It is hard to believe that anyone would attempt to analyse history without a firm grasp of Marxism, the views of German Karl Marx. Marx's views have shaped the world that we live in today and forever altered the course of history, and his theories for an invaluable intellectual tool of historical analysis.
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German revolutionary, sociologist, historian, and economist of the 19th century. He is widely regarded to be the father of Modern Communism, and his 1848 book, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, or the Communist Manifesto, is the rhetoric upon which most modern socialists base their views.
In 1848 Engels and Marx published Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei which contained the philosophical, historical, political and economic theories which combined to form what we now call Marxism. Marx and Engels were unhappy with the state of society of their time. In particular, they despised capitalism. They envisioned a revolutionary society in which everyone's needs are met, and no class divisions exist. This system, also known as "communism", was their idea of the perfect society.
To truly grasp Marxism one needs to comprehend Marx's view of capitalism. Karl Marx saw capitalism as a progressive historical stage that would eventually be followed by socialism. Marx divided society into three large factions, defined chiefly by their relation to the productive process. To Marx capitalism was an economy in which the means of production were privately owned by the bourgeois, the capitalist class who owned most of society's wealth and means of production, who used the labour of the proletariat, the class of wage workers engaged in industrial production whose chief source of income was from the sale of their labour power, usually living in poverty, to deepen their already cavernous pockets. Marx thus saw capitalism as an economic structure that promoted social inequality. It is important to note that Marx lived through the Industrial Revolution, which produced as much poverty as it did wealth, and that the severe inequality of this primordial form of capitalism heavily influenced his views. This capitalism created a growing lumpenproletariat, the dregs of the industrial working class, such undesirables as tramps and criminals.
He also saw capitalism as a system that alienated the workers, estranging them from themselves, their work and other workers. Marx argued that one's labour is central to one's self-conception and feeling of self worth. He believed that people "externalised" the best in themselves through the products of their work, and thus that labour was as much an act of personal creation and a projection of one's identity as it is a means of survival, and that it had the profound ability to evoke happiness in the worker. In capitalist society the worker plays no part in deciding what work is done or how that work is done. This alienates the worker from the product of that activity, and takes from them the satisfaction of labour. Labour becomes purely a means of survival, so it too estranges the worker from the production process. Estranged from the production process, the worker is also estranged from his or herself, as labour is central to one's self-conception and feeling of self worth. Because the worker is estranged from ever his or her self, the worker gradually loses his or her ability to develop the finer qualities which belong to them as members of the human species. Deprived of the satisfaction that comes with owning the product of one's labour, the capitalist is antagonised and the worker is further alienated. The competition in capitalist society alienates workers from each other as everyone tries to survive as best he or she can. This produces a vicious cycle; The product of the worker's alienated labour reappears as someone else's private property, which he only has access to by selling his labour power and participating in more alienating labour to earn money to buy the product of this alienating labour.
Marx's economic views were heavily influenced by English economists Smith and Ricardo. He believed in the Labour Theory of Value, which states that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labour that went into its production. This is known as its "Exchange value", and it disregards the quality of work and expertise required during production. According to Marx in a Capitalist society the bourgeois employ the proletariat labourers because they (the proletariat) cannot afford the materials to produce anything. Thus the workers are selling their labour power, and giving up their ownership of the products of their labour. As a result of this, the products belong to the bourgeois and become available for trade on the market, while workers are able to consume only their products which they can afford to buy back in the market with the wages they are paid for their labour.
In the simplest of transactions products are only sold to fund the purchase of another product, and money happens to be necessary to acquire that other product. According to Marxism, however, capitalists are motivated by their desire to accumulate monetary wealth. Thus they take advantage of their power to set wages and working hours to extract the greatest amount of labour from workers at the lowest possible cost. The capitalist sells the products at a price higher than their exchange value. This means that the worker produces the necessary quantity of products to be sold to pay for his wages in a portion of his time working, and then continues to work. Those extra products created after he has produced his wages create a "surplus value". Capitalists extract this "surplus-value" for themselves, and Marx considered this extraction of surplus value exploitation. Marx saw capitalism as a system in which the poor got poorer and the rich got richer by exploiting the poor.
