Occupy Wall Street: Karl Marx vs Adam Smith

Occupy Wall Street: Karl Marx vs Adam Smith

This was one of the funnier moments I photographed during Occupy May Day events. No words were exchanged, but how they sized each other up was priceless.

"Karl Marx was wrong about Communism, but he was right about Capitalism" is a joke attributed to post-communist Russians who have lived through both the horrors of communism and the anxieties of capitalism. In the recent years, this is becoming a common argument in the West. Recently, the political philosopher John Gray argued this very point in a BBC article.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations wrote that, "Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way". And that, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages". Karl Marx challenged Adam Smith, by illustrating that the capitalistic system was grossly unfair to the worker, and that this will lead to a class struggle and popular revolution. Marx believed that "this conflict was central to the social structure of capitalism and could not be abolished without replacing the system itself". So, who was right, Karl Marx, or Adam Smith?

As history is proving, both were right and both were wrong! The distorted implementations of their ideas and ideals are perfect examples of the Cassandra Paradox. After the fall of the USSR, it was announced that Communism-Marx had lost and Capitalism-Smith had won. Twenty years later, the world is no longer so certain. If you actually read the works of these men, you'll notice that Communism, as it was implemented, was not what Karl Marx had in mind, and similarly, Capitalism, as it stands today, is not what Adam Smith had envisioned. Although these two men are pitted against each other by those who do not take the effort to understand them, we can learn from both. Both men warned against the dangers of unrestrained greed.

Human nature is simultaneously both selfish and compassionate. Pure selfishness can not be the basis of formulations of a healthy society or an individual, nor can pure altruism. There exists a dynamic but ideal point where the conciliation of these two primary human urges will yield the maximum social and individual benefit. Unrestrained greed is a sure path to oppression, chaos, suffering and even popular uprising. Those who justify their greed by pointing to Adam Smith are the ones that truly need to understand what he actually said. And those who defend communism have to remember how quickly it can turn into a totalitarianism.

Political, economical and social ideas are more often than not hijacked by a few for their own interests. They formulate a kitsch based on the good ideas of others to manufacture consent. Karl Marx's views on religion (atheism) has been used to justify capitalist greed to the religious all over the world, despite the fact that greed is incompatible with most religions. Similarly, Adam Smith has been selectively quoted by communists to justify totalitarianism, and by financiers to justify unrestrained capitalism. The ideas of Karl Marx or Adam Smith are not the problem. Those who hijack ideas to corrupt the system and to oppress the people, they are the problem.

More Occupy photos.

Song of the Day: It Must Be Love - Madness (1981)
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