The History of Class Struggle According to Karl Marx
The year 1848 was a significant time in political history. This was the year when Karl Marx published his Manifesto, a brilliant work on the effects of capitalism in society. Karl Marx’s masterpiece became a sensation and made the author both hated and revered through the decades since 1848.
But it must be made clear that Karl Marx was the not the only intellectual who stumbled upon the idea of class struggle. Plato and Machiavelli may have used archaic terms but they too wrote about the turmoil experienced by people in ancient times and the Middle Ages respectively with regards to class struggle.
But it seems that Karl Marx’s assertions provide a very sharp divide between rich and poor that it merits additional study if there is indeed a major difference between these three political thinkers.
Karl Marx, Plato, and Machiavelli wrote of the same things. Ever since time began and when man began to roam the earth, the spectacle of class struggle is always evident for all to see.
Classes are usually categorized into the following general terms:
· Rich and the Poor
· Landed and the Landless
· Rulers and their Subjects
· Intellectuals and the Simpletons
· Oppressor and the Oppressed
Even with the very basic categories shown above it is very clear that Karl Marx was right on target when he declared that the history of all existing society is the history of class struggle. In every society that was established even thousands of years before Plato, in the banks of the river Nile and even farther still in the annals of human history one can see communities divided into said categories.
According to Marx aside from the old “subordinate gradations” such as, freeman and slave; patrician and plebian; lord and serf; guild-master and journeyman; he will add a new category which he calls the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The former speaks of the modern capitalists, businessmen who have the means to build factories and hire laborers and the latter tells of the modern workers who are selling their skills and strength to work for their new masters.
In primitive times the division between groups of people may have been overly simplistic as separating the strong from the weak. The truism that only the strong will survive is not only evident in the animal world but in primitive human settlements, upper body strength and muscle power is the “power” that makes one rise above the status quo. And thus, the good hunters and gatherers did dominate over those who could not match them in physical prowess.
The only difference with Karl Marx’s assertion is that his perspective was undoubtedly been influenced by the events surrounding his growing up years up to the time when he was a young man. Up to the time when he began writing, the political and social upheavals that were going on around him; these events colored the lens from which he viewed his time. The proponent of this study would like to present a basic set of background information that can frame the premise for this idea.
Karl Marx was the product of his time. He was born and raised when Europe was experiencing the radical effects of industrialization. It was as if a new epoch was established it was no longer the time when the ancients were struggling to come up with fundamental truths about morality and philosophy. It was no longer the time when Medieval thought dominated the entire intellectual landscape. It was now the time for the modern age. And Karl Marx saw something distinct, far more different than what was observed by those who came before him.
For Plato and Machiavelli, they have one thing in common. These two forerunners of political thought, lived in a world order where cities are very dependent on farms and the people that work in the agriculture sector. It is true that even at this early stage one can already see the class struggle between those from the city and those from the country. But still the farmers have leverage – they live and own the land they cultivate. Moreover, in the time of Plato, the world of finance was not yet securely in place. Banks may have been in existence but it is very probable that in many parts of the world, barter and trading for goods is still the conventional way of moving around goods. It would have been very difficult for these two philosophers to imagine that there will come a time when farmers would leave their farms and then flock into the city to do work beneath their dignity and capability.
In Karl Marx’s time, there was an exodus from the country to the cities. In the year when he wrote the Manifesto it is already an accepted practice in society that minted money is the new way of doing things and everything can be bought including the heart and soul of men. Karl Marx what is more disturbing is the fact that the multitudes are willing to accept their new fate without a struggle and so together with Frederick Engels he came to make his convictions known and it was as radical as the times.
There is a reason why Karl Marx was forced to categorize society into two major groups. And he wrote, “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 facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (1848, p. 3). The following pages will show how he came with this idea.
To provide for an understanding on what made Marx speak out in horror and indignation as to the horrific effects of class struggle one can benefit from an eyewitness account of rapidly changing Europe:
Large-scale factory production transformed the industrial towns into dark hives, busily puffing, clanking and screeching, smoking for twelve and fourteen hours a day, sometimes going around the clock… Men built in haste, and hardly had time to repent of their mistakes before they tore down original structures and built again, just as heedlessly. The newcomers crowded into whatever was offered. It was a period of vast urban improvisation: makeshift hastily piled upon makeshift (Lewis Mumford, as cited in Gillham, 2002, p. 25).
The above-mentioned description of the ugly transformation of major cities in Europe was enough to paint a picture of hardship, discrimination, humiliation, and depravity. Those who used to farm their own lands, even though they were not rich and possess gold and servants, they have a significant amount of freedom that they can use to work and to trade using the produce of their hard labor.
In the industrialized cities where they have been reduced to something a little better than slaves, their ability to negotiate for rest, for a better return for their hard toil is reduced to almost zero. Their freedom was forfeited the moment they agreed to receive wages. The money that they get on a daily or weekly cycle, allow their new master the capability to impose work schedules and production quotas that are non-negotiable.
The proponent believes that Karl Marx’s remarks were justified especially with regards to the cruel treatment of some workers in factories and the lack of benefits and incentives given by top management. Oliver Gillham pointed out that it was not only the abysmal working conditions that were the direct consequences of capitalism going amok but also the, “…horrors of life in the industrial city […] and the squalid living conditions…” (2002, p. 26).
The hardships faced by the workers are not hard to imagine. Most of them came from farms in the countryside. In areas where open spaces are free and fresh air is can be had for nothing at all. Now they are being asked to work in an assembly line and they do not have the freedom they once enjoyed. In a scathing remark Karl Marx compounded all his hatred against the Bourgeoisie by making them responsible for developing a new class, which he described as,
Now add to that the frustration felt when these same workers would go home and instead of a comfortable place to relax and unwind they are forced to sleep in “…shoddily constructed housing” (Gillham, p. 26). While at the same time, their capitalist masters, without having to do the same tasks they are doing are living in palatial homes and feasting like kings. Karl Marx had all the motivation he needed to write his masterpiece, an outburst of all the injustices made in the in the years leading to 1848.
