Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
Karl Marx's wordy contribution can essentially be divided into two parts; a critique of capitalism and a prescription for a better society built around common ownership of the means of production.
In terms of the former, Karl Marx condemned capitalists as parasites upon the toil of others. Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie have every possible incentive to extract the maximum level of surplus value from their workers. If they do not, another capitalist rival surely will. The exploitation of the proletariat is thereby an inevitable consequence of capitalism. There is no room whatsoever for capitalism to adopt a more humane system. Social democrats are therefore flawed in their assumption that capitalism can be tamed by state intervention. Equally, democratic socialists are also wrong to believe that a parliamentary route is available for the advancement of socialism because the wealthy will never allow people to vote away their wealth. Marx could hardly be clearer on this point. Only a revolution will lead to a better economic system and a better world. Not only was this necessary, it was inevitable!
To prevent exploitation, a radically different economic system was required. Crucially, the economic base required a complete overhaul. Replacing an economic system based upon private ownership enables the creation of a fairer system in which our natural humanity would flourish and find its rightful expression. The fraternity generated by an equitable distribution of wealth would free us from the environmental destructiveness and rampant consumerism of the capitalist economic system.
These arguments found expression in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ which he co-wrote with Friedrich Engels. Written in the space of just two weeks, it is without doubt the most explosive political document of all time. In the pages of the manifesto, Marx and Engels proclaim that “the history of all hitherto societies is the history of class conflict.” They argued that social class can be distinguished via the means of production (which was both physical and mental). The former is focused upon economic resources whereas the mental means of production refers to how the media serves the interests of the ruling elite. Marx also believed that the impact of capitalism was destructive in that it dissolved those meaningful relationships and sentiments that held society together. Commodification turns that which is solid into pure air, and all that honours the human spirit is corroded by the process of commodification.
As well as offering a critique of capitalism, Marx decrees that the most intractable obstacle towards social progress is that of religion. Spiritual beliefs act as a painkiller for a deep-seated problem within society. In truth, the source of our malaise is the capitalist system itself. Capitalism is a monster we do not control, and religion merely offers a hallucinatory drug for the masses. Religion also serves the interests of the ruling class by thwarting the revolutionary potential of the oppressed.
For a theorist so preoccupied with contradictions, it is ironic to note that there are certain contradictions within Marx’s outlook. Firstly, Marx was from a bourgeois family and there were times when Marx strived to offer the same bourgeois comfort to his own family that he himself experienced. Secondly, Marx certainly admired the dynamism of capitalism. However, perhaps the most prescient criticism of Marx concerns the prediction of a global revolution led by the proletariat. This has patently not occurred despite capitalism facing repeated crisis (ranging from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the 2008 credit crunch). This is arguably one of the main flaws with the whole theory of Marxism. In its predictive sense, it has thus far failed. Moreover, the Marxist response that the working-classes are suffering from false consciousness seems a self-serving one. Indeed, according to Raymond Aron, Marxism itself is the “opium of the intellectuals.”
As with other theorists, it is important to place his work in its historical context. He was writing at a time in which workers toiled in the dark satanic mills, child labour was commonplace and labourers were housed in cramped conditions. He also wrote at a time of rapid social change driven by unregulated market forces, although workers were at least becoming better organised. When we consider the historical background, it is perhaps understandable why Marx offered such a devastating critique of the capitalist economic system. More importantly, Marx may have had the diagnosis right but the prescription wrong. His faith in the transformative power of human nature has been shown as flawed. Communist societies systematically failed to create a new socialist man, and capitalism has been shown to be more appealing than communism (even amongst those with relatively few economic resources). He does however remain a hugely influential theorist and one whose critique of capitalism remains as readable and relevant as ever.