Marxism: An Extremely Brief Introduction

author’s note: this was the first question on my midterm for History of Socialism & Communism.  I think it answered the question, but may not be a suitable introduction to Marx’s thought for its length.

Explaining the philosophy of Karl Marx requires a few definitions for clarity’s sake. The dialectic plays a central role in Marx’s philosophy and conception of society, and so requires a thorough elucidation. Beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers, the dialectical process of discovering truth entails a combination of reasoning and discussion to understand ideas. The dialectic defines itself through process and dynamism, and looking at the world dialectically entails accepting that objects, institutions, and ideas are constantly in the process of changing themselves and others. The interplay between multiple dynamic entities is what gives dialectics their character. To use an example from nature, co-evolutionary processes could be described as dialectical- the symbiosis that develops between bees and the flowers that rely on them for pollination illustrates this phenomenon quite well. As the flowers more well-adapted to bee pollination proliferate, bees that are attracted to those flowers gain an evolutionary advantage, and the process continues. Marx also gave social classes an extremely important position in his historical analysis. The conventional distinctions between lower, middle, and upper classes appear in Marx’s parlance in modified forms as the proletariat, petit-bourgeoisie, and bourgeoisie, with the first and last taking precedence. The proletariat is the great mass of society, the industrial workers, those who provide basic services, and generally those who own little or no property. The bourgeoisie owns the overwhelming majority of property in capitalist society- the factories, large swaths of land, and corporations- and also controls most of the capital process. The petit-bourgoisie are the lesser property-owners, the shopkeepers, small landlords, and so on. Their property is distinguished from that of the bourgeoisie in that theirs is largely non-productive; it would be difficult to characterize a factory owner as not belonging to the bourgeoisie proper. The conflict between these classes will be further explicated later on. Materialism is Marx’s method of inquiry, rejecting that reality is shaped by supernatural or immaterial forces. Marx rejected Plato’s notion that an object must exist as an idea before it can exist in physical reality, and Hegel’s conception of reality as a single idea, or “absolute idealism.” Marx argued that the only genuinely scientific lens through which to view the world necessarily rejected the immaterial.

At the central place of the totality that is human life, Marx placed the economic conditions of society. Since these conditions bear the responsibility for creating and maintaining the conditions under which all other aspects of society (art, music, philosophy, daily life) can continue to exist, economic conditions play the largest role in this totality. In order for a person to begin to discuss ideas or culture, that person must be relatively assured of some kind of social stability. This sense of stability includes food to eat, security in health, and a space in which one can feel welcome, among others- and all of these necessary conditions are created by the economic activity of a particular society. This is not to say, however, that economic activity determines the total result of philosophy or culture. It creates the space in which these other activities conduct themselves, and it certainly does have a strong influence on their character, but to say the influence is complete or runs purely in one direction is to ignore the role of the dialectic in Marx’s thought. “…what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality,” Marx wrote in Capital. Since those participating in economic activity all have imaginations to call their own, they may dream up new alternatives to existing modes and conditions of production. Given that culture has a strong impact on an individual’s imagination, we see the basis for the dialectic between ideas and production.

This dialectic was of particular interest for Marx’s historical materialism, and he developed it into the related concepts of “base” and “superstructure.” The conditions of production (worker/management relations, technological organization of factories, and so on) comprise the former, and the ideas, culture, and concepts of society make up the latter. Characterized by John Somerville in his exposition of Marxism as “reciprocal… [but] by no means equal,”1 this relationship forms the basis for conditions of social change. As the forces of production change, enabled by and enabling new scientific discoveries, the institutions, laws, and culture of society change to suit the new conceptions of the world that arise from the changes in production. These new conceptions, in turn, allow innovators to dream up new possibilities in the realm of production. The relation between base and superstructure has been misunderstood by many thinkers as a dichotomy, with production of commodities being largely separate from the realm of ideas. This undermines the materialist basis of Marx’s thought, by ignoring the simple physical processes by which culture is created (the writing of a philosophy book, the sounds produced by a musical instrument). Once this dichotomy is surpassed, the interplay between various physical processes to create the forces of history becomes clear. The physical actions of writing down, translating, and preaching (the essential physical expression of ideas) the Christian bible had a profound impact on the history of the world.

Marx, in applying his processes of change to a broad view of history, found that history fell into a few major categories. The first of this was that of “primitive communism,” the hunter-gather societies that existed before the development of agriculture. The proliferation of agriculture, according to John Eaton, meant that “…men began to see themselves apart from the natural surroundings they now strove to change and master…” Societies became more stable, enabling the production of more food than was necessary to meet the immediate needs of the society. This led to the first conceptions of wealth (judged by relative amounts of surplus among members of a tribe), and the emergence of hierarchy. Agriculture progressed from semi-nomadic herd ownership to the cultivation of crops, and as surpluses increased, so did planning a society’s economic activity. More tools were created, enabling more efficient production and more surplus. For the first time, people were producing things specifically for exchange- the first commodities. Eaton writes: “under these changed circumstances captives in war could be used to produce wealth for their captors… they became commodities entering into exchange.”

With the rise of the slave societies, ruling classes invoked new conceptions of religion (as opposed to the totemism of earlier societies) that mirrored the hierarchy found in society. The three broad groups composing these societies were the slaves, the working “free” citizens, and the slave-owners. The expropriation of land from the working citizens by the slave-owners and consolidation into massive slave-worked estates laid the groundwork for the feudalism that would follow. As empires like that of the Romans were torn apart by internal antagonisms between slave and owner, between free poor and landed rich, and by external invasion, the imperial force necessary to maintain such huge numbers of slaves collapsed.

