Politics and Morality: Karl Marx


Karl Marx (1818-1883), like John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill, was a product of the Enlightenment. Both Marx and Mill were committed to basing politics on a scientific theory and the freedom of the individual. Yes, Marx also wanted to free individuals-from exploitation by the elite into a classless, stateless society.

It is difficult for an American, after decades of Cold War propaganda, to think of Marx objectively. Surely he was a monster and a fool, bent on destroying humanity. He was neither and the best cure for knee-jerk revulsion is probably to actually read what he said.

Marx died before the Russian Revolution (1917) after which Marx’s idea of the state “withering away”…itself withered away.

Different branches of Communism disagreed over whether the better world would happen naturally and gradually or through revolution, whether it should be top down (a ruling vanguard of intelligentsia) or bottom up (small local self-governing co-operatives). Revolution and Vanguard carried the day in Russia.

Marx attacked utopian and reform-minded socialists for being romantic and unscientific. He believed that he had the answer in his materialist conception of history. History was progressing in predictable ways through the process of dialectical materialism. Basically something happens, its opposite reacts and then they meet in the middle to form a new thing (thesis, antithesis, synthesis)

Marx was as much a product of his times as any of us. The Industrial Revolution was producing great misery for most people and great wealth for a few. Yet the paradigm of progress was accepted by almost everyone. Therefore this struggle was leading somewhere. His friend Friedrich Engels, in Condition of the Working Class in England described the horrors of the filthy, disease-ridden slums of newly industrialized England with great empathy. The workers, he concluded, were being brutally exploited. There must be a better way.

Many ideas about what that better way might be were circulating around Europe in response to widespread suffering and repression; Marx’s was just one of many. In Capital, Marx lays out his thesis. Capitalism is a necessary stage of class struggle in the inevitable historical progression toward a better society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs. Capitalism will eventually collapse due to its own internal contradictions.

In Capital, he presents his case for the labor theory of value. Laborers produce surplus value which is then siphoned off by the factory owner, who pays the laborers as little as possible in order to retain the surplus for his own purposes. When the factory, or the means of production, is owned by all, then society will be both fair and free, according to the theory. Marx considered his theory as applicable worldwide and not as a national program. He ends his Communist Manifesto with “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

What do you think? Can you think about Marx’s ideas without reams of propaganda flashing before your eyes? Would it be good for the workers to own and run the business they are involved with? Does capitalism have self-destructive features? Is a classless, stateless society even possible? What would a fair society look like?

Yale Open Courses: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Contradictions of Capital

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