What is Marxism Part 1: Marx’s Marxism

This post will cover the key ideas of the philosopher Karl Marx. In part 2, I will list the Marxist traditions after Marx.

David Harvey, who has written many books on Marxism, describes Marxism as a mode of analysis and a critical way of thinking. He explains that when you want to understand what is happening in a situation, then if you use a Marxist approach you will not be deceived by surface appearances and ‘ideological bluster’. You can use it to do an analysis for yourself and come up with an understanding of what is really going on in a situation. If you really understand what is going on, then you can act against what is really happening in a deeper way rather than deal with surface symptoms.[1]

Marxism is also important because Karl Marx was the first great critic of capitalism. This critique was continued in the many Marxist traditions. Capitalism is the problem, and we need a new system for organising society. [2]

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary [3]. He lived from 1818 to 1883 and spent most of his life in London. He collaborated with his friend and supporter, Frederic Engels on much of this work. There is much written about Karl Marx so I don’t plan to repeat it all here except to list his key contributions and some resources to find out more.

I’m going to use the framework from Sociological Theory by George Ritzer and N. Stepnisky Jeffrey as I’ve found it the best summary of Marx’s work [3]. There are several summaries of Marx’s work [4]. Marx was heavily influenced by G.W.F. Hegal, a German philosopher who lived from 1770 to 1831 .

The Dialectic

Dialectical philosophy accepts that contradictions are part of reality and the best way to understand the real world is to study the development of contradictions. Hegal understood historical change through the concept of contradictions. Marx also believed that contradictions drove historical change. Where Hegal thought that contradictions could be worked out in our minds, Marx thought that contradictions were resolved by the “life-and-death struggle that changes the social world.” For Marx this meant the study of social relations based on the material world. “The dialectic leads to an interest in the conflicts and contradictions between various levels of social reality.”

An example of a contradiction is between workers and capitalists, who own the factories or buildings where work is done. The capitalists exploit workers to make a profit and workers want to keep as much of the profits for themselves as possible. Both are not possible and Marx believed that the contradictions would grow worse and more people would be workers as small businesses would be forced out of business and competition between capitalists would force them to exploit workers more. This could only be resolved by social change when the levels of exploitation reach a point where workers resist their exploitation. This resistance would result in more exploitation and oppression and escalate the class conflict. [5]

Dialectical Method 

The dialectical method came from Marx’s focus on contradictions in the real world.

Fact and Value

In dialectical thinking, social values and social facts are inseparable. Social values are our judgments about society. The dialectical thinker believes it is impossible and undesirable to keep them separate because it would result in a disconnected study of society.

Reciprocal Relations

A dialectical thinker does not see social processes flowing in one direction, such as cause-and-effect. They see one activity or actor having an effect on another, but that second activity or actor will likely affect the first.

Pass, Present, Future

Dialectical analysts are interested in the relationship between social processes in the present, past and future. They, therefore, study the “historical roots of the contemporary world.” They also study social trends to help understand the potential directions of society.

No Inevitabilities

Marx did not view the future to be determined by the present. Marx believed the direction the future went in is dependent on individual choices and struggles. Marx was interested in the dynamics of real relationships so he rejected Hegel’s approach of ‘grand abstractions’.

Actors and Structures 

Marx was focused on the relationship between people and the large-scale structures they produce, such as community organisations, institutions, governments, states. For Marx, these structures help people meet the needs of their lives and also present a serious threat to general well being if controlled by the ruling class that are only interested in the well being of their class. [6]

Human Potential

Before considering Marx’s analysis of the macrostructures of capitalism, it’s important to describe his thoughts on the micro-sociological area of social reality. Marx “built his critical analysis of the contradictions of capitalist society on his premises about human potential, its relation to labor, and its potential for alienation under capitalism. He believed that there was a real contradiction between our human potential and the way we must work in capitalist society.”

Marx argued that human potential is directly influenced by our specific “social relations and our institutional context. Therefore, human nature is not a static thing but varies historically and socially. To understand human potential, we need to understand social history, because human nature is shaped by the same dialectical contradictions that Marx believed shapes this history of society.” He also argued that there is a general human potential, which is called ‘species being’. This is made up of the potentials and powers that only human share.

Labour

The relationship between labour and human nature was important to Marx. Human labour creates something in reality that was only is people’s imaginations. What we produce reflects our purpose. For Marx this process of creating external objects in the real world from our internal thoughts is called objectification. It is also a material process of using nature to provide items to meet our material needs. As well as changing the material world, this labour also “transforms us, our needs, our consciousness, and our human nature.”

