A Dissection of Classical Marxism

by Keith Preston

Three important works by Karl Marx, written early in his career as a revolutionary theorist, contain the core ideas that would provide the foundation of the vast intellectual system later to be identified with his name. Among these are his conceptions of historical materialism, class theory, the nature of political economy and the historical function of revolutionary struggles as they emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. The later works of Marx (most famously Das Kapital) can be regarded as the accumulation of sophisticated embellishments of these principal theses. 


          The first of these works, The German Ideology, produced in collaboration with Friedrich Engels circa 1844, provides the most comprehensive description of the Marxist notion of historical materialism to be found in any of the works of Marx. Written as an attempted rebuttal of the Hegel-influenced Idealist philosophical outlook to be found in German intellectual circles at the time, attacking in particular the views of Bruno Bauer, “Max Stirner” (Johann Caspar Schmidt) and Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach. The thesis of this work can be summarized quite well with the authors’ statement: “Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts.” [Karl Marx, “The German Ideology”, in Karl Marx: selected writings, ed. David McLellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 reprint, p.176] Arguing against the view that ideas are the guiding force of history, Marx and Engels insist that ideas are themselves the product of material conditions found within the context of a given historical epoch. The material conditions of existence are expressed in a particular “mode of production”, i.e., the methodology by which human animals produce their actual subsistence. The mode of production determines not only the relationship between nations but also the domestic social structure of any given nation. The division of labor that is a corollary to a specific mode of production has the effect of grouping individual laborers into specific class categories with these classes in turn having a specific relationship to one another. [Ibid., p. 176]


          Human history subsequently unfolds through paradigmatic shifts in mode of production. These shifts can be identified in particular stages. The first of these, “tribal ownership“, involves a limited division of labor and is organize around the extended family, with the primary productive activities including hunting, fishing, the raising of livestock and primitive farming. The second stage includes the emergence of the State and the grouping of tribes into a system of communal ownership of property organized on the basis of the citizen/slave distinction. At this point, the institution of private property is

more clearly delineated. The division of labor grows wider, greater distinctions between economic groupings on a geographical or functional basis can be observed, and a more rigid class structure emerges. The third stage is represented by feudalism. This mode of production extends over a wider geographical area. Feudalism reverses the relationship of city and country found in the second stage and the “directly producing class” shifts from the slaves to peasant serfs. Co-existing with the feudal manors are the small property holders organized into guilds. Out of feudalism there emerges a fourth stage and a new mode of production: capitalism.[Ibid., p. 179]


          The relevance of this unfolding process to human intellectual life is reflected in the claim that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force“. [Ibid., p. 192] Human intellectual life is shaped by the material conditions in which it occurs, and these conditions are not something the individual chooses but are the product of external social forces beyond his/her control. “Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. ” [Ibid., p. 183]”Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of the ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.[Ibid., p.183]


          Marx and Engels further expound upon this theme in The Communist Manifesto, an application of their theory to the political upheavals of their era. They begin with the bold assertion that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. [Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, in Karl Marx: selected writings, ed. David McLellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.246] The historical evolution of nineteenth century capitalism is summarized. Capitalism grew out of the medieval towns. The rise of the market economy and ever-expanding byways of trade commerce came to eventually challenge the static feudal economy. Technological innovations allowed for a shift away from small-scale production towards the advent of modern industry. This development brought with it a newly emerging class, “the industrial middle class, by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois. [Ibid., p. 247] As the bourgeois has become the dominant class of the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie has obtained political power as well. The bourgeoisie has overthrown feudalism and established republican and parliamentary expressions of the state. These states serve as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.


          Corresponding to the rise of the bourgeoisie has been the rise of urbanization, the centralization of wealth and property (“the means of production‘) and the proletarianization of the peasantry and the small property holder. This has created an unprecedented polarization in class relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The workers, or proletarians, have become mere slaves to the industrial process lorded over by the bourgeoisie. The workers have no means to life other than through the sale of their labor to the forces of capital. The process of production has become mechanized and militarized, thereby alienating the worker from the product of his labor and subjecting the worker to exploitation. The workers have organized trade unions and political parties for their own defense and the class struggle is underway. Class solidarity by the proletariat is the path to victory. As the proletariat emerges as the revolutionary class, some in the bourgeoisie have joined their ranks including “a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending

 theoretically the historical movement as a whole.[Ibid. p.248-253] This latter statement is likely a reference to the middle-class intellectuals, including Marx and Engels themselves, who are among the leadership of the Communist movement.