United Against Communism
Aside from the fact that Karl Marx was privy to the horrible working conditions and the sad plight of the proletariat, there is another reason why he made a very sharp distinction between two classes while Plato and Machiavelli did not oversimplify the problems that plagued human societies. There is evidence to show that all the classes belonging to the upper middle echelons of society are galvanizing together to form one single unit. This unity is achieved because they faced a common enemy – Communism. All the more, Karl Marx was convinced that the powers that be, in its fear of the unknown communist party, desperately consolidated their ranks to crush this new idea brewing first in Germany and now threatening to engulf all of Europe.
Karl Marx and company felt fenced in and could not do anything but to cry out against the move of the upper classes to mitigate this growing movement of workers desiring equality. Thus, as predicted, society was now being polarized into two camps members of each group increasingly being alienated from the other and the more they dissociate, the more that they made it possible to see the distinction between Oppressor and the Oppressed.
In the context of early 19th century Europe, Karl Marx’s premise that “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”, is fairly substantiated by the events that occurred during his time. Looking back since the day this pronouncement was made public, the only apparent weakness of this argument is the fact that Karl Marx could not see the end to the extreme polarization of European societies.
Karl Marx, based on the Manifesto was very much convinced that the new order, the new epoch would continue until the end of man or until the Proletariat had successfully eradicated the Bourgeoisie and ushered a new Utopian society based on the idea of communism. In the 21st century, it is easier to judge the significance and enduring worth of Marx’s generalization. The whole world has since moved on and continued in the path of modernization, never looking back to the time when life was simpler and when the means of production is at a scale very much less from what can be seen today.
Karl Marx’s ideas are still worthy of discussion but his simplification of the “class struggle” could no longer be accepted as a framework from which men and women in the 21st century can build policies and chart a way forward. In a way it can be declared as passe. It seems that the modern world has learned to adapt. One of the best counterargument to Marx’s ideas is the success of the common man in the United States of America.
Using the formulation that can be found in the Manifesto it would have been impossible to create a strong and contented Middle Class, one that cuts into the simple model created by Marx. There could be no Middle Class because there is no way to form a second group in the middle tier. Based on his definition of production, labor, wages, resources, dependence, money, banks, etc. The Proletariat is doomed to stay in the mud, never able to rise up or even help themselves to climb up and change their destiny.
Karl Marx made it very plain that the Bourgeoisie had joined ranks with others – those with vested interest to keep the laborers bound – so that they can preserve the status quo. The Upper Class group has made steps that would deter the working man from breaking away from the harsh cycle of pointless living. There is not enough money to pay for all his needs, to buy the necessary food and materials that will give the laborer comfort and happiness after a long and tiring day at the factory.
Karl Marx was so sure of all these that he made the conclusion that there is no other solution but a revolution. Then the United States came, at the time that Marx was perfecting the Manifesto, the U.S. began to rise, the democratic government together with its people, indirectly made futile the pronouncement of Marx. The continued success of the U.S. especially after World War II was a direct challenge to the main communist principle that there could be no capitalist holding so much money and possessing so much influence. In a society where there is a capitalist then the people will labor like slaves and their future will be as bleak as the night until they rise up and overthrow the businessmen who gave them jobs and to wrestle from them the means of production. Only after they Proletariat has successfully controlled society can real progress begin to happen.
But in the U.S. the laborers did not went on a bloody campaign to eradicate the “Bourgeoisie” and more surprisingly, the common man, the laborer found a way to rise up from the mire and after years of hard work able to own his own firm. It was unthinkable in the Marxist’s point of view that a worker receiving mere wages can one day have his own means of production, similar to the time when farmers have control over what they produce in the fields.
In the history of class struggles, philosophers and political theorist in the past would have different views on how said conflict between those who posses a significant amount of money and power lord it over those who have very little. Yet they agree on one thing, that there are those who have major control over others. This is very much evident in social gradations seen between slave owners and slaves, the nobility and the peasants, patricians and plebes etc. But then in 1848, Karl Marx veered away from the conventional and he proposed that there is a new order coming.
Karl Marx views was radically different from those of Plato and Machiavelli. The philosopher from the ancient world and the political genius from the Medieval Ages believe that there is as much struggle between members of the Upper Class as much as there are conflicts between them and those in the Lower Class of society. Karl Marx contends that in the 19th century, social classes are being simplified because a superior class is moving in, creating a chokehold in society and so the Upper Class is banding together as one to control those who belong to the laboring class.
Karl Marx was correct but only up to a certain point. The proponent of this study argues that his ideas were bounded by a specific time frame and it is during a period in history when the effects of rapid industrialization were ravaging Europe. It can be argued that it was not the intention of the Upper Class to create a laboring class that will serve them like automatons devoid of soul and feeling. It was simply a result of rapid industrialization. The United States is the society that disproves Karl Marx claims. In this nation, the laboring class need not murder the business owners who gave them jobs in order to rise up from poverty. Society can work together to achieve what is commonly desirable. Finally, the U.S.S.R. is gone and China is embracing capitalism. It is fair then to say that Marxism is applicable in the past but now it has become obsolete.
Elster, John. (1986) Karl Marx. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Gillham, Oliver. (2002). The Limitless City. Washington, D.C.: New Jersey: Island Press.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848). The Manifesto of the Communist Party. S. Moore (Trans.).
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