The term ‘labour’ for Marx was not only related to economic activities, it includes the act of transforming materials in the natural world into items we need or want. Capitalism has changed the process of labour so it is generally only associated with economic activities.

Marx believed that labour is a response to a need. The labour process results in a transformation that creates new needs, which for Marx was the “engine of human history”. It transforms the individual and society. [7]

Alienation

Marx believed that the relationship between labour and human nature was perverted by capitalism. He called this alienation. Under capitalism, we no longer labour under our own purpose but under the purpose of the capitalist who hires and pays us. Labour is just about earning money. This labour no longer transforms us as we are not doing it for ourselves so we are alienated from our labour and human nature. Marx described how the structures of capitalism cause alienation through the division of labour. The capitalists own the workers’ time, the means of production, and the products.

Marx’s concept of alienation works in four ways:

  1. workers under capitalism are alienated from their productive activity. The labour they do is not to produce objects based on their own ideas.     
  2. Workers are alienated from the products they produce. The products they produce are owned by the capitalist and not the workers.
  3. Workers are alienated from their fellow workers. The production process isolated workers from one another. Workers are also forced to compete with other workers in workplaces and to obtain jobs.
  4. Workers under capitalism are alienated from their human potential. Instead of labour being transformational and satisfying our human nature, people feel least human in workplaces, and more like machines.

Alienation is an example of the contradictions that Marx’s dialectical approach uncovered. “There is a real contradiction between human nature, which is defined and transformed by labor, and the actual social conditions of labor under capitalism.” Identifying with our place of employment, or the things we buy with our wages, are symptoms of our alienation. Marx believed that alienation can only be resolved by real social change. [8]

The Structures of Capitalist Society 

Marx witnessed in the 19th century rapid capitalist industrialisation across Europe with the significant changes it cause – “poverty, dislocation, and alienation”. Marx identified that capitalism was the main cause of alienation. He focused on critiquing capitalist society and developed a political program to go beyond capitalism.

Marx saw capitalism as an economic system where a large number of workers that own nothing, work to produce commodities so a small number capitalists can profit and who own: “the commodities, the means of producing the commodities, and the labor time of the workers, which they purchase through wages.” Marx understood capitalism to be an economic system and a system of power. Capitalism has transformed political powers into economic relations. Instead of using violence, capitalists are generally able to control workers by sacking them or closing workplaces. So capitalism is an economic and political system, a way of exercising power and a process for exploiting workers.

The capitalist system presents the economy as natural. People lose their jobs, wages are cut and workplaces are closed as part of the normal functioning of the economy. In fact, these outcomes happen because of social and political decisions. Attempts to connect human suffering and the economic structures are ignored or seen as irrelevant. Marx attempted to clarify the social and political structures of the economy by exposing ‘the economic law of motion of modern society’ and capitalisms’ internal contradictions.

Commodities

For Marx, commodities are “products of labor intended primarily for exchange.” Marx identified a commodities ‘use value’ – “objects produced for personal use or for use by others in the immediate environment.” When workers produce something for the capitalist that is then exchanged in the market for money, this is called the ‘exchange value’.

Fetishism of Commodities

Exchange values in capitalism become separate from the actual commodity so that the objects and the market for them become independent existences. Marx called this the ‘fetishism of commodities’. This separation is the second source of alienation listed above.

The economy takes on the function of producing value. “For Marx, the true value of a thing comes from the fact that labor produces it and someone needs it. A commodity’s true value represents human social relations.” Any object or commodity that we buy has hidden behind it several social relations.

The fetishism of commodities presents the economy as a natural reality. This relates to the concept of ‘reification’ – “the process of coming to believe that humanly created social forms are natural, universal, and absolute things.” This idea results in people believing that “social structures are beyond their control and unchangeable.” Marx viewed the economy as a form of domination, where political decisions related to the economy benefit the capitalists. People ‘reify’ (naturalise) social relationships, social structures, commodities, economic phenomena such as the division of labour, religion, political and organisational structures and the state.

Capital, Capitalists, and the Proletariat

Marx identified several categories of people in capitalist societies. He identified two broad categories in opposition with each other – the proletariat and the capitalist.

The proletariat are workers that do not own any means of production so sell their labour. Marx believed workers would become less skilled as more machines were introduced. The proletariat are also consumers because they use their wages to buy what they need. They are therefore dependent on their wages to survive and those that pay their wages.

Capitalists own the means of production and aim to produce more capital. “Capital is money that produces more money, capital is money that is invested rather than being used to satisfy human needs or desires.” A capitalist uses his money to buy commodities to then sell to make more money or profit. Non-capitalists obtain a commodity that they sell for money to then buy a commodity that they need to survive.

