Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); Spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 2)

Rise of socialist ideas (up to Marx); Spread of Marxian Socialism (Part 2)

Marxian socialism

In contrast to Utopian

  • Despite their imagination and dedication to the cause of the workers, none of the early socialists met with the full approval of Karl Marx, who is unquestionably the most important theorist of socialism. In fact, Marx and his longtime friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels were largely responsible for attaching the label “utopian,” which they intended to be derogatory, to Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, whose “fantastic pictures of future society” they contrasted to their own “scientific” approach to socialism.
  • While utopian socialists believed it was possible to work within or reform capitalist society, Marx confronted the question of the economic and political power of the capitalist class, expressed in their ownership of the means of producing wealth (factories, banks, commerce – in a word, ‘Capital’).
  • The path to socialism proceeds not through the establishment of model communities that set examples of harmonious cooperation to the world, according to Marx and Engels, but through the clash of social classes. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” they proclaimed in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. A scientific understanding of history shows that these struggles will culminate in the triumph of the working class and the establishment of socialism.

Influence on Marx Theory

  • According to Engels, the basic elements of Marx’s theory are to be found in German philosophy, French socialism, and British economics. Of these, German philosophy was surely the formative influence on Marx’s thinking.
  • Born in Trier in the German Rhineland, Marx was a philosophy student at the University of Berlin when the idealism of G.W.F. Hegel dominated German philosophy. Hegel maintained that history is the story of the unfolding or realization of “spirit”—a process that requires struggle, agony, and the overcoming of obstacles to the attainment of self-knowledge. Individuals and even nations are characters in a drama that proceeds through the clash of opposing ideas and interests to a greater self-awareness and appreciation of freedom. Slavery, for example, was long taken for granted as a natural and acceptable practice, but the slave’s struggle to be recognized as a person was bringing an end to slavery as master and slave came to recognize their common humanity—and thus to liberate themselves, and spirit, from a false sense of the master’s superiority.

Marxist Philosophy

  • Like Hegel, Marx understood history as the story of human labour and struggle. However, whereas for Hegel history was the story of spirit’s self-realization through human conflict, for Marx it was the story of struggles between classes over material or economic interests and resources. In place of Hegel’s philosophical idealism, in other words, Marx developed a materialist or economic theory of history. Before people can do anything else, he held, they must first produce what they need to survive, which is to say that they are subject to necessity. Freedom for Marx is largely a matter of overcoming necessity. Necessity compels people to labour so that they may survive, and only those who are free from this compulsion will be free to develop their talents and potential. This is why, throughout history, freedom has usually been restricted to members of the ruling class, who use their control of the land and other means of production to exploit the labour of the poor and subservient. The masters in slaveholding societies, the landowning aristocracy in feudal times, and the bourgeoisie who control the wealth in capitalist societies have all enjoyed various degrees of freedom, but they have done so at the expense of the slaves, serfs, and industrial workers, or proletarians, who have provided the necessary labour.
  • For Marx, capitalism is both a progressive force in history and an exploitative system that alienates capitalists and workers alike from their true humanity. It is progressive because it has made possible the industrial transformation of the world, thereby unleashing the productive power to free everyone from necessity. Yet it is exploitative in that capitalism condemns the proletarians, who own nothing but their labour power, to lives of grinding labour while enabling the capitalists to reap the profits. This is a volatile situation, according to Marx, and its inevitable result will be a war that will end all class divisions. Under the pressure of depressions, recessions, and competition for jobs, the workers will become conscious that they form a class, the proletariat, that is oppressed and exploited by their class enemy, the bourgeoisie. Armed with this awareness, they will overthrow the bourgeoisie in a series of spontaneous uprisings, seizing control of factories, mines, railroads, and other means of production, until they have gained control of the government and converted it into a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
  • Under socialism or communism—Marx and Engels drew no clear distinction between the two—government itself will eventually wither away as people gradually lose the selfish attitudes inculcated by private ownership of the means of production. Freed from necessity and exploitation, people will finally live in a true community that gives “each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions.” Marx and Engels wrote, “The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property.”
  • Marx maintained that the revolution by which socialism would be achieved was ordained by the logic of capitalism itself, as the capitalists’ competition for profits led them to create their own “grave diggers” in the proletariat. Even the role of the revolutionary, such as Marx, was confined to that of “midwife,” for revolutionaries could do no more than speed along the inevitable revolution and ease its birth.
  • This, at least, was Marx’s more or less “official” doctrine. In his writings and political activities, however, he added several qualifications. He acknowledged, for example, that socialism might supplant capitalism peacefully in England, the United States, and other countries where the proletariat was gaining the franchise; he also said that it might be possible for a semifeudal country such as Russia to become socialist without first passing through capitalist industrialism.

