In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx published several books that developed theories for describing social changes and political revolutions that have heavily influenced the working class worldwide. Specifically, The Communist Manifesto, was written to encourage a revolutionary communist union to defeat the middle class, or also known as “Bourgeois.” In the Manifesto, Marx focuses on the problems of bourgeois society and politics, and on the influence of class on every level of politics and history.
One of Marx’s most cited concepts, as well as one of his most significant and the most currently relevant was “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” At the time the Manifesto was written, and even today this idea is extremely radical. In his mind however, Marx saw the problems of the politics and history in Europe, as well as the failures of the revolution and let down of Enlightenment ideals as being explained with a very simple analysis: class.
Marx believed that the revolutions and the the slogans they used such as “liberty, equality, and fraternity” weren’t as much about the ideas of liberalism, as they were representation of class interests that helped to overthrow the monarchies. His thoughts about placing class over ideas is one of his most famous and influential principles. Within his book, Marx also explored how class operates inside a capitalist society. While in this particular book he only touched briefly on the subject, Karl Marx believed there was an unavoidable and permanent sort of “antagonism” between classes within a capitalist society and formed a two class model for the division of society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The former own the all of the production and use their wealth to grow their capital. The latter, or the proletariat, are the working class, and are forced to work and sell themselves out in order to make a living. Seeking to increase profits, the wealthy cut wages and make people work harder. Meanwhile, the oppressed working class only seek to earn higher wages which can only be done by cutting profits. This idea is what breeds the aforementioned class struggle, and the problem with a purely capitalist society. It is an irreconcilable clashing of ideals which could only be solved with the complete overthrow of capitalism as a whole.
Another one of his more noted insights, while not mentioned in the Manifesto; was the idea of “historical materialism”. In his other works, Marx used “materialist conception of history”, this is the guidelines for the pamphlet. Marx’s short recount of the rise of the bourgeoisie makes an excellent example of its application. To understand the course of political and social history according to Marx, you need to understand what drives history: class and economics. He argues that even though ideology and politics seem to be major components, they are truly only reflections of materialist conditions whose changes alter the fundamentals of history. For instance: the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century were, in reality, class revolutions instead of Enlightenment driven.
Marx believed that those ideas are mere reflections of the overall class interests, which means that the ideas themselves do not self-generate or grow due to someone’s internal logical thinking. They are based in actuality on the relationship to material interests, class interests, and the more general material constitution of a society. Marx stood by the fact that the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class, which in his idea of the truth makes sense.
The class that is in charge puts forth the ideals that rule over their society. In order to better explain his thoughts on social phenomena and social change, Marx developed the concept of “base and superstructure”. He believed that the material, and economic factors in society dictate the shape of the “superstructure” at the top: the ideology, culture, and law. Marx’s philosophies lent a somewhat scientific insight to this particular concept. There was a deterministic relationship wherein the material base defined the ideology and overall construction of this “superstructure”. The culture and ideas actually also shaped the base, which gave a certain limit on the functionality of the economic structure. With that being said, in would be suffice to say that there is a somewhat codeterminative correlation between the described base and superstructure. However for Marx himself the relationship was more one dimensional: the base is where you would find the historical explanations.
Marx is often referred to as the “father of Communism”, it is his most well know ideology and in the very name of the Manifesto. Within the Communist Manifesto, Marx does not spend a great deal of time on that theory. However, he does touch on the notions of a positive communist program and what it would look like, as well as how to get there. The focal point of his vision is the ultimate revolt of the proletariat, the working class. This would be the struggle to take control of the production, nationalize capital, and make the government a working class governing body.
Understanding these notions are paramount to understanding his vision and philosophy as a whole given the basis of Marx’s entire idea was to overtake the bourgeoisie and give the power to the working class. For Marx and any Marxists after him, the state is a consistent instigator when it came to class power, or in his own words “class violence”.