          The Communists emerge as the intellectual and activist vanguard of the proletarian revolution. The Communists are the most militant and radical of the proletarian forces who aim to build an international revolutionary movement among the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie on a world scale. Just as the French Revolution abolished feudal property relations, so do the Communists wish to abolish bourgeoisie, or capitalist, property relations. Marx and Engels expend much effort in the pamphlet mocking the hypocrisy of the intellectual apologists for the ruling class who defend the present condition of things in the name of “freedom” while reducing the proletariat to destitution and wage slavery. They also attack the subordinate position of women and the exploitation of female labor, child labor, the unavailability of education for the working class, and argue against national patriotism on the part of the working class: “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.“[Ibid., pp.255-260] In other words, the proletariat should replace national patriotism with class patriotism and strive to become the ruling class.


          Marx applies his approach to class theory and political economy further in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, an analysis of the event surrounding the seizure of the French state by the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1851. He begins with an explanation of how those engaged in contemporary struggles mythologize the past as a means of interpreting the present: “Similarly, at a another stage of development a century earlier, Cromwell and the English people had borrowed speech, passions and illusions from the Old Testament for their bourgeois revolution. When the real aim had been achieved, when the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.“[Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in Karl Marx: selected writings, ed. David McLellan; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.330-331]


          Marx likewise attempts to explain setbacks in the course of an revolutionary struggle that is alleged to be inevitable and ordained by history. While bourgeois revolutions “storm swiftly from success to success;….proletarian revolutions….criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again,” [Ibid., p. 332] Marx raises the question of why the bourgeoisie would welcome a coup against the parliamentary regime by Louis Bonaparte if the parliament itself is the political expression of the bourgeoisie as a class. The bourgeoisie does this because its continued existence is more safely guaranteed if it relinquishes self-rule in favor of rule by an autocrat. Consequently, the bourgeoisie supports the repression of its parliament, “its politicians and its literati, its platform and its press, in order that it might then be able to pursue its private affairs with full confidence in the protection of a strong and unrestricted government. It declared unequivocally that it longed to get rid of its own political rule in order to get rid of the troubles and dangers of ruling.” [Ibid., pp. 335-336] As the politicians and literati are only part of the ideological superstructure of the bourgeoisie, these can be jettisoned without damaging the material base of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, this material basis can be strengthened if an autocrat removes political obstacles to the advancement of trade and commerce and represses proletarian insurgencies. Marx’s analysis of the coup carried out by Louis Bonaparte is remarkably similar to the interpretation later Marxist theoreticians would give to the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century.


          In two lectures presented fifteen years apart, the British Marxist historiographer Eric Hobsbawm attempts to assess the relevant contributions of Marx to the broader study of history. [Eric Hobsbawm, On History, ed. Eric Hobsbawm, “What do Historian Owe to Karl Marx?” and “Marx and History”; New York: New Press, 1997, pp. 141-170]  Hobsbawn begins with an effort to differentiate the actual  thought of Marx from the tendency toward the vulgarization his work (and the tendency of this approach toward crude reductionism) by subsets of later Marxists theoreticians. Hobsbawm regards the principal contribution of Marx to historical studies and the social sciences as derivative of his notion of “base and superstructure”, noting that, conceptually speaking, one need not adhere with particular rigidity to Marx’s application of this idea to recognize its value, further acknowledging that many non-Marxist historians do just that. Marxism also differs from its rivals in the social science in its efforts to explain the process of social evolution. [Ibid., pp. 157-149]


           Marxist influence is also credited with the decline of emphasis on political, religious and national histories towards a greater focus on social and economic history and a movement away from the idealist approach to historical interpretation towards a more materialist orientation, or at least one giving greater attention to the role of social forces. Likewise, the impact of Marxism has been to orient, at least implicitly, many historians towards a more teleological view of historical evolution. [Ibid., p. 143] Indeed, Hobsbawm states his own “conviction that Marx’s approach is still the only one which enables us to explain the entire span of human history, and forms the most fruitful starting-point for modern discussion.” (Ibid., p. 155).