Works of Marx

  • Marx and Engels developed a body of ideas which they called scientific socialism, more commonly called Marxism. Marxism comprised a theory of history (Historical Materialism) as well as a political, economic and philosophical theory. His philosophy of “Scientific Socialism” is developed in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (written in 1848 just days before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848), the Critique of political economy and the Das Kapital (Considered as Bible of Socialism).

The Communist Manifesto

  • The first section of the Manifesto, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, elucidates the materialist conception of history, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. It surveyed that history from the age of feudalism down to 19th-century capitalism, which was destined, they declared, to be overthrown and replaced by a workers’ society.”
  • The Communist Manifesto  (1848; “Manifesto of the Communist Party”), pamphlet written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to serve as the platform of the Communist League. It became one of the principal programmatic statements of the European socialist and communist parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • “Proletarians and Communists”, the second section, starts by stating the relationship of conscious communists to the rest of the working class. The communists’ party will not oppose other working-class parties, but unlike them, it will express the general will and defend the common interests of the world’s proletariat as a whole, independent of all nationalities. The section ends by outlining a set of short-term demands— also known as the ten planks:
  1. Abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communications and transportation in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state, the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to labor.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries, gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of population over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production
  • The third section, “Socialist and Communist Literature”, distinguishes communism from other socialist doctrines prevalent at the time.
  • The Manifesto opens with the dramatic words “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism” and ends by stating, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite.”

Historical Materialism

  • Marx’s theory, which he called “historical materialism” or the “materialist conception of history” is based on Hegel’s claim that history occurs through a dialectic, or clash, of opposing forces.
  • Marx’s analysis of history is based on his distinction between the means of production, literally those things, like land and natural resources, and technology, that are necessary for the production of material goods, and the social relations of production, in other words, the social relationships people enter into as they acquire and use the means of production. Together these comprise the mode of production; Marx observed that within any given society the mode of production changes, and that European societies had progressed from a feudal mode of production to a capitalist mode of production.
  • Marx considered socio-economic conflicts as the driving force of human history. He designates human history as encompassing four stages of development in relations of production.
  1. Primitive Communism: as in co-operative tribal societies.
  2. Slave Society: a development of tribal to city-state; aristocracy is born.
  3. Feudalism: aristocrats are the ruling class; merchants evolve into capitalists.
  4. Capitalism: capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat.
  • Marx considered the capitalist class to be the most revolutionary in history, because it constantly revolutionized the means of production. In general, Marx believed that the means of production change more rapidly than the relations of production. For Marx this mismatch is a major source of social disruption and conflict.
  • Under capitalism people sell their labor-power when they accept compensation in return for whatever work they do in a given period of time. In return for selling their labor power they receive money, which allows them to survive. Those who must sell their labor power to live are “proletarians.” The person who buys the labor power, generally someone who does own the land and technology to produce, is a “capitalist” or “bourgeois.”
  • Marx, however, believed that capitalism was prone to periodic crises. He suggested that over time, capitalists would invest more and more in new technologies, and less and less in labor. Since Marx believed that surplus value appropriated from labor is the source of profits, he concluded that the rate of profit would fall even as the economy grew. When the rate of profit falls below a certain point, the result would be a recession or depression in which certain sectors of the economy would collapse. During such a crisis the price of labor would also fall, and eventually make possible the investment in new technologies and the growth of new sectors of the economy.
  • Marx believed that this cycle of growth, collapse, and growth would be punctuated by increasingly severe crises. Moreover, he believed that the long-term consequence of this process was necessarily the empowerment of the capitalist class and the impoverishment of the proletariat.
  • Marx thought that peaceful negotiation of this problem was impracticable, and that a massive, well-organized and violent revolution was required. Finally, he theorized that to maintain the socialist system, a proletarian dictatorship must be established and maintained.
  • Hence, in his analysis of the movement of history, Marx predicted the breakdown of capitalism, and the establishment in time of a communist society in which class-based human conflict would be overcome. The means of production would be held in the common ownership and used for the common good.

Das Kapital

  • Das Kapital, (3 vol., 1867, 1885, 1894) one of the major works of Karl Marx (1818–83), in which he expounded his theory of the capitalist system, its dynamism, and its tendencies toward self-destruction. He described his purpose as to lay bare “the economic law of motion of modern society.”  The second and third volumes were published posthumously, edited by his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95).
  • Much of Das Kapital spells out Marx’s concept of the “surplus value” of labour and its consequences for capitalism. According to Marx, it was not the pressure of population that drove wages to the subsistence level but rather the existence of a large army of unemployed, which he blamed on the capitalists. He maintained that within the capitalist system, labour was a mere commodity that could gain only subsistence wages. Capitalists, however, could force workers to spend more time on the job than was necessary to earn their subsistence and then appropriate the excess product, or surplus value, created by the workers.
  • Because all profit results from an “exploitation of labour,” the rate of profit—the amount per unit of total capital outlay—depends largely on the number of workers employed. Because machines cannot be “exploited,” they cannot contribute to total profits, though they help labour produce more useful products.
  • However, as outlay for machinery grows in relation to outlay for wages, profit declines in relation to total capital outlay. Thus, for each additional capital outlay, the capitalist will receive less and less return and can attempt to postpone his bankruptcy only by applying pressure on the workers. Ultimately, according to Das Kapital, the “capitalist class becomes unfit to rule, because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery.” Consequently, the capitalist system collapses, and the working class inherits economic and political power.

