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.
Keep in mind this page is about Marxian class theory and what Marx and Engels thought, this page is not about me-as-a-person calling for Communism, or a workers’ revolution, or whatever conclusion one might jump to without reading the page carefully (just in case that isn’t obvious).
TIP: Marx’s class theory is partly a reaction to thinkers like Hegel, Mill, Locke, Smith, and Ricardo, but more-so a direct reaction to advents of the times like the “Condition of the Working Class in England.”
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” The Communist Manifesto
Marx Didn’t Invent the Communist Movement: The above quote is eluding to the fact that the Communist Manifesto was giving a movement already well underway a platform, it was not itself creating a movement.
The Difference Between Marxism and Communism: Marxism is the philosophy of Karl Marx, it spans history, economics, and politics. Communism is a very general ideology, of which there are many types, that is generally centered around state planning, workers’ empowerment, and the public ownership of the means of production. The Communist Manifesto is Marx and Engels giving the workers’ movements of the day a philosophical backbone. Communism in practice however isn’t limited to what Marx and Engels defined in the Communist Manifesto, instead it comes in many forms. “Marxist Communism,” that is Communism in the style of Marx (and Engels), is only one form. So, while Communism was influenced by Marx, it exists before, after, and generally outside of him. In short, Marxism and Communism are two very different things.
Marx was a Historian and He is Often Playing off The Work of Others or Commenting on History: One important thing to note before moving on is that Marx was a historian. He was drawing from the old peoples’ driven movements (like the movements of the French Revolution), identifying historic class structures, studying past economic systems, relating this all to the struggles of his modern day, and then using that to define systems existing in his day (and predicting how they would evolve). Interestingly, the famous Marx quote above is playing off Edmund Burke’s own spectre quote pertaining to the French Revolution which reads “. . . out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappalled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist.” Burke and Rousseau are no more responsible for the French revolution than Marx was for the Russian revolution… that is to say, a little bit, but indirectly (not directly) to be fair. Anyway, the concept is the same in all cases, it is philosophers noticing a spectre arising out of the ashes of a monarchical force and writing about it.
An Introduction to Marx, the Bourgeoisie, and the Proletariat
Before getting started, here is the basic “Marxian Class Fork” in the terms of the Communist Manifesto itself:
- By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. CAPITAL.
- By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live. LABOR.
In other words, Marx’s class theory is about the dynamics between labor and capital in the capitalist mode of production of the 1840’s – 1860’s (when he wrote his early work The Communist Manifesto and later work The Capital), and how the dynamics would lead to a revolution.
The problem, to not make you wait, is twofold: 1. that Communism never took off in industrialized societies and instead became favored by developing pre-industrial (at the time) countries like Russia and China, and 2. Marx forget to finish the part where he explained what exactly the angry workers were supposed to do after the revolution. Inevitably, this led to despots like Stalin (who used Communism as an excuse for tyranny).
This is to say, Marx’s theory had holes in it and unfortunate effects. Holes aside, Marx got a ton right. Below we look at the good and bad of Marx by focusing on his class theory (and its related economics). In doing this, we will cover the basics of everything Marx.POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx.
NOTE: The quote above the idea that the capitalists breed the inequality that leads to their own downfall (as wealth is concentrated in few-and-fewer hands, it creates a giant angry mob of alienated workers who itch for a revolution). In this sense, it isn’t the workers who bring the end to Capitalism for Marx, but the Capitalists themselves who usher in the end of the Capitalist mode of production. The context of this theory, and the terms used, are explained below.
TIP: This page explains Marx’s theory, it doesn’t advocate it. If I were to advocate theories I would suggest pairing the theories of figures like Novak, Friedman, Keynes, and Piketty, and then from there comparing them to figures like Smith, Marx, Mises, and Ricardo. One can also look to Locke and Mill. There is no one correct theory, instead each “sage of economics” offers their own insight in their own times (from their own nationalist, globalist, or left-right perspective). In Marx’s time, industrial capitalism was a bit of a terror and the workers were suffering under an oligarchy of sorts, much has changed since then in terms of technology and laws. See Capital in the Twenty-First Century By Thomas Piketty Explained.
Marxian Class Theory
Marxian class theory (Marx’s class theory) is at the core of everything Marx. If you get his class theory, the centerpiece of his and Engels’ historic materialism and scientific socialism, 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, Marx the Historian, Marx the Economist, Engels, Communism, Scientific Socialism, and “Marx” the dirty word in Western capitalist society.
So let’s start there.
First, a quick reading list of key works, that is the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (which are all primarily Engels explaining Marx in simple terms; Marx himself is rarely simple), and a brief video form introduction to the basics of Marxism.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, communism falters in its excessive equality; one might say they both “miss the mark“).
TIP: The first thing to know about Marx, as you may have already guessed, is: Most of what we attribute to Marx casually is generally the shared theory of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In a most cases Engels work is simpler to understand (and in is in some cases more compelling), but judgements aside, Engels contributed to much of “Marx’s” theory and Engels actually founded Marxist theory together with Karl Marx.
A Quick Introduction to Marxian Terms
Marx “gave names to things” calling his concepts by names like:
- “Historical materialism“: the naturally occurring Darwinian evolution of governments based on the physical materials, i.e. capital, labor, and exchange AKA the factors of production, and the ensuing class struggle between the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) and the workers (proletariat) as an empirical science.
- “Scientific socialism“: treating the natural class struggle noted by historic materialism and its factors of production and exchange as an empirical science, by which the next cycle can be deduced using dialects.
- “Dialectic (the dialectic method)“: the art of abstraction as noted by the Greeks and as applied by Hegel to the metaphysic, but is applied by Marx and Engels to explain how the antitheses of labor and capital create a synthesis of Communism via a class struggle (i.e. they use the dialectic method to consider only the physical and empirical, while scoffing at the metaphysic, to create a theory of economics at the center of the different systems of government). They, in a sense, turn Plato’s forms on their head (or “turn Hegel’s theory on its head) to treat the evolution of governments as a purely empirical thing (and not a thing of moral virtues).
These concepts, and a few other important terms from Marxian economics and a few other related terms like “alienation” (the existential lack of meaning inherent in trading labor for capital that drives an agitator to agitate; for example, that which drives a worker to revolt), are all you really need to know to “get” Marx.
The terms aren’t simple, but the concepts are fairly easy to get with a little bit of time and effort (just like it is with Kant’s names for things like his “A priori and a posteriori,” no it isn’t that simple, but yes it is worth taking the time to understand).
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, the World Wars, and… the current rise of right-wing populism responding to global inequality.
With all the above in mind, Marx was more a historian and economist than a Revolutionary, we make a grave mistake as liberals (the general ideology of the west) by ignoring the historical, social, and economic theory underlying Marxian theories.
It is much better to “get” Marx, so we can get a better sense of the many different forms of socialism and how they relate or don’t relate to Marx, and so we can see where the theory went wrong in action under figures like Mao and Stalin.
Marxian Class Theory and The Class Struggle Between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat
With that introduction covered, lets get to the essence at the heart of Marx, “the Class Struggle” denoted by Marxian Class Theory.
- There are upper-class bourgeoisie capitalists who own the means of production and control labor. Owners. In modern terms, “The Establishment.” Capital.
- There are lower-class proletariat workers who sell their labor. Wage Earners. In modern terms, “The Common People.” Labor.
Or, in the terms of the Communist Manifesto itself (as noted above):
- By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. CAPITAL.
- By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live. LABOR.
NOTES: In other words, the bourgeoise and the proletariat are the bourgeoise employers (capital) and proletariat workers (labor) of all the various social classes. Here the Bourgeoisie gives birth to its antithesis, the Proletariat, by exploiting labor for capital. For more see the Manifesto itself, Marx and Engels’ other work, or our page on class systems. There are other classes, like the lower-middle class and peasant class, but for the main idea we just need to focus on the two general groups; labor and capital).
“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.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” – The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels, on the historic class struggle that defines the socioeconomic cycles
In Marx’s theory, the proletariat is supposed to rise up 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 classless, nationless, and socially equal global society).
Why would the worker class rise up (and not say the lowest peasant class)? Simple.
The workers are, according to Marx the only revolutionary class (the other classes are being phased out by bourgeoise capitalism and are therefore reactionary and not revolutionary). Meanwhile, the bourgeoise cannot phase out the proletariat as they need them to maintain production (to the bourgeoise labor/proletariat is a kind of capital). Plus, the proletariat have already began to organize into Unions (a type of organization that only becomes easier as technology advances).
And why again would we want a revolution in the first place?
It isn’t that anyone wanted a revolution, no more than the liberals “wanted” a revolution with which to throw off kings.
Before the liberal revolutions kings oppressed people, so the lower classes teamed up against them to create “the liberal state.” However, in the system created by the liberals, the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie became the new oppressors.
The capitalism in the liberal state has created such social, political, and economic inequality that it, to the Marxists, essentially demanded a workers’ revolution (a vehicle by which it could be taken into the next cycle via a new revolution).
As noted above: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers,” – the final lines of Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto.
Just as the liberal revolutions took out the kings and paved the way for the bourgeoisie, which created the modern proletariat, the next cycle will see the proletariat take out the bourgeoisie… before finally taking out themselves.
This naturally occurring cycle isn’t about faults, or about a peasant class not being worthy of being the antagonist in the revolution, or about the upper-class being evil, it is just about the nature of capitalism and the class system, the inevitable wealth and power gap, and the inevitable reactions and revolutions.
This is why it is “scientific socialism,” and not just a ideological utopian socialism. It is a prediction based on history and the real social factors of production in historic cycles!
Scientific Socialism and the Communist Party
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 the same 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).
Indeed, if we look at the social classes, the evolution of governments, and the evolution of economy in history, Marx the historian presents a compelling theory. Learn more about the social class system. Or at least ponder the image above for a second to get an idea of the multi-tiered “third estate” social class Marx is talking about.
The idea is that the upper third estate that oppresses the working classes (the capitalists) won’t side with the common people (lowest class) or workers (second lowest) without a catalyst.
Young Marx, Old Marx, Revolution Through Democracy, Fascism, and How the Bourgeoisie Can Stop Populist Uprisings
For Young Marx, the catalyst was a workers’ revolution, and this inspired Communism (the ideology of the global Communist Party which is less a party and a global movement)… but with that in mind, Old Marx revised his theory to a more democratic one.
With that we can note, taking all his works into account, “Marx wasn’t much of a Marxist.” In the end he was a bit of… a mix of a radical social democrat / republican. Well that and a master historian, economist, and political thinker.
We are far too quick to judge Marx, of course, now you know why.
The upper-class never did like that theory of revolution to abolish bourgeoisie property.
They were all psyched about taking out the churches and kings, but not as excited about taking out the barons (wait, “we ARE the barons” they say!)
Luckily, not every theory calls for the abolishing of the upper-classes, consider, without extreme inequality, there is no catalyst!
So, the true power to offset populist revolutions lays not with the lower classes, and not even with the worker classes, but with the upper-classes and state themselves.
All they have to do is not screw everyone and create a giant power and economic gap in the greed. Heck, maybe they could even not corrupt the senate like it was 30 BC all over again. Simple.
TIP: Fascism (the other anthesis to global liberalism, the other “solution”) also arises due to many of the same reasons (inequality in the liberal state), and now you understand the causes of WW2 and the class struggle of the capitalist mode of production. So, do we solve inequality democratically, do we do deconstruction, do we turn to the populist right of Hitler, or do we turn to the populist left of Marx? Do we Third Way or Third Reich? Unfortunately for all of us, that question has yet to be answered. I’ll take this moment to offer an opinion then: I suggest Progressive Centrism and Bernie Sanders, this way we solution the problem by democratic means, by a gloriously peaceful revolution. I am fairy sure it is what old Marx would have wanted, especially if he could have seen how the World Wars unfolded.
FACT: According to the Communist Manifesto, the term “Commune” was the name taken in France by the nascent towns even before they had conquered from their feudal lords and masters local self-government and political rights as the “Third Estate.”.
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: Marx’s whole thing was that he looked at history and noticed patterns, then he looked at economics and noticed patterns, then he combined all his knowledge into a theory of socialism. This theory went on to become the basis for Communism… then that theory was corrupted by despots. There is a world of difference between Marx’s work and “Marx” the dirty word in Western capitalist society. Marx wasn’t demanding the next historic cycle as much as he was predicting it as a response to the social, political, and economic inequality bred by the capitalist state. In the same way the Jacobins took France in the 1790’s, Young Marx simply predicted the next cycle would be taken by socialists via a workers revolution.
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 and more democratic. By the end, Old Marx believed in Democratic Socialism. Consider, there are only a handful of social classes, and one or more must spur on a revolution, if a revolution is to happen (if we accept that historic cycles are defined by the class struggle). Young Marx thought the class that would do this would be workers, but that part of the theory was only theory, and only a small part. That point can’t be understated. There are countless forms of socialism, and each has different ideas on how change is accomplished or to what degree things should be changed.
TIP: Stalinism and Marxism are very different (and so is Leninism, Maoism, Democratic Socialism, Libertarian Socialism, etc, etc; socialism comes in countless authoritative and non-authoritative forms). Marx was a master philosopher, Lenin a revolutionary with a despotic streak, and Stalin a despot. They each had their pros and cons, but conflating the extreme authoritative socialist despots with the idealistic historians who favor humanist forms of socialism is more a thing of propaganda than practical reasoning. Rejecting all socialism “because Stalin” is easy, actually understanding Marx the economist, historian, and political philosopher and all the types of socialism is hard.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-capitalism. 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 thick. Still, you’ll need to understand this term.Alienation.
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.
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 | Part 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.
The Bloody History of Communism Full.
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.
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.