This "surplus value", a fundamental characteristic of capitalism, is also the source of one of capitalism's largest issues, and a blatant paradox. Because the less workers are paid the larger volumes of product can be produced, the capitalist phenomenon "overproduction" occurs, when the workers are forced to live on too little because they produce too much.
Because of the competition among capitalists, workers are constantly being replaced by machinery, enabling and requiring capitalists to extract ever greater amounts of surplus value from the workers who remain. But more, poorer worker and unemployed "ex-workers" result in a smaller market to which the capitalist can sell the products, which are being produced faster than ever. This makes capitalism extremely unstable in the eyes of a Marxist, as "Capitalist production develops the technique and the combination of the process of social production only by exhausting at the same time the two sources from which all wealth springs: the earth and the worker." (Manifest der Kommunistischen). Because of this instability, a Marxist would tell you that capitalism economy is characterised by crises, , which they would claim have been dressed up to seem freakish and isolated, but are most definitely not.
Marx spent his early years in Germany where he was a follower of Hegelianism - the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel. Despite abandoning Hegelianism, its dialectical nature, that stipulates that all things are continuously changing due to conflicts between their contradictory aspects, stuck with Marx, and eventually found its way into Marxism
Later during his time in Germany he also took to the writing of German Philosopher Feuerbach, who held realist, materialist views, placing material conditions above ideas, and stating that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. stipulating that there is a reality independent of the mind, and that that reality preceded the mind, and all ideas are a product of the aforementioned reality. This contrasts the antirealist, idealist view of Hegelianism, which stresses the central role of the mind in the the experience of life. It holds that the world or "reality" exists only as consciousness, as the mind understands it to exist, and that whatever exists is known in dimensions that are purely mental - through and as ideas. It denies the existence of anything outside of the mind, and thus the existence of "material" entities. It stipulates thus that the mind preceded reality, and that there is no reality independent of the mind. Marx combined Feuerbach's materialist views with Hegel's aforementioned dialectical views.
Thus Marxist theory is one of dialectical materialism. Applying this to Marx's views of capitalism, Marxism holds that in order for Capitalists to generate profit quickly, and to maximise their rate of profit, they have to exploit the workers as much as possible, and lower their wages as much as possible. Workers, on the other hand, have to struggle to keep their wages up, to keep the "rate of exploitation" low, so that they can live more comfortable lives. This is what Marxism calls "Class Struggle"; where the proletariat and the bourgeois are in constant conflict. Marx believes that this conflict has been the driving force behind the progression of history. Marxism says that it is from this struggle that Capitalism was born and that it is from this struggle that Communism (or Socialism) will be born. "The bourgeoisie produces its own grave-diggers. The fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable" (Manifest der Kommunistischen).
Marx believed that the aforementioned class struggled would lead to an eventual yet inevitable proletariat revolution. This revolution is merely delayed by the bourgeoisie control of institutions-schools, media, churches-that guide and distort people's thinking, and because capitalism has given rise to an ideology in which people accept the status quo. This revolution would occur when enough of the proletariat population understood the system that was manipulating them in what Marx called class consciousness, and defined as a subjective awareness of common vested interests and the need for collective political action to bring social change. It would eventually be won by the proletariat, if just due to their manpower. This revolution would be as quick and democratic as the nature of capitalist opposition allowed. The revolution would lead to a "worker's state", or a dictatorship of the proletariat, in which there is still a proletariat government of some sort maintaining order. This proletariat government would control the fruits of all all labour, taking from that only what was necessary to cover costs, to allow for expansion, to allow for insurance in the case of a disaster. The rest would be redistributed amongst the labourers, with each labourer getting the "exchange value" of his labour in goods. Over time that government would wither away until there exists a free, classless communist state, without the hindrances of governments. This state would be characterised by a lack of private property, steeply graduated income tax, centralised control of banking, communication and transport and free public education.
