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Human Greed

"Gorbachev Factor"

Marx and Engels, and their Russian followers after them, assumed that the abolition of private ownership and its replacement by public control would put an end to the influence of human instincts and passions on the economic and social life of society. People would somehow free themselves from the inborn characteristics of human behavior. The seventy-four-year-long Communist experiment demonstrated clearly the fallacy of this assumption. The new Communist man failed to shed human characteristics that have developed over thousands of years, including those associated with economic structures based on private ownership. 

The underestimation of the importance of human instincts and passions by Marx and Engels in their vision of the Communist future is especially striking if we consider that both of them were experts in human history and were well aware of the place of human instincts and desires in it. Marx fully used his deep understanding of human nature in elaborating the political economy of capitalism. In particular, he singled out one powerful instinct as a driving force of capitalist accumulation: greed, the passion for accumulation, including the hoarding of gold. Indeed, greed, as an insatiable desire for wealth and gain, is one of the pillars on which his economic theory rests. In his Capital, Marx quotes Christopher Columbus to demonstrate how capitalist accumulation generates base passions and all-consuming desires and, at the same time, is driven by them:


With the possibility of keeping hold of the commodity as exchange-value, or exchange-value as a commodity, the lust for gold awakens. With the extension of commodity circulation, there is an increase in the power of money, that absolutely social form of wealth which is always ready to be used. Gold is a wonderful thing! Its owner is master of all he desires. Gold can even enable souls to enter Paradise. (Columbus, in his letter from Jamaica, 1503).


Marx also turns to the poetic genius of William Shakespeare to convey the power that money has over people and to demonstrate the extent to which it inflames passions and corrupts morals. He brings home the message with the help of a great passage from Timon of Athens (act 4, scene 3):

Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? . . .
Thus much of this, will make black, white; foul, fair,
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.
. . . What this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout mens pillows from below their head;
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee and approbation,
With senators on the bench; this is it,
That makes the wappend widow wed again:
. . . Come damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind.
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