Marx describes capital as more than money that produces more money. It is also a social relation between “the proletariat, which does the work and must purchase the produce, and…those that have invested the money.” Marx sees capital as a relation of power. To increase it, capitalists must exploit the workers through a system that is produced by the workers’ own labour. “The capitalist system is the social structure that emerges from that exploitative relationship.” Capitalists live off the profit of their capital from the exploitation of the proletariat.

Exploitation

Workers are exploited by the “impersonal and ‘objective’ economic system.” Workers are controlled by capitalists because they need to engage in wage labour to meet their basic needs to survive, so the capitalists do not need to use force. It may appear that workers are free to choose what work they do but to survive, workers have to accept the work they are offered by capitalists. Marx describes the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ – workers know that if they do not take the job someone from the reserve army of the unemployed will.

Capitalists pay the workers less than the value of what the worker produces and keep the rest as profits. Marx called this “surplus value’ – this is defined as, “the difference between the value of the produce when it is sold and the value of the elements consumed in the formation of the product (including the worker’s labor).” Capitalists then use this profit to grow their businesses to generate more surplus value. Marx saw surplus value as an economic concept, and like capital, as a social relation and form of domination, because labour is the real source of surplus value.

Marx also describes capital as being driven by non-stop competition. Although capitalists may seem in control, they are in fact driven by constant competition between themselves. Capitalists are driven to generate more profit to invest their capital in expanding their enterprise. Those that do not are outcompeted. Marx called this the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’. “The structure and the ethos of capitalism push capitalists in the direction of the accumulation of more and more capital”. As Marx saw labour as the source of value, then the exploitation by capitalists of the proletariat led to class conflict.

Class Conflict

Marx used the term ‘class’ in his work but did not clearly define it. It is generally understood to mean “a group of people in similar situations concerning their control of the means of production.” Marx also viewed class in terms of its potential for conflict – “individuals form a class insofar as they are in a common conflict with others over the surplus value.” Capitalism contains a conflict of interest between workers and the capitalists who turn their labour into surplus value. It is this conflict that produces classes. This means that class is a theoretically and historically variable concept. To identify a class, first, you need to understand the potential conflicts that exist in a society.

Marx argued that a class only really exists when “people become aware of their conflicting relation to other classes. Without this awareness, they only constitute what Marx called a class ‘in itself’. When they become aware of the conflict, they become a true class, a class ‘for itself’. 

Marx identified two classes in capitalism, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx called the capitalists in the modern economy, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie owns the means of production and employs the workers. Marx saw the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie as a real material contradiction, that would only get worse until society is changed. Until that change, society would continue to be polarised between these two classes. Some capitalists will lose out and be forced into the ranks of the proletariat. Marx called this ‘proletarianization’.

Marx saw the increase in mechanisation as decreasing the skills of the proletariat and putting many out of work. The capitalists will create the masses that will organise and overthrow the system. He saw that the international linking of factories and markets are raising the awareness of workers, which will lead to revolution.

The capitalists look to avoid revolution by exploiting workers abroad through colonisation and imperialism, to reduce exploitation of workers in the home countries. Marx only saw this as delaying the inevitable end of capitalism, as the laws of the capitalist economy required the reduction of labour costs by increasing exploitation and therefore class conflict. “Marx did not blame individual members of the bourgeoisie for their actions, he saw these actions as largely determined by the logic of the capitalist system.”

Marx predicted at the economic level, “a series of booms and depressions, as capitalists overproduced or laid-off workers in their attempts to increase their profits.” In the political arena, he predicted the inability of civil society to discuss and fix social problems. Marx believed instead the state will increasingly protect the capitalists’ private property, and, when needed, to step in with force when the capitalists’ economic control of workers fails. [9]

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness 

Marx described ‘class consciousness’ as an awareness of your social and economic position in society and in relation to others. Class consciousness is also an understanding of the social and economic aspects of your class, and its collective interests within the structures of capitalist society.

For Marx, workers lived with ‘false consciousness’ before they could develop class consciousness. Marx did not use the term ‘false consciousness,’ but developed the ideas. The term was first used by Engels. False consciousness and class consciousness are opposites. False consciousness is individualistic rather than collective. Individuals compete with each other in society, instead of working to collectivise their needs, struggles and interests. Marx saw that false consciousness was caused by the inequality of capitalist society, controlled by the ruling class. It stops workers from seeing their collective power and interests. It relates to Marx’s ideas around ideology, described below. 

