The Marxian School of Thought

The Marxian School of Thought

After this summary exposition of the principal theories of Karl Marx, we must now try to fix the general character of the school that bears his name and to distinguish it from the other socialist schools that we have already studied.

(a) In the first place, it proudly claims for its teaching the title of scientific socialism, but much care must be exercised in interpreting the formula. No economist has ever shown such contempt or betrayed such passion in denouncing Phalansteres, Utopias, and communistic schemes of every kind. To think that the Marxians should add to the number of such fantastic dreams! What they claim to do, as Labriola points out (may the shades of Fourier forgive their presump­tion!), is to give a thoroughly scientific demonstration of the line of progress which has actually been followed by civilized societies. Their one ambition is to gauge the significance of the unconscious evolution through which society has progressed and to point the goal towards which this cosmic process seems to be tending.

The result is that the Marxian school has a conception of natural laws which is much nearer the Classical standpoint than that of its predecessors. Of this there can be no doubt. The Marxian theories are derived directly from the theories of the leading economists of the early nineteenth century, especially from Ricardo's. Marx is in the line of direct succession. Not only is this true of the labour-value theory and of his treatment of the conflict between profits and wages, but it also applies to his theory of rent and to a whole host of Ricardian doctrines that have been absorbed wholesale into the Marxian philo­sophy. And, paradoxical as it may sound, his abstract dogmatic method, his obscure style, which encourages disciples to retort that the critics have misunderstood his meaning and to give to many a passage quite an esoteric significance, is of the very essence of Ricardo. Marx's theories are, of course, supported by a wealth of illuminating facts, which unfortunately have been unduly simplified and drawn upon for purely imaginary conclusions. We have already had occasion to remark that Ricardo also owes a good deal more to the observation of facts than is generally believed, and his practice of postulating imaginary conditions is of course notorious. The impenitent Marxian who still wishes to defend some of the more untenable theories of Marx, such as his doctrine of labour-value, generally finds himself forced to admit that Marx had supposed (the use of suppositions is an unfailing proof of Ricardian influence) the existence of society wherein labour would be always uniform in quality.

Marxism is simply a branch grafted on the Classical trunk. Astonished and indignant as the latter may well seem at the sight of the strange fruit which its teaching has borne, it cannot deny the fact that it has nourished it with its own life-blood. "Das Kapital," as Labriola notes, "instead of being the prologue to the communal critique, is simply the epilogue of bourgeois economics."

Not only has Marxism always shown unfailing respect for political economy even when attacking individual economists, who are generally accused of inability to grasp the full significance of their own teaching, but, strangely enough, it betrays an equal affection for capitalism. It has the greatest respect for the task which it has already accom­plished, and feels infinitely grateful for the revolutionary part (such are the words used) which it has played in preparing the way for collectivism, which is almost imperceptibly usurping its place.

But the Marxians have one serious quarrel with the older econo­mists. It seemed to them that the earliest writers on political economy never realized the relatively transient nature of the social organism which they were studying. This was possibly because they were conservative by instinct and had the interest of the bourgeois at heart. They always taught, and they fully believed it, that private property and proletarianism were permanent features of the modern world, and that social organization was for ever destined to remain upon a middle-class foundation. They were at least unwilling to recognize that this also, like the rest, was simply a historical category, and, like them, also was destined to vanish.

(b) The Marxian school also differs from every previous socialist school in the comparative ease with which it has eschewed every consideration of justice and fraternity, which always played such an important role in French socialism. It is interested, not in the ideal, but in the actual, not in what ought to be, but in what is likely to be.

The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.

To economic facts they attributed an importance altogether transcending their influence in the economic sphere. Their belief was that the several links which unify the many-sided activities of society, whether in politics, literature, art, morality, or religion, are ultimately referable to some economic fact or other. None of them but is based upon a purely economic consideration. Most important of all are the facts relating to production, especially to the mechanical instruments of production and their operation. If we take, for example, the pro­duction of bread and the successive stages through which the mechani­cal operation of grinding has passed from the hand-mill of antiquity to the water-mill of the Middle Ages and the steam-mill of to-day, we have a clue to the parallel development of society from the family to the capitalistic system and from the capitalistic to the trust, with their concomitants slavery, serfdom, and proletarianism. This affords a far better explanation of the facts than any bourgeois cant about "the growth of freedom" or humbug of that nature. These are the real foundations upon which every theory has to be reared. This material­istic conception of history, implying as it does a complete philosophy of history, is no longer confined to the purely economic domain.

Taken in the vulgar sense, it seems to involve the exclusion of every moral and every humanitarian consideration. As SchafHe put it in that oft-quoted phrase of his, it means reducing the social question to a "mere question of the belly." The French socialists find the doctrine somewhat difficult to swallow, and they hardly display the same reverence for Marx as is shown in some other countries.

