Overview Of The Marxian System

Overview Of The Marxian System

What one finds in Marx's mature thought is a theory of historical processes, based on material and economic forces and culminating in social and economic change of the existing order. In contrast to the overt, intellectual specialization of a later day, Marx's thought ranged over philosophy, history, and econom­ics. As a philosopher and historian he was steeped in, but not a part of, the German tradition. As an economist he was likewise steeped in, but not a part of, the British classical tradition.

Hegel, Feuerbach, and German Philosophy

The dominant figure in German philosophy during the nineteenth century was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), whose ideas influenced not only Marx but also the German historicists. For Marx, at least, the fascinating aspect of Hegel's philosophy was his theory of progress. According to Hegel, history holds the key to the science of society. History is not a sequence of accidental occurrences or a collection of disconnected stories; rather, it is an organic pro­cess guided by the human spirit. It is not smoothly continuous, but instead is the outcome of opposing forces. Progress obtains, according to Hegel, when one force is confronted by its opposite. In the struggle, both are annihilated and are transcended by a third force. This so-called dialectic has frequently been summarized, conceptually, by the interplay of "thesis," "antithesis," and "synthesis." Following Hegel, historical progress occurs when an idea, or thesis, is confronted by an opposing idea, or antithesis. In the battle of ideas, neither one remains intact, but both are synthesized into a third; this is how all general knowledge, as well as history, advances.

As Marx matured, he criticized Hegel on several grounds, but he neverthe­less adopted the Hegelian dialectic. He modified it, however, in light of Ludwig Feuerbach's doctrine of materialism. Feuerbach was no less a

Hegelian than Marx, but in his Essence of Christianity, written ten years after Hegel's death, he extended Hegel's concept of "self-alienation" in a radical direction. Feuerbach added "materialism"—the idea that humans are not only "species beings," as Hegel asserted, but also sensuous beings and that sense perception must therefore become the basis of all science. According to Feuerbach, all history is the process of preparing humans to become the object of "conscious," rather than "unconscious" activity.

In religion Feuerbach saw one area where unconscious activity predomi­nates. Religion is the mere projection of idealized human attributes onto an otherworldly object (i.e., God). This supernatural object is then worshipped by humans as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-perfect. As a self-proclaimed "re­alist," Feuerbach considered religion unreal. He regarded the attributes of the divinity as nothing more than the idealized attributes of humans, which, of course, cannot be realized in this imperfect world. In other words, religion makes life bearable. Humans are willing to accept their imperfect, earthly ex­istence only because they unconsciously promise themselves perfection in an­other world. To Feuerbach, it was obvious why religion is such a universal phenomenon.

In view of this analysis, Feuerbach perceived religion as a form of self-alienation. He and Marx both used the term "alienation" to refer to a pro­cess—and a result—of converting the products of individual and social activity into something apart from themselves, both independent of them and dominant over them. However, Feuerbach confined his analysis to the way in which hu­mans alienate themselves in religion and in philosophy, whereas Marx applied the concept to all manner of political and economic activity, including the very institutions of capitalism. In Marx, for the first time, the state joins hands with God as an alien being. It derives its power and its existence from the fact that human beings are either incapable or unwilling to face head-on the problems that confront them in daily social interaction with one another. Over time, this monolithic structure called the "state" increases its power over people's lives, simply because they allow it to do so.

Marx's Economic Interpretation of History

With the above background we can now begin to appreciate the innovational character of Marx's thought. Grafting Feuerbach's materialism to Hegel's di­alectic, Marx developed a "dialectical materialism," which he then extended to the economic realm. Marx considered the prime mover of history to be the way in which individuals make a living, that is, the way in which they satisfy their material needs. This is important because unless their material needs are satisfied, human beings would cease to exist. In Marx's words, "Men must be able to live in order to 'make history,'" therefore, "The first historical act is... the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of ma­terial life itself (The German Ideology, cited in Writings of the Young Marx, p. 419).

