The late 18th and early 19th centuries was a time of immense social change – not just political revolution but the dawn of the industrial revolution.
In the mid-19th century, from around 1840 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels penned a series of books that reflected on this change, developed a theory for explaining social change and political revolution, and drew up a programme for action that became enormously influential among the working class worldwide.
One of the key insights of Marxism was to identify political revolutions as rooted in wide struggles for power among social classes. On this basis the revolutions above can be distinguished. The earlier ones are revolutions led by the rising capitalist class against feudalism. The later ones reflect the growth of the working class with the industrial revolution. The express the working class struggle for power against the new capitalist rulers.
Not only did they develop a theory for working class liberation, but they were leading activists in some of the first attempts at working class revolutions in Europe, founders of the Communist League in 1847 and the International Workingman’s Association or First Internationale in 1864. You can imagine the terror amongst the ruling classes struck by the emergence of these organisations among workers, who were viewed as little different from animals. Newspaper commentaries of the time are full of alarmist warnings about the “reds”.
The influence of Marxism, and the fear and loathing by which it is perceived by the powerful, stems from its systematic attention to the unanswered questions of the foremost minds of humanity. Far from being the isolated philosophy of a sect, Marxism, engages with the central problems of philosophy, political economy and sociology, and provides theoretical and practical advances on traditional thinking.
Marxism, then, is a direct and critical successor to humanity’s best thinking in the 19th century. The height of philosophy at this time was found in Germany, with the work of Kant and Hegel. The most developed political economy was that of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And the most advanced sociology or socialism as it was known was found in France, among theorists such as St Simon and Fourier. Marx and Engels engaged critically with each.
These are the three sources and, at the same time, the component parts of Marxism. Let’s briefly review each of these.
The philosophy of Marxism is materialism.
This philosophy emerged in France in the struggle against feudalism. Against religious superstition, materialism asserted natural science and logic.
Marx did not simply adopt the materialism of the nineteenth century, he enriched it, drawing from German classical philosophy of the time. The major development was integrating materialism with the German concept of dialectics.
Dialectics is a means of conceiving the world in change. Simple or mechanical materialism has a one-sided view of the world; a mechanical view; for every effect there is an external cause; things are or they are not. Newtonian physics is a prime example.
Dialectical materialism sees the world in constant change; things are and they are not. Eg. Heraclitus’ river; knowledge is consequently relative. Modern physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics etc. utilises a dialectical view (Einstein was a socialist incidentally).
Marx further extended philosophy by developing a materialist approach to the study of human society. Against chaotic and arbitrary accounts of society as the product of heroic individuals, god’s will, or chance Marx argued that society is systemically organised around the predominant productive forces, and develops systematically over time.
Just as a person’s knowledge reflects nature, which exists independently of the person, so a person’s social knowledge (values, philosophy, religion, political outlook) reflects the nature of the productive or economic system. Thus contemporary politics, the political system and parties, full of superficiality and with little room for participation by workers, reflects the capitalist nature of the economy.
Marxist philosophy, then, represents a much more complete form of materialism. Drawing from the most advanced capitalist thinking and extending it, Marxist philosophy has provided particularly powerful tools of knowledge.
Having identified the economic system as central to social organisation, Marx devoted most of his attention to the study of this economic system. Marx’s principal work, Capital, is devoted to a study of the economic system of modern, capitalist society.
Classical political economy, before Marx, evolved in England, the most developed of the capitalist countries. Adam Smith and David Ricardo laid the foundations of the labour theory of value. Marx extended their work. He argued that the value of every commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour time spent on its production.
Where the capitalist economists saw a relation of things (the exchange of one commodity for another), Marx revealed a relation among people. The exchange of commodities expresses the tie by which individual producers are bound through the market. Money signifies that this tie is becoming closer and closer, inseparably binding the entire economic life of the individual producers into one whole. Capital signifies a further development of this tie: people’s labour power becomes a commodity. The wage-worker sells labour power to the owner of the land, factories and instruments of labour. The worker uses one part of the labour day to cover living expenses (wages), while the other part of the day the worker toils without remuneration, creating surplus value for the capitalist. This is the source of profit, the source of the wealth of the capitalist class.
The theory of surplus value is the cornerstone of Marx's economic theory.
Capital, created by the labour of the worker, presses on the worker by ruining the small producers and creating an army of unemployed. The advantages of large-scale production is very clear in industry. Huge firms with worldwide operations dominate [Fortune 500]. In agriculture too, large-scale capitalist agriculture drives out peasant and small family producers.
By destroying small-scale production, capital leads to an increase in productivity of labour and to the creation of a monopoly position for the associations of big capitalists. Production itself becomes more and more social as hundreds of thousands and millions of workers become bound together in a systematic economic organism. Yet the product of this collective labour is appropriated by a handful of capitalists.
In this situation, economic crises grow ever-greater; the furious chase after markets and the insecurity of existence of the mass of the population.
While increasing the dependence of the workers on capital, the capitalist system at the same time creates the great power of united labour. Marx traced the development of capitalism from the first germs of commodity economy, from simple exchange, to its highest forms, to large-scale production. He foresaw ever-greater confrontations between capital and labour, only resolvable by the ultimate triumph of labour.
When feudalism was overthrown, and "free" capitalist society emerged, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the toilers. Various socialist doctrines immediately began to rise as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. But early socialism was utopian socialism. It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it indulged in fancies of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation.
However, utopian socialism could not point the real way out. It had not explained the essence of wage-slavery under capitalism; it did not examine the process of social development; it did not identify a social force capable of creating a new society. These were developments that Marx and Engels provided.
It was the stormy revolutions everywhere in Europe, and especially in France, accompanying the fall of feudalism, that ever more clearly revealed the struggle of classes as the basis and the motive force of the whole development.
Not a single victory of political freedom over the feudal class was won except against desperate resistance. Not a single capitalist country evolved on a more or less free and democratic basis except by a life and death struggle between the various classes of capitalist society.
The genius of Marx consists in the fact that he was able before anybody else to draw from this and apply consistently the deduction that world history revolves around class struggle.
Marx and Engels repeatedly exposed the way people fell victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learned to discover the interests of some class behind the moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises.
They argued that the supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes.
They insisted that there is only one way of smashing the resistance of these classes, and that is to find in the very society which surrounds us, the forces capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new. The task of socialists was not to concoct utopian schemes but to enlighten and organise these forces for this struggle.