Lecture on Marx

[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 112 in February 1999, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). References are to the Viking Portable Marx, ed. Eugene Kamenka. This document is in the public domain, released February 1999]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston



Introductions to Marx, particularly those who approach his work historically, that is, from the context of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thought, commonly stress the importance of his synthesis of four different intellectual traditions: the Romantic Movement, English Political Economy (or Economics, as we call it), French Politics, and German Philosophy. And I propose in this lecture to follow this tradition, discussing the importance of each of these elements. My purpose will be to offer some introductory illumination of Marx’s complex and challenging methods of thinking and thus of his economic and political theories.

It is important to emphasize, however, that in treating Marx this way, I will be excessively fragmenting his ideas, because, of course, in his work the four “strands” I will be talking about do not exist as neatly separated compartments, but are fused in an imaginative and complex manner. I certainly don’t want to suggest with these four labels, for example, that Marx went through different stages, first, the Romantic young man, second, the empirical political economist, then the committed political activist, and finally the philosopher. In a very real sense, Marx is all of these things all of the time, although in different writings one or more of these elements might predominate. In separating out the different aspects of his work for the purposes of discussion, I am inevitably simplifying his ideas.

We should all begin, I think, by reminding ourselves that Marx is a great heir to Enlightenment political thinking, perhaps the greatest of all, and certainly the one who created the most radical and long-lasting political challenge in Europe and beyond to the developing Liberalism derived from Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Kant, Mill, and others, and his influence has been absolutely central, in part because he succeeded in establishing what so many of his reformist predecessors, like Voltaire and Rousseau, failed to do, that is, to transform a plea for reform into a detailed program for sustained practical political action at the community level. After Marx, at least one important radical response to liberal capitalism or to traditional authorities had both a coherent theoretical alternative and a clear step-by-step analysis of what has to be done to achieve social justice. The effect on our culture has been and continues to be, as I am sure you all recognize, enormous.


Central to everything Marx writes is a strong indignation at what he sees taking place all around him, and that indignation, I would maintain, is Romantic in origin. The Romantics, you will recall, stress the importance of a self-created life, because only in such a free activity can the human individual be most fully alive. The metaphor most appropriate for this belief is that of life as creative play (the analogy with children is deliberate)a favorite Romantic metaphor.

For the Romantics any forced activity or slavish copying of someone else’s activity is, in important ways, a loss of what is most vital about human experience. By contrast, freely chosen play occurs only if one is fully in control of one’s own activity, following one’s own rules and enjoying the rewards which that creative play offers on terms dictated by oneselfin other words, if one if free in all the particulars of one’s daily life. When that situation obtains, then, in a very real sense, one has a fully integrated sense of self.

When Marx looked around him, he saw everywhere that human activity was about as far removed from creative play as it is possible to get. Millions of men, women, and children were little better than slaves, working at mind-numbing mechanical jobs in factories for a subsistence salary under hazardous working conditions which drastically shortened their lives. The hours were in many cases brutally long (up to 16 hr per day six days a week and 8 hr on Sunday), the work endlessly mechanical, the conditions appalling, the pay minimal, and the profits to the owners enormous. The fact that these conditions were extended also to women and children made the situation all the worse.

For Marx the Romantic this was, as for other Romantic critics of the factory system, a total denial of the possibilities for a human life beyond mere animal existence. In a very real sense, the workers not only had no control over their lives; they did not own their lives, for they lived most of the time as extensions of machines which someone else owned, producing material goods which were not theirs. Nothing of themselves went into their work except their muscle power, for which they received a small hourly wage. Hence, their humanity was corrupted. To this situation, Marx gave the enduring name of alienation.


For Marx the alienation of the worker was all the more acute because of his view of human nature. Marx is a thoroughgoing materialist, that is, he sees human life as defined by its material conditions. He is not prepared, as other thinkers we have read were, to define the essence of humanness in terms of some ideal or spiritual quality or in terms of some capacity to reach such an ideal or spiritual identity (something like reason or faith, for example). For Marx human beings are not essentially rational creatures, or children of god, or political animals. By contrast, human beings are not essentially anything; they are what they doand what they do is work to derive a life for themselves from the world around them. Everything about them, including their consciousness of themselves and their understanding of nature and their belief in God is a direct product of what they physically do in their daily lives. For Marx, the human beings is homo laborans [a working human].

In the social production of their life men enter into 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. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life determines 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. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, orwhat is but a legal expression for the same thingwith the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophicin short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. (159-161)

We set out from real, active, men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. (169-170)

In other words, the human identity and the human being’s consciousness of that identity are determined by work, by the material conditions which the individual has to face in order to cope with life. So for Marx, there is no offsetting spiritual quality which might redeem or ennoble degrading material circumstances. If people in their daily activities have to deal with oppressive and dehumanizing material conditions, then they are not fully human, no matter what anyone can say about their spiritual or ideal identity.