          This last notion seems problematical. First, the question arises as to whether is it necessary, or even possible, “to explain the entire span of human history” and whether or not the Marxist position has actually done so. Hobsbawm concedes this difficulty, quoting Weber: “That the very Reformation is ascribed to an economic cause, that the length of the Thirty Years War was due to economic causes, the Crusades to feudal land-hunger, the evolution of the family to economic causes, and that Descartes’ view of animals as machines can be brought into relation with the growth of the Manufacturing system.” [Ibid, p. 147]


          More difficulties arise from Hobsbawm’s interpretation of the Marxist theory of the state:” The state will normally legitimate the social order by controlling the class conflict within a stable framework of institutions and values, ostensibly standing above and outside them (the remote king as ‘fountain of justice’), and in doing so perpetrate a society which would otherwise be driven asunder by its internal tensions.” [Ibid, p. 154]

But is this theory of the state Marxist in nature? Is not the state, according to Marx, the mere “executive committee” of the ruling class? And are not a “stable framework of institutions and values” mere chimera derived from an ideological superstructure whose function is to legitimize class rule? It would appear that the theory of the state as “standing above and outside” class conflict and the ideological superstructure of those controlling the means of production is more Hobbesian (or, in more recent terms, Schmittian) than Marxist.


          Hobsbawm also notes the irony involved in the impact of Marx on historians, given that Marx himself wrote very little on history itself. Marx developed a theory of history, i.e., historical materialism, but was not a historian as such. Hobsbawm observes that the “bulk of Marx’s historical work is thus integrated into his theoretical and political writings.” [Ibid., p. 158] That some major theoretical problems, even outright errors, can be found in Marx’s work is a point conceded by Hobsbawm, noting, for instance, the failure of those societies Marx labeled as “Asiatic” to evolve along the economic lines Marxist theory would predict, a fact that Marx himself acknowledged. [Ibid., p. 164}Does this failure not reduce the Marxist interpretation of economic evolution to a particularist one? Does this not explode the notion of the historical predestination of the proletariat towards inevitable, ultimate victory? 


          More than one hundred fifty years after Marx produced these writings, the classical Marxist ideal  of proletarian supremacy has yet to come into being. Instead, the industrial proletariat has been assimilated into the institutional framework of liberal-capitalism and parliamentary democracy with worker organizations like trade unions becoming part of the status quo. The historic working class has been elevated to the status of a de facto middle class and stratified and fragmented by a myriad of sectional interests. Furthermore, the Marxist derision of particularistic attachments like religion, family, nationality, culture, ethnicity and language has proved untenable. Indeed, these kinds of attachments have been most evident among the historic proletariat whom Marxists claim to champion. At the onset of the First World War, the working classes of Europe rallied behind their respective national regimes in opposition to the working classes of other nations. 


          Marxist-influenced revolutions in Asian, African and Latin American countries whose economies were still primarily in an agricultural stage have merely replaced their indigenous autocracies, oligarchies and aristocracies with new ones organized on the basis of ideological concepts imported from Europe. To the degree that capitalism has been severely altered or compromised in any industrialized nation it has been on the basis of a nationalistic collectivism (Fascism, National Socialism, Peronism, Ba’athism) or corporatist social-democracy (U.S. corporate liberalism and the welfare states of Western Europe) rather than proletarian socialism.


           Marx did accurately predict the eventual globalization of capital and the breaking down of traditional national and cultural boundaries by this process. This is a process that is only now taking place and threatens the middle class workers of the developed world with re-proletarianization as the newly emerging proletariat of the Third World becomes more readily exploitable by international capital.   Traditional nation-states are also in the process of breaking down but this hardly the “withering away of the state” predicted by Marx. Rather, nations are combining into multinational federations, ethno-separatist breakaway states are demanding autonomy, non-state entities (transnational corporations and financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and international bodies like the United Nations) are assuming more responsibilities and non-state militaries are challenging the state’s traditional monopoly on violence. To the degree that the globalization process is being resisted, it is being done by populist-nationalists (like Hugo Chavez) or non-state religious militants (like Osama bin Laden) who appeal to the very particularist sentiments that Marxists vociferously reject. It would appear that the historical legacy of Marxism will be similar that of other interesting, occasionally correct, but severely flawed systems of thought (like Platonism or Calvinism) that have achieved great influence for a time and then declined.









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2 replies »

  1. I find it interesting that Marx’s statement “the working men have no country” turned out to be precisely backwards. While nationalist/nativist sentiments prevail mostly among the working class, this exactly describes the “New Class”, a deracinated group of bureaucratic and corporate elites. The Slate article you’ve linked to on the end of America describes “the emergence of a transnational class of biologically enhanced supermen and women (‘They’re all about 6-2—and that’s the girls,’ Schwartz says) who identify more with one another than with any particular nation.” I think they’d be more like the Alphas of Huxley’s “Brave New World” than Nietzschean Overmen.

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