Imagining Other

Political Philosophy Part 2.

pp16. Karl Marx 1818 – 1883

Part 1. Overview.


Links: Imagining Other Index Page

            Extracts from Marx illustrating points below

Evolution of Marx's Thought 

Political Philosophy Contents Page



1. Introductory points (was Marx a philosopher?)

2. Preliminary Theoretical issues (“total” theories, scientific theories, and determinism)

3. What Influences did Marx draw on?

4. Ten Key Concepts: a (heuristic) selection - summary

5. The Key Concepts in more detail:

5.1 THE DIALECTIC – as explanation of society and history (materialist not idealist)

5.2 ALENATION and REIFICATION, COMMODITY FETISHISM etc – a humanistic view (alienation is not endemic to human nature)

5.3 CRITIQUE OF RELIGION – the heart of a heartless world (man makes God), the idea which forms the basis of Marx’s materialism?

5.4 ECONOMY AND SOCIETY, and a CRITIQUE OF “BOURGEOIS” POLITICAL ECONOMY i.e. CAPITALISM - economics at the “base” of social

            order (- ideas etc are part of the “superstructure”), concept of the mode of production; labour theory of value, private property and the market



OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE – a universal class, with universal sufferings

5.7 COMMUNISM as the abolition of capitalist private property


A concept with further implications for politics:

5.8 THE STATE AS INSTRUMENT OF CLASS RULE – an executive committee which manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie


Two Concepts with particular implications for philosophy:

5.9 IDEOLOGY – an inversion of reality, serving the interests of power-holders

5.10 PRAXIS: THEORY AND PRACTICE cannot be separated.


6. Final questions.

6.1 combining Marx with other thinkers

6.2 it’s the economy, stupid!

6.3 science again

6.4 consciousness


7. Appendix: C.Wright Mills’s summary of “the most important conceptions and propositions of classical Marxism”.


Note: there are notes and points on inequality at: Chapter 8 of Corporate Social Responsibility and at: Updates on Inequality.




1. Introductory points:


In a text on political philosophy, should we deal with Marx at all?  Was he a philosopher, or an economist, or simply a political activist?



(i) Because Marx’s work has enormous breadth, and its influence can be found in many academic fields, not just in politics.

Most obviously, Marx contributed ideas on economics (with the analysis of capitalism), and sociology (with the theory of class).

In addition, Marxism has affected philosophy (how we understand the world and our place in it) - Marxism has, in fact, changed the way many people see the world!

Marxism has a particular and distinctive approach to the philosophy of history (“the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”), and it even impacts on the theory of knowledge (especially in regard to the relationship between theory and practice).

There is scarcely an academic discipline that has not (for better or worse, according to your point of view!) been affected by Marxism.


(ii) Marxism has contributed to changing the world: at one time over a third of the world’s population lived under “communism”. And its influence has reached beyond

those who acknowledge it: one key Marxist idea, concerning the importance of the relationship between economic activity and other aspects of life, has been accepted by many who would not call themselves Marxists.



(i) There are some who argue that Marx was not a philosopher but a political activist - his practical concern with (i) economics and (ii) communism put him, according to John Mabbott (*in The State and the Citizen, Hutchinson, 1967 reprinted 1970) outside philosophy: economics and politics are not part of philosophy.


[*see other #References at the end of these notes]


(ii) Others might say that the events of 1989, when the USSR and Eastern Europe turned dramatically away from communism, demonstrate that there are no valid theoretical or practical lessons to learn from Marxism.


2 Preliminary Theoretical issues:


2.1 A note on “total” theories, scientific theories, and determinism:


To me one of the most important features of Marx was that, in terms of ideas, he was a “system-builder”. He was probably the last great philosopher to try to build his ideas into one system (– since most thinkers now reject the possibility of such "total" explanations). In Marx’s theoretical system:


- all aspects of reality are inter-related (Marx used the same method and concepts to explain how the world is, how it changes, and how we understand it and act in it)

- he also used ideas from other thinkers and pulled different disciplines (philosophy, politics, economics) together (see the section on “influences on Marx” below): but we might want to argue that the different disciplines cannot be connected in this way

- his thinking is a self-contained (or “closed”) system: each part and each concept depends on and reinforces each other (so that in trying to explain Marxism it is hard to know where to start!)

- the problem with this is that you could ask if Marxism can be criticised using non-Marxist concepts? Or, putting this another way: is it possible to understand

Marxism if you don’t accept it? As Kolakowski (Main Currents of Marxism, 1978) suggests of the Marist philosopher G. Lukacs: is it a myth, or even a religion?


Karl Popper argues that the characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be possible to falsify it – can this be said of Marxism? Yet Marx claimed his theory was scientific: it enables us to make predictions about the future (according to the workings of economics, and such laws as the tendency for the rate of profit to decline). Popper and others argue that whatever actually happens in politics and the economy, Marxists cling to their “predictions” and their theory, - for example by saying, when a crisis occurs in the economy, but no revolution breaks out: “this was not yet the final crisis!”


Popper also says that Marx's theory suffers from historicism - the attributing to "history" of purpose and meaning, when meaning is only given by the way that humans choose to act.


Others (such as Castoriadis) see the theory as containing a form of determinism: economic laws are given such a status that they deprive humans of any autonomy.

Saying that communism is inevitable also rules out the possibility of human choice. This deterministic interpretation is reflected in, for example, C.Wright Mills’s summary (see 7. Appendix  point 1, and 16, 17). Mills calls it “classical Marxism” – in other words, this is the kind of thinking that Lenin and others at the time would have adopted. Many of Marx’s early writings, which show a more humanistic approach, were not published until some decades after Lenin. (See also the next point).


2.2 One “Marxism” or two (or even more!)?


The French philosopher Louis Althusser (For Marx, 1969; Reading Capital, 1970) caused quite a stir when he suggested that Marx’s ideas seemed to change during his work: his earlier ideas and arguments are more humanist, philosophical, libertarian even; later he seemed more concerned with economics; and with this focus on economics, and changing “modes of production” there is more emphasis on a “necessary historical development”. Althusser thought that the later Marx was the more scientific. Others believe that the danger with the stress on economic laws and structures, as suggested above, is that people become the objects rather than the subjects of historical processes.


There emerged, then, a split between 'scientific' or ‘functional’ Marxists and 'humanistic’ ‘political’ or ‘philosophical' Marxisms. The latter is represented by such as Ralph Miliband and E.P.Thompson.


Some would want to dispute this idea of an “epistemological break” in Marx’s work (as Althusser called it), as they would want the “whole package” to make sense. So the question then is: can the later ideas be reconciled with the earlier?


If we do accept that there are two different theories, then which is the “real” Marxism?


Finally, the existence of many different groups, parties and tendencies all calling themselves “Marxist” but sometimes quarrelling bitterly amongst themselves is a cause for concern to anyone looking for a clear interpretation of Marxism! I shall deal with this elsewhere. (See pp17 Socialism Since Marx)


3. What Influences did Marx draw on?


Marx, of course, did not develop his ideas “out of thin air.”  However, it can be argued that one of the most original features of Marx was the way he drew together elements of the thinking of several different sources, and making out of them an entirely new theory. In particular, he drew on:


- German philosophy, especially Hegel (the dialectic) and Feuerbach (materialism).