The system of serfs arose, wherein semi-free peasants carried out the bulk of society’s economic activity in the service of feudal lords- the successors to the old slave-owners. The role of religion in maintaining the social order vastly increased, with the idea of divine authority forming a mutually reinforcing relationship with the very material hierarchy. Though most production was conducted for use and not exchange, the guild system and feudal lords’ desire for luxuries led to innovation. The traders, though not of particular prestige or wealth for the majority of feudal history, were positioned to become dominant with the rise of capitalism.

Though production for the sake of exchange existed well before capitalism and even feudalism, it was not until the development of capitalist society that this form of production became dominant. As it proliferated, it began to impose its standards on society. The new merchant capitalists became wealthy enough to compete with feudal lords for ownership of land, and where they won, the serfs’ lands and homes (though technically not their property) were expropriated. In many cases this was carried out with the help of the state in war and internal policy changes, and nearly always against the popular will. Marx termed these expropriations “primitive accumulation,” and argued that they played an essential role in the rise of capitalism. This new landless class then found it necessary to sell their labor power in order to survive, leading to the creation of new modes of production that could take advantage of this surplus. The tendency to socialize the process of production arose, but the profit remained in the hands of the owners, who enforced their claim to this wealth with an increasingly powerful and centralized state.

In the process of transition between each of these phases, struggle has played a central role. As the slave societies supplanted primitive communes, the forcible enslavement of pre-agricultural people had to occur. So too were the internal struggles of landless against landowner essential in bringing down the slave empires. The capitalist class, as it formed, had to struggle against the existing feudal lords, the church that supported them, and the peasants being forced from the farmlands. Technological change opened up new terrains for struggle- as factory production began to destroy the artisans’ way of life, they sabotaged the machines responsible. The rising prevalence of capitalist production led to the development of philosophies conducive to it- most notably the view of production as a refineable science rather than the previously held view of production as an expressive art. New philosophies arose to challenge these mental conceptions, like that of the Luddites, or in the extreme, the rejection of modernity by fascism. Marx argues that this kind of struggle is necessarily collective, because of the incredibly sweeping changes that occur when transitioning from one stage to another. Changing the mode of production allows the large shifts in society to begin, but unless those changes in the base are accompanied by corresponding changes in the superstructure the changes are either transient or superfluous. The social theorist and Marxist scholar David Harvey identifies seven “moments” that change alongside one another during these transitions:

a) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange and consumption, b) relations to nature, c) social relations between people, d) mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs, e) labor processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects, f ) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, g) the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.

Harvey argues that Marx, having identified these as changing in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so too argued that they all must change in the transition from capitalism to socialism. The dialectical relationship between these moments underscores the class-based nature of these transitions; changes in technology may not require a large group of people to occur, but changes in the patterns of daily life by necessity require collective shifts.

The single most distinctive feature of capitalist production also forms the basis for struggles against it. Capitalists, or members of the bourgeoisie, are members of the ruling class through their ownership of productive capital. A minority of the population possesses ownership of the overwhelming majority of productive capital, and this ownership is enforced on their behalf by the state. They hire workers to use this capital to produce commodities or services. They then sell the product, gaining profit from the surplus value embedded in it by the workers’ labor power. The key feature of this institutional arrangement is that the worker, by contract or convention, has no right to any of the share of the product or profit being produced. The capitalist, by merit of owning the productive capital and purchasing the raw material inputs, is entitled to the whole share of the final product. Marx called the emotional impact on the proletarian dispossessed of the product of their labor alienation. Additionally, the proletarian’s employment is far from assured, as it is contingent entirely upon the profitability of the capitalist enterprise- this insecurity is another emotional impact of capitalism. Another distinctive feature is the reduction of human freedom to that of free trade, as Marx and Engels observed in the Communist Manifesto. Freedom of movement merely means the freedom to purchase a car or a train ticket, freedom of expression means the freedom to choose between a wide variety of consumer goods, and, as the US Supreme Court demonstrated recently, freedom of speech in bourgeois democracy is the freedom to spend as much as possible on political advertising. Marx also praised capitalism, however, for unleashing humankind’s creative potential and leading to the rise (though certainly not in the colonial powers’ occupied territories) of a more open and democratic society.

Ultimately, Marx argued, capitalism could not continue to be a source of social progress, because it remains a system in the service of private profit for a few rather than public goods for a majority. The capitalist class, in search of constantly expanding profit, leads society to ecological disaster through excessive consumption of resources, puts pressure on states to forcibly open up new markets for capital, and does not hesitate to lay off workers by the thousands. The deliberate devaluation through increasingly worse crises has devastating impacts on the provision of essential services in both the economy and the state. The social instability created by these forces is the impetus for class struggle against the capitalist system. The creation of a socialist society, according to Marx, would eliminate the economic insecurity of the capitalist system, allow access to education, food, and shelter for the entire population through collective ownership of society’s productive capital. With the productive property commonly held, workers have greater access to the share of their labor, and the provision of essential goods and services is no longer contingent upon profit. In order to reach this stage, revolution must occur, which can take on various forms, including the occupation of factories by workers, disruptions to the supply chains of capitalist enterprises, and armed resistance against the state. None of these are essential, and each revolution’s character will be particular to the country and historical circumstances in which it occurs. But Marx saw the necessity for revolution as the only way to ensure social progress because of the rampant and systemic inequalities foisted on the lower classes through lack of education, insufficient and unstable social services, and general exclusion from any level of participation in the political process beyond voting. Though socialism would need to take on the character of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in order to resist resurgent capitalist class interest, Marxism only holds that that state would be a dictatorship in the sense that “…every state is a dictatorship to the extent that it uses instruments and agencies of physical force,” as Somerville writes. This was a necessary feature to secure the transition towards and establishment of stateless communism, which, according to Marx, would not need a state to ensure stability.


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