Economics/Class Relations

Marxism: Its Historic Role and Intellectual Legacy

By Keith Preston

An Overview of Marxist Theory

During the middle part of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels outlined a comprehensive theory concerning how human societies evolve over time, and the factors that shape the character of particular societies. According to Marxist theory, human history is the history of the rise and fall of different kinds of economic systems, and it is the economic relationships that human beings enter into that determine every other aspect of their society at any particular time. A new economic system emerges when an older system has exceeded its historical purpose. New economic systems (“modes of production”) develop within the context of the system they eventually replace. Feudalism developed out of primitive societies, and capitalism developed out of feudalism. Marx and Engels believed that communism would develop out of the conditions created by capitalism.

The emergence of each new economic system, or mode of production, comes about as a result of conflict. The conditions of the older economic system give rise to the newer one, and the two systems eventually come into conflict with one another with the rising economic forces supplanting the declining ones. However, this conflict is not something that human beings deliberately choose to engage in. Instead, human consciousness and thought is shaped by the material conditions human beings find themselves in. The ideas that dominate the intellectual life of a particular period in history are determined by the existing set of economic relationships, and the dominant mode of production. Marx and Engels believed that culture is an outgrowth of the material forces that shape the economy.

Indeed, every aspect of human social life is an expression of the underlying material conditions. This includes philosophy, art, religion, and ethics. It is the nature of human beings to adopt whatever values are most compatible with their own material and class interests. For example, the “bourgeoisie” by nature considers its economic system (“capitalism”) to be the most virtuous, just, and ethical. The aristocracy whom the bourgeoisie replaced likewise regarded their economic system (“feudalism”) to be the one that was also morally correct. When socialism and communism are achieved, the proletariat will subsequently regard its own economic system to be superior.

The religious beliefs and artifacts of a culture likewise reflect its dominant mode of production and material interests. For example, the earliest cave paintings depict animals on which human beings were dependent for food. The religious beliefs of the earliest human societies were centered on animals or the sun, both of which were central to the economic life of the people who lived during that time. Human beings during that time period created gods for themselves that represented the nature of the agricultural society they lived in, and their dependence on animal life for food, transportation, and many other things.

The dominant mode of production likewise influences the form of government a society produces, and the contents of its laws. Every ruling class, the social class that controls the economy, has its own ideology (“superstructure”) that is used to legitimize its position of dominance and exploitation. The state exists to protect the interests of the ruling class and its economic system. When a new mode of production begins to develop within an existing mode of production, a contradiction emerges. This contradiction manifests itself in the form of class conflict. As the conflict grows, class struggle results in an eventual revolution, and a new mode of production becomes dominant with its own ideological superstructure. A new culture emerges that is shaped by the underlying material forces.

Marx and Engels outlined a theory concerning the relationship of the working class (“proletariat”) to the governments whose rule they live under, and to the national states of which they are citizens and subjects. Marx and Engels boldly stated that “the working men have no country.” The meaning of this statement is not that the workers have no identifiable national or cultural heritage. Marx and Engels certainly recognized that the French were French, Germans were Germans, Italians were Italians, etc. However, they also believed that working people were alienated from their respective ruling classes, states, and national regimes. According to Marxist theory, the state is the executive committee of the ruling class. This means that the state always acts in the interests of the bourgeoisie, or the dominant social class of the epoch (the ones who control the “means of production”). By acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie, the state acts against the interests of the proletariat. Therefore, the entire political apparatus of a particular nation is the enemy of the working class, and it is the role of the working class to overthrow the state as part of the process of overthrowing the class enemy (“the bourgeoisie”).

Marxism teaches that conventional national patriotism is against the interests of the working class, and that the working class should not give assent to the concept of national patriotism. The citizen or resident of a particular country should not seek to fight on behalf of his country, but on behalf of his class. Marxism suggests that true revolutionary consciousness is oriented towards class patriotism rather than national patriotism. However, Marx and Engels are also arguing that it is the proper role of the workers to achieve state power within a political context. This is because the proletariat should strive, in their view, to become the dominant class in society just as the capitalists were when Marx was writing. The state is merely an expression of the class power of the dominant class, and the workers will become the dominant class by seizing class power. Indeed, Marx conceives of the working class as a de facto nation, and one that is at war with the bourgeoisie nation.