Marx's vision of socialism emerged from his study of capitalism, for socialism is but the unrealized potential inherent in capitalism, and something that the great material wealth and advanced forms of organization only in existence due to capitalism makes possible. He believed a socialist state would be more just and democratic, and that one would create an environment in which everyone can develop his or her distinctively human qualities. Marx believed communism would relieve people of the insecurity that capitalism creates by making workers nothing more than expendable cogs in a machine. He believed that communism would make people feel needed by creating a feeling of belonging. This was one of the first things that struck him when he first encountered communism in Paris as a recently wed young man, "The brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies,"(Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre). Marx also believed that communism would relieve people from the "commodity fetishism" that capitalism forced upon them. This "commodity fetishism" forced people living in a Capitalist society to put economic interests above all else, and thus prevented them from experiencing deep emotions.
One cannot help but wonder why communism has seemed to "flourish", although in dubious forms, in the East, but never catch on in the West. The short answer is that it did, just once, began to catch on in the West, in particular in Paris, France. The Paris Commune was a radical, socialist party that ruled Paris for little more than a month, from 18 March to 28 May 1871. It was the result of a proletariat revolution, and has been described as an example of a proletariat dictatorship. However, the Paris Commune was short-lived and there hasn't since been anything of the sort, and this requires explanation.
Marxists would argue that capitalist society spreads a pro-capitalist and anti-communism state of mind. Marx called this the "capitalist ideology". This ideology gets its subjects to focus on the observable aspects of a part of capitalism, rather than the history or its potential for change. A common example is that of a capitalist grocery store. Its consumers believe that they are sovereign. What they buy stays on the shelves because it sells, and unpopular products are replaced. Thus, they believe that they dictate what the grocery store cells. However, no questions are asked regarding how they developed their preferences (history) and who determines the range of products on the shelves from which the choose.
An obvious reason we haven't seen Marxist revolutions in Western Capitalist societies since the 1871 Commune of Paris is that most of the larger Eastern Revolutions have been led by tyrannical dictators to start a totalitarian states based on butcheries of Marxism. Obvious examples that immediately come to mind are the Russian Revolution and all the dictators that controlled the Soviet Union and abused the population, the Chinese Revolution that left the diabolical Mao Zedong in office and the Vietnamese nationalist movement that put the malevolent Ho Chi Minh in charge of North Vietnam. Communism is to this day being misrepresented by North Korea, despite the fact that it represents everything which Karl Marx stood against.
Since the rise of communism in Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution, and especially after the Cold War of the 20th century, there has been a massive anti-communist stigma in the West. Popular culture antagonises communism, which just feeds this ignorant zeitgeist. Communists have been villainised in books, film and video games since World War 2, and this massive volume of "anti-communist" propaganda that is circulating throughout the western world has stymied any chances Marxism had in the west. Think of how often the villain in James bond films, Robert Ludlum novels, and Call of Duty video games are evil Russian Communists with plans to destroy the western world.
Another important question to ask is why, in fact, did Marxism flourish in the East? Marxism is particularly appealing to members of exploited proletariats, and in developing eastern countries the proletariat makes up a far larger portion of the total population than in the West. These third-world eastern countries such as India, Bangledesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Taiwan, Russia and obviously China provide a disproportionate fraction of the worlds labour force, and have the largest, most "abused" proletariat populations. To these exploited work forces Marxist is far more enchanting than it is to the (relatively) privileged Western populations of developed countries.
However, even more important in explaining the rise of communism in the east is the rise of communism in the Soviet Union
This is not to say that Marxism is without its flaws. Marx's theory that the rate of profit in capitalism would fall if the bourgeoisie continued paying proletariat less, is, simply put, incorrect, and has been proven so by Okishio's theorem, which conclusively showed that if capitalists pursue cost-cutting techniques and if the real wage does not rise, the rate of profit must rise.
Marx's communist society relies on people working for, and being motivated by the greater good this is intensely idealistic. Income sharing would inevitably drastically reduce incentives to work, because work well done receives no reward. Without competition to provide motivation for high quality work and for the use of extra time progress would be stifled and innovation would become all but non-existent. This would lead to a stagnant, doomed society.