Production, of course, is not only a historical act but an economic one as well, and it is part of the uniqueness of Marx that he clearly understood and appreciated the interrelations between economics and history. In fact, Marx's identification and exposition of production as the focal and driving force from among the mutually conditioning forces of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are what distinguished his own economics from that existing up to his time. In Marx, economics became the science of production.

Production is a social force insofar as it channels human activity into useful ends. But Marx asserted that methods of production help to shape human na­ture itself. In one of his earlier works he wrote:

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the phys­ical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these in­dividuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their pro­duction {The German Ideology, cited in Precapitalist Economic Formations, p. 121).

Marx recognized, as Adam Smith did, that the development of productive forces in every economy depends upon the degree to which the division of la­bor is carried. But unlike Smith, Marx saw a conflict of interests as the logical outcome of the progressive division of labor. The division of labor leads first to separation of industrial and commercial labor from agricultural labor and hence to separation of town and country. Next it leads to the separation of industrial from commercial labor, and finally to a division among workers within each kind of labor. Thus further conflict arises: individual interests con­tradict community interests, and each worker becomes "chained" to a specific job. Eventually humans' labor becomes an alien power, opposed to them and enslaving them.

Out of this conflict between individual interests and community interests Marx saw the emergence of the state as an independent power, a power di­vorced from the real interests of the individual and the community. Yet the state owes its being to the social classes already determined by the division of labor. Each class in power seeks to promote its own interest as the general community interest. However, the community perceives this class interest as an alien force over which it has no control.

The situation becomes intolerable when two conditions are fulfilled: First, the great mass of humanity must be rendered propertyless while simulta­neously being confronted with the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture. Both these factors presuppose a great increase in productive power and a high degree of its development, as under mature capitalism. Sec­ond, the development of productive forces must be universal. As a practical premise, the phenomenon of the "propertyless" class must be of worldwide proportions; otherwise, revolution and communism could exist only as local events, not as universal realities.

Static versus Dynamic Forces in Society

What Marx called the "forces of production," developed in the modern age through division of labor, are essentially dynamic. They consist of land, labor, capital, and technology, each of which is constantly changing in quantity and/ or quality as a result of changes in population, discovery, innovation, educa­tion, and so on. In the course of production of their social life, however, hu­mans enter into certain "definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a defi­nite stage of development of their material productive forces." These "rules of the capitalist game" are essentially static and consist of two types: property relations and human relations. Property relations exist between people and things; human relations exist between people. According to Marx, it is the sum total of these relations that constitutes the economic structure of society and upon which is superimposed a legal and political superstructure corresponding to definite forms of social consciousness. Every aspect of the socioeconomic structure owes its origin to the relations of production simply because institu­tions exist in order to make humans conform to the relations of production.

Figure 1 provides a simple schematic summary of Marx's theory of so­ciety. As the division of labor is pushed to its logical conclusion, labor be­comes increasingly fragmented. The ensuing conflicts of interest are further aggravated by the institution of private property, which ensures the splitting up of accumulated capital among different owners and thus the division be­tween capital and labor. In terms of Figure 1, the dynamic forces of pro­duction come into conflict with the static relations of production. Once this conflict reaches a sufficient pitch, class struggle and revolution occur, and the pyramid of society tumbles, from top to bottom.

Marx succinctly summarized the dynamic process of social change deter­mined by the forces of production in his preface to A Contribution to the Cri­tique of Political Economy:
The mode of production of material life determines the character of the social, po­litical, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that deter­mines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or— what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense super­structure is more or less rapidly transformed.

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society___The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production—antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism (Critique of Political Economy, pp. 20-21).

All this is, of course, more than a theory of economics; it is a theory of his­tory, politics, and sociology as well. However, Marx's greatest work, Capital, is clearly an analysis of capitalism, not of socialism or communism. Neverthe­less, a full understanding of the dynamics of that analysis would be extremely difficult were one not first aware of the Marxian theory of how social change comes about.