Thus, for Marx alienation is a physical and psychological condition which arises out of the conditions of modern work. Since the worker does not own what he produces, since he lives as an extension of the machine, since he hates what he does, then the worker does not own his own life, he is in a basic sense simply a human machine. He exists to himself as an alien object; he is conscious of himself as something he despises, rather than loves or enjoys or even recognizes as his own. As an alienated being, the modern worker, no matter what religious or spiritual palliatives are offered by priests or idealistic philosophers spouting of the progressive working out of an idea or the loving nature of Christ, is denied access to his humanity.

A second point that really spurs Marx’s indignation is that this oppressive alienation is taking place in countries which officially pride themselves on their progressive character, on their commitment to freedom, on the lofty ideals developed through numerous Enlightenment thought experiments (like Emile) or Kant’s essays on the Enlightenment or Mill’s celebration of free speech. How can it be that in a culture which sets up freedom as its highest goal and which boasts of having reached a higher degree of freedom than any previous culture, how can such a society inflict on its citizens the conditions which render the majority of them slaves to machines and vile strangers to themselves? In terms of the lofty rhetoric of the politicians and priests, these workers are, indeed, free. For Marx, in terms of the material conditions of their lives and the psychological effects of those conditions, they lack the most basic freedoms of all, the freedom to sense that their lives are their own, freedom to love themselves.


Marx is by no means the first to protest strongly against the ways in which the conditions of modern work prevent the worker from achieving a human identity. What separates Marx from so many of the others, however, is his response to this indignation. Unlike Blake, for example, he does not sit down to write a poem to express his feelings, and, unlike Rousseau, he does not write a thought experiment. Unlike Kant, he does not attempt to frame the problem in terms of an idealistic conception of history. Instead he decides to study the problem scientifically. As an heir to the Enlightenment, Marx has huge faith in the empirical approach to experience, and as a materialist he immediately distrusts lofty idealistic approach. Hence, the problems of society are, first and foremost, scientific problems demanding empirical investigation.

This uncharacteristic response led Marx into a scientific study of the economic conditions which produced the system, into, that is, a study of capitalism. And it is this hard-headed approach to the difficult facts of modern industrial life that separates Marx from so many earlier reform-minded thinkers, because it grounds what he has to say in what for him and his followers is clearly scientific truth (rather than in some challenging deductive thought experiment or polemic or satire which does not engage itself with the detailed particularity of the economy). 

His urge to understand his society scientifically led Marx into a study and critique of the growing science of Political Economy (what we would today call Economics), and especially to the rich tradition of writing about the prevailing economic doctrine of his time, Free Market Capitalism. By Marx’s time this tradition had produced a number of classic texts, especially by a series of brilliant British economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and John Stuart Mill), each of whom sought in various ways to defend the central principles of liberal capitalism.

Before offering a very cursory inspection of this tradition, let me insist that I am skating on thin ice here. I have only the skimpiest knowledge of economics, and my attempts to improve my understanding in this area have not been very diligent or successful. So you will have to excuse me if this is an incomplete and inadequate and highly derivative account of a very complex subject.

Simply put, capitalism can be understood as an economic system where the economic activity of the society is producing man-made goods and in which the means of production (factories, land, mines, shops) are in private hands. That is, the productive life on which the economy depends (or a significant part of it) proceeds through private enterprise, in which the various things needed for production (land, machinery, supplies) and the profits produced by such production are owned by particular individuals.


The English tradition of free market capitalism (of the sort advocated by Adam Smith) arose in the 17th and 18th centuries as a strong response to a capitalistic system known as mercantilism. In mercantilism the activities of the private capitalists are strictly controlled by a central authority (in most cases in Europe the monarch) who determined all the essential features of economic life, licensing particular people to manufacture particular goods, controlling imports and exports through laws, quotas, and tariffs, dividing up the productive life of the society into areas in a way that would maximize the profitable returns to the entire state. It was, in other words, a centrally planned economy. Private persons might engage in business, but they were hedged in by a thicket of regulations, taxes, duties, and restrictions imposed by the monarch.

The aim of the mercantilist capitalist system was to generate wealth for the monarch, mainly by making sure that the amount of goods exported to other countries exceeded the amount of goods imported (so that there was a net gain in the balance of payments). Thus, imports should be discouraged, all necessary products should be produced at home, if possible, and one should not encourage competition which might threaten one’s balance of trade. In fact, mercantilism severely restricted any competition through free trade.