- English political economy, especially Ricardo (the tendency for profit to decline). Also Robert Owen (1771 - 1858) (class, the workers need for dignity, planning of an ideal society).


- French utopian socialism, Fourier (active 1840s), Saint-Simon (1776 - 1825) both in favour of a planned society; and Proudhon (1809 - 1865), who argued that “property is theft”. Marx and Engels were to attack the “utopianism” of these writers, and to argue that their socialism was “scientific” (see below) but some would argue (especially since the fall of the Soviet Union) that it is the idea of a communist society that is utopian!


- there was also, prior to Marx, a group of writers and activists who advocated a “communist” uprising – Babeuf and Blanqui in particular. Merquior argues that Marx’s originality lay in “economising” communism (which in the earlier thinkers had been a political question pure and simple), and at the same time “politicising” socialism (which the utopian socialists had seen as a social question!). He did this, of course, by adapting the economic analyses of Ricardo and others.


Here we can see the sources of the main elements of Marxism: a materialist dialectic, applied to history and the economy, to show that capitalism would collapse because it cannot go on making more profits for ever. This irrational, unplanned, market-oriented system would have to be replaced by a planned communist society, in which the private ownership of the means of production was abolished.


4. Main Concepts:


This is my personal selection of the main ideas – you can see that they cover (a) philosophy, (b) economics, (c) sociology, (d) politics and even (e) psychology!

To my mind, this selection in this order helps to understand, first, how Marxism was built up (this is what I call a heuristic selection), and then some of its implications.


1. THE DIALECTIC – as explanation of society and history (materialist not idealist) (a)

2. ALENATION and REIFICATION – a humanistic view (alienation is not endemic to human nature) (e) and (c)

3. CRITIQUE OF RELIGION – the heart of a heartless world (man makes God), idea which forms the basis of Marx’s materialism? (a)

4. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY, and a CRITIQUE OF “BOURGEOIS” POLITICAL ECONOMY i.e. CAPITALISM  - economics at the “base” of social order (ideas are part of the superstructure), concept of the mode of production; labour theory of value, private property and the market (b)

5. CONTRADICTIONS in society etc


7. COMMUNISM as the abolition of capitalist private property (d) and (c)

8. THE STATE – an executive committee which manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie (d)

9. IDEOLOGY – an inversion of reality, serving the interests of power-holders (a) and (d)

10. PRAXIS: THEORY AND PRACTICE cannot be separated (a)


5. Main concepts in more detail:


5.1 the dialectic


It makes sense to start here, if we are to approach Marxism as a philosophy, because the dialectic (explained below, paragraph 3) is so pervasive in the theory and method. But there is a danger of a mechanical or mechanistic interpretation of the dialectic (such as Stalin promoted): it was not some universal law, but a way of interpreting the kinds of change that can be seen in society and in history.  Marx applied the dialectic to the economy, class, and even the realm of ideas (ideology).


As noted, Marx found the concept of a dialectic in Hegel, and whilst he retained some aspects of Hegel's dialectic, he changed others viz: [Sabine – see #References] – in his own words he found Hegel's dialectic 'on its head' and stood it back 'on its feet' - i.e. he made it materialistic. I will say more about this below, but in passing it is worth saying that there are two different ways of interpreting this “materialism” (corresponding to the difference between “hard line” and more “humanist” interpretations): we can either take the idea as a philosophical position, that matter and actions and behaviour are more important or real than ideas – or we can take the materialism as meaning (as C.Wright Mills does – see 7. below) that the economy is more important than any other part of society.


For Hegel, the dialectic was first and foremost a way of explaining thought processes – that is, how we think about reality, about the world around us.

As Bertrand Russell (History of Western Philosophy) vividly explains it:

- when we see an object and try to understand what it is, we are first struck by its particularity (this is a pen, this is a pebble). But we cannot understand properly the nature of the object without explaining the general category of things it belongs to (pens are for writing, pebbles are made by the sea). In moving dialectically from a particular to a general category (this pen à pens, this pebble à pebbles) we have also moved from the concrete (this pen/pebble) to the abstract (the concept of a pen/pebble). However, to fully understand these objects and these categories we have to put them into their universal context: in the case of a pen this might include writing, the communication of ideas, culture etc etc; in the case of a pebble: the formation of the rocks, the action of the sea, the weather etc etc.


Roughly speaking then, a dialectical process moves through stages, where one stage is like but also unlike the previous, towards an ever higher level (in Hegel a level of understanding). Simplified, Hegel and Marx talk of “thesis à antithesis à synthesis.”


Hegel and other philosophers believed that the dialectic was the most appropriate logical method of accounting for aspects of nature that change and develop, since mechanical cause and effect sequences are inadequate to explain these processes fully. Philosophers have since the earliest times been puzzled as to how something can change into something else that is so different (a mountain into a pebble, a seed into a plant etc). Again, whilst for Hegel the dialectic helped to explain thought processes (how we go about understanding the world) and the evolution of philosophy itself, for Marx the dialectic was the ideal way to explain social and historical change. For Hegel, ideas, or consciousness, come first and shape the world – and all historical movement is towards what he called “Absolute Idea”. For Marx, it is physical reality that comes first, and as we interact with it we develop our thinking, our consciousness.


Marx rejected both “idealism” and what he called “vulgar materialism” – in the former, ideas have a power of their own (as in Hegel), in the latter, “matter” is “distinct from “ideas” but this separation is false, and it gives both “matter” and “ideas” a reality which does not make sense. In the real world it is action that produces ideas: i.e. there is an interaction between matter and ideas – the two are not logically separable. This is an important point, since many who call themselves Marxists have tended to interpret materialism in what Marx would call a “vulgar” fashion (I once heard Gerry Healey of the WRP, in a public lecture, state that “nature has purposes for us that we are not aware of” which sounds very much like vulgar materialism - if it’s not a religious notion - to me!). It also means that Marxists should be responding to workers’ reactions to economic events, and not trying to bring to the workers ideas that they have come up with themselves (this elitist approach of bringing the correct ideas to the workers could, paradoxically, be the result either of “idealism” [we have the correct ideas] or even of “vulgar materialism” [we are the true socialists]).


However, in a similar vein to Hegel, Marx thought that history is moving towards communism, which is a classless society with an equal distribution of material goods. 


Hence Marx took the view that struggle is endemic in historical progress, and it was in particular class struggle that drove historical change. This was a very useful approach, for someone wanting to change the world – in that it promised that the movement towards communism is part of historical progress. For critics of Marx, however, this appeal to inevitable historical laws is a weakness in the theory (as noted above, it is deterministic). Sabine argued (p 782) that Marx wrote (in a letter of 1877) that the dialectic was not “super-historical” – it would not produce the “universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory.” At moments like this, Marx seems to be saying the dialectic is ‘merely a working hypothesis.’ And yet in the Preface to Capital Marx writes of “tendencies which work out with an iron necessity toward an inevitable goal” – and Sabine says that ‘either the dialectic is a method that makes historical prediction possible or else the Marxist historian has at his command only the same methods that other historians use.’ Other writers (e.g. Lancaster) go further in their criticism of the use of “dialectic” in Marx: if the argument about historical inevitability is true, then when people disagree (as they so often do!) about policies that need to be adopted to ensure that historical progress occurs “as it should”, then struggle is intensified (since each side believes they are fighting for “the truth”). In these circumstances, surely, the most likely determinant of the outcome is the power of the participants; and this will depend partly on the amount of force that they are prepared to use. In fact, it is more likely that you will use force if you believe that history is on your side (just as religion can lead to the use of force to prove that God is on my side). Thus, Marxism could produce behaviour like that of religious fanatics: in fact Lancaster (p 200, 201) regarded Marxism as an “authoritarian church”!


