Marx vs. Jefferson


Our political conflict can often be boiled down to the stark differences in how Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson viewed history and their different beliefs about the role of government in crafting the future.

Of all the American founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most strident student of enlightenment thinking and the most avowed individualist.  When he looked at what he had helped craft in the American republic, he saw a nation founded on ordered liberty.  He believed in the strength of an agrarian society of free landholding citizens who were free to engage in individual exercise and whose government’s primary responsibility was to secure their liberties, chief among them the right to individual property.  His view of history was one of tyranny imposed by those abusing the social contract of governance.  He understood that government was necessary to provide for the common defense and establish justice in a society.  Liberty cannot exist without justice.  But he also bemoaned the reality that the power inevitably granted to governments in order to ensure security and provide justice tended to become abused until the focus of government shifts from security or justice and becomes a vessel for the accumulation of more power.  For this reason, Jefferson believed in government that was limited, decentralized, and partitioned in order to make the accumulation of power, and the corruption of the purpose of government, as difficult as possible.  In Jefferson’s view, human ingenuity and virtue existed most purely in the individual exercise of liberty and so his writings and his actions reflected a desire to have government fulfill its fundamental and necessary purposes, to provide order, while not trampling on individual freedom, ensuring liberty.

Of course, Jefferson could not predict the explosion of technological advancements and the shifting human realities that ensued from the industrial revolution.  Across Europe and America, workers abandoned the plow and swarmed to industrial centers.  Cities burgeoned as their populations exploded.  The agrarian society that Jefferson had envisioned disappeared in a single generation. New forms of tyranny came into existence as workers came to rely solely on their wages instead of the worth and products of their individually owned property.  In the midst of all of this change, new political and socio-economic theories arose.  Many began to call for a collectivist approach of social organization where workers could mass together and give themselves the power to counter the interests of those who owned and administered industrial enterprise.  Many began calling this collectivist approach socialism.  Chief among those calling for collectivist organization and labor revolution was German philosopher Karl Marx. 

Karl Marx had a very different view and understanding of history.  He saw tyranny as chiefly originating from those with the means of production, a group he called the bourgeoisie (boo r-zhwah-zee).  He observed that the bourgeoisie exploited those with the means of labor, a group he called the proletariat, by using their labor to create more wealth and success but inordinately sharing that wealth and success with the proletariat.  He felt the only way to correct this situation was for the proletariat to organize in a collectivist regime and seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie.  This new collectivist regime could then engage in a system he termed communism where all the goods, capitol, and services were received “From each according to his ability” and distributed to “each according to his needs”.  Further, Marx believed that not only was this process ideal to solve the inequity he saw in society, he believed it was inevitable.  Marx believed the story of humanity is the story of conflict, chiefly between social groups or classes.  Because of this, he saw the basic and foundational motivations of individuals as fueled by conflict predicated upon the realities of the class those individuals belonged to: poor verses rich, white verses black, male verses female, protestant verses catholic, etc.  If an individual belonged to a privileged group or class, their instinctual motivation would be to maintain their privilege and perpetuate the inequity experienced by the disadvantaged group.   If an individual belonged to the disadvantaged group or class, their instinctual motivation would be to chafe and resist the actions of the privileged group.  This is why Marx saw socialist revolution as inevitable.  He believed the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat could only end with the destruction of one or the perpetual enslavement of the other. 

Marxism is a complicated and multi-faceted approach toward understanding history, sociology, and government.  Many adopt its various tenants while still professing their belief in the basic ideas of Jeffersonian democracy.  Few understand that Jefferson and Marx are fundamentally incompatible on many levels. 

Jefferson understood tyranny as originating from government and the abuse of the social contract whereas Marx saw it as originating from private interests with the means of production.  Jefferson believed that human progress and virtue arose chiefly from individual exercise of liberty whereas Marx believed equity was impossible without a mass collective organization of the disadvantaged classes.  Jefferson believed in crafting government that was limited, decentralized, and partitioned in order to establish order while preserving liberty.  Marx believed in crafting government that was empowered, centralized, and unified in order to effectively channel the will of the collective in receiving and distributing goods, capitol, and services in an equitable manner.  Jefferson’s approach can be modified to account for the new tyranny introduced by industrial mobilization.  Marx’s approach cannot be modified to account for Jeffersonian ideals as it ignores the realities of tyranny resulting from the accumulation of power, it calls for inflaming social conflicts which cannot be resolved in any way that doesn’t attempt to dissolve or destroy the privileged classes, and it lays individual liberty on the altar of collective organization as a fundamental matter of course.

Any democracy which embarks on a socialist regime is laying the foundation for its dissolution.  Marxism is an ideology which seeks its fundamental goals through collectivist organization and a destabilization of society’s existing order of affairs.  It should be the logical conclusion of anyone who has embarked on even a cursory consideration of these different approaches that a governing system whose chief tenant is ordered liberty cannot stand long when a vision is adopted which degrades both order and liberty.

The great dividing realties of our time, and the crippling political conflict which the United States is currently besieged by, is largely the result of those who have for the past hundred years believed egregiously that they can pragmatically apply the aspects of socialism, which they find ideal and beneficial, into a nation whose government follows a Jeffersonian model.  Many in our current political climate talk about “trying socialism” as if the tenants of Marxist teaching have not already been slowly inserted into our national realities over the course of a century.  Our politics are largely centered around a conflict between classes and groups.  Our government exercise has become largely the exercise of a leader who channels the anxieties of whichever group gains power and believes they have grievances to be answered by the power and authority of the wheels of a growing centralized and unchecked authority which redistributes appropriated goods, capitol, and services towards national projects for the “collective good”.  For those who dream of finding a utopian vision of hybrid socialist democracy, they might be horrified to learn that this is it.  Absent the total victory of one interest over another, which Marx saw as inevitable, a government infused with his ideas becomes an overbearing menace which takes turns assaulting whichever interest it finds threatening of the bloc which has gained the power of government control.  Government ceases protecting “Liberty and justice for all” and becomes a tool for the answering of grievances alleged by classes and social groups; liberty and justice for victims, subversion and “just desserts of their privilege” for all others.

Marxism and the various sociological, historical, and political ideas which flow from it were theories which arose to answer a very real and very new development in the history of humanity. Government leaders at the time of the industrial revolution made many mistakes in response to the new tyrannies of the era and allowed Marxism to take root among those left with few alternatives. But, Marxism (and especially the economic and government approaches of socialism and communism) has played out its course and proven to be a failed experiment. Those who claim it was either done wrong or simply needed to be fused with democratic ideals willfully ignore history and the underlying tenants of their ideology which are fundamentally incompatible with “self-evident truths” embraced as part of the successful experiment of Jeffersonian governance.  The only places where socialism maintains a semblance of legitimacy are in countries which have had unusually long histories of collectivist organization already, where it is still substantially watered down, or in impoverished nations susceptible to warlords who can use it as an excuse to forge dictatorships.

It should be troubling to all Americans that a growing number of our fellow citizens are openly calling for increased socialism in government and increased Marxism in how we view our social interactions.  It should be even more troubling that a growing number of our fellow citizens have infused their politics with Marxist ideals while thinking they are opposing it.   I lend my voice to a small number of those who continue to stand athwart history crying “stop!” to anyone who would listen.  I pray anyone who would ponder what I have laid out in this article might join me in saving our republic from ideas and actions, however well-intentioned, that chip away at the foundations of a government which has traditionally protected individual liberty first and foremost.