A Simple Guide to Marx’s Class theory and Other Key Marxist Concepts
We present a simple guide to Marx, Marxian class theory, Marx’s theory of history, and Marx’s economic theories to help Westerners understand what Marx was all about.
POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx.
Marxian Class Theory
Marxian class theory (Marx’s class theory) is at the core of everything Marx. If you get his class theory, you’ll understand Marx and why people do and don’t like him.
In words, Marxian class theory is the main thing one has to understand to comprehend Marx the philosopher and “Marx,” the dirty word in Western capitalist society. So lets start there, but first, a brief video form introduction to the basics of Marx.
A Brief Introduction to Marxism. Marxism on-paper is pretty interesting and admirable, but the devil is in the details (its excess of equality and call for revolution is ripe fruit for despots in-action; just like the other evolution of socialism Fascism, falters in its excessive inequality; one might say they both “miss the mark“).
TIP: Marx “gave names to things” calling his concepts by names like “historic materialism” (the naturally occurring evolution of governments via the class struggle between the capitalist class and the workers as an empirical science) and “scientific socialism” (the ideology of liberty and equality that can arise out of the natural class struggle noted by historic materialism). The concepts are fairly easy to get, but there is a learning curve understanding his definitions. Just FYI. Still, Marx’s whole theory fits together, so once you get it, you get Marx, the history of the west, and the forces of revolutionary times in history like the late 1700’s, mid 1800’s, World Wars, and you know, like the current rise of right-wing populism. Marx was more a historian and economist than a Revolutionary, we make a grave mistake as liberals by ignoring his theories.
The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat
The Marxian Class Theory is the idea there are two main classes in capitalist society (in the capitalist “mode of production“):
- There are upper-class bourgeoisie capitalists who own the means of production and control labor. Owners. In modern terms, “The Establishment.”
- There are lower-class proletariat workers who sell their labor. Wage Earners. In modern terms, “The Common People.”
In Marx’s theory, the proletariat is supposed to rise in a revolution to abolish private property, capitalism, and the bourgeois before abolishing itself (thereby eliminating private property, social and economic inequality, and classism to create a global classes, nationless, and socially equal global society).
Marx’s theory was meant to be gleaned empirically from human history, not idealized with pure reason. This Baconian empiricism used by Locke to justify liberalism is used by Marx (who like the later fascists, saw everything as purely empirical). It is this empirical nature which justifies the term “scientific socialism” (the type of socialism that is actually Marxist and that became Communism; there are many types of socialism and the Manifesto of the Communist Party rejects most of them).
According to this theory, one should look at past socioeconomic social systems (like tribalism, feudalism, and then capitalism) in a Darwinian manner by looking at history as a series of naturally occurring historic stages, or modes of production, based on the relationship between capital and labor in an era (based on the historic class struggle that resulted in events like the French Revolution).
Mode of production: In any cycle there are the materials and forces of production. Someone has to control and direct these things. Marx said each historic cycle was defined by an economic system based on how the division of labor and capital worked. Thus the main modes of production in history (tribal society, feudalism, and early and late capitalism, and then finally two forms of socialism) transformed from the lower form to the higher form via revolutionary or democratic means by way of a class struggle between the owners of the means of production and the producers. The idea is to look at this historically and empirically, that is “scientific socialism” (the theory that leads to Communism). That is the gist, it is explained more below (kind of sad that this whole theory gets boiled down to “Marx is bad cuz”, right? A quick view of the Wikipage on this should hammer in the concept. See Marx’s Theory of Class and Exploitation.
TIP: Consider Marx saw capitalism arise in a sort of ugly time when it was getting its sea legs, as Young Marx became Old Marx he revised his theory a bit to be less revolutionary. That point can’t be understated. Stalinism and Marxism are very different, Marx is a master philosopher, Stalin was a despot. They both had their pros and cons, but conflating the two is more a thing of propaganda than the practical.
Karl Marx: Bourgeois and Proletarians.
