This article describes Marxism by Karl Marx in a practical way. After reading this article, you’ll understand the basics of this political-philosophical system.
What is Marxism?
Marxism is a political-philosophical system based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The founders of Marxism, what would later become communism, investigated the effect of capitalism on the working class and political and economic developments. In his theory, Karl Marx integrated the thoughts of several great thinkers who came before him. His vision was strongly influenced, amongst others, by the dialectical ideas of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
In 1848, Marx and Engels published the ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, a pamphlet of about thirty pages, with a concise explanation of their ideas. They produced the pamphlet on behalf of the Communists League and was this political party’s programme. In chapter 2 of the manifesto, they described how the capitalist system had to go through a proletarian revolution to form a socialist economic system. He closed the Communist Manifesto with the call: ‘Workers of the world, Unite.’ Later, the pamphlet would be expanded upon in ‘Das Kapital’, the ultimate basis for Marxism.
A clear political-philosophical goal particularly emerges from the works of Marx and Engels: stopping the alienation that capitalism brings about by freeing the oppressed classes in this system.
Labour division through industrialisation and capitalism
Karl Marx lived in London at the time of industrialisation and travelled extensively through Europe. He saw a highly developed continent where the tensions ran high because of social inequality. According to Marx, social inequality was a consequence of the arrival of the division of labour and, moreover, was what had led to the class society. It was because of industrialisation that he saw a new class emerge: the factory worker class. In his view, these workers were people who had been reduced to production units. Never before had so many products been manufactured at such low costs. Thanks to technical innovations and division of labour, the worker’s work generated more and more profit for the owners. Marx called the difference between production costs and labour costs ‘added value’. The added value created by the workers disappeared mostly into the pockets of the factory owners. The workers were only paid a basic wage for the added value they created.
Exploitation and alienation
In economic and social terms, Marx saw capitalism as a curse for society, especially for the working class. The difference in capital between the worker and the owner was increasing, as a result of which the worker became relatively more impoverished. While Marx was convinced that labour was a crucial part of a man’s social life, he saw that in capitalism, labour was subordinate to profit. As a result, labour was no longer a crucial part of the working class, but only the main reason for their misery. The former philosophical phenomenon of alienation then changed into a social phenomenon. He saw that the workers were alienated in the economic field, they had no value anymore, but also in politics and religion. According to Marx, religions themselves were created by the people and worked as an opium for the workers. Belief in God was a way for the workers to make unbearable life bearable, but Marx thought that religions would disappear in communism because the workers would then no longer need the support.
Marx also stated that a commodity has a product, a value for use and an exchange value. The use value is only the value that the product has for consumption without including labour. The difference between the value in use and the exchange value, the selling price, was so high because of the low labour costs, that the labour was no longer relevant. Because so much more was produced than before the industrialisation, the products were more easily replaced. As a result, products were also seen differently by society. Marx called this the fetish character. Marx wrote, rather poetically in the first part of Das Kapital, that he saw two fetishes emerge: a commodity and a capital fetish. Later he decided to use the term exploitation. The second and third parts of Das Kapital were completed and published by Friedrich Engels after the death of Marx.
The downfall of democracy and capitalism
Marx completely disagreed with Adam Smith’s theory, who was a pioneer in the field of political economy. Adam Smith was of the opinion that the capitalist system, with the free play of social forces, would bring the most benefit to everyone. Marx, however, saw that the majority of the population was losing out, and was convinced that the way that then-used method of production was the final stage before a new political and economic system with ideals such as absolute freedom and equality would emerge; communism. Marx described this vision in Das Kapital. He predicted that the capitalist system would collapse and make way for a collectivist society. Marx wrote in Das Kapital about the factors and forces that, according to him, would ensure this.
First, Marx described how the big companies would always take over the smaller ones. He called this the concentration law. The larger companies could produce at a lower cost and thus the law of the strongest would determine which company would last the longest. He attributed the cause of this phenomenon to the accumulation law: the capitalists would reinvest the added value, the profit, in order to increase the size of the companies. Since the vast majority of capital would fall into the hands of a small number of capitalists, the workers did not stand a chance according to Marx. Because the working class, the proletariat, continued to lag behind, Marx foresaw that more poverty would arise than ever before. Beyond that, Marx predicted that companies would continue to make less profit due to mechanisation and automation. He was convinced that labour was the only value-creating element in the production process.
This decline in profit would ensure that companies were forced to dismiss the cheap workers, resulting in a social disaster. Despite the fact that Marx did not develop a crisis theory, he described the dangers of the under-consumption crisis and the over-consumption crisis, in his view a consequence of exploitation, with all the consequences such as unemployment.
All these factors would cause the capitalist system to collapse. Crises would follow each other more and more quickly and the position of the working class would permanently deteriorate. Until the moment that the tension would become untenable. Then it would be time for a revolution.
Karl Marx’s ideal and the role of the State
With his call ‘Workers of the world, unite’, Marx hoped the proletariat would organise itself against the capitalist process of exploitation. This socialist movement, also called the dictatorship of the proletariat, would establish itself until the moment when communism was to be introduced. At the end of this revolution, all means of production had to be taken out of the hands of the capitalists and come into common possession. If that were to happen, Marx described, capitalism would be stopped and the class society would disappear. The communist system that would be introduced after the proletarian revolution was based on views of Rousseau and the Paris Commune of 1871. Small communities would send a delegation of representatives to larger units that would in turn form a national delegation. This system is also known as the pyramid structure of direct democracy, essentially different from liberal democracy. However, this democracy would not have a parliament and did not have a separation of powers that the French enlightenment philosopher Charles de Montesquieu warned about with his theory on the trias politica. Since in communism everyone would live in equality and freedom, Marx did not require that the state still be able to exercise influence. Not much came of the death of the state.
Despite the fact that there never were any Marxist countries, there have been some attempts to create such a communist system. These were set up so differently that the original Marxism was unrecognisable in it. According to Marx, a proletarian revolution was needed to bring the means of production into joint hands in order to form collectivist equality and a free state. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, however, it turned out that these revolutions only opened the door for a few power-hungry individuals who wanted to maintain an oppressive apparatus of power in a dictatorship drenched with a dressing of socialism. Examples include Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you share the ideals of Karl Marx, equality and freedom, but do you think there’s another way these ideals can be realised? What possible advantages and disadvantages of Marxism would you like to share?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The communist manifesto. Penguin.
- Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital: kritik der politischen ökonomie. Germany: Verlag von Otto Meisner, 1885, 1894
- Parkin, F. (1983). Marxism and class theory.
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