Walmart: Marxist Icon

Walmart:  Marxist Icon by Peter Burrows 3/21/15

Years ago I took a college course on Marxism.  I wasn’t trying to fire up any anti-capitalistic fervor, I just wanted to learn something about an economic philosophy that ruled so much of the world, or at least was the pretense for ruling so much of the world. Marxism didn’t make much sense then to a twenty-year old, and as I took another look recently, even less sense to a seventy-five-year old.

In brief, Marx thought that capitalism would so skew wealth and income toward the owners of capital that the working class, the proletariat, would eventually break the chains of their “enslavement” and expropriate the means of production, converting it all to public property.  Thus freed from the capitalists’ chains, there would “inevitably” be “an enormous development of the productive forces of human society.” (

Eventually, this would allow the goodness of human nature to prevail, pettiness would disappear and there would be an “inevitable” withering away of the state, which would completely disappear when society lived by the rule: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. ( See  “The Utopian Ideal,” 3/15/13)

This “withering away” might take quite awhile, and in the meantime, society would be governed by “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Marx didn’t intend for this to be the dictatorship OVER the proletariat, as has always been, and always will be, the case in Communist countries.  Marx envisioned democratically elected officials who would be at the service and bidding of common people, the proletariat, not the capitalist exploiters who had ruled the previous society.

Well, there can be quite a slip between cup and lip, and most observers would say the world hasn’t evolved quite the way Marx thought it would.

Or has it?

Some years ago, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States began to thaw, and the two nations entered a period of detente, with all sorts of people-to-people exchanges, smiley faces, bear hugs and whatnot.  I particularly remember watching a show, probably on PBS, in which a group of visiting Russian businessmen, as such they had in those days, was being given a tour through  an American supermarket.

One of the visiting Russians pointed to some cans on a shelf and through his translator asked, “Why are there so many different kinds of beans?”   The tour guide, obviously chosen for abilities other than economic insight, became quite flustered and picked up a can and said something to the effect, “Well, it’s because this kind of bean goes well with that kind.“  Oh, my.

Think about it.  The supermarket owner has a finite amount of shelf space.  To use this space most efficiently, the owner wants to maximize his sales per square foot, or cubic foot, whatever.  Why would the owner put a particular brand of bean on the shelf?  Because people BUY it. If they don’t buy it, it is soon replaced by a different brand.

There are brands of similar, but not identical products, throughout a supermarket.  There may be ten kinds of toothpaste,  twenty kinds of bread, five kinds of frozen pizza, and on and on and on. The modern American supermarket is a cornucopia of wonderful things, things unimaginable to my grandmother.  (It’s rumored that when former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin first walked into an American supermarket, he looked at the vast sea of products and wept.)

To the Russian visitors, it didn’t make sense to have so many different brands when having one, maybe two, was so much more efficient, so much easier to stock.  What the Russians didn’t realize was that the store wasn’t being run for the convenience of the managers.  In competitive markets, stores succeed or fail depending on how well they “convenience” the customers.


If I had been running the tour, I would have put my arm around the Russian and pointed to the nearest lady pushing a shopping cart and said: “See her, comrade? In Russia, you would call her a member of the proletariat. Now, if that proletarian lady doesn’t like the selection in this store, if she doesn’t like the prices, if she doesn’t like how she’s treated, if she doesn’t like the parking, or if she doesn’t like the ladies room she will take her business elsewhere. She will fire us.

“Multiple her by ten thousand and this store will close, we will all be looking for jobs.  The ten thousand customers won’t have a meeting at the soccer stadium and put it to a vote. They won’t have to go to that much trouble. They just won’t come here anymore. They will fire us without lifting a finger.

“You know why they can fire us? Because they are free to shop where they like. We can’t tell them where to shop.  They tell us because THEY run things. Welcome to the dictatorship of the proletariat, comrade.”

The next time you’re at a Walmart, take a look around.  There are thousands of products.  Walmart is constantly bringing in new products, changing prices, doing seasonal displays, putting stuff on sale, and on and on. It’s New Mexico’s and the world’s largest private employer.  They got that way because they bust their butts trying to keep customers happy.

The irony is that neither Cuba nor North Korea, two of the last of the “Peoples’ Republics,”  has a single store like your local Walmart.  If they did, you can bet the proletariat wouldn’t be allowed in.  That store would be for the exclusive use of the ruling class.  Hey, around here you and I are the ruling class. Just ask Walmart.



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