Criticisms of Marxism

Socialist critiques

  • Democratic socialists and social democrats reject the idea that socialism can be accomplished only through extra-legal class conflict and a proletarian revolution.
  • The relationship between Marx and other socialist thinkers and organizations, rooted in Marxism’s “scientific” and anti-utopian socialism, among other factors, has divided Marxists from other socialists since Marx’s life.
  • After Marx’s death, and with the emergence of Marxism, there have additionally been dissensions within Marxism itself- the splitting of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks a notable example.

Anarchist and libertarian critiques

  • Anarchism has had a strained relationship with Marxism since Marx’s life. Anarchists and libertarian socialists reject the need for a transitory state phase, claiming that socialism can only be established through decentralized, non-coercive organization.
  • Individualist anarchists, who are often neither socialists nor capitalists, reject Marxism as a statist ideology. Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin criticized Marx for his authoritarian bent. The phrase “barracks socialism” became a shorthand for this critique, evoking the image of citizens’ lives being as regimented as the lives of conscripts in a barracks.

Economic critiques

  • Critics of marxist have argued that in any society where everyone holds equal wealth there can be no material incentive to work, because one does not receive rewards for a work well done. They further argue that incentives increase productivity for all people and that the loss of those effects would lead to stagnation.
  • His conclusion that aggregate price and profit are determined by, and equal to, aggregate value and surplus value no longer holds true. This result calls into question his theory that the exploitation of workers is the sole source of profit.

Other criticism:

  • The Marxist stages of history, class analysis, and theory of social evolution have been criticised. Many said that “class” was not a homogenous entity and could never mount a revolution. Marx himself admitted that his theory could not explain the internal development of the “Asiatic” social system, where much of the world’s population lived for thousands of years.
  • Many of Marx’s predictions have failed. Marx predicted that wages would tend to depreciate and that capitalist economies would suffer worsening economic crises leading to the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. The socialist revolution would occur first in the most advanced capitalist nations and once collective ownership had been established then all sources of class conflict would disappear. But in reality, first socialist revolution occurred in feudal Russia and not in most advanced capitalist country like Britain.

Q. ‘Marxist Communism is primarily the offspring of German Hegelianism and French Socialism.’ Comment.


Marxian Communism as the offspring of German Hegelianism

‘Hegelian dialectic’ and ‘Marxian dialectical materialism’

Hegel was a great German thinker. His view on historical changes taking place in the society can be understood through the Hegelian dialectic, which is the framework for guiding our thoughts and actions into conflicts that lead us to a predetermined solution.

Hegelian dialectic is characterized as a three-step process:

(a) The thesis is an intellectual proposition.
(b) The antithesis is simply the negation of the thesis, a reaction to the proposition.
(c) The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a ‘new thesis’, starting the process over.

Hegelian formulae: Thesis+antithesis=synthesis


Hegelian dialectic

Examples: (a) “thesis” (e.g. the French Revolution) would cause the creation of its “antithesis” (e.g. the Reign of Terror that followed), and would eventually result in a “synthesis” (e.g. the constitutional state of free citizens).
(b) Progressive + Conservative = Consensus
(c) Capitalism + Communism = New world order in form of UN, Global governance.

Marx’s view of history called ‘dialectical materialism’ can be considered as the offspring of Hegelian dialectic, but in modified form with different reasoning.

Marxian dialectical materialism sees the dialectical process being driven forward not by abstract forces, as Hegel did, but rather by solid material conditions, and particularly by economic factors. In other words, while Hegel’s description of history rests on the idea that new ideas cause us to change the way we live (our thoughts change, and the world changes in response), Marx’s description states that when new economic relationships change the way we live, we develop new ideas (the world changes, and our thoughts change in response).


Marxian dialectical materialism

Marxian Communism as the offspring of French Socialism

(1) French philosopher, Rousseau is considered as  forebear of socialism. His views about society was egalitarian and he was among first thinkers to attack the institution of private property. These influnced Marxian Communism.

(2) Early French socialism was born in form of utopian socialism by philosophers like Charles Fourier and Saint Simon. Fourier wanted to replace modern cities with utopian communities. Saint-Simon gave idea that the needs of the working class needed to be recognized and fulfilled to have an effective society and an efficient economy.

Although these French Socialist ideas didn’t have much support and was not based on scientific theory like marxism, they did gave a start which later expanded in the form of many other more socialist ideas including Marxian Communism.


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