As an illustration of how Marx applied the dialectic to historical events, we can take his view on the French Revolution: it was a political revolution, that put an end to some abuses of power and feudal practices, but it needed to be taken further, and developed into a social revolution: some gains were made, especially for the middle classes - but they needed to be extended to all. So it is with all historical events, from this point of view: “two steps forward, one step back” perhaps – we need to be careful to identify the positive and constructive aspect of a change, and separate this from any negative or inadequate aspect.


Or, his view of Protestantism: it freed men’s minds from the authority of the church, but replaced this with an “inner authority” – i.e. human conscience, which could be just as tyrannical. Since (see below) for Marx all religion is false and superstitious, then the progress gained by reducing the authority of the church was a step in the right direction, but the next step would be to free men’s minds of religious superstition. This also illustrates the materialism at the basis of Marx’s thinking, in the sense of his rejection of religion. On the other hand it can be argued that this example also shows up a weakness in Marx’s materialistic approach, since he is not able to demonstrate that all the changes in ideas that came about during the Reformation were produced by changes in the economy. True, the merchants wanted more freedom of movement, more individual rights etc., but this does not explain the growth of the ideas of Luther and Calvin, whose theological arguments led to profound political and social changes.


5.2 alienation, reification…


It is important to stress that Marx did not portray humans as passive victims of their environment – this is especially clear in his early writings. Here he describes and emphasises the importance of 'man as producer': animals make things (nests etc) but human beings differ from animals because they create things freely, and even “according to the law of beauty”. In his rebuttal of Hegel, Marx argued that “social being” precedes consciousness (see The German Ideology) – not the other way round.


In other words, Marx had a “model of human nature” the distinctive feature of which is labour or “praxis” (purposive activity). Therefore creativity and change are essential to human growth and history – hence, again, the dialectic…


“History is made by men, and its understanding thus involves an effort at self-comprehension. The agent of history, in the last resort, is man himself - with the obvious proviso that this species-being is not fixed and unchanging, but a self-activating entity whose characteristic traits are modified in and through the process whereby society refashions itself." 


This is one point on which there is a clear contrast between “hard line” or classical Marxists on the one hand, and more recent humanist interpretations: see section 7, point 16, where C. Wright Mills says that “the way [men] make [history] and the direction it takes are determined.” The course of history is therefore “to the point of being inevitable”.


Given this view of human nature, then if humans are not able to produce freely and creatively, if they are controlled (compelled to work on things that others tell them to work on), and exploited (because their products don’t belong to them, and they are not paid for the real value of what they make) then this creates alienation. As we shall see, Marx’s analysis of capitalism showed that this was exactly what was going on all the time.


It is important to note another difference with Hegel here, since for Marx alienation is not intrinsic to human life (as Hegel argued), but arises during a particular stage of history (a particular “mode of production”). See the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Workers in capitalism are alienated from their work and from the products of their work. Sometimes this alienation is vividly in evidence, as when the first men who mass-produced cars lived in houses where garages were not provided, since it was thought they would never own cars themselves (e.g. the Becontree estate in Dagenham).


In his early writing Marx paid a lot of attention to alienation, and he argued that in the capitalistic mode of production not only are workers alienated from their work, but all of us are also alienated from each other, and from our kind. The “market” which began to rule our lives with the transition to capitalism turns us all into self-interested, competing individuals – gone is any sense of community or responsibility to each other (an essential feature of human society until then). As consumers we are encouraged to “go for” whatever we want, at the cheapest price (regardless of the wage paid to the producer). We are encouraged to believe that “having things” makes us better people… we begin to see relationships in terms of possession, property, things which have a price. In other words we “reify” both people and our relationships with them.  In capitalism, other people have value only for what they can buy or sell. See the Communist Manifesto.


An important development of this way of thinking is the concept of a “commodity” and of “commodity fetishism”. Again, these are ideas that Marx stressed in his early writing – but to me they are still very pertinent today! As noted, a commodity is something that becomes valuable in exchange (rather than in its use, or its intrinsic value). However, the nature of this process is hidden from most citizens/consumers – just as the true natures of religion and of capitalism itself are hidden.

What is more, the competition between producers and the incessant drive for “growth” in the economy leads to a situation where consumers become obsessed with “having” more goods, and – egged on by advertising – they come to believe in the “hidden” qualities that commodities are said to possess. A fetish is a thing that is worshipped for its hidden, magical qualities – so it is with commodities in capitalism: their real use value is lost, and all that matters is their exchange value, and how possessing them can make me more rich and powerful.


Marx’s critique of capitalism was in fact very radical: the intellectual division of labour, between workers by hand and workers by brain, has also led to alienation. We all suffer from a sense of incompleteness since we are seen only in terms of what we do for a living, not what we are. Marx’s philosophy is intended as a way of dealing with the world which restores the wholeness of people, by overcoming the alienating division of labour. Ultimately, it is the separation of workers from their work and from society which creates a situation in which the need for self-activity has to lead to the destruction of the existing order.


As an illustration of what I mean by the philosophy being a “system”, take the concept of praxis (practice informed by theory): for Marx it was not enough to have “correct” ideas about the world, in an abstract or purely logical sense (see also below, on ideology). The ideas must be based in practical reality. He quoted Feuerbach, to refute him: “Hitherto philosophers have only sought to understand the world. The important thing is to change it.”


5.3. critique of religion:


When we look more closely at how Marx arrived at his materialism, and how he came to overturn existing philosophy, we find that it all starts in his rejection of Hegel and of Hegel’s views on religion. In a way, he applied the dialectic to Hegel’s own thinking!


Hegel’s theory is what philosophers call “idealist”: this is not meant in the everyday sense (hoping or wishing for an ideal), but in the sense that “ideas’ are more “real” than anything else (such as material things). Marx found Hegel’s account to be “inversion” of reality i.e. it had some truth (since there are both ideas and material things in the world, and they are interdependent) but it was a distorted reflection or inversion of reality – that is, Marx was a kind of “materialist” (that is, believing that material objects are more real than ideas: though I shall argue below that his theory was not as simple or as crude as this).


Marx thought all of this through by starting with religion: for Marx religion, and especially Christianity, with its notion of “sin” and likely punishment for our sins, unless we find a way to reach heaven (which is of course beyond this world and this life) – all this is a projection of our real suffering on earth, and our desire to be released from it; the imagined “heaven”, is simply a projection of what we would like to see on earth (see Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).