“Marx cited the phenomenon of commodity fetishism—the way capitalist production frames relationships between people (workers and owners) as relationships between things (money and products)—with playing a key role in producing false consciousness among workers. He believed that commodity fetishism served to obscure the fact that relations concerning production within a capitalist system are relationships between people, and that as such, they are changeable.” [10]

Capitalism as a Good Thing

Although Marx was critical of capitalism in terms of the dynamic of domination and exploitation, and its regular crises, he believed capitalism to be a good thing. He did not want to return to feudalism, before capitalism. In comparison, capitalism offered new possibilities and more freedom for workers. The workers are not free yet, but it gives hope and a path to great freedom. Also, as capitalism is the most powerful economic system ever created, there is the potential to end hunger and material deprivation.

Marx believed that capitalism was the primary cause of the significant characteristics of the modern age – constant change and the trend of challenging all accepted traditions. These came from the innate competitive nature of capitalism, which drives capitalists to constantly transform the means of production to change society. He believed capitalism to be a truly revolutionary force – it created a global society, constant technological change, and overthrew the traditional feudal society. Marx also believed it needed to be overthrown, as its role in the world was over and the next stage of communism needs to begin. [9]

Materialist Conceptions of History

Marx critiqued capitalism and its future because he believed that history would follow a predictable course. He has a materialist conception of history, as known as ‘historical materialism’. For Marx, this meant that how people provide for their material need determines or influences the relationships people have between each other, their social institutions, and their common ideas.

Marx called the way people provide for their material needs and the following economic relations, the ‘base’. Non-economic relations, such as social institutions and the important ideas in society, are referred to as the ‘superstructure’. Marx did not view the superstructure as simply “coming in line with the base.” He argued that human history was driven by trying to satisfy needs that are constantly changing. The satisfaction of needs resulted in more needs so that “human needs are both the motivating foundation and the result of the economic base.”

Marx describes the ‘material forces of production’ as the tools, machinery, and factories to meet human needs. The ‘relations of production’ are the relationships between people to satisfy their needs.

Marx had a dynamic view of history, so he thought that the forces of production (tools, machinery etc) will constantly change to produce for people’s material needs. Capitalism caused technological changes that resulted in factories. But for capitalism to happen, society changed due to a change in the relations of production (relationships between people to satisfy their needs). “Factories, capitalists, and wage labourers were not compatible with feudal relations.” Feudal lords obtained their wealth from their land and felt responsible for their serfs. Capitalists get their wealth from capital and feel no obligation to workers. Serfs felt loyal to the lords, whereas the proletariat must sell their labour where they can get work. “The old relations of production were in conflict with the new forces of production.” [11]

Cultural Aspects of Capitalist Society

Marx had several theories about the culture of capitalist society.

Ideology

Marx called the prevalent ideas of society that held back progressive change, ‘ideology’. Marx used the term ideology to refer to two related ideas.

Marx’s first understanding of ideology, “refers to ideas that naturally emerge out of everyday life in capitalism but, because of the nature of capitalism, reflect reality in an inverted manner.” An example is money. We know that money is only pieces of paper, but in daily life, we treat it as having an inherent value. Instead of believing that we give money its value, money is seen to give us our value. This understanding of ideology is open to disruption due to its unseen material contradictions. People come to understand that the economy is not objective and is politically controlled, resulting in workers alienation.

Marx’s second understanding of ideology refers to, “systems of ruling ideas that attempt once again to hide the contradictions that are at the heart of the capitalist system. In most cases, they do this in one of three ways: (1) they lead to the creation of subsystems of ideas – a religion, a philosophy, a literature, a legal system – that makes the contradictions appear to be coherent; (2) they explain away those experiences that reveal the contradictions, usually as personal problems or individual idiosyncrasies; or (3) they present the capitalist contradiction as really being a contradiction in human nature and, there, one that cannot be fixed by social change.”

Marx described how anyone can create this second type of ideology, whether they are from the ruling class, bourgeois economics, philosophers or even the proletariat if they have given up hope of changing society. Regardless of who constructs these ideologies, the ruling class always benefits.

Freedom, Equality, and Ideology

Marx argued that under capitalism, it appears that people are free and equal. In fact, it is capital that is free and the workers that are enslaved. For Marx, “freedom is the ability to have control over your own labor and its products.” Under capitalism, “people are dominated by capitalist relations that seem objective and natural and therefore are not perceived as a form of domination.”

The ideas of freedom and equality are the most dangerous to capitalism. Therefore, it needs to use the two forms of ideology to reduce freedom and equality.

