Marxism is a body of social, political, and economic thought derived from the writings of Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Many forms of Marxism have emerged since Karl Marx s death in 1883. Among these are Communism and Socialism. The ideas of Marxism are derived from his analysis of capitalism, mainly how it arose, how it works, whom it works for, and where it will go.
Concentrating on the social and economic relations by which people earn their livings, Marx saw through the capitalist legal fa ade and pointed out the base struggle between two classes, the capitalist, or the owners of the productive resources, and the proletariat, or the works. This struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the driving force throughout history. There are three main theories that make up Marx s analysis of capitalism, the theory of alienation, the labor theory of value, and the materialist conception of history.
Even Marx s vision of socialism emerges from his study of capitalism, because socialism is the unrealized potential inherent in capitalism itself for a more rational and friendly social order in which people can develop more fully their distinctive human qualities. Some socialist ideas can be traced as far back as the Bible, but Marxism has its main intellectual origins in German philosophy, English political economy, and French utopian socialism. It is from G. W. F. Hegel that Marx learned a way of thinking about the world, in all its fluid complexity that is called dialectics.
Adam Smith’s and David Ricardo’s view that the values of commodities express the amount of labor time that go into their production underlay Marx’s own labor theory of value. From the French utopians, especially Charles Fourier and the Comte de Saint-Simon, Marx caught a glimpse of a happier future that lay beyond capitalism. With the paradox of an Industrial Revolution that produced as much poverty as it did wealth, these were the main ingredients that went into the formation of Marxism.
Marx’s study of capitalism was grounded in a philosophy that was both dialectical and materialist. With dialectics, the changes and interactions that anything undergoes are brought into focus and emphasized, and special attention is devoted to whatever patterns emerge. This method let Marx, when examining a particular problem within capitalism, to keep in view both the broader interactions that made up the whole and the past and future development of present phenomena.
In this way, capitalism became the main object of his study. The uneasy tension between the historical forces promoting change and the systemic ones promoting equilibrium were captured in the idea of contradiction, understood as a progressive pulling apart of what is functionally united. Unlike Hegel’s dialectic, which moved in a world of pure ideas, Marx’s dialectic was materialist. Marx was primarily concerned with capitalism as lived rather than as thought about, but people’s lives also involve consciousness.
Marx’s materialism puts ideas back into the heads of living people and treats both as parts of a world that is forever being remade through human activities, particularly in production. In this dialectical process, ideas also affect the social conditions and behavior that more generally shape them. The theory of alienation tells how the people who do the work in capitalism own none of the tools that they use in their work. The capitalists, to whom workers must sell their time and energy in return for a wage, own these.
This system of labor displays four relations that lie at the core of Marx’s theory of alienation. The worker is alienated from their productive activity, playing no part in deciding what to do or how to do it. The worker is alienated from the product of that activity, having no control over what is made or what becomes of it. The worker is alienated from other human beings, with competition and mutual indifference replacing most forms of cooperation. Finally, the worker is alienated from the distinctive potential inherent in the notion of human being.
The alienation of the workers leaves them physically weakened, mentally confused, isolated, and virtually powerless. On the other side of this separation are products and ties with other people, outside the control and lost to the understanding of the worker. In the marketplace the worker’s products pass from one hand to another, changing names and form along the way. Value, commodity, capital, profit, interest, rent, wage, eventually change names and comeback to the worker as the landlord’s house, the grocer’s food, the boss’s factory, and the various laws and customs that keep social order.
The world that the worker has made and the capitalists have taken is resold to the worker in the misunderstood form of private property to serve as the necessary conditions for reproducing his or her own alienation. The next of Marx s theories is the labor theory of value, which Marx expanded on from Smith and Ricardo s original ideas. Smith and Ricardo used the theory of value to explain broad price ratios. Marx took this explanation more or less for granted. His labor theory of value is primarily concerned with the more basic problem of why goods have prices at all. The slave owner takes by force what slaves produce.
The feudal lord claims as a right some part of what is produced by the serfs. Only in capitalism is the distribution of what is produced a function of markets and prices. Marx’s explanation of this concentrates on the separation of the worker from their means of production and the sale of their hard work that this separation makes necessary. As a result of this separation, all the things that workers produce become available for exchange. In fact, this is why they are produced, for the exchange. Value is the general social form taken by all the products of alienated labor.
Such products could only sell and serve in ways that express and contribute to this alienation. Surplus value, the third aspect of value, is the difference between the amount of exchange and use value created by workers and the amount of value returned to them as wages. In other words this is the profit that drives the owners. The capitalist’s control over this surplus is the basis of their power over the workers and the rest of society. Marx’s labor theory of value also provides a detailed account of the struggle between capitalists and workers over the size of the surplus value.
Because of competition among capitalists, workers are constantly being replaced by machinery, which allows the capitalists to gain even more profit from the remaining workers. Interestingly, the amount of profit is also the source of capitalism’s greatest weakness. Because only part of their product is returned to them as wages, the workers, as consumers, cannot buy a large portion of what they produce. Under pressure from the constant growth of the total product, the capitalists periodically fail to find new markets to take up the slack.
This leads to crises of overproduction, capitalism’s classic contradiction, in which people are forced to live on too little because they have produced too much. The last of Marx s theories was the materialistic conception of history. In the materialist conception of history, Marx told of the transformation of feudalism into capitalism. He focused on the contradictions that arose through the growth of towns, population, technology, and trade, which at a certain point destroyed the feudal, social, and political forms in which production had been organized.
Relations of lord to serf based on feudal rights and obligations had become a hindrance to the further development of these productive forces. The contractual relations of capitalists to workers, thus continuing the class struggle replaced them. With capitalists free to pursue profits wherever they might take them, and workers equally free to sell their labor power to capitalists however they might use it. The productive potential inherent in the new forces of production, especially technology and science, was freed.
If profit maximization leads to rapid growth when rapid growth maximizes profits, however, profit maximization restricts growth when growth proves unprofitable. According to Marx, the periodic and worsening crises of overproduction that began about 1830 show capitalism’s growing inability to take full advantage of the potential for producing wealth that has grown up with it. Within this framework the course of history is determined by the class struggle. According to Marx, each class is defined by what part it plays in the production process. The capitalist s interests are based on the profits it can get.
Workers are interested in higher wages, job security, shorter hours and safer working conditions. The class struggle involves these two major classes promoting their interests at the expensive the other class. In this struggle which has driven history and society, the capitalist use such things like government, religion, schools, and other institutions to hold down the workers. The workers have their sheer numbers to help them, as well as their ability to cooperate with each other. Marx believed that once the workers realized what their present condition was they would rise up and change it.
This class-consciousness is what was needed to overthrow capitalism. The socialists society that would emerge would develop the full potential of production that capitalism could not. The final goal toward which socialist societies would strive for is the human one of abolishing alienation. Marx called the attainment of this goal communism. The communist experiment that occurred in the USSR and continues in China, is not pure Marxism. It has been distorted to serve the needs of the leaders, in a similar way as capitalism does.
This is the reason communism broke down in the Soviet Union, because the workers were still alienated but in a different way. Also, Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution because the right conditions were not yet met. Russia was not industrialized enough, was not democratic, and did not have much of an intelligent population, which all arise form capitalism. These conditions were absolutely necessary for Marxism to succeed, because these conditions were not met, the communist experiment in Russia was doomed form the beginning.