TIP: One can translate the term “bourgeoisie” to the middle class… but in modern America, this is arguably a bad translation. America and the modern West has really accomplished a lot of what Marx thought would need to be done by revolution via democratic means (hinting that liberalism is perhaps less an old cycle meant to become history, but rather a solid foundation for a more just system). Today there is a lot of flexibility between classes, and “middle class” hardly implies a capitalist Baron who owns the means of production and profits off the exploiting of the working class (it can, but generally doesn’t). The bourgeoisie includes the investor class and business owners, but it really describes a oligarchical and Baron class above that who participate in things like Crony-captilisim. It describes the top of the modern third estate and generally parts of the second estate (here noting that America has no “first estate” in the classical sense). I would say in each “cycle” the bourgeoisie and proletariat are going to look different, and in each nation they will as well, so try not to get sidetracked here.
Alienation: Alienation is what one feels when they are disconnected from the fruits of their labor or otherwise… alienated. The concept is at the root of existentialism. And of course there was nothing more existential than being in the trenches of WWI, so the irony here is pretty think. Still, you’ll need to understand this term.
Dialectics: Why two classes? First off, Marx is playing off of Hegel’s Dialectics, a theory that says every concept can be considered as an abstraction (every thesis can be considered with its antithesis). From this abstraction a “third way” is born (a new concept that can itself be considered as a duality). From the class struggle of the feudalists and their oppressed, capitalism was born. From the class struggle between the workers and bourgeoisie of the capitalist system, the next phase is born. This theory was then paired with the history of actual revolutions (which tended to occur between economic classes and generally the oppressed and oppressors; as one can see with the French Revolution and its estates in the image below). If you just ignore the part about Marx calling for a revolution (something he later back-tracks on while turning to Democracy; although he does so too late as the World War Despots used the Doctrine of a Younger Marx), then you are in for volumes of insanely smart and insight into our real world woes.
What is the Hegelian Dialectic?.
Marx is Predicting Revolution More Than Calling For it
According to Marx, viewing the history of classism and economy as an empirical social science, and as a political philosophy, shows that the next part of the cycle isn’t just a theory or an idea, but a necessary next step that will natural occur even if we all stick our head in the sand.
What I’m trying to say is that Marx didn’t really call for revolution as much as he predicted the uprising of the WWII civil religions Communism and Fascism in-action. He predicted that the proletariat would seek to overthrow the bourgeoisie (who had just previously overthrown the first two estates in the Revolutions to create the modern liberal west).
What I am saying is that, while there is good reason to critique Young Marx’s call for revolution and his conclusions of his theory, he wasn’t just calling for change, he was warning us of its inevitability.
The whole theory above is referred to as historic materialism.
Again, this means history is seen as historic cycles based on the class struggle related to the factors of production (the empirically evident materials) in a given mode of production.
Marx and his followers like their jargon, and while this is off-putting at first, it becomes rather useful once you “get it”. As, to get Marx you really only need to understand exactly what he means by “historic materialism”.
Basic Marxist Materialism Explained.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. – Marx and Engels on the historic class struggle that defines the socioeconomic cycles.
Strangely Enough, the Capitalist Bourgeoisie Didn’t Like this Theory
As you can imagine, the capitalist bourgeoisie made up of upper-class, business owners, shareholders, political elite, etc. have always hated this theory and Marx (to the extent that the pushback has resulted in the modern political parties in the U.S. and the global crisis of populism to some extent; wait or is that just Marx’s theory in action as a natural cycle?!).
It is during the World Wars when the ideals of communism backfired heavily, proving the bourgeoisie weren’t just reacting negatively based on self-interest alone. In other words, while you can think what you want from my writing, I am notably pointing out that both Marx himself and even the most frustrating of modern Oligarchs aren’t wrong to revise Young Marx’s theory of a workers’ revolution… in practice they have not not bore good fruit (the rising up of Unions worked well enough, but the WWII civil regions obviously weren’t the best reaction to social, political, and economic inequality from a centered standpoint).