A core element of Marxist theory that is also reflected in these passages is the Marxist concept of internationalism. Marx and Engels believe that the workers have no country in part because they consider the working class struggle against capitalism to be international in character. They envision the workers revolution taking place across international boundaries, and not within the context of a single country. They believe this because of the changes that were emerging on a worldwide basis during the nineteenth century era when Marx and Engels were writing. While they were calling for the overthrow of capitalism, they also believed capitalism had been a revolutionary force that had transformed the world. The growth of international trade had broken down barriers between different nationalities in a way that was unprecedented. Commercial relationships between nations were starting to supersede older relationships rooted in the ideal of conquest and glory. The bourgeoisie of each respective nation had displaced the older royal and aristocratic elites. Capitalism had conquered the world and trade had become the basis of international relations. This produced a kind of cultural homogenization that had made conflicts between nations superfluous. However, this had been replaced by class conflict. Socioeconomic divisions and the class struggle had become more significant politically and socially than conflict between other kinds of divisive factors such as nationality, religion, culture, and geography.

The Intellectual Foundations of Marxism

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, 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 Engels circa 1844, provides the most comprehensive description of the Marxist conception of historical materialism to be found in any of the works of Marx. The German Ideology was an attempted rebuttal of the Hegelian-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 thought.” [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 insisted 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 the 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 organized 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. Marxism teaches that “consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” [Ibid., p. 183] and that “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 expounded upon this theme in The Communist Manifesto, an application of their theory to the political upheavals of their era. They began 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 and 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 had become the dominant class of the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie had obtained political power as well. The bourgeoisie had overthrown feudalism and established republican and parliamentary expressions of the state. These states serve as what Lenin would later characterize as “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.”

Corresponding to the rise of the bourgeoisie was 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 created an unprecedented polarization in class relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The workers, or proletarians, became mere slaves to the industrial process lorded over by the bourgeoisie. The workers had no means to life other than through the sale of their labor to the forces of capital. The process of production became mechanized and militarized, thereby alienating the worker from the product of his labor and subjecting the worker to exploitation. The workers organized trade unions and political parties for their own defense and as reflection of class struggle. Class solidarity by the proletariat was considered by Marx and Engels to be the path to victory. As the proletariat emerge as the revolutionary class, some in the bourgeoisie 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 were among the leadership of the Communist movement.

According to Marx and Engels, the Communists emerged as the intellectual and activist vanguard of the proletarian revolution. The Communists were the most militant and radical of the proletarian forces who aimed 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 did the Communists wish to abolish bourgeoisie, or capitalist, property relations. Marx and Engels expended much effort in The Communist Manifesto mocking the hypocrisy of the intellectual apologists for the ruling class who defended the liberal-bourgeoisie condition of things in the name of “freedom” while reducing the proletariat to destitution and wage slavery. They also attacked 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, Marxism holds that the proletariat should replace national patriotism with class patriotism and strive to become the ruling class.

Marx applied his approach to class theory and political economy further in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, an analysis of the events 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 attempted to explain setbacks in the course of a revolutionary struggle that was 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 raised 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. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie does this because its continued existence as a class 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.

The Marxist Interpretation of History and Its Legacy

In two lectures presented fifteen years apart, the British Marxist historiographer Eric Hobsbawm attempted 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 begans 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 regarded 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 sciences 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 among academicians towards a greater focus on social and economic history, and a movement away from the idealist approach to historical interpretation toward 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 Marxist theory, 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 noted 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?

The Historical Context of Marxist Revolutions

Marx believed that the inevitable result of class exploitation would be class conflict that ultimately led to political revolutions. Marx regarded the bourgeoisie revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the rising industrial capitalist classes overthrew the older feudal aristocracies and monarchies as had happened in the American and French Revolution, as prototypes for the socialist and communist revolutions that were to come. Marx predicted that the next wave of revolutions would be socialist and communist revolutions that would overthrow capitalism and create societies based on the principle of collective ownership of the means of production. A central question that arises involves the Marxist view of how economic growth develops.