Religion

Marx believed that religion was an ideology that was used to distract people who could not see their “distress and oppression” as produced by the capitalist system. He was not against all religion but when it “requires the illusions of religion”, meaning not real, and used to hide things in society. Religion is open to disruption and can result in religious movements opposing capitalism. Religion is also open to the second form of ideology by “portraying the injustice of capitalism as a test for the faithful and pushing any revolutionary change off into the afterlife.” [12]

Marx’s Economics: A Case Study

Marx understood ‘use value’ as items produced for personal use or use by others and ‘exchange value’ as something produced for capitalists for exchange in the market. Use values related to natural human expression and exchange values result in a distortion of humanity. Capitalism is based on exchange values.

Marx developed the ‘labor theory of value’ – “the basic source of any value was the amount of socially necessary labor time needed to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity of the time.” The capitalist “pays the workers less than the value the workers produce and keeps the rest for themselves. The workers are not aware of this exploitation, and often, neither are the capitalists. The capitalists believe that this extra value is derived from their own cleverness, their capital investment, their manipulation of the market, and so on.”

This led Marx concept of ‘surplus value’ – “the difference between the value of the product when it is sold and value of the elements consumed in the formation of that product. Although means of production (raw materials and tools, the value of which comes from the labor involved in extracting or producing them) are consumed in the production process, it is labor that is the real source of surplus value.”

Capitalists use the surplus value to pay for land or building rent, bank interest, private consumption, and to expand their enterprise. Marx calls the capitalist desire to increase profit and surplus value the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’. Capitalists are driven to constantly exploit workers. As this continues, exploitation achieves less and less gains, until an upper limit is reached. At this point, the working class will put pressure on governments to protect them from the capitalists, through limits to the working day or week. Capitalists respond by developing labour saving machines so they need less workers. “This shift to capital-intensive production is, paradoxically, a cause of the declining rate of profit since it is labor (not machines) that is the ultimate source of profit.” 

The increase is the use of machines results in more and more unemployment. Increased competition results in less capitalists. This leads to a very small number of capitalists and a huge number of proletariat. At this point, capitalism is vulnerable to revolution. Capitalists look to avoid this by moving production and exploitation abroad to colonies. Marx believed this would only delay the inevitable failure of capitalism.

For Marx, the general law of capitalist accumulation meant that both the capitalists and proletariat had a fixed role to play set by the logic of the capitalist system. He did not blame individual capitalists. (Sociological Theory, p68-70)

Economic Crisis

In Marx’s time, there were two schools of thought about what caused an economic crisis. Some thought that crises were caused by a “lack of proportion between output of some sectors” – production not meeting the demand of items in some sectors and too many items in other sectors. This was known as ‘disproportionality theory’. Others thought that crises were caused by an “excess of total output” – overproduction. This is known as ‘underconsumptionist theory’ Marx and Engels were in the first school of thought.

Marx and Engels described individual economic crisis and also the recurring pattern of economic crises over the years. They predicted that crises would expand across sectors in society as capitalism spread around the world, rather than deepen in severity. They described a regularity in the time between crises but did not decide on a fixed period. [13]

Communism

For Marx, historical materialism helped “identify some predictable trends and to use these trends to discover the points where political action could be more effective.” Rather than focus on historical predictions, Marx believed that the way we meet our material needs was the best way to identify the “opportunities for effective political interventions.”

Marx thought that “capitalism had developed its productive powers so that it was ready to enter a new mode of production, which he called ‘communism’.” Marx wrote little about what a communist society would look like. He was against “recipes for the kitchens of the future.” Marx focused on critically analysing capitalist society and believed that “there would be time to construct communist society once capitalism was overcome.” In general, he wanted decision making taken away from the capitalists and economy, and replaced by “social decision making that would allow the needs of the many to be taken into account.” [14]

Endnotes

  1. 12m https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EL7zEVhPHQU
  2. https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/what-is-marxism-faq.htm
  3. Sociological Theory, George Ritzer and N. Stepnisky Jeffrey, 2017, CH2
  4. The Thought Of Karl Marx: An Introduction by David McLellan 1995. The Marx-Engels Reader By Robert C. Tucker; Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels, 1978. Marx and Marxism, Gregory Claeys, 2018. Marxism and Social Theory, Jonathan Joseph, 2006.
  5. Sociological Theory, page 45
  6. Sociological Theory, page 46-48
  7. Sociological Theory, page 46-48
  8. Sociological Theory, page 53-55
  9. Sociological Theory, page 55-63
  10. https://www.thoughtco.com/class-consciousness-3026135
  11. Sociological Theory, page 63-65
  12. Sociological Theory, page 65-68
  13. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Thomas Sowell, 2012, page 96
  14. Sociological Theory, page 70-41