Marx and Marxism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Marx and Marxism

GWF Hegel and Dialectical Idealism.

Marx: from Dialectical Idealism to Dialectical Materialism.

Forces of Production, Means of Production, Modes of Production.

Capitalism: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, Base and Superstructure, Alienation.

Basic Theory of Historical Materialism: Conflict between Forces of Production and Social Relations of Production.

Transition from Capitalism to Socialism.

Failure of Marx’s Theory of Revolution.

General Criticisms of Marxism and Marxist Responses.

Problems of Marxist Class Analysis

GWF Hegel and Dialectical Idealism.

Karl Marx presented a powerful critique of C 19th capitalism and his ideas provided much of the theoretical basis for Socialist/Communist revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. However, Marxism itself has always attracted powerful criticism from political opponents (conservatives , liberals and moderate socialists) and from other sociologists writing from non-Marxist perspectives.

It would now be possible to begin to introduce the basic ideas of Marxism but usually the influence of GWF Hegel on the development of Marx’s ideas is discussed first and I shall follow this approach here. Hegel’s ideas are complex but they may be summarised as follows:

Hegel is described as a dialectical idealist. Thus, Hegel argues that if we wish to understand History we simply need to understand the human spirit or Geist. As individuals develop their ideas, these ideas can be used to improve their society which leads to the development of human civilisation. Thus, for example, development of scientific, medical and political ideas obviously has led to social change and improvement over time which is what we mean by the historical process. Ideas, according to Hegel , lead to historical change.

However, Hegel’s approach was also dialectical in that he argued that ideas develop in a dialectical process which means that if an individual puts forward a particular idea , it is quickly countered by an opposing idea but from this opposition emerges a synthesis of the two opposing ideas. In Hegel’s terms, Thesis leads to Antithesis which in turn leads to Synthesis. The historical process also is said to operate according to dialectical principles. Possible historical examples could be:

      1. Prior to 1789, France was ruled by a more or less Absolute Monarch (Louis 16th) = the Thesis. A range of factors led to the French Revolution+ the Antithesis. The French Revolution became increasingly radical but was eventually stabilised under Napoleon = the Synthesis.
      2. The Chartists proposed Universal Male Suffrage and several other political reforms = the Thesis. However, the Chartist movement was fairly soon destroyed = the Antithesis. Nevertheless, gradually some of the Chartist demands were introduced = the Synthesis.

What attracted Marx to dialectical thinking was that it seemed to be preoccupied with growth, progress and change. Hegel himself had been a supporter of the French Revolution but soon showed himself to be a conservative supporter of the Prussian State which , he claimed , was now being organised rationally by a meritocratic elite such that there was now little need for further dialectical change . Now Marx parted company with Hegel.

Whereas Hegel argued that rational dialectical debate over many years, (that is the conflict of ideas) had led to the current high levels of human development in the Prussian State, Marx was very critical of the social, economic and political conditions in Prussia where poverty was widespread and political and civil rights were very limited. Neither did Marx believe that rational debate alone would be likely to improve the conditions of the poor.

As US professor F. Pampel puts it , "Would leaders in Germany, France or England voluntarily give up their power in response to rational arguments? Would businesses share their profits with workers because of abstract, philosophic principles ? Thus--- Marx--- reasoned that the financial interests of the political and economic elite would lead them to reject any arguments that challenged their advantaged position."

Marx then gradually moved to a position described as Dialectical Materialism. Let us first consider Marx’s materialism.

Marx could be said to be a materialist in the following senses:

1 Since individuals and societies cannot survive without the production of goods and services, it is essential to understand the process of production if we are to understand the conditions of human existence

2.Individuals , according to Marx, are very heavily conditioned by the production process in which they exist. According to Marx, this process actually shapes human nature, such that under capitalism , individuals are inevitably self- centred individualists.

    1. Marx’s belief in materialism rather than idealism can be demonstrated by one of his well known statements: "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness."

Marx’s position was also dialectical, however but whereas Hegel believed that the historical process resulted from the conflict of ideas (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), Marx believed that the historical process derived from a conflict in the material world—a conflict between the forces of production and the social relations of production which would lead to a change in the mode of production. Marx’s view can also be said to be based upon Historical Materialism in that he is arguing that developments in the material world, that is in the production process , heavily influence the development of History as a whole.

As I have written this so far it may appear very theoretical but once we know the exact meaning of these Marxist terms the significance of the Marxist Theory will be clearer. He is saying that the transitions from slave society to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism can be explained by contradictions between the forces of production and the social relations of production.

Forces of Production, Means of Production, Social Relations of Production, Modes of Production

It is difficult to define precisely these Marxist terms because Marx’s use of them is not always consistent and expert theorists may disagree as to definitions to some extent

    1. The Forces of Production represent the scientific and technical knowledge available during a particular Mode of Production but they also include the means of production and, possibly labour as well.Under Feudalism scientific and technical knowledge was severely limited whereas under Capitalism (another Mode of Production) the Forces of Production improved enormously as Marx, despite his criticisms of Capitalism, was prepared to recognise.

  1. The Means of Production are the forces of production which can be legally owned. They include land, raw materials, buildings machinery and tools but not scientific and technical knowledge. The means of resources which are used to produce final goods and services.
  2. .The Social Relations of Production are the relationships of ownership and control used to combine and manage the Means of Production in order to produce final goods and services. Under Feudalism, for example, in simplified terms, serfs would be tied to a particular piece of land; they would produce food mainly for their own consumption using simple agricultural implements but part of their production would also be given to the local Nobility who also owned the land worked by the serfs who also owed various other feudal dues to the Nobility.

3b. The Social Relations of production under Capitalism are much different. Now the Bourgeoisie own the Means of Production. The Proletariat are non-owners of the Means of Production. They work for wages but are at least free to change their employment if better opportunities arise, although they may not . Also, although the Bourgeoisie do not actually own Labour, once the Proletariat begin to work for the Bourgeoisie, the Bourgeoisie do own Labour power.

4.Modes of Production are different social systems corresponding to different levels of development of the Forces and Means of Production and to different Social Relations of Production. Marx refers to the following Modes of Production although during the historical process it is possible that elements of two distinct Modes of Production exist simultaneously. Thus, elements of Feudalism and Capitalism existed simultaneously in parts of C 18th Europe, for example.

Marx identified the following Modes of Production;

Primitive Communism where the means of production were very simple but communally owned such that no social classes existed so that there was no possibility of class conflict.

Slave society which involved conflict between Masters and Slaves.

Feudal society which involved conflict among the Nobility and the Serfs.

Capitalist society which involves conflict between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. In each of the last three cases, conflict arises from ownership and non-ownership of the Means of Production and for this reason Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848) "The History of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle."

Marx also discussed the Asiatic Mode of Production but not in much detail.

The final outcome of this class struggle, however, would be the transition from Capitalism to Socialism, the final Mode of Production in which private property would be abolished, social classes would disappear and the evils of Capitalism would be replaced by a classless, Socialist utopia.