The orthodox Marxians immediately proceed to point out that such criticism is useless and shows a complete misunderstanding of Marx's position. Materialism in the Marxian sense (and all his terms have a Marxian as well as the ordinary significance) does not exclude idealism, but it does exclude ideology, which is a different thing. No Marxian has ever advocated leaving mankind at the mercy of its economic environment; on the contrary, the Marxian builds his faith upon evolution, which implies man's conscious, but not very successful, effort to improve his economic surroundings. The materialistic conception of history apparently is simply an attempt at a philosophy of human effort. Criticism of such elusive doctrines is not a very easy task.

(c) The socialism of Karl Marx is exclusively a working-class gospel. This is its distinctive trait and the source of the power it wields. To some extent it also explains its persistence. Other socialist systems have been discredited and are gone, but the Marxian gospel—no longer, of course, the sublime masterpiece it was when its author first expounded it—has lost none of its ancient vigour, despite the many transformations which it has undergone.

The socialists of the first half of the nineteenth century embraced all men without distinction, worker and bourgeois alike, within their broad humanitarian schemes. Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon reckoned upon the co-operation of the wealthy governing classes to found the society of the future. Marxism implies a totally different standpoint. There is to be no attempt at an understanding with the bourgeoisie, there must be no dallying with the unclean thing, and the prohibition is to apply not only to the capitalists, but also to the intellectuals and to the whole hierarchical superstructure that usually goes by the name of officialdom. Real socialism aims at nothing but the welfare of the working classes, which will only become possible when they attain to power.

It may, of course, be pointed out that socialism has always involved some such struggle between rich and poor, but it is equally correct to say that the battle has hitherto been waged over the question of just distribution. Beyond that there was no issue. But in the Marxian doctrine the antagonism is dignified with the name of a new scientific law, the ' class war'—the worker against the capitalist, the poor versus the rich. The individuals are the same, but the casus belli is quite different. 'Glass war' is a phrase that has contributed not a little to the success of Marxism, and those who understand not a single word of the theory—and this applies to the vast majority of working men— will never forget the formula. It will always serve to keep the powder dry, at any rate.

'Glass war' was not a new fact. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." But although it has always existed, it cannot continue for ever. And the great struggle that is now drawing nigh and which gives us such a tragic interest in the whole campaign will be the last. The collectivist regime will destroy the conditions that breed antagonism, and so will get rid of the classes themselves. Let us note in passing that this prophecy is not without a strong tinge of that Utopian optimism which the Marxians considered such a weakness in the earlier French socialism.

(d) A final distinction of Marxism is its purely revolutionary or catastrophic character, which is again unmistakably indicated by its adoption of 'class war' as its watchword. But we have only to remind ourselves that the adjective 'revolutionary' is applied by the Marxians to ordinary middle-class action to realize that the term is employed in a somewhat unusual fashion.
The revolution will result in the subjection of the wealthier classes by the working men, but all this will be accomplished, not by having recourse to the guillotine or by resorting to street rioting, but in a per­fectly peaceful fashion. The means may be political and the method even within the four corners of the law, for the working classes may easily acquire a majority in Parliament, seeing that they already form the majority of the electors, especially in those countries that have adopted universal suffrage. The method may be simply that of economic associations of working men taking all economic services into their own hands.

The final catastrophe may come in yet another guise, and most Marxians seem to centre their hopes upon this last possibility. This would take the form of an economic crisis resulting in the complete overthrow of the whole capitalist regime—a kind of economic jtefo de se. We have already noted the important place which crises hold in the Marxian doctrines.

But if Marxism does not necessarily involve resort to violence, violent methods are not excluded. Indeed, it considers that some measure of struggle is inevitable before the old social forms can be delivered of the new—before the butterfly can issue from the chrysalis. "Force is the birth-pangs of society."

This is not the place for false sentimentalism. Evil and suffering seem to be the indispensable agents of evolution. Had anyone been able to suppress slavery or serfdom or to prevent the expropriation of the worker by the capitalist, it would have merely meant drying up the springs of progress, and more evil than good would probably have resulted. Every step forward involves certain unpleasant conditions, which must be faced if the higher forms of existence are ever to become a reality.


And for this reason the reform of the bourgeois philanthro­pist and the preaching of social peace would be found to be harmful if they ever proved at all successful. There is no progress where there is no struggle. This disdainful indifference to the unavoidable suffer­ing involved in transition is inherited from the Classical economists, and provides one more point of resemblance between the two doctrines. Almost identical terms were employed by the Classical economists when speaking of competition, of machinery, or of the absorption of the small industry by a greater one. In the opinion of the Marxians no attempt at improving matters is worth the name of reform unless it also speeds the coming revolution. "But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs."