Marxist Approach to History and Politics
Outline and assess the main aspects of Marx’s approach to understanding history and politics. Over 150 years after they were first coined, The Labour Theory of Value, Class Antagonisms and the Means of Production are all terms which are central to the revolutionary ideals of Karl Marx and are still widely used and referred to in contemporary political thought. However, when considering how one can assess the Marxist paradigm on history and politics, there must be an understanding of the circumstances in which Karl Marx, one of the greatest political thinkers of the 19th century, was faced with.
As many great political thinkers before and after him, Marx’s political ideology was partly shaped by his experiences, and is arguably the framework behind the inception of some of his greatest works such as the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Marx was born in Prussia at a time when a dynastic monarchy still maintained their rule and social woes were aggravated by the shift from Feudalism to an ever increasing Industrial society.
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As Marx continually moved from country to country, he began to develop dialectic political perspective and, after joining the Young Hegelians and becoming a political thinker, he began to write from a Hegelian viewpoint. His belief was that the method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis was to be best utilised when studying history, politics and the conditions of mankind in order to understand social stratification and emerging capitalism in the economic system. He also believed this method would create a concrete framework for society to follow in order to change the long standing socio-economic conditions of the past.
As Marx himself claimed “The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” Marx differed from many prolific philosophers before him as his theories centred on Materialism and the relationship between the forces and means of production, as opposed to what Marx dismissed as “theories based in idealist moral abstractions which dealt in notions of freedom, justice, fairness and equality” which he claimed were propounded by other thinkers of the time.
Both Marx and Engels strongly criticised other political scientists on the grounds that the Marxist method of “the understanding of history based on truly scientific socioeconomic analysis” was superior to any other analysis of society. Marx was influenced by political thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Ludwig Feurbach, with many of his ideas on materialism and the role of the state deriving from their work.
Marxism has established itself as an essential part of political and historical thought, and as Robert Tucker claims “Not to be well grounded in the writings of Marx and Engels is to be insufficiently attuned to modern thought” Firstly and perhaps most importantly Marx was a champion of the enduring term “class struggle”, and was the first political thinker to thoroughly address the easily inherent vices of capitalism that were expanding in many of the richest Western European nations.
Industrialisation during the nineteenth century had transformed the ways and means by which capitalist society produced and distributed goods, with longer working hours, less pay, and machinery which made the factory working environment hazardous. When Marx moved to London in 1849 he lived in abject poverty almost through choice. He lived amongst the working class and observed their plight, which he believed, was something that could be changed via an assessment of the institutions and the system which were creating their poverty.
Marx believed that history was fundamentally based upon class antagonisms, whether it was the serfs against the landlords, vassals against lords or proletarian against bourgeoisie, Marx documented in his Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society, is the history of class stuggle” . Aside from being a typically Marxist quote, it also explains the way in which Marx believed the circumstances that he observed the proletariat were living in were being worsened by the ruling class, or in Marx’s view the bourgeois business owners.
Marx suggests that this class antagonism was built upon by the bourgeoisie during the Feudal Ages and has continued to expand beyond all recognition, to encompass a ‘dehumanising and alienating’ market which has paved the way for what Marx describes as modern bourgeois society “conjuring up such giant means of production and of exchange, like a sorcerer that is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” .
The means of production that Marx is referring to include creating machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture, electrification of railways and steam navigation, with means of exchange referring to capital and investment. The rationale behind Marx’ theory of class struggle was that the whole landscape and namely infrastructure was determined by the political elites, and that the economic conditions were inextricably linked to the bourgeois dominated values and laws and their “system of ppropriation” . The solution or as Marx saw it, the inevitable result of the bourgeois domination of society was revolution, and the destruction of all remnants of bourgeois society by the proletariat. He believed when the time was right, and the material conditions were right (when the subordinate class became aware of their rightful labour proceeds) then the proletariat would rise up, accompanied by the petty bourgeois and assume control of all property land and business.
As Marx claims “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” , implying that mankind will only realise the injustices ingrained in society for generations, when the conditions in society are permissible. The theory of class struggle has significant influences on all of Marx’ work, and is key theme echoed throughout many of his discourses on economic imbalance and injustice.
On the subject of economics Marx was an abstract thinker, in the sense that he rejected the values that Locke and Smith had advocated a century before him. Specifically, he rejected the ideas of demand and supply. This inevitably led Marx to seek a new theory through which he could envision the proletariat utlising the surplus value of commodities, that capitalism distributed to private business owners. Marx first coined the term “Labour theory of value” in his 1867 economic critique “Das Kapital”.
The principle behind the theory was that labour is only underpaid because of profit, and that the owners of capital and enterprise receive the surplus value that the workers labour creates. As Marx comments “the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of property, capital and land, while the masses are only in possession of their personal condition of production, labour power” , suggesting that his approach to understanding the economic misconducts of capitalism was to understand how and why capital is used to generate profit.
Marx’ ideas were directly at odds with the laws of the market that Adam Smith promulgated in The Wealth of Nations, where he clearly outlines that “Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities” suggesting that value isn’t directly influenced by labour, but by the market and the values that commodity exchange produces. The link between Marx’ approach to history, and the way in which he critiques the capitalist economic system is ummarised in “The German Ideology” written in 1859, in which Marx affirms that “human beings are essentially productive, in that they must produce their means of subsistence in order to satisfy their material needs” , suggesting that human history and anthropology is based on materialism. Humans have always worked to satisfy their social needs as well as material needs and thus, forms of society arise in relation to the productive forces that are at hand. The notions of history and politics as interpreted through ideas about the methods of production and capital ownership are imperative to Marxist paradigms.
Similarly, Marx was extremely opposed to the concept of private property, with the first requirement in communist manifesto being the “abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes” . The doctrine of Marxism suggested that private property was a hallmark of bourgeois society, and thus a way of maintaining the status quo and the oppression of the proletariat to the forces of production. Marx advocated the complete control of property by the state in order to remove inequalities from society.
Marx states that “the task of the labourer is not done away with, but extended to all men; private property still exists, now as the relationship to the entire community to the world of things” , thus forming a collectivised merging of property based still on want, but not just of the select few. Marx also regarded private property as the antithesis between labour and capital, believing it must be mitigated in order to produce the best synthesis. He also believed private property to be the means by which labour was alienated.
Similarly, when it came to distribution Marx embodied the same rationale to approaching the biases of the capitalist system of distribution wealth. His famous rhetoric calling for “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” , has been an iconic slogan for communism, being both endearing and perjorative. What Marx was referring to was the dispersal of the means of consumption and how it is unfairly distributed via wage appropriation. He states that the means of consumption are only a reflection of the means of production, and in capitalist society these are inherently unfair.
Marx goes on to strongly criticise the involvement that socialism has had on the means of production describing gradualists and democratic socialists as “Vulgar socialists have followed the bourgeois economists in their consideration and treatment of distribution as something independent of the modes of production and hence in the presentation of socialism as primarily revolving around the question of distribution” , he then in the next line speculates the rhetorical question “Why go back a step when the real state of affair has been laid bare? This directly attacks those who believed in slow and gradual reform, enforcing that radical revolutionary reform is the best way to enforce change. The clash that socialisms focus on distribution has with Marx’ dialectic approach to history and politics is recorded in the Communist Manifesto “The significance of critical utopian socialism bears and inverse relation to historical development” . It is evident that Marx believes his method of distribution and class warfare is to be the only serious way of creating a society rid of bourgeois greed and inhumanity.
Finally, and perhaps most parallel to the Marxist approach to history, is the Marx’ paradigm on the role of religion in society. Marx was himself bought up in a Jewish family and as historian and scholar Howard L Parsons claims “His whole life was dedicated to a prophetic mission: first, to the task of tearing down the false gods, the idols he considered to constrain man’s progress; second, to the burden of building the conditions of man’s fulfilment” .
Marx believed that religion was used to give comfort and sanctity to people and shelter them from the cruel and heartless world of capitalism. His feeling was that in communist society religion would not be necessary as people would be naturally fulfilled and have no reason for an “opiate of the people” . Marx’ sceptical views of religion can be strongly linked to his grounding in dialectic thought and the way in which he approaches the study of history. Marx believed that man was collective matter in motion, only able to move around, and with no divine influence or control.
Marx adopted a pragmatic view when it came to religion drawing on both Hegel and Feurbach to create the idea that religion is simply comfort for the oppressed. As John C Raines claims “for Marx the essence of religion is the voicing of its suffering – the crying out against the realities of exploitation and degradation” Although Marxism is sometimes pejoratively used to tarnish rogue dictators with notions of “perceived” Marxism, the concept is still regarded as central to political thought in academic circles.
Marxist views on distribution, labour, capital and communism continue to shape and influence contemporary politics. It is necessary to conclude that Karl Marx’ approach to history and politics solidifies around the idea of revolution and overcoming of the bourgeois system of distribution, labour and capital. Marx’ central idea is that through careful planning and repeated oppression the proletariat will rise up internationally and repel the forces of old. Marx is constantly aware of class struggle and used it as the cornerstone for every one of his theories.
He is mindful of the fact that private property is a barrier to Communism, and so is free distribution of capital, thus his ideas revolved round a highly centrally planned economy. Marx approach to history and the approach to he adopts concerning politics advocate the ‘polis’ as the be all and end all of political decision making, and thus there is no need for capitalist control of the economy to go hand in hand with bourgeois control of the state. Marx’ overarching objective was to use a dialectic approach to find a mean by which control of the state by the proletariat is comprehensive and practical.
Engels, Marx, The German Ideology, 1859. Lawrence and Wishart, London p33 Engels, Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, Chartwell Books, Incorporated Oxford University Press Marx, Karl, 11th Thesis on Feurbach, 1845., Mondial Publishing, London 2009 p21 Marx, Karl, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852. Wildes Books of London 2004 p12 Marx, Karl, Critique of Hegel’s Phillosophy of the Right, 1843. Oxford University Press p.58 Marx, Karl, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875, p. 347. Dodo Press Apr 2009 Marx, Karl, Private Property and Communism, 1843 Oxford University Press 2007 p.32 Tucker, Robert C, The Marx and Engels Reader, 1978 2nd Edition W.W. Norton & Company Inc 1985 Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter V, 1776. Methuen & Co LtdRepublished Apr 1904 Raines, John C, Marx on Religion, 2002, pg. 8
Temple University Press Journals :
Parsons, Howard L, The Prophetic Mission of Karl Marx, 1964 The Journal of Religion Volume 44 No.1 University of Chicago Press NB: I did not have enough ink to print off the seminar worksheets but they are attached to the u-ink file and are all completed.