Marx praised the productive powers of capitalism and recognized that the introduction of capitalism into European societies had the effect of dramatically expanding the general level of production with regards to technological development, wealth creation, and the growth of the middle class. However, Marx believed that the industrial revolution and the capitalist model of production also generated the by-product of a society that was increasingly polarized along class lines. Marx theorized that the capitalist system would reduce the workers to the level of poverty where they would no longer be able to function as consumers in the marketplace, and as wealth was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands the ranks of the poor and working class would grow to the point where capitalism was unable to sustain itself. Marx’s reasoning behind this theory was that capitalism required perpetual growth in order to sustain itself, and with an ever shrinking consumer base of workers that were increasingly unable to afford the basic necessities of life, capitalism would eventually reach the point where it would collapse. The result would be a revolution by the workers that would lead to a communist society.

Marx’s theories have been extraordinarily influential over the past 170 years. Marxist ideology inspired numerous revolutions during the course of the twentieth century. At the peak of the Cold War era, approximately one third of the world’s population was under the rule of Communist regimes and Communist states controlled half of the world’s nations. The historical achievements of these regimes have been widely debated and historic Communist regimes have been widely criticized for their internal repression and their lack of economic efficiency. However, it was also true that the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century occurred largely in societies that were either in a pre-industrial or early stage of their economic and technological development. This contradicted one of the core Marxist theories that communism would first emerge in nations with the highest levels of industrial advancement such as England and the United States. Yet it was also true that many Communist nations, such as the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republic of China, achieved a much greater level of industrial development under communism than what had previously existed under their older political and economic systems. But it has been argued that development in Communist nations was made possible only by the importation of technology and capital from the capitalist countries.

The East-West Division in Historic Marxism

However, it was also true that Marxist movements developed in a different manner in the more advanced industrial societies of the West than they did in the lesser developed societies of the East and in the colonial world. The industrial capitalist societies of the West had already undergone a process of political revolution during the eighteenth and nineteenth century that had introduced the liberal democratic republican model of the kind that had previously been advocated for by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Consequently, Marxist movements in the West tended to place a greater emphasis on democratic governance and political reforms rather than violent revolution and revolutionary dictatorship. Indeed, the political party originally associated with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the German Social Democratic Party, continues to be one of the largest political parties in Germany today.

Marxist historians and political theorists have argued that the worldwide economic collapse that occurred as result of the Great Depression of the 1930s represented the collapse of capitalism that Marx predicted would happen eventually. Indeed, the collapse of capitalism in the 1930s led to a wide range of economic and political changes that were influenced by socialist thinking. Many of the Western industrialized societies developed large Communist parties of their own during this period, and the more moderate social democratic parties became even larger. Many nations began to establish economic policies in the areas of financial regulation, banking, monetary policy, labor relations, and other areas that were intended to prevent a repetition of the previous capitalist excesses that had led to the Great Depression. Likewise, many nations began to implement a social safety net for the protection of the poor and working class that involved such features as old age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability compensation, unionization rights, universal health care, and public education.

Among the most influential changes that were implemented during this time by Western industrial societies were economic reforms that were intended to preserve high rates of unemployment, and to prevent a future economic collapse. Among the more influential economists during this time was John Maynard Keynes, who argued that government could use a proactive fiscal policy for the purpose of stimulating the economy during times of recession in order to generate economic growth and prevent the recurrence of a total economic collapse. Many nations subsequently began developing a Keynesian economic model of this kind, and it could be argued that the Keynesian model was dominant in Western industrial economies until the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s. However, Keynesian economic policies were once again revisited during the late 2000s when the world economy suffered a massive recession, and governments used varying kinds of proactive fiscal policies for the purpose of providing an economic stimulus and prevention the onset of an economic depression.

Whither Marxism?

Over a century and a half, 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 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 significantly altered or compromised in any industrialized nation it has been on the basis of a nationalistic collectivism (Fascism, National Socialism, Peronism, Ba’athism) or reformist 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 came into full fruition in the late twentieth century, threatening the middle class workers of the core with re-proletarianization as the newly emerging proletariat of the periphery 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 insurgents (“terrorist” organizations) are challenging the state’s traditional monopoly on violence. To the degree that the globalization process is being resisted, it is being done as by populist-nationalists or non-state religious militants 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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