Marxism is a determinist theory. This means that it states that everything is predetermined due to cause and effect, and thus that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. This has the epistemological implication that with the knowledge of all the initial conditions (cause) and the laws of nature, we should be able to predict everything that happens. But an issue occurs when a frustrator exists. A frustrator is something that will always cause the phenomenon that is the opposite of your predictions to happen in the future. Imagine now that Person A was tasked with predicting Person B's next action, and that Person A was given all the initial condition and fully understood all the laws of nature. However, Person B also knew all the initial conditions and all the laws of nature, and that Person B predicted their next action, came up with the same prediction as person A, and did the opposite. Person B is a frustrator. This shows that it is not always possible, even with knowledge of all the initial conditions, to predict what is going to happen. Further issues in the determinist theory are posed by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which states that you can never simultaneously know the exact position and the exact speed of an object, which is an instance when, even with all of the initial conditions, something remains unpredictable. This is just one of many examples in the study of quantum mechanics that point away from determinism.
Marx's belief in the labour theory of value has been heavily criticized. There is not always a connection between the value of a good and what quantities, or even whether, labour and captial were applied to its production. Non-economic goods, for example primary resources, do not attain value through the quantity of labour or capital applied to their production, as no labour or capital was applied to their production. A precious gem's value doesn't change if it is stumbled upon in one's garden or mined in a labour intensive mine.
When studying South African history an understanding of Marxist theory is invaluable, so much so that conducting an effective study of South African history without it is near impossible. The ruling party in the South African government, the ANC, has its roots in communism. Members of the ANC still refer to each other as "Comrade", a reference to the Soviet Union of the Cold War, which supported it during its struggle against the oppressive apartheid government. The ANC is still part of an alliance with the South African Communist Party, which has obvious ties to Marxism. The EFF political party, presents itself as a "radical, leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement.", and it calls for the redistribution of South Africa's wealth, nationalisation of property and in particular agriculture and mines. It calls itself the vanguard party of the people, a reference to Leninism, a form communism from the Soviet Union during the rule of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), and openly subscribes to the Marxist-Leninist school of thinking. It states that its basic programme includes the "overthrow of the bourgeoisie".
Apartheid was a realisation of some of the worst of capitalism. The oppressive Apartheid Government ensured that the massive coloured population of South Africa was impoverished and uneducated, which allowed for them to become a massive pool of cheap labour. The immoral Apartheid laws allowed the coloured proletariat to be exploited in a manner that would astonish even Marx. This epitomised what Marx called capitalist exploitation, as the coloured work force was paid pittance and the "surplus value" created was mammoth.
Marxism has had a profound effect on 19th and 20th century history. Without it we would not have witnessed the Soviet Union's rise to power or have been pushed to brink of nuclear war during the Cold War. Without him every socialist party that exists in any government of any country wouldn't exist. The 20th century was characterised by communism, and communism cannot be studied without studying and acknowledging Marx. Because of this, to try study contemporary history without a firm grasp of Marxism would be near impossible.
Marx's Historical Materialism is a theory that privileges the economic in explanation of non-economic phenomena, and is an invaluable tool for historical analysis. By looking for the causes of developments in human society by observing the methods with which humans produce the necessities of life. The economy, he stipulated, was the foundation of society.
We live in a world capitalist system, with a global rich and global poor and a gargantuan wealth gap, as Marx predicted. We live in a world ripe with class education. This research assignment has fundamentally changed the way in which I view capitalism. It has exposed many of the subtle flaws in this system that we all take for granted. While I had a vague and incomplete understanding of Marxism before I approached this assignment, having completed it I feel I have a firm grasp of Marx's intellectual standpoint. I now have another, invaluable method of historical and socio-economic analysis, and my historical view has been significantly broadened. Alienation and my future. However, I have not been fully swayed by Marx's theories, and I believe a quote of his sums up my standing; 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.'