Another crucial insight came to Marx here: that these religious views suited the religious leaders, and enabled them (and religiously-inclined political rulers) to keep the masses in their place, and therefore to keep themselves in power. Religious thinking was an inversion or the truth, and it was encouraged by those who benefited from it. In this idea lies the notion of “ideology” that Marx later developed.


Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s materialism, but rejected it as too crude: there cannot be a hard divide between matter and ideas, since then the two could never interact; and the real world consists of more than simply matter – Marx realised that we need to be able to explain the social relationships between people, and how these were affected by their material conditions.


Marx therefore came to state that: “social being determines consciousness” (it is not consciousness that determines social being) – but he saw this process in a dialectical fashion, again, not as a crude mechanical (cause-and-effect) materialism. This aspect of Marx’s theory is, for me, at one and the same time the most central and yet the most ambiguous or problematic. The terms “social being” and “determines” need to be spelled out and/or qualified before it is quite clear what Marx is saying.


Moreover, given that Marx’s aim was to produce a “scientific” theory, it was only too likely that others would interpret his dialectic in a crude and materialistic fashion.

The most glaring example of this was Stalin, who was largely responsible for the expression “dialectical materialism”, which Marx never used. Stalin illustrated what was supposed to be Marx’s theory of dialectical change through the analogy of water boiling and turning into steam, suggesting that nature and physical laws worked in a dialectical fashion – and since humans are part of nature, then we must be subject to these laws as well!


The view that we are subject to physical laws in our social and political lives may be, as suggested above, reassuring to those who want to believe that communism is inevitable. However, it is contrary to the spirit of Marx’s early writings (see above) and in fact it must surely produce a theory in which we are in fact all passive subjects of blind historical processes.


5.4 economy and society and a critique of “political economy” (i.e. bourgeois economics) and of capitalism (see also further discussion in 6.2 below)


(i) the central role of production:


If – as I believe is the case – the dialectic is the central philosophical part of Marxism, then his study of economics and his conclusions about the workings of capitalism are the central practical (some would say “scientific”) aspects. By this I mean that whilst the economic ideas are still theoretical, they should be capable of being tested: and the predictions made can be seen coming true if the theory is correct.


- note: it is tempting to play down the economics in Marx, because of its difficulty, or because it seems out-dated; however, as Raymond Aron says: “any interpretation of Marx which finds no place for Capital, [a work of genius] or is able to summarise it in a few pages, is a deviation from what Marx himself sought and desired”; Sabine also describes Capital as Marx’s strongest work. Marx’s work on economics is complex and very theoretical – quite apart from the disagreements amongst his interpreters as to what he meant! I will try to summarise the most significant aspects:


We can see, then, how Marx’s thinking evolved: he started with the notion of “man” as a productive/creative animal, who is most human when he most freely creates;

- then, seeing that human suffering in the world is the basis of religious views, but finding the religious explanation of suffering unsatisfactory (let alone its remedy, that we should all be good Christians and try to get to Heaven!), Marx argued that the religious outlook only helped to keep the religious elite in power;


- he then moved to analyse the economy and the way production was organised and described in the theories that were accepted at the time. He believed that he found a similar pattern: thus “political economy” (as economics was known in his time) was a false theory which served the purpose of keeping the economic elite in power. In brief, political economy took the market for granted, and saw it as a “natural” phenomenon, but it could not explain how profit arose. The market, it was argued, works through the “law of supply and demand” – as demand goes up in relation to supply, then price will go up also; if there are plentiful goods in relation to demand then the price will go down. However, all this is to do with the realm of “exchange”, and it doesn’t help to understand how production works. In particular, Marx felt, it does not explain how the manufacturer made his living – which is all to do with “profit”.


Thus, just as religion expresses part-truths, but works in the interest of the established church, so current economic theories expressed a partial truth (e.g. profit is made in capitalism) but hid other truths (where does profit come from?) Political economy works in the interests of the owners of capital – the bourgeoisie as Marx called them – since it hides the true nature of their role. We can see a modern-day version of this slanted view when it is argued that management is responsible for profits… To explain where profit came from, Marx developed a theory which had its origins in the work of earlier economic thinkers such as Adam Smith:


- it is workers and their labour that produce goods and therefore value; if a profit is made when the goods are sold, then this is done at the expense of the workers: they cannot have been paid the full value of what they have produced. As Mills puts it (section 7, point 7) “Exploitation is built into the capitalist system.”


(ii) the labour theory of value:


This is to say that Marx had a “labour theory of value”, and his most potent insight (i.e. it would rouse the anger of the workers, naturally!) was that the workers are “exploited.” It is important to stress that Marx meant this in a technical sense: they were not paid the full value of their work.


Goods must be sold at a price that:

(i) pays the manufacturer for his input,

(ii) pays the workers a wage (the ‘cost of production’ of the worker, i.e. enough to meet his needs and keep him alive),

and (iii) also brings a profit.


Note, however, that the amount workers are paid depends not on the use-value of the products, nor on the value of the labour put in, but on the exchange value of the goods produced (Goodwin 1987 p 71). Labour has become, in capitalism, a commodity... In other words, the workers cannot have been paid the full value of what they have created, and a “surplus value” must have been created, and extracted. This surplus value does not belong to the workers, but is taken away and goes towards the owners’ profits.


Putting this another way, Marx believed that there was a quantifiable “socially necessary labour time” for any product (to cover the cost of the labour), but workers were paid for the time they put in (which was reduced as far as possible, especially by the use of automation), and the difference between the values created by the two measures was what he called surplus value (see next section).


(iii) capitalism:


“Political economy”, then, claimed to have identified “universal laws” of economics – but in fact, Marx argued, it only described the workings of a historically transient mode of production – and even then the theory was not a complete explanation!


This mode of production is CAPITALISM. It is a society where:


Money (M) is used to represent value.


The market enables the exchange of values – but these values are not based on use (use-value) but on market price, i.e. on exchange (exchange-value). Goods to be exchanged in this way are commodities (C). [Thus, the real value of goods disappears from sight…]


The process of exchange starts off as: C – M – C, but as capital is accumulated, it becomes: M – C – M. [This takes the process further: the aim of the system is to increase the amount of money, not primarily to increase the goods available for use… We can see this even more clearly today: the sums of money circulating (in speculation, the futures market, insurance of all sorts of risk by means of “dodgy” instruments such as hedge funds...) are extraordinary, and bear no relation to the quantity of goods being produced.]


In capitalism there is private ownership, and this is extended to labour, so that one group (the bourgeoisie) can own the means of production, and purchase the labour-power of others.


Labour then becomes a commodity, whose price is - like all goods/commodities - fixed by the market... we would expect the cost of workers to be based on what it costs to keep them (their subsistence); Marx believed that this cost remained constant whilst the total amount of goods produced increased. Therefore, as time went on, workers would get a relatively smaller share of what they produced.


The difference between the real value (what it costs to keep the workers) and the market value (what they are paid) of labour enables profit to be made.


It is labour that produces value (machines are, after all, the result of labour – they represent “dead labour”; the owners, and their capital, of themselves do not produce anything). Since labour produces more value than it is paid (it is paid to cover its subsistence) then surplus value is created.


As the number of machines (dead labour) in use to replace living labour increases, the amount of real value being produced decreases – also the fewer workers there are to purchase the goods produced. There will be over-production of goods – and the scramble for new markets (in the developing world especially) results from this.


