Karl Marx (1818-1883) is possibly the most studied philosopher in history. He said that the point of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change it – and change it he did, with an idea, although he never saw the effects of his idea after its interpretation and implementation by others after his death.
Before Marx, economics was dominated by the thoughts of David Ricardo (1772-1823). Ricardo’s most famous principles were the Iron Law of Wages and the Labour Theory of Value. Simply explained, the Iron Law dictated that wages had to be kept at the absolute minimum – just enough to allow workers to survive. If they were any higher, workers would breed prolifically, there would be too many mouths to feed and not enough jobs for them when they grew up, and many would starve. So it’s best to keep wages at survival level, for stability. The Labour Theory of Value states that the price of goods reflects the labour that has gone into them. When it was shown that his theory left no place for profit in the economy, he simply stated that profit consists of the money that wasn’t paid to workers for the previous work they did in building up fixed capital – factories, machines, ships etc.
So Ricardo – no friend of the workers – accepted that all value in an economy was created by workers, and that profit was, in effect, stolen from working people. Of course he was only speaking to fellow members of the wealthy, educated classes. There was no fear that illiterate, uneducated workers would ever have access to, or indeed would ever understand the Iron Law of Wages or the Labour Theory of Value.
Then along came Karl Marx and explained it to them. He said that the dominant philosophy in society was affected – controlled even – by the wealthiest and most powerful, who always trick people into believing that the poverty of the workers and the wealth of the powerful are inevitable. Ancient Greece and Rome and early America were run by slave owners, and so the dominant philosophical schools didn’t leave room for criticism of slavery. In Medieval Christian cultures, and in some Islamic states today, speaking out against the power of religious leaders, or their way of thinking, could get you into serious trouble. Feudalism and the Hindu caste system enforced a belief that God ordained the lowly position of serfs and dalits and the exalted position of lords and Brahmins; and 19th century economists explained that profit, progress and empire required workers to live in brutal poverty.
Marx was having none of this. He explained that ordinary people are separated from the means of production (land, factories, machines, tools), and are therefore forced to sell their labour, from which capitalists extract their profits. From this, capitalists are able to accumulate wealth, and make more money just by having money. The rest of us then have to make money from our work. But our work is the source of all wealth, so why should some people make money from money? It’s a good point – but what to do about it? Marx’s answer was to wait – history was on the workers’ side.
Marx was influenced by Hegel – his vision of history as a flow, with direction, and his ‘dialectical method’. For Marx, the synthesis that was generated from the conflict between industrial capitalists on the one hand and the proletariat on the other was socialism. He disagreed with Hegel’s position that ‘spirit’ was moving society forward – for Marx it was very much material and financial power, and world socialism would arrive not through any moral force, but because it was an historical inevitability, and socialism would take over from capitalism in the same way that the power of the Church and aristocracy was eclipsed by capitalists.
The thrust of Hegel’s ‘dialectical idealism’ was that developments in human thinking change social and economic conditions, but with Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, developments in social and economic conditions change human thinking. It was almost the reverse of Hegel, for whom the ultimate goal was the liberation of ‘Mind’; for Marx it was the liberation of real humans in the material world. But they shared an ‘historicism’ that has been criticised many times since, notably by Karl Popper.
Marx’s ideas were implementable through the mobilisation of ordinary people – the working class. He labelled previous thinkers’ ideas for designing a better society ‘utopian’, because they failed to locate the engine for change in the working class. Robert Owen (1771-1858) wrote New Moral World, but then instead of appealing to ordinary people, he wrote a letter to King William IV to bring it about; Charles Fourier (1772-1837) announced that he would be at home at a certain time each day to receive any philanthropist who would give him a million francs to set up his utopian colony; the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) believed that the impetus for change would come from the upper classes. Marx ridiculed their little experiments as doomed to fail, which of course they did, because their ideas – regardless of how good they were – could only be implemented if they gained the support of the very people who stood to lose most from their implementation.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) agreed with Marx’s critique of capitalism, but disagreed about violent revolution and the seizing of state power. His anarchistic ideas involved workers’ co-operatives and the abolition of interest. The advantage that Marx’s ideas had over Proudhon’s was a very important one – implementability – and implemented they were. Another anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) predicted that if centralised power was seized, it would never be given up. History seems to have borne him out.
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1rbsav November 5th, 2016
‘Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) predicted that if centralised power was seized, it would never be given up. History seems to have borne him out.’ I think that this is ahistorical, the USSR gave up power without a single window getting smashed. It, itself, reintroduced the private media that undermined it, and reproduced liberal democracy, setting up a liberal government within the soviet system that later overthrew socialism in the USSR and banned communism. The entire of the communist east was overthrown without so much as firing a single shot. So how can you possibly say that the problem is anything to do with central power and it not being relinquished? To me the problem is that these revolutions stopped being revolutionary once socialism was established, once the proletarian had increased his standard of living to the same level as the west, he lost the vocabulary of class struggle, and roaded towards meaningless liberal freedoms and capitalism, the privitisation of the social state was inevitable after this point. You can say that the communist party failed to be responsive to the masses, but equally you can point out that the masses themselves gave up revolutionary agitation in the real protracted sense that produces revolutions.
The body combines central control (of thought and action) with decentral control (the autonomous nervous system etc) Biologically speaking, there is no battle between central and decentral. It’s wrong to lump such basic categories onto something as complex as the russian social state. It’s not Stalin alone personally industrialised Russia to the extent they could defeat european fascism! There were many millions of people involved in these things and lensing things with the liberal ‘authoritarian’ framework robs us of any nuanced understanding.
2rbsav November 5th, 2016
On the whole though, great article, a very succinct introduction to a very broad and complex subject!
3Dave Darby November 5th, 2016
Thanks. I wasn’t ‘lumping such basic categories onto something as complex as the russian social state’ though – I’m lumping it onto the entire world, and in every period of history.
Where Bakunin was right was that power has remained centralised – the fact that it was seized in a non-violent coup by a group of oligarchs who have a different way of organising the economy is by the by. If you insist that power has to be centralised for your idea to be implemented, then that’s where it’s going to stay. If you want power to be decentralised, you have to organise to make it happen. Empire is empire – different flavours, but still empire.
In the case of the body, the brain is responsive to signals from the extremities, the neighbourhoods. There’s never been a centralised, hierarchical system that has done that. They have their agendas, whether ideological, territorial or financial and the people can work in their tractor factories / slave plantations / Primark sweatshops or go to the gulag / get shot / starve.
Bakunin all the way – and Proudhon tells us how to organise it.