TIP: Marx also recognized a petite bourgeoisie class who own sufficient means of production but do not purchase labor power. This class is probably more prevalent today than ever, but it isn’t part of the core of Marx’s theories.
Marxism and social classes.
TIP: In economics, especially Marxian economics, the factors of production are capital and labor, and the means of production is another word for capital. In this, the concept of capital includes all non-human assets (commodities). Labor includes all human assets. The capitalists in the capitalist mode of production control the factors of production and own the means of production since they direct the capital. The wage earners supply all the labor as they do the work, but don’t control the factors of production or own the means of production. We could be more nuanced and talk about entrepreneurial work, but that is not at the core of Marx.
TIP: In general, Marx’s materialism is the empirical concept that all reality can be found in matter and energy (the “material” world) not ideas (pure reason). Thus, like Locke, Marx is an empiricist and, like Mises, Marx thought “all action is human action.” This was an eccentric opinion for a collectivist to have. He was one of the first utopian philosophers to take a purely empirical and historic approach to an egalitarian social theory. Marx was influenced by Hegel, who also had a materialist theory, although Hegel, like Plato is to Aristotle, or Kant to Hume, favored the world of ideas.
Marx’s Theory of History
As touched on above, the other part of Marx’s theory to get, aside from the classes, is his theory of history. It is the idea that economics forms the foundation of government and this creates different stages of government.
Marx’s theory of history presents the idea that that capitalism is a stepping stone on the path to the final economic system.
Marx asserts that economic systems are naturally occurring and that capitalism is just an extension of feudalism, which arose from tribalism, which, in turn, developed from the state of nature. He saw Communism is a final, enlightened step.
Specifically, the theory of history divides governments developed from economics and technology into five historical social stages: Primitive communism or tribal society (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism, capitalism, and, lastly, Marx and Engel’s utopian Communism.
Marxist View of History.
FACT OR MYTH? Marx is reported to have said, “I am not a Marxist.” Although this may or may not be true, it shines a light on the difference between our intellectual ancestors and their detractors. The names you hear like Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Smith, Marx, Keynes, Mill, etc. are masters. These are thinkers who stood so high above others intellectually that we still know their names today. Marx was far too multi-faceted and intelligent to fit into the tiny box that was Marxism then or is Marxism today.
12. Marx’s Theory of History.
Marx’s idea is that the proletariat or working class, who in the mid-1800’s England and Germany seemed as though they had nothing left to lose. They felt “alienated” in the sense that they didn’t own or control the factors of production. Marx felt their hope was in rising against the bourgeois in an attempt to propel society from its historical capitalism into its final stage of communism.
The revolution wasn’t just about revenge on the bourgeois who profited off the labor of the workers; it was more practical. The bourgeoisie class wasn’t going to give up the current cycle by choice, by so the working class would need to do it.
Karl Marx – The Revolutionary Scholar I THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.
Why a Workers’ Revolution?
Marx didn’t look to the proletariat because he admired all their qualities. Instead, he rationalized heavily to convince everyone, possibly including himself, that they could do it.
The reason he put his faith in a class that was not his own, was that he knew the bourgeois wouldn’t give up their favored position in capitalist society. Rather, the bourgeoisie has historically praised the capitalist philosophers and ignored utopians who decried the market-system.
Marx, the bourgeoisie, and anyone else who has read Smith knows that getting a class to act out of their self-interest is easy, but convincing a class to act against its interests is like herding cats.
Thus, Marx looks to the proletariat. This worked out poorly for the West in the 20th century as Russia, and other powers embraced cherry-picked versions of Marx’s theories, which led them not to utopia, but to war and, eventually, back to capitalism.
TIP: It is tempting to treat Marx, a radical philosopher, Lenin, a radical revolutionary, and Stalin a radical despot, as the same entity in the West. The problem here is that they are entirely different figures with wildly different historical lessons to teach. If someone can’t tell the difference between Stalin and Marx, we are in deep trouble when they show up at the ballot box or vote with their dollars.