The purpose of capitalism is the accumulation of capital by means of this process of exploitation: the aim of communism, then, is to arrive at a society where production is for the common good and not for the benefit of a small minority of capitalists.


5.5 “contradictions”:


The next step in Marx’s analysis was to propose that this capitalist mode of production contains “contradictions” which will lead to its self-destruction i.e. to revolution: this is the application of the dialectic that I referred to above. What is intriguing is that there are many views on the nature of this contradiction!


(a) many commentators, especially early ones, talk of a contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. (See also section 7, point 2.) By the former is presumably meant technology, and by the latter such aspects as how work is organised, and what patterns of ownership there are. What Marx believed happened over time was that new modes of production arose, but the technological changes often “ran ahead of the social changes”. Certainly, when a new technology is developed (steam-power which enabled automated industrial work to be concentrated in factories, replacing agricultural labour) the relations of production do have to change: individual agricultural labourers (peasants) working with the seasons and the weather, and often producing food for themselves (as well as for a landlord) are replaced by an army of industrial workers, following the clock and working for a factory owner. But on a theoretical level, the suggestion that technology determines social change leads to problems and questions, such as:

- are not particular technologies a product of social relations (i.e. designed to minimise labour input etc). So don’t social relations come first? And if Marx talks of forces of production developing, does this mean they are autonomous – the technologies have plans for us?! (See below on determinism).

On the other hand, it is also clear that if social relations are in conflict with the technologies etc, then society faces a crisis – and maybe a revolution.


(b) another way of putting the idea of a contradiction at the basis of capitalism is to say that production is social in purpose, but privately owned. Marx’s economic writings (especially “Capital”) then show how this contradiction works itself out through the economy… The important feature here is the emphasis on ownership, which separates Marx from e.g. social democrats and “utopian socialists”, since the problem with capitalism is not one of distribution of products, but of ownership of the means of production. The class-struggle that results from this can lead to revolution (see below). 


(c) another contradiction (or facet of the same one?) is that: machines will replace labour (being cheaper etc), but labour alone creates value (the “labour theory of value”). This leads to several crises: workers are laid off by machines, and being unemployed have little to spend – but who then will buy the products? Marx also argued that the more machines are produced and used to make goods, the less profit will be made (since machines do not produce value). Marx spoke of the “organic composition of capital:” where more labour is used than machines, the organic composition is higher, and so the more value and profit that can be created; the more labour is replaced by machines, the lower the organic composition of capital – and the rate of profit will become slower (this is the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to decline). This way of expressing the contradiction leads to a crisis, either of over-production (too many goods are produced) or of under-consumption (not enough wages to buy the goods). The difference between these two may seem like hair-splitting, but is indicative of the kind of arguments that go on among Marxists!


(d) all this leads to the basic contradiction – between labour and capital, which is expressed in class conflict. It is important to note that in Marx class is defined by the position in relation to the means of production – does the individual own the means of production (in which case they are capitalists or members of the “bourgeoisie”), or do they work for someone who does own capital (in which case they are members of the “proletariat”)? Class is not simply a question of external features such as wealth or life-style. There are two main classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Marx did recognise other groupings, but in the final analysis, it is the conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat that will decide the outcome of capitalism – socialism or barbarism! As the capitalists struggle to make more profit, in increasingly difficult circumstances, the working-class has meanwhile been getting more and more exploited – and either relatively or even absolutely poorer (again, there are arguments among Marxists as to which is the likely outcome).


L.W. Lancaster points out here that all this is only true if the (rather narrow!) basic premise is true: only if production is the sole determinant of every other aspect of society, will changing the system of production change society.


5.6 Cass Structure and Class Struggle, The proletariat


Some Marxists put less emphasis on the “contradictions between forces and relations of production” etc (see section 7), and more on class struggle. They would say that Marx’s argument was not only that capitalism has a fundamental contradiction at its heart, so that society is divided into two warring camps, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat - but that class struggle is the moving force in all historical change. (Note: the names of the classes are bourgeoisie and proletariat, if you want to use the adjectives the words are bourgeois and proletarian. Thus “a bourgeois way of thinking” or “proletarian consciousness”.)


We might also say that there are two main tendencies among Marxists: one emphasises “structural” aspects, and the economy, and is typified by Althusser, whilst the other is more humanistic, and emphasises “class consciousness" (represented by e.g. E.P. Thompson).


It is one thing to argue that class struggle is central to historical change: it is another to specify that one class will bring about socialism/communism. Marx wanted to see a society that had no more contradictions, and where workers were no longer exploited.


One of the strengths of Marx’s theory is that it identifies a social class that will carry out the task of destroying capitalism (the gravediggers of capitalism) i.e. the proletariat. Marx’s reasoning is (again!) Hegelian: this is the class which, while being part of capitalist society, gains nothing from it – it is “universal” in its

suffering and its exclusion from capitalism – it has no interest in keeping capitalism going so it will demand changes that “transcend” capitalism (see Marx’s

Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). In this text Marx says that the proletariat has a crucial role, as an agent in the dialectical historical process… Mills’s wording for this idea is (section 7, point 12) “The functional indispensability of a class in the economic system leads to its political supremacy in the society as a whole.”


As an example of how Marx’s thinking attempted to embrace philosophy and history and politics, take the statement: “philosophy must be realised, but it cannot do this without transcending the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realisation of philosophy.” This is characteristic of Marx’s early writings, even if it is rather baffling at first sight! The notion of “realising philosophy” was developed by the “young Hegelians” – the more radical followers of Hegel…


Marx is generally interpreted as saying that (i) the more capitalism develops, the worse off the proletariat will become, as the bourgeoisie squeezes more out of it in a desperate attempt to counteract the falling rate of profit (ii) the working class will also become larger, as capitalists force each other out of business and (iii) this process will be accompanied by a developing consciousness on the part of workers – from a class “in-itself” it will become a class “for-itself” – until it rejects any reforms and brings about a revolutionary change. (See section 7, points 8, 9, 10).


Of course many questions arise: how much autonomy or freedom of movement does the proletariat have? Mills’s point 11 (section 7), whilst correct, raises a similar issue: what is meant by saying that “objective and subjective conditions [must] coincide” for revolution to occur? What if the standard of living of workers does not go down? What if reforms bring better conditions for workers? What if even though workers’ standards decline, they do not demand revolution (enter the radicalised intellectuals here!)? What happens in a society where there is a very large “middle class”? Is it likely that the most oppressed group in society will in fact demand changes which will be to the benefit of all?  Would the most oppressed be the best leaders of a revolution? Isn’t this all just the politics of envy? Why have some revolutionary upheavals taken place when expectations, and even standards of living, were rising?


- Finally it is worth noting that the promise of revolution for a whole class does have an emotional appeal – Marxism demands such virtues (if they are virtues!) as: loyalty, class solidarity – working together for a higher cause, in opposition to the negative bourgeois values of individualism, greed, short-term gain etc.


