The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. –Karl Marx
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and sociologist whose scientific approach to history, combined with his revolutionary socialism, has made him one of the most influential, famous, and indeed infamous, intellectuals who ever lived.
His major works were The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (1867). The first was written during the Revolutions of 1848, and aimed to explain the political program of the Communist Party to a popular audience. The second was much more serious. Socialists had long believed they had both morality and science on their side, but Marx seemed to prove it, for his critique of capitalism was situated within a theory that explained the entire human past, and also predicted the future. In other words, it was a genuine science of history, just as Newton had established for physics and Darwin for biology.
Marx’s method was empiricist and positivist, and his assumptions determinist, materialist, and historicist. His principle debts were to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Auguste Comte, and GWF Hegel. He argued that history, like any science, was a law-governed process, and therefore susceptible to prediction based on observation. This was not to say that individual human decisions were necessarily determined, but only that there was one and only one rational way for a person to pursue their interests under a given set of circumstances. People who did not adopt it, for whatever reason, would find themselves at a disadvantage in competitive struggle, and must sooner or later either reform or be eliminated by more rational competitors.
Further, like any science, the study of history must be based on a consideration of objective, material factors. While this is partially a matter of geography, climate, resources, and so on, the material factors that mattered most to Marx were economic and technological—in other words, “the means of production.” If society were a building, these material factors and the compulsion they create would be the foundation, the structure, and the other essential elements without which the building would collapse. Marx called this “the base,” which he contrasted with the windows, dry wall, carpeting, and in short, everything not essential to the structural integrity of the building, which he called “the superstructure.” Changes in the base produce changes in the superstructure, but changes in the superstructure only affect the superstructure. The arts, religion, the careers of individual politicians, the growth and decay of states, and so on, might make some small difference in the short term, but over the long run they are all trivial. A serious analysis of history is a study of the base, the objective factors that determine everything else.
The most visible effect of the base is to divide society into classes determined by the productive process. These classes exist in a necessarily antagonistic relationship, for they are all trying to secure as much of the wealth generated by production as possible, and, because their class affiliation determines so much of their life experience, assumptions, and beliefs, as well as their material interests, they find their natural allies only among members of their own class. In the Medieval era, these were the aristocracy, the priests, the merchants, and the peasants. However, since the Industrial Revolution, the merchants had transformed themselves into the bourgeoisie—a class defined by ownership of capital, which they used to build factories. But factories, of course, do not run themselves; they require workers, who are drawn indiscriminately from all classes, but especially from peasants, who flocked to the cities looking for work. These workers, the proletarians, are defined by the necessity of selling their labor in order to secure food, shelter, and other necessities. From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, they are interchangeable, disposable commodities, just like the machines in their factories. Gradually, all classes are being condensed into these two.
Naturally, any bourgeois seeks to buy cheap and sell dear, for in this lay his profits, which he needs to maintain and expand his capital. He is therefore always trying to pay as little as possible for the labor of the proletarian, who, because he has to work or starve, has very little bargaining power, and therefore tends to earn far less than his work was actually worth. This is not simply a question of bourgeoisie being greedy, or of them conspiring with each other to keep poor people poor, as the “vulgar Marxists” suppose. The logic of their situation compels them to drive wages down on pain of being eliminated from the bourgeoisie and sinking to the ranks of the proletariat themselves.
Although the situation is definitely unfair for the proletarians, this is not the point. What matters is that the dialectic of capitalism is such that it simply cannot not last. Each member of the bourgeoisie directs as much of his profits as possible back into his operation, usually in order to expand production, which helps him take advantage of efficiencies of scale. But if they are all constantly expanding production, supply must outrun demand, and the bourgeoisie will have to slash prices in order to sell their goods. In a sense, this is a good thing for proletarians because it brings down prices, but the bourgeoisie cannot allow their profits to diminish like this, otherwise they will be eliminated from the competition. They have to make up the difference—for instance, by slashing wages, which instantly destroys the new buying power of the proletariat. And because of the logic of the proletariat’s situation, they will have to accept the new, lower rate.
This leads to “the law of increasing misery,” for the proletarians are compelled by this process to organize into unions and political parties in order to secure wages that will enable them to live. The bourgeoisie in turn must refuse these demands in order to protect their diminishing profits. This struggle teaches the proletarians to become politically self-conscious—to think of themselves as proletarians first and foremost. Nationalism, religion, and racism all serve the interests of the bourgeoisie by keeping the proletarians divided and distracted, instead of uniting against their real enemy and fighting for their rights. At the same time, the number of factories is constantly diminishing, for they are being consolidated into ever-larger and more efficient operations, and inefficient capitalists are being eliminated.
Thus, at the same time that the bourgeoisie are forcing the proletarians to become politically self-conscious—as the bourgeoisie have been all along (hence their faux-Republics, which are really just fronts for their economic interests)—they are also bringing the proletarians together, both psychologically and physically, in ever-larger factories, where the machinery is also concentrated. This concentration makes it simpler for the proletarians to organize themselves. Eventually, they will realize that the bourgeoisie do not actually contribute anything to the process of production—they simply own the machinery, which the Proletarians can take from them as soon as they become aware of their own strength. Thus the French Revolution, in which the bourgeoisie shoved the aristocracy aside and seized control of the state, is certain to be followed by a Socialist Revolution, in which the proletarians will do the same to the bourgeoisie. There will, of course, be violence and struggle, but the outcome can never be seriously in doubt, for it is the bourgeoisie themselves, and not the proletarians, who are the grave diggers of the capitalism.
After the revolution there will be no need for private property, because wasteful bourgeois competition will vanish, because goods will no longer be in such short supply, and because people who have been taught by advertising and fear of poverty to lust after things they don’t need will take a more rational approach to commodities, which are after all just tools to help them live a better life. Similarly, when there are no bourgeois intent on stirring up hatred and division, people will begin to see each other not as competitors and enemies, but as fellow human beings, who want life and happiness and security just as they do. Then the motto of socialism will be realized: “From each according to their talents, to each according to their need.”
In the meantime, however, there is work to be done, and another motto is more appropriate:
Workers of the world, unite!
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.