to be, that while it learned to tear down outmoded systems, such as dynastic emperors, czars or corrupt regimes, it has developed nothing better with which to replace them.

In mocking parody, purists of course might be tempted to paraphrase the words of British author and lay theologian Gilbert Chesterton: “Communism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried for a while, found difficult, and given up for something easier and far more lucrative to its leaders.”

That said, many ironic takeaway points are evident. The wealth gap is widening in China and Russia. China has the most billionaires in the world and Russia is not far behind, ranking fifth in nations with the most billionaires.

Further, neither China nor Russia — nor any communist state for that matter — has solved the problem of curbing their “dynastic succession” of greed, power and control. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) can be president for life if he wishes. Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun his fourth term, and at the end of that he would have ruled for 20 years; not including a four-year hiatus when he was prime minister.

Democratic systems, of course, are not perfect, nor have they solved all their social problems, but still with the concept of “one person, one vote,” they are ironically closer to the ideals of a classless society.

Further, if US President Donald Trump were to die tomorrow, the US could easily carry on. Taiwan could say the same about its president, but that would not be true if Xi or Putin were to pass away.

Looking at Marx in retrospect, he did offer many positive positions that still have merit. For example, he supported free public education, progressive income taxes and the abolition of child labor.

He was also most correct in diagnosing the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. About 200 years later, the same struggle remains; only the names have changed.

Capitalism in its current state is not the answer, and although Marx moved it forward, the dialectic remains. Around the world, the salaries of chief executive officers have grown in great disproportion to those of normal workers.

Marx, of course, with only a materialistic view of history could not have foreseen the next century’s developments from the subjective view of psychology and phenomenology. He could not have seen that in human nature, a dialectic also exists between individual needs and communal needs, just as it exists between workers and businessowners in a materialistic world.

In this human dialectic, the perfectibility of humans would always be an ongoing challenge. Certain things cannot be legislated outright once and for all; they can only be qualified. As the US found with the 18th Amendment, the outright prohibition of alcohol failed, so too the communists found a problem in abolishing private property.

This is where Taiwan can be a contributor to world thought in its post-Marxist dialectic. From colonialism and a one-party state, Taiwan has developed a robust economy in its democracy. Taiwanese might complain about the nation’s economy, but Taiwan’s unemployment rate, which is under 4 percent, makes it the envy of most. Similarly its universal health plan covers 97 percent of the population.

Across the Taiwan Strait, despite having the most billionaires in the world, China lags behind Taiwan in so many ways. It even teeters on the brink of collapse as it seeks to resolve issues through extreme micromanagement, which is too often a sign that a one-party regime’s decay has already reached its final stages.

This is what Taiwanese and others need to reflect on as they look to how they can contribute to the world dialectic.

Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.