5.7 communism as the abolition of capitalist private property


To many today, Marx’s vision of the ultimate goal must seem utopian. Marx and Engels vehemently denied that they were “utopian” – that is, simply “dreaming” of a better world. Their account of the economic workings of capitalism was meant to show that communism – the abolition of exploitation, class distinction, alienation and all the evils of capitalism - was historically inevitable. Communism, they believed, is not an ideal to which reality will have to adjust – “it is the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs.”


I would go so far as to say that, although some accounts make Marx’s predictions appear deterministic (subject to material forces), when it comes to his portrayal of “communist” society Marx seems to say that we will be no longer be controlled by material forces, and even that we will no longer base social arrangements on what is measurable. Perhaps Marx and Engels’ most well-known phrase describing communism is: “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (from the Communist Manifesto) – this surely must mean that in communism we will have give up trying to measure the value of one’s labour or one’s production (since there will be no question of taking from society only the amount that you have earned)?


Marx’s view was that under communism we would do what we want – hunt, fish, etc – without ever being a hunter or a fisherman, and this can be ridiculed. (The full quotation is given below) However, one important aspect of this point is that he is indicting capitalism: in capitalism that we are turned into beings defined by what we do for a living. There is another portrayal of communism, in “The German Ideology”, where we find Marx trying to understand the origins of the division of labour and the excessive specialisation that comes from the way the division of labour has been developed under capitalism.


He argues that originally (in distant history) the distribution (or division) of labour arose out of “natural” differences between individuals, especially in the family (“where wife and children are slaves of the husband”); this relationship therefore was a manifestation of the first form of property. In a startling phrase, Marx says that “Division of labour and private property are identical expressions.” Engels examined this further in his writing on the origins of private property and the family – and later writers (especially feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir) have argued that Marx and Engels’ explanation is not thorough enough; it is a short but significant step, and one that requires further explanation, from saying “this job is mine and that is yours” to saying “my job is more important than yours, and therefore you are subordinate to me.” And it is taking yet another step to say “you therefore belong to me”.


Be that as it may, in his discussion of the relationship between “what we are” and “what we do” Marx (again, in The German Ideology) identifies the problem as: “man’s own deed became an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Why “forced upon him”? For Marx it is clear that some people have more power than others, which then enables them to own and control the work (the “labour power”) of others. This is the basis of class power, and Marx’s historical writings give an account of the transition from feudal to capitalistic society – though some would argue that this historical account does not explain how the changes occurred. To help explain how a certain distribution of power came to be so rigidly and deeply instituted, I would simply add an explanation that actually arises from Marx’s dictum about class, and class power over ideas and meanings: “the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.” It seems to me that it is social arrangements (not facts of nature) that lead to a society regarding one kind of activity as more valuable than another, and if one group has control over ideas – as feminists argue men did, and as Marxists argue property-owners did, – it is easy for them to enforce their social position through control over ideas.  


So, capitalism’s de-humanising and enslaving of people - and the alienation accompanying this - can (for Marx) only be ended in communist society, with the abolition of the division of labour: “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes… [and where it is possible] for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd, or critic.” The abolition of private property is the abolition of “human self-alienation” it is the “real appropriation of the human essence by and for me.”


Marx adds: “this fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now” [my emphasis].  Again, I take this to mean that we can reach a kind of society where we are no longer subject to material forces. (Extracts from Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, 1977, p 169).



5.8 the state – an executive committee which manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie (this is a concept of particular relevance to political science, as it defines the state in a different way to any other theory.


The most famous statement of Marx and Engels that illustrates their view of the state is:


“The state is but an executive committee for running the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Communist Manifesto)


We must immediately note that this is a precise formula: 

- it is not the bourgeoisie as such that rules, but it has a committee to do this for it; the wording (“common affairs”) also reflects Marx and Engels’ recognition that whilst the main division in society is between proletariat and bourgeoisie, there are also “fractions” within classes, and groups that are not entirely within one class or another (e.g. intellectuals – they may decide to commit themselves to the proletariat (and if they are paid for their intellectual work this is surely where they belong), or they may imagine that they are part of the bourgeoisie… time will tell, especially when a revolutionary crisis is reached!)


We can see that Marx arrived at this conclusion in a similar way to his analysis of religion and economics: liberal political philosophy, which claims to recognise “universal rights” - the “rights of man” - to “life, liberty and property,” this is in fact a distortion of reality. At the time Marx was writing, the proletariat were disenfranchised; the political system only in fact only recognised the rights of the property-owners – a small minority of the population. The workers, who at that time owned no property, are moreover condemned to be deprived of all but a subsistence wage, whilst the owners/capitalists seek to maximise profits. In addition, the capitalists have control over the production of ideas – so they can manipulate opinion in their favour (look at how the media behave today!) Only the capitalists then have any real rights in this capitalist society. Liberal political theory hides the way that whole sections of society (the workers) are deprived of their rights.


This critique inevitably leads on to a rejection of bourgeois (or “representative” liberal) democracy: in practice, though, Marxists have been divided on the practical implications: some have kept out of parliamentary politics, others have argued that getting into parliament can be a means to change the political system from within.

As Mills puts it (point 13): “In all societies the state is the coercive instrument of the ruling classes” consequently (point 6): “the workers cannot escape their exploited conditions and their revolutionary destiny by winning legal or political rights and privileges: unions and mass labour parties are useful as training grounds for revolution, but not as a guarantee of socialism.” (This makes a clear distinction between Marxists and social democrats and others).


Marx’s formula, however, raises a number of questions: first, how does this “committee” work?  A difference developed between e.g. Miliband, who suggested that the personnel of the higher echelons of the state, civil service, the army, education etc came from a similar background and shared the same values and interests (the emphasis is on “outlook and beliefs” here) and on the other hand e.g. Poulantzas and Althusser for whom the question should not be what the ruling class “wants” but what it is forced to do by the workings of the economy (a structural/functional view). As Poulantzas put it Miliband is wrong to say that “managers seek to make a profit.” Here we can see a profound difference over Marxism as a “scientific” theory:  Miliband was accused of using a bourgeois epistemology because he argued that class identity was a question of what individuals want or intend, and described members of society as “actors”, whereas for Althusser individuals are “agents” of the system, and your class was determined by your position in the economic system.


Another crucial question concerns whether the state has any autonomy, or is bound to do what “capital” requires of it?  To what extent, if at all, can the state alter the economy?  What do we make of reforms such as the welfare state that seem to benefit the workers at the expense of capital?


With regard to the fate of the state when the revolution arrives, and when communism is established, Marx maintained that the state would “wither away”. After all, once class distinctions have been abolished there is no need for a state apparatus to maintain class rule. Much controversy ensued amongst Marxists, especially in 1917, and Lenin adopted a brief reference by Marx to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to justify keeping a state apparatus. (See section 7, point 15). For anarchists – many of whom at the time of the revolution supported Lenin – this was an error: the state should have been abolished immediately, and replaced with, say, “soviets”, as at one time Lenin seemed to promise. The fact that the state was not only retained but strengthened under Soviet “communism” – complete with a secret police apparatus and prison camps in Siberia for dissidents – is one of the facts that led to hostile criticism of the Soviet regime even from those who originally might have supported it.


Finally, I want to explain two concepts with particular implications for philosophy:


5.9 Ideology, and the critical role of Marxism.


In trying to account for the relationship between ideas and the real world, Marx modified the meaning of the word “ideology.” Originally the word simply meant “the study of different beliefs and ideas and how people come to hold them.” For Marx an ideology is a distorted view of the world, motivated by class interest. Ideologies therefore arise from social conditions, especially the class divisions between people. Consciousness at first is directly involved with reality, but ideology emerges when there is an inversion, because of social conditions (especially separation of individuals from each other and from reality).


While useful as a definition of ideology, problems arise especially when crudely applied: can we attribute someone’s beliefs to their class position only? Isn’t it degrading or demeaning of humans to give so much weight to external causes that determine their beliefs? Later Marxists used the idea of “false consciousness”, especially to “explain” why workers refused to go along with Marxist ideas! But this concept raises more problems: for example, how do we describe what the “bourgeoisie” believes? Is it a form of “false consciousness”? Moreover, how do individuals (such as Marx, and especially Engels the factory-owner!) come to “escape” from their class ideology? Why is Marxism itself not an ideology?


The answer to the last question is either that Marxism is not an ideology but a science – or to say that even if it is an ideology (that of the working classes) this doesn’t undermine its truth (there are disagreements among Marxists along these lines). 


Another “way out” of this apparent dilemma might be to stress the “critical” nature of Marxism: the search for myths to be destroyed and ideologies to be corrected or demystified.  However, apart from the fact that Marxism doesn’t just criticise, but it also asserts an awful lot (and the question then arises as to how many of its assertions are true?), this approach still runs up against the crucial question: how do humans in a society where our class influences or even determines our perspective, and where “the dominant ideas are those of the ruling class”, ever find “truth”?


Sabine puts it this way: “The distinctive claim of Marx’s theory is that ideological beliefs are characteristic of social classes and reflect the position of the class in the class structure of society... This is much too limited… and if the word is used to mean rationalisation, Freud’s theory can provide more examples than economics… “ He adds, tellingly: “Unmasking an opponent is a standard Marxian practice (showing that his/her arguments are covert defences of class privilege) but it is self-defeating for when everything, including Marxism itself has been unmasked the positive conclusion has still to be drawn and defended… The capacity to distinguish good evidence from bad is no more characteristic of one social class than of another.”


However, we have to beware of over-simplifying Marx’s argument: the crucial idea is that consciousness is a social product. This is, again, in contradiction to religious thinking, where “truth” is given by God (or the sacred texts, religious authorities etc). It also runs counter to any idea that we are born with “innate” ideas – and some would find this hard to accept. At the extreme, this led to such views as that of Chairman Mao: human beings are “blank sheets” on which those who know the truth can write… (Lenin had a similar view, I believe). However, Marx’s main point was that such basic aspects of a society’s structure as the division of labour must affect the thinking of the members of that society.(Sabine p 168) In particular he wanted to refute the idea of a "pure" philosophy, knowledge etc, somehow separate from social conditions. Moreover, in saying this he was not denying that we can come to an accurate understanding of the world, but that when there is a contradiction (e.g. between relations and forces of production) then what some have called “false consciousness” (Engels’s expression, not Marx’s) will arise.


A simpler way of putting this (for me!) is to point out that the power-relations in a society must affect the ideas that different groups hold. In particular (another of Marx’s best-known insights): “the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.”


5.10 praxis, theory and practice:


The Theses on Feuerbach contain some crucial statements on this – although to me they are ambiguous: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the “this-sidedness” of his thinking….”   “The materialist doctrine [i.e. Feuerbach’s] that men are products of their circumstances… forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself must be educated…”  “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”


I would want to say, then, that a central problem for Marx was reconciling our views of the world – our theories – with the actual reality. He talked (in Hegelian terms!) of the “realisation” of philosophy: and of course we all want to do away with illusions, and to find an explanation for life that makes sense! On the other hand, is it really clear what the “realisation of philosophy” means? Or is this just a rhetorical trick? When I say that Marx’s thinking is a “closed” system, this is partly because the only way to “realise” philosophy for Marx is to follow his premises and methods!!


There is a more mundane point to be made here, but one that is still important: Marxist "practice" has indeed changed the world - at one time 1/3 of the world’s population was “communist.” However, the fact that being communist or not was a life-or-death issue for so many people immediately creates a problem: can anyone be “objective” about such issues? Is it possible to be both “scientific” and objective, as Marxism claims to be, and yet to demand emotional “commitment” (as I would argue it was also designed to do)?


This problem is exacerbated by the way that putting Marx's ideas into practice in different places and at different times has led to different 'Marxisms' – and as I have already asked: which is the “true Marxism”?



6.  Final questions:


6.1  Some have tried to incorporate the ideas of other thinkers into Marxism to deal with shortcomings – e.g. on the last point above: Freud’s notion of the sub-conscious might be useful? (see Fromm, the Frankfurt school, Marcuse et al).  “Western Marxism” is very much like this.   However, sometimes this seems like trying to reconcile the irreconcilable!!


6.2   It is clear that Marx stressed the importance of economics – and this is a valuable point. It is clear and incontrovertible, that Marx believed economics (or production) was central/fundamental to the workings of society – Engels later said that the “economy is important in the last instance” – what is less clear is exactly what either meant!  Poulantzas argues that “relations of production” are the starting-point.


Sabine argues that if Marx’s view was that the mode of production determines the general character of social and political aspects of a society, and if there are other causal factors at work – then “with all these concessions it is hard to see what there is about the economic explanation of history that the most bourgeois historian would have any concern to deny, or that calls for the dialectic to explain it”.


Lancaster argued that if the assumption about the fundamental role of the economy was right, then once this was changed everything else ought to be put right – so in the Soviet Union exploitation etc should have disappeared. This does not appear to have been the case! Trotsky argued that there had been an economic but not a political revolution in the Soviet Union, which must therefore be “in transition” until the revolution was completed or reversed. It seemed to remain in transition from 1917 until 1989… Some who originally accepted Trotsky’s view were led to question the whole argument about the determining role of the economy…


Some Marxists have a model whereby the economic “base” (forces of production and relations of production?) “determines” the “superstructure” (i.e. culture, laws, ideas, and probably political institutions).  As I see it, there is some ambiguity over this in Marx: there are some passages in his writing where he suggests the relationship between the “base” and the “superstructure” is one of determination (water-power leads to feudalism, steam to industrial capitalism). Yet his general theory of revolution and class-consciousness to my mind, clashes with this: would an oppressed class ever become aware of the possibility of changing the economy if the latter determines the superstructure (how people think etc) – especially considering that capitalism gives power to capitalists through the ‘dominant ideas’ of the time? Putting this another way: if workers’ revolutionary consciousness depends on a crisis arising – how does this work? Can we be sure that they would blame ‘the system’ and not some minority group (as happened in the second World War)?


Others (Marxists and some who have departed from Marxism, having once been convinced by it) have pointed out that this model of base and superstructure is problematic: are the relations of production (i.e. legal arrangements) part of the superstructure or the base? Can politics not influence economic arrangements? (Social Democrats and many others take this view).  And as above, if the base contains only the strictly material forces of production, how can it determine all the rest in society?