What is Marxist Communism?
Finally, putting together the class theory, the history theory, and the revolutionary theory, we get to Marx’s theory of Communism, the last historical stage in his theory of history.
Marxist Communism is what Marx saw as the next stage after the capitalist mode of production. The worker’s revolution would abolish private property and classes and create common ownership of the means of production.
The exact mechanics of how this would work is a complex that Marx’s dealt with in his other works.
The problem in practice isn’t the ideals of utopia; it is the corrupt despots and tyrants who seize control of the otherwise equalized and centralized system. As the Russians well knew then, or at least we can be sure they know today, there is nothing more destabilizing to society than its total equalization. It is the ideal state for a state to be in if a tyrant seeks to gain control of the masses.
TIP: See Communism-Marxism from Wikipedia for a more detailed basic description.
Masters of Money Episode 3 – Karl Marx.
What to Learn from Marx
Since a worker’s revolution doesn’t seem to lead directly to communism, but instead, in Marx’s terms, seems to revert to a past historical stage, then we have two choices.
We can either run from Marx, tail between our legs, and pray nobody ever reads him again or look at what he got right, what he got wrong, and perhaps find a better path forward.
What if the next step isn’t communism, but enlightened “fair-market” capitalism? What if the next revolution happens at the ballot box and boardroom? What if we lift up the working class and give them a stake in owning capital, as we see with 401ks and HSAs and companies providing shares as benefits? What if we educate the working class and help them join the bourgeoisie, while the bourgeoisie themselves take some pride in physical labor? What if we value our liberty and individual choice while still caring for the collective?
Or we can ask the question, “in the age of robotics in our near future when physical labor isn’t needed as much, will a proletariat continue to exist? Do we all become an either a lower or upper class of sorts?” Are we suggesting our robots will rise up against us? (Forgive me for getting metaphysical for a moment).
Marx appears to have seen many social forces accurately. It seems short sighted to demonize him to the point where nobody but the modern proletarian left even remembers his words. If anything, isn’t this more dangerous than discussing him honestly? As with Smith’s invisible hand, if we hide the idea, those who happen upon it in their study of libertarianism may see it as a final destination rather than a stepping stone. Aren’t we better off discussing these things openly? Do people doubt capitalism’s ability to defeat communism on its own merits?
Why Marxism Cannot Work.
TIP: A key concept with Marx and Engels is the way humans lived in the state of nature, and how they form social systems and governments. A core principle derived from Marx, but not developed by him specifically, Dialectical materialism, is a fusion of his dialectic. This was an extension of a Hegelian concept, which can be boiled down to the idea that truth is empirical and we project our ideals in the world around us, and materialism, the idea that social systems are derived from the material foundations; the factors of production are the materials. The jargon is complex. The basic idea is that we look to the state of nature, then trace how the factors of production organize in eras and then figure out where the system is going. When we have done this, we can guide society in the optimal direction, basing our ideas on empirical data.
In John Maynard Keynes’ essay Am I a Liberal? He critiques Marx and the British Labour Party, the British Conservative party, and the British Liberal party. His insight pairs well with Marx and the actual story we learn by studying the French Revolution and October Revolution.
Comparing Marx and the French Revolution
Let’s start with the French Revolution as seen through the lens of Marx. In this view, the bourgeoisie (including the Royals) oppressed the lower classes. See the flour war for instance. In the class struggle leading to the Revolution, the lower classes of the third estate became revolutionaries. They were represented by the proletarian Jacobins. To overthrow the bourgeoisie, the Jacobins teamed up with bourgeoisie intellectuals or “the intelligentsia,” as represented by the Girondins.
The revolution worked, but directly after the uprising heads started rolling. Many peasants on the “wrong side of the isle” lost their heads, but so did many bourgeoisie including both the conservatives, the Royals, and educated bourgeoisie the Girondins.
Eventually, the Thermidorian Reaction ended the Jacobin Reign of Terror, and this was what resulted in the Rise of Napoleon, a liberal despot.
