Karl Marx (1818-1883) – No other thinker has influenced the theory and practice of politics in a way Karl Marx has influenced. Marxism scares capitalism. For followers of Marx, he was like a God. It is the influence of his ideas that the world remains divided between two rival blocks – the capitalists block and communist block till 1991. Some say that the spirit of Karl Marx continues to haunt the capitalist world even today.
Marx is not the first socialist. There were socialists before Marx and after Marx. Communism is a special form of socialism that is associated with Karl Marx.
When you start studying Karl Marx, then you start studying socialism. All thinkers up till now were seeing things through the mirror of the elite class. Marx started viewing things from the perspective of poor people.
He was concerned with the exploitation of working classes at the hands of the capitalists throughout his life. He remained in political exile because of his revolutionary ideas.
He was a German Jew. His views were not liked by the government, therefore, he came to Britain to express. During this time, there was another German philosopher named Hegel. Hegel was much earlier than him who gave the idea of the supremacy of the state. A group was formed to reinterpret Hegel. Marx was also part of that group.
Mao belonged to the peasant class. Mao himself suffered from exploitation. That kind of experience Marx never had still he wrote from the perspective of the working class.
Aristotle stands for the elite class and does not believe in equality. He reflects conservatism. Conservatives are rightists. They conserve their traditions and never call for equality.
Liberalism stands for liberty and also talks about equality i.e. equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. In the West, it is an ideology of the middle class.
Socialism is a more progressive ideology. It talks about equality in a more substantial form. But socialism is very diverse. It has several varieties. Socialism is like a hat that has lost its shape because everyone wears it. Marx Socialism stands for social and economic equality. It is the philosophy of the poor and lower class.
For socialists, the liberal concept of equality is procedural, formal, and unreal. There is no real equality as rich and poor do not have equal chances of getting justice.
Socialism says that for the sake of equality we have to put limits on the liberty of capitalists to make profits so that situation of workers can be improved.
The US, during the cold war, thought of aiding poor European countries as poverty attracts socialism.
The attraction of socialism increases with the introduction of the universal adult franchise that is the right to vote for the poor.
If liberalism talks about equality before law and equality of opportunity (capitalists’ demands), socialists demand social equality (equality of status) and economic equality (equality of outcomes).
Liberalism calls for proportional equality meaning doctors and nurses to get pay accordingly. But socialism calls for absolute equality irrespective of talent, capacity, or merit meaning doctors and nurses to get equal pay.
Socialist ideas emerge in the French Revolution in 1789; equality and fraternity. For the complete article on the French revolution, click here.
Why Marx called his Socialism scientific
Socialism in the western world first emerged during the French Revolution. There were socialists before Marx. Marx called other socialists utopians for two reasons. According to him, firstly, they lacked the understanding of capitalism. Secondly, they lacked the strategy to end capitalism.
Early socialists believed in the peaceful methods of bringing socialism by appealing to the consciousness of the capitalists.
Marx had no faith in the programs of early socialists. Marx was convinced that capitalism could be ended only by the violent method. Marx held that he has a scientific understanding of the laws of capitalism and a scientific program of action. He called his theory “Praxis”. Praxis is a combination of theory and action. The action building on theory and the theory leading to action.
According to Marx, violence is the midwife of change. There has been no birth without blood. Socialism cannot come without bloodshed.
Marxism is a revolutionary socialism. Marx talks about the necessary violent overthrow of capitalism. Marx inspires working classes for revolution. In the words of Karl Marx “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose except your chains.”
M.N Roy criticizes Gandhi because Gandhi’s non-violence is violence on the poor because it protects the capitalists.
Marxism is a revolution against capitalists (theories for societies that are industrial)
Maoism in China is a revolution against feudalism (for agrarian societies)
The goal of Marxist Socialism is communism or communist society
Communist society is a state of absolute equality by abolishing possession of the private property so that classes can end. When classes will end, the State will end because the State is an instrument of the capitalist class. Thus communism is anarchism. Here there is a similarity between Gandhi and Marx. Gandhi was also an anarchist. He wanted Swaraj – a state not to be there.
Once the State ends, the collective tasks are performed by the self-help groups or voluntary associations. Communists advocated the creation of worker’s cooperatives. Gandhi also conceived the same idea.
In communism, each will work according to his capacity and each will get according to his needs and not based on merit. Distribution is as per the needs. It is a loving, caring, and sharing society. Working less but getting more. In communism, each person will get the realization of true freedom.
What is freedom? One is free only when he does not require to worry about his bread and butter. People will work out of pleasure. First, people will produce for the market then will work for pleasure. Since everything in the market has the same value, the market will not shape our choices and take our freedom. But real Marxism never came.
Hegel was the official philosopher of the Prussian State (earlier Germany). He has justified the State as a march of God on earth. Since Marx had to inspire the working class for revolution against the State, he had to prove Hegel’s theory as baseless.
According to Marx, historical materialism is a scientific understanding of history.
