The Pathos of Politics (46) Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Every class struggle is a political struggle. ~ Karl Marx

German economist, historian, and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883) lived during a pivotal juncture in human history and carried the consequence of its modern vector to a logical conclusion.

Man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life. ~ Karl Marx

A significant paradigmatic shift in political philosophy occurred in the late 17th century. The traditional cast of political order based upon scarcity was supplanted by an appreciative assumption of abundance.

The poverty which once appeared as natural became viewed as man-made, and hence solvable. The rise of industrial production made prosperity for all a sanguine prospect. But the world was not working out that way. The “universal opulence” which Adam Smith envisioned was nowhere on the horizon.

Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment. ~ Karl Marx

Liberal theorists insisted that poverty could be obviated by economic growth, which would percolate downwards and raise standards of living. Despite the potentiality of a decent life for all, liberalism looked positively Hobbesian in its consequence for the lower classes, as exploitation went largely unchecked.

The man who possess no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men, who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission. ~ Karl Marx

The term socialism was coined in the 1830s, but it had ancient roots. Bible passages inspired the Hutterites in the 16th century to forsake materialism as a moral value.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had. ~ Acts 2:32, The Bible

In the Republic, Plato sketched a utopian socialist society.

Socialism was termed utopianism by English humanist Thomas More in his novel Utopia (1516), about an ideal communal society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean.

If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable. ~ Thomas More

There were over 40 utopian-themed novels during the Age of Enlightenment, as people became embittered about the rampant social injustices of the time.

In the late 18th century, French revolutionary and political philosopher Francois Noël Babeuf published proposals for a communist society without private property and a guaranteed livelihood for all.

Babeuf urged revolution to achieve his dream. In 1796, Babeuf and his followers plotted to overthrow the government that had installed itself after the French Revolution of 1789. The plan, known as the Conspiracy of Equals, was betrayed to the government (the Directory), which duly guillotined Babeuf in 1797. Though Babeuf lost his head, his spirit reincarnated in Marx.

The deepening inequities and egregious exploitation that occurred during the Industrial Revolution spurred socialist ideals among impoverished workers and prompted the creation of communes in both Europe and the United States that served as sanctuaries from the harsh reality of capitalism.

Marx dubbed the socialists who preceded him as “utopians” for their emphasis on social harmony and non-revolutionary politics. He nevertheless picked up precisely where they had left off, particularly Babeuf.

Incipient socialists articulated the ideal of material equality through a planned economy, emphasizing public well-being over profit. They denigrated capitalism as a wasteful and inefficient system that produced as externalities unemployment, poverty, and squalor.

Capitalism’s culture made people selfish, acquisitive, and ruthlessly competitive, draining them of their innate instincts for compassion and solidarity. Socialists’ critique of capitalism was both moral and practical.

Early socialists wrote at a time when the course of capitalist evolution was unclear. Marx had the advantage of having seen its further development.

Capitalist production develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer. ~ Karl Marx

No one before Marx saw as clearly the intimate relationship between private ownership of capital and political power. Nor did others appreciate how societally corrosive that power was.

Marx’s revolutionary inclinations were grounded in his disgust of men as oppressors of other men. His polity ideal was of practical equality.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the living. ~ Karl Marx

Marx understood that history is always under the sway of ideas, and that the concepts controlling social discourse were those of the overclass. Hence, the main obstacle to be overcome was the societal worldview that upheld the status quo.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, that is, the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. ~ Karl Marx

Marx never explicitly stated that the destruction of capitalism was inevitable because of the class conflict it created between those with capital and those without. Certainly Marx thought that the depravity of unrelenting exploitation and periodic economic depressions that characterized capitalism carried the seeds for revolution. He wished, but did not predict, capitalism’s demise.

Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity toward inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed the image of its own future. ~ Karl Marx

Marx’s reference to “inevitable results” was not about revolution, but to how capitalism works.

Marx distinguished between the solidarity of socialism and state capitalism, where the state owned the means of production. Marx anticipated the ruse that Lenin and later Communists promoted, where the oppression of private capitalism was replaced by that of the state.

Earlier economists lacked sufficient experience of modern capitalism to analyze its intricacies as well as Marx was able to. Similarly, Marx did not foresee political-economic dynamics which would preclude revolution.

Marx underestimated the fecundity of capitalism in producing a middle class that struggles with aspiration, and so both succors and supports the system this is the source of its struggle. He also overestimated the ability of the lower classes to revolt against a plutocrat police state, which the moneyed overclass invariably puts into place to insure their investment.