The Worker’s Revolution turned into a bloodbath. The former allies of the worker party were the first to go. Then a despotic emperor who called himself a liberal took over.
Is that what you think happened during the Lenin’s October Revolution? While Lenin may have seemed acceptable from a historical point of view, but his usurper Stalin was far more brutal.
Marx knew about the French Revolution and had very stringent criteria for how technologically advanced the proletariat must be. He famously doubted that mid-to-late 1800’s Russia was advanced enough to evolve past their current state, which was arguably feudal in some respect. He didn’t think that this sort of revolution was the ideal way forward.
The Real Problem With Marx
The real problem with Marx, his disregard of the tyrannical nature of people and his economic theories related to communism aside, is his insistence on a class of angry workers overthrowing everyone else by force. This is an inherently unfair proposition to those that don’t want it, and an act that almost always ends poorly from a historic standpoint in practice.
Marx, seeing the rise of industrialization around him assumed that he was witnessing the final form of capitalism. But in retrospect, we can argue that he was not.
Later we would see the Roosevelts, Keynes, and Social Liberalism. Unions would get a foothold and voters more rights. Social security programs and assistance programs would create a safety net, and a mixed market would bear great fruit.
From the standpoint of America in 2017, we can see still see the problems of capitalism such as human-caused climate change and economic inequality and the long road ahead. We can also see the benefits that our market system brought us in practice like medical science, central heating, houses with indoor plumbing, cars, credit, and upward mobility, not to mention the internet, Facebook, and iPhones.
Despite its vices, in this era, capitalism can be shown to have a host of empirical virtues.
Moving forward, we can question if perhaps the next step is a more enlightened form of Capitalism. We can look at new ideologies like new neoclassical synthesis, neoliberalism, general progressivism, a strong working middle class, a lower class with dignity, help, and opportunity, and new types of self-made bourgeoisie like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerburg. We do not need to conjure up images of evil Robber Barons.
While no one can say for sure what the final mode of production looks like, I strongly feel that it involves a system in which all people can thrive, not a system where one class overthrows the other to inflict everlasting sameness-for-all.
Equality and liberty go hand-in-hand, and people are incentive based creatures. Let’s keep our incentives and heroes, and not cast aside liberty today for equality tomorrow to take a short cut.
Marx accused the past philosophers like Mill of being errand boys and apologists for the capitalists, but couldn’t it just be that they saw the same potential in markets that he saw in his communist utopia? Just like neoclassical synthesis respects Keynes and Smith, perhaps the next step forward is one that simply respects both Marx and Mill.
Ought I, then, to join the Labour Party? Superficially that is more attractive. But looked at closer, there are great difficulties. To begin with, it is a class party, and the class is not my class. If I am going to pursue sectional interests at all, I shall pursue my own. When it comes to the class struggle as such, my local and personal patriotisms, like those of every one else, except certain unpleasant zealous ones, are attached to my own surroundings. I can be influenced by what seems to me to be justice ad good sense; but the Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie. – John Maynard Keynes hinting at the problem with class warfare of any kind.
The Bloody History of Communism Full.
TIP: See my theory of the separation of powers and element theory. It touches on how the classes can balance each other without eliminating or dominating each other. I see this, with a market-based system and a social safety-net as the best way forward.
TIP: Marx wasn’t born with the idea of a worker’s revolution. Instead, many of his other ideas came first. Marx embraced the idea of a workers revolution after meeting Engels. Likewise, early in his career, Marx had no economic theory. He focused on other aspects of society like alienation; he would later connect the idea of this existential alienation to the proletariat.
TIP: When people say “Marxism,” they may mean “Marx’s and Engels’ ideas.” They often mean the combined and cherry picked theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and others after both Marx and Engels had died post-October Revolution and Red Scare, although, Marx was very unpopular with the bourgeoisie capitalists in his lifetime too.
Communism | The 20th century | World History | Khan Academy.