This debate is to many of us the most important problem raised by Marxism, since ‘economistic Marxism’ seems to remove scope for human freedom of action – even the workers must presumably, on a hard-line interpretation, wait for the forces of production to ripen before they can push for revolution. Sabine argued that the best aspects of Marx were when he was writing empirically (studying the evidence) rather than when he came up with grand historical laws (see above on the dialectic especially).


I might note here a contrast between two interpretations of Marx (both by writers on political philosophy):


“the communist view of human nature is defective.. it is immoral in denying the value of individuality and diversity.. Men are pawns of impersonal forces which they cannot direct, and of which their conduct is a mere passive reflection” (L.W. Lancaster: Harrap Masters of Political Thought Vol. 3)


“Marx is not a “collectivist” as often charged. On the contrary, individual freedom is a basic value for him. The state must “wither away” leaving a truly open society of species-oriented, autonomous individuals.” (W.T. Blackstone: Political Philosophy).


Finally, isn’t it possible to believe that the economy is in some sense fundamental without being a Marxist?  The “new right” for example, including Margaret Thatcher, borrowed notions of the “economic man” and defined rational behaviour as that motivated by economic interests.


6.3   How “scientific” was/is Marxism?  Can we make firm predictions regarding the economy – e.g. the crisis of capitalism?  Do Marxists try to force the evidence to fit the theory?


Also, can you combine a scientific theory with a moral appeal as Marxism seems to do? Lancaster says that if you base a moral and political system on scientific certainty, physical power becomes the only test of legitimacy. Again, what happens if the theory breaks down – is your moral stance then left without a base?  How do people act who believe they are right even when evidence shows they are probably not?


Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) argued that Marx was not scientific at all – because it cannot be falsified: the process of scientific discovery, Popper maintained, was one of testing hypotheses as it were to breaking point. If every test confirmed the theory this strengthened it. Some theories, however, cannot be tested: does the movement of the stars and planets affect our lives and personalities, as astrologers claim? With Marxism it is also difficult to test the theory: is profit declining? If it isn’t now, say Marxists, then it will at some time in the future… In other words, even if facts seem to disprove some predictions, there is always the possibility of modifying the predictions, even concerning such a major question as to when the final crisis of capitalism will occur! Popper also rejected what he called Marx’s “historicism”: the view that history follows “laws” or has a purpose. This he saw as a form of determinism, which led to totalitarian practices.


Marx, however, did seem to believe that it was possible, using his methodology – and especially by ensuring the unity of theory and practice - to correctly understand the world: “The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.” (Thesis on Feuerbach). Or does this statement still leave questions open?!


6.4   How exactly does “socialist consciousness” develop? Do the workers need “intellectuals” (such as Marx and Lenin) to show the way? Lenin went so far as to say that in capitalism, without such guidance or leadership, workers will only develop “trades union consciousness” – i.e. demanding higher wages rather than to overthrow the wage-system.  Rosa Luxembourg and others trusted in the “spontaneity” of the workers, and distrusted the calls for “discipline” from Leninists.

What is the part to be played by political parties – or particularly by the Communist Party?  Does it simply (Communist Manifesto) represent the most conscious workers, whatever other political groups they belong to, or must it be organised and disciplined – a vanguard in fact? Even Trotsky, murdered by the then General Secretary of the Party, Stalin, believed that the Party was indispensable… “with the Party we are everything; without the Party we are nothing.” On what classical Marxists would call the “far left” or “ultra left” there are council communists who see no need for a Party: there have been organised workers’ councils in many revolutionary situations – such as the soviets in 1917 – which have brought workers together and been a force for revolutionary change (also in Spain in the 1930s, and Hungary in 1956). These organisations are more spontaneous and flexible than the disciplined and centralised Communist Party.


For another point of view that is critical of the Party form of organisation we can take Lancaster who said: “the leaders of the party are the priesthood of an authoritarian church… ‘moral aristocrats’… The received dogma provides answers for all questions.. and it is denied that all but the elect know what these (answers) are…”


7. Appendix: C.Wright Mills’s summary of “the most important conceptions and propositions of classical Marxism”.

(From: The Marxists, Penguin 1962)


1. The economic basis of a society determines its social structure as a whole, as well as the psychology of the people within it.

2. The dynamic of historical change is the conflict between the forces and the relations of production.

3. The class struggle between owners and workers is a social, political, and psychological reflection of objective economic conflicts.

4. Property as a source of income is the objective criterion of class: within capitalism the two basic classes are the owners and the workers.

5. Class struggle rather than harmony – ‘natural’ or otherwise – is the normal and inevitable condition in capitalist society.

6. Within capitalist society, the workers cannot escape their exploited conditions and their revolutionary destiny by winning legal rights and privileges: unions and mass

            labour parties are useful as training grounds for revolution, but are not a guarantee of socialism.

7. Exploitation is built into the capitalist system, thus increasing the chances for revolution.

8. The class structure becomes more and more polarised, thus increasing the chance for revolution.

9. The material misery of the workers will increase, as will their alienation.

10. The wage workers – a class-in-itself – will be transformed into the proletariat, a class-for-itself.

11. The opportunity for revolution exists only when objective conditions and subjective conditions coincide.

12. The functional indispensability of a class in the economic system leads to its political supremacy in the society as a whole.

13. In all societies the state is the coercive instrument of the owning classes.

14. Capitalism is involved in one crisis after another. These crises are getting worse.

15. The post-capitalist society will first pass through a transitional stage – that of the dictatorship of the proletariat; then it will move into a higher phase in which true communism will prevail.

16. Although men make their own history, given the circumstances of the economic foundation, the way they make it and the direction it takes are determined. The course of history is structurally limited, to the point of its being inevitable.

17. The social structure is determine by its economic foundations; accordingly, the course of history is determined by changes in these economic foundations.




Lancaster, L.W.: Harrap Masters of Political Thought Vol. 3, 1978

Sabine, G.H.: A History of Political Theory, Harrap, 3rd edition 1963



Althusser, Louis: For Marx, Penguin 1969; Reading Capital, NLB 1970

Blackstone, W.T.: Political Philosophy, Crowell 1973

Goodwin, Barbara:  Using Political Ideas, Wiley 2nd edition 1987

Kolakowski, L: Main Currents of Marxism, Clarendon 1978

McLellan, David (ed): Karl Marx: Selected Writings, OUP 1977

Mabbott, John: The State and the Citizen, Hutchinson, 1967 reprinted 1970

C.Wright Mills: The Marxists, Penguin 1962

Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge 1980




Fascinating introduction to the forthcoming (26 April) Vintage Classics edition of Communist Manifesto.  The way Varoufakis writes is so similar to the way the libertarian socialists in Solidarity used to

think... However, I’m not convinced Varoufakis has escaped from the somewhat deterministic version of Marxism, where the ‘proletariat’ must be the agent of change. Because of this, he doesn’t seem to

point to any concrete ways for us to move on. In today’s world young people and first nations are two groups who come to mind as leading the pressure for radical change. They also, it seems to me, have

a broader vision than Marx and Engels. Varoufakis maintains that: ‘ Liberty, happiness, autonomy, individuality, spirituality, self-guided development are ideals that Marx and Engels valued above

everything else’ – do we really see this in the trade unions, or the parties of the left?