Hegel held that history is the evolution of the idea. His views are similar to Plato, who suggests that reality is the shadow of ideas. According to Hegel, what can be understood by the use of reason is real. Hence, the idea is real. Similarly, if we apply reason we will find that State having reason to exist like a god. But, Marx challenged the view of Hegel and established that history is not a movement of ideas but a movement of matter. In other words, history is a change in the mode of production.
Marx says that to understand the history of society we have to understand what was the first historical act that led to the formation of society. Whether thinking came first or action (action of production).
Marx concluded that society is a division of labor. Since the earliest society was of hunters and gatherers, its foundation was a system of production (mode of production or economic system).
Thus, it is for the satisfaction of appetite that men came together and formed society. So Marx concludes that the economy is the basic structure while other aspects of society are important superstructure.
“To make history one has to live, to live one has to eat, to eat one has to produce”MARX
Base and superstructure model
For Karl Marx, the economy is the basic structure and the ultimate determinant. Other structures (political structure, religious institutions, educational institutions as shown in the pic above) are part of the superstructure. Superstructures have no independent or autonomous existence of their own. They are just reflections of the base. It means a political structure, religious institutions, educational institutions have no autonomy.
The class that controls the economic structure also controls the superstructure. In capitalism, capitalists control the economic structure. Hence, other institutions (superstructures) become instruments of capitalists as illustrated in the pic above. Therefore, workers cannot expect justice from the State as the State is not neutral. The State being a superstructure is the instrument of the capital class. In the words of Marx – the State is an executive committee of the bourgeoisie class.
Politics and religion are determined by economic factors. The real conflict is economic. Therefore, one does not hate the other because one is Hindu or Muslim, but one is a laborer, and the other is a master. Interests of poor Hindus and poor Muslims are the same. Those who are ruling are ruling by dividing the society in the name of religion. All the institutions are created by the exploiter class.
Marx wants workers to come out of this false consciousness because the exploiter class is making the workers fight with each other in the name of religion and nation. In reality, a person’s religion is one’s biggest enemy, and poverty is second because with poverty comes ignorance.
Karl Marx is critical of religion. For him, religion is the opium of the masses. It relieves you from pain, but if taken in completely, it can be more dangerous.
In western countries, the division is on class rights – conservative party, labor party. They know the real influence is economic.
Karl Marx blames philosophers like Plato, Aristotle who gave the theories that those involved in intellectual labor ought to be the rulers or masters and manual labor ought to be slaves. It is a system of unjustified returns that has come into existence. Marx has shown that manual labor is more productive for the survival of society rather than intellectual labor. For Karl Marx, the intellectual class is the exploiter class.
Even women are also not made economically sufficient and therefore exploited. So as per Marx, women should also support leftists, and so should the family, as it is also not independent from the economic structure. It will liberate them.
Marx’s Concept of Alienation
Alienation means separation and estrangement (a stranger to yourself). Marx’s concept of alienation is based on a critical understanding of Hegel’s theory of alienation, and Feuerbach’s theory of alienation.
According to Hegel, mental evolution or reason can end alienation, and give true freedom and happiness. If we apply reason we can say that the State is the march of God on earth. When we obey the State our alienation ends with God. However, Feuerbach reached a different solution than Hegel. He suggested that for real freedom and the end of alienation, we have to reject religion and God. It was him who held that God is a human creation. All those qualities which we like, we have invested in God. Human beings are themselves capable of the qualities. The more we look at God, the more unhappy we become. Therefore, reject God and religion.
But Marx realized it is not enough to be free from God. Alienation will end when we end capitalism. Freedom means doing what I want rather than what the market wants.
Marx thinks that all human beings are creative in the way we produce. But the tragedy of capitalism is that the workers in a factory are simply engaged in repetitive tasks. They are not doing the things that human beings ought to be doing. Now, Marx uses this notion of alienation from our species essence to explain that the individual worker is sort of crushed and chained to the production line.
Concept of Class
Marx has given two concepts – class in itself and class for itself.
The two concepts show the level of consciousness. The class in itself is a lower level of consciousness when a person is aware that he belongs to one class, and he is different from another class.
Class for itself is a high level of consciousness. When exploitation increases, the time comes when the exploited will take up arms in his hands. It is a time when the class in itself changes into class for itself. It is a time of revolution.
(1) Profit is the engine of capitalism. (2) To sustain profit, the cost of production has to be lower. (3) Capitalism is based on survival of the fittest as there is cut-throat competition (4) To maintain profit, capitalists bring machines that result in the displacement of workers (5) When one capitalist does so, others are bound to do the same, resulting in more displacement. (6) In capitalism, only a few survive. It starts developing monopolistic characteristics. (7) Small capitalists will not be able to compete. Gradually there will be an increase in the number of proletariats (working-class people ). (8) Even the middle class will reach proletariat status. The contradiction of capitalism is that there is a surplus in the market but people lacking purchasing power because of unemployment (displacement). The crisis can be managed to a certain extent but not in a permanent way. The cycle of boom and bust, expansion and recession means that it is inherently unstable. (9) Revolutionary conditions will develop. Class in itself becomes class for itself.