Under capitalism, the states function is to support the interests of the bourgeoisie (property and capital), but not much else. In order to bring about communism, it is hard for Marxists to understand how that kind of state could be successful. Hence the idea that it is necessary for a violent upheaval of the state itself. To get the ideas of the proletariat in power, Marx required the state to be a neutral implement of class power, which would allow the workers to build a “workers state”. This would only put in place the egalitarian interest of the working class and slowly bring on the rise of an actual communist society.
Karl Marx believed strongly in what he called the “alienated labor” class. He believed that the oppression of his proletariat was what kept society from growing as a whole, his philosophy was based around equality for all men, and with a division in class this was unachievable. Marx referred to alienating labor as the the process where workers begin to feel detached from what they are producing, “The alienation of the worker in his object is expressed according to the laws of political economy as follows: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates the more worthless and unworthy he becomes; the better shaped his product, the more misshapen is he; the more civilized his product, the more barbaric is the worker; the more powerful the work, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more intelligence the work has, the more witless is the worker and the more he becomes a slave of nature.” (Marx, 1967) It was his idea that the worker was producing his product through his own blood sweat and tears for no benefit of his own, but for someone else. He relies heavily on this “alienation” to explain much about the decline, or change to society.
However consistently throughout his theories, Marx fails to discuss many of the non-economic dictators to societal change; such as laws, religions, and general politics. While he does discuss them at length, they are noticeably absent from his most prominent argument of alienated labor. He argues that the competition that drives capitalism only serves to separate those that should be united and leads to a more privatized existence. The idea that all men should be equal and working together is great for the idea that humans as a whole are collective beings. With that in mind, one can point out that while people accomplish great things in groups, competition is the basis of progress. Since the beginning, man has fought itself and competed for everything they need to survive. Humans are by their very nature competitive animals. It is the basis for the theory of survival of the fittest as a whole.
Competition brings out the best qualities in human beings to light, and allows for only the fittest of the species to continue, enhancing the progression of future generations. The easiest way to test the theory of alienated labor would be to look back at history, and see how it stands against time. The theory of Communism has been tried and ultimately failed, while capitalism has been a champion for bringing the poor and destitute out of poverty.
The whole of the Marxist argument is focused on one group in society that was poorly treated, but in most of the world’s free market, people are able to buy shares of private businesses. The spirit of the entrepreneur is what pushes the capitalist economy to thrive. If you are willing to work for what you want then the opportunities will find you. The idea that capitalism is the end of society is proven wrong time and time again in the fact that most countries today that follow a capitalist principle have the greatest economies due to the fact that everyone, regardless of circumstance can pursue a dream and achieve it economically. Marx believed that anyone who works for a capitalist company weakened their body and their mind, but under capitalism people are not invalidated when they stop working. Instead they are rewarded for hard work and given the chance and the choice to succeed in any manner they choose.
Focusing on the thoughts and feelings most people feel occasionally was how Marx built his argument, one thing he seemed to avoid was the idea that we should not try to take from the successful to cater to the feelings of the people who have less. That would only rob those who strive for success of their passion to do so.
Within the ideas of Karl Marx lied a utopian socialist society where everyone was equal. On the other side of that is a world where there is no individuality. No one is special, they don’t own property, and wealth could not be inherited. This would lead to a lack of motivation to do better. With everyone getting the same treatment regardless of the work you put in, why would someone work harder than the man beside them? Parents in a world without equality spend their days working to make their children’s’ lives better than their own, in a communist society this is simply not possible.
The reader can conclude that while in theory the idea of Marxism/communism, and the idea of a utopian, completely equal society; to put it into practice is problematic. While Marx believed the only way to achieve peace was for the working class to overthrow the wealthy and establish order in their own right, it has been proven throughout history that the world needs the competition and drive of capitalism in order to progress and move forward. Not just economically, but culturally and socially as well. There is no world where complete uniformity and utter lack of individual acknowledgment leads to the betterment of humans as a whole.