As per Marx, capitalism is full of contradictions and is bound to end.
Stages in History
According to Marx, History will change in favour of the exploited class. He says that the next necessary step in the progress of history is when workers will own and control the production.
He defines the stages in history. The first stage was that of primitive communism. The property was held in common ownership and thus, classes did not exist.In the second stage, there was slavery. Warrior kings exploited masses and made them work as slaves.
In the third stage, there was the emergence feudalism where monarchs and nobles exploited peasants who work on their land. The fourth stage consists of capitalism – bourgeoisie, and proletariats (capitalists and workers). In capitalism, wages are not given according to work done. In other words, the surplus is not given to workers, and profits are snatched away. It is the nature of democracy in capitalist countries.
Industrialization is a good phenomenon, but the capitalist way of industrialization is not good. Capitalists dig their own graves. It carried the seeds of its own destruction. It creates conflict between man and man.MARX
Then comes the fifth stage – socialism ( Marx’s concept of socialism ). Thus the outcome is the worker’s revolution. Workers end up being dominated class and capitalists subjugated class. Workers capture the state structure. This is a transitional stage. It is a people’s democracy kind of form of government. i.e dictatorship of the proletariat (not the term exactly used by Marx). It is a democracy of the majority as power is in the hands of the masses.
The sixth stage is that of communism. There is s a peaceful transformation from socialism to communism. Private property is abolished. Thus, the classes end so does the class struggle. Here, history ends. The State will wither away. Collective tasks are performed by self-help groups or voluntary associations.
Communism ends in anarchism, and as per Marx, it does not necessarily mean disorder. But one wonders, if you start giving surplus to workers, will they come for work the next day?
What happened in countries with a communist revolution?
More than critics of Marx, followers of Marx have harmed Marx. For example, the role of Lenin in the USSR. He wanted to prove that Marx was a God who cannot fail. It means Marx’s predictions are bound to happen.
As per Marx’s views, the communist revolution will take place in those countries where capitalism is fully developed. This way, the contradictions of capitalism, its exploitative nature will come to the surface. Exploitation will be at its highest point. Workers will develop true consciousness. For Marx, only workers were to be a revolutionary class. He did not include peasantry. Marx wanted workers to lead rather than being led. The Communist revolution has to be a spontaneous mass revolution.
To start a revolution in countries where capitalism was in the advanced stage, seemed to be a very remote possibility. Moreover, workers were not developing the revolutionary consciousness needed because the State started paying them under the pressure of leftist movements. Workers were getting the right to vote. The State even started regulating the economy.
What was Lenin’s problem? Lenin selected Russia as a site for possible revolution because of the extremely exploitative conditions of the State led by Tsar Nicholas. But, at that time, Russia was primarily a feudal economy where the industrial revolution had just started. Since the number of workers was small in number, Lenin incorporated peasants. He gave an idea of a communist party led by the middle class as a vanguard of the revolution. This intellectual middle class was to bring consciousness among workers.
What happened was Lenin tried to cut-short history. He did not want to wait for the consciousness to emerge spontaneously. He thought spontaneity can be manufactured.
Consequences – Revolution was led by the communist party. Leaders of the communist party captured power. Once they tasted power, they were not willing to transfer that power. The result was pure corruption. An extreme form of totalitarianism emerged when Stalin came to power.
For the complete article on the Russian Revolution, click here.
Finally, in one country, Russia, a communist revolution succeeded. But it defiled all Marxist logic because a highly developed capitalist economy had barely emerged there.
It seems workers did not have a problem with capitalism but the capitalists.
Marx’s ideas were codified and clarified by Friedrich Engels, promoting Marx as a great thinker. Socialist movements across the world started to translate Marx’s works. His ideas began to gain momentum.
The Russian revolution had been kick-started by the Bolshevik revolution. And seven decades later, it came crashing down with the fall of the Berlin wall. Revolutionaries, notably Stalin, claimed to be a disciple of Marx and his theories, but their authoritarian ideologies crushed the liberty Marx cherished. Marx would have been condemned by their regimes.
Marx creates something that he cannot control anymore, especially when he is gone.
In Europe, they had interpreted that what was happening in Russia is not what Marx wanted; rather, Marx wanted liberation and consciousness. This school started developing how the basic question is not a revolution and end of capitalism, but the basic question is how to give freedom to the people. This school was critical of the soviet. They believed that in modern times because the nature of capitalism has changed, it is very difficult to gain that real freedom.
But can one single idea solve the riddle of the human experience? Marx inspired one of the most rigid ideologies in history. It seems Marx’s life story gives us a warning, that ideas can acquire their own inherent power. And the charismatic, explosive thoughts, in writing, can be twisted from their original intention and manipulated for ends like what happened in Russia. But Marx’s desire to find the root cause of human distress, suffering, and inequality is a laudable goal. So, in the end, it is entirely unto you whether you choose to read Marx as a hero or a villain.