So, for example, mercantilist capitalism would seek to exclude the importation of essentials like food and clothing, even if that meant that at home the price of these essentials was higher than it might be with free trade (hence there were strict controls against the importing of European grain into England). It would also seek through high tariffs to exclude foreign luxury items (like perfume, French wine, spices). The American Colonists were forbidden to make products which might compete with English manufacturers (like pots and pans and clothing) and required to concentrate on essentials which England could not provide (like timber for ships, furs, and tobacco).

Thus, the mercantilist capitalist system was very tightly regulated. People might own their own businesses and keep their profits, but they were not free to set themselves up in any way they might desire in business. The economy was planned from the central authority in order to maximize the economic benefits to the country as a whole.


Naturally many business people disliked this arrangement. Not only did they not have liberty to pursue their own economic interests, but in many cases they had to pay taxes to support a system in which they had no say (kings, then as now, were expensive to maintain). Their economic life was regulated by someone who demanded from them money to run the state and who then imposed limitations on their activities. Hence there arose increased demands for more economic freedom and for more control over the economic affairs of the nation (mainly with a view to easing up on the tight mercantilist regulations).

Seen in this light, the English Civil War (in the 1640’s) and the American War of Independence (1776) can be viewed primarily as rebellions by the business classes against an economic system which did not grant them sufficient freedom. Both wars were fueled by responses to what people perceived as unfair business taxes (“No taxation without representation”) and the major achievement of both wars was to wrest control from the central monarch and place it more firmly in the hands of the business class. After both events, economic life became a great deal more free, and the mercantilist system gave way to what has come to be called Free Market Capitalism.


The classic defense of this new free-market capitalism was made by Adam Smith, whose famous book, The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776, the same year as the American Revolution) quickly became and has remained the Bible of those who believe that the economic life of a community should be conducted with as little regulation and central control as possible, that the productive wealth of a society is best fostered by unfettered private business, spurred by self-interest.

Adam Smith’s book is one of the highlights of Enlightenment thinking, an attempt to overthrow the old order and put in its place a system based upon freedom and equality, which, Smith claimed, would lead to a much more efficient self-regulating system without the need for the confusing pile of regulations, tariffs, quotas, and so on, which was weighing down the mercantilist system.

Smith argued that if someone was free to set himself up in business as he chose, if he made good products for which there was a demand at a good price, then he would thrive. If his work was shoddy or his prices too high or his workers unhappy, he would go out of business. Competition would guarantee the best prices, quality, and wages, because anyone who could not deliver on these elements would not succeed. The system would be perfectly self-regulating, adjusting itself according to an automatic supply and demand cycle. Consumer demand and competition would provide all the necessary regulations automatically.

What would keep the system working was the fact that people are naturally selfish and will work hard for their own profit, and they will purchase goods to satisfy their own selfish desires. Smith was under no illusions about people’s motives for going into business, but he strongly felt that they would regulate each other, if only the central authority would give them the chance. Hence, in Smith’s system the economic role of government was virtually nil. It should guarantee a level playing field and then stay out of the picture.

[For a modern approximation of what Smith is talking about, we can consult the Buy Sell and Trade magazine. There prices and services are freely offered and accepted or rejected. The level of prices and services is determined by supply and demand, and people succeed in this market only if they can compete effectively. This element in the economy is virtually unregulated and small, involving economic exchange and production by individuals without supervision]

The hero of Smith’s work is the small business person dedicated to working for his or her own profit. He is very distrustful of big business and of government, both of which skew or make impossible the free competition basic to his model.

There is clearly a link to Hobbes here. Smith wants people free to pursue their own commodious living, regulated only (or as much as possible only) by the free interplay of supply and demand. If that model could be implemented, then the government could stay out of the market and leave people alone to generate wealth for themselves and for the state.

This is a very simplistic summary of Smith’s position, and we need to remember that other free-market capitalists criticized Smith and sought to make adjustments to his model. But the brief sketch above is enough, I think, to give us a sense of Marx’s critique.


The reality of capitalism for Marx is that it is not free, at least not for the vast majority of people working in it, and, beyond that, it contains within it an inherent contradiction which must lead, first, to enormous social dislocation and human suffering and, second, to the final collapse of capitalism itself. For Marx the connections between the theory of capitalism and the conditions of modern life were all too clear. And his analysis indicated that things are going to get much worse before they got any better. Simply put, his case against capitalism goes something like this:

Capitalism produces commodities (things) which it sells. The value of a commodity is determined in large part by the amount of labour necessary for its production. What the working person has to offer in production is labour powerthe value of the worker is the labour power he provides for the manufacturers. In effect, the capitalist purchases as much or as little of labour power as he needs to produce his commodities. And the labour value is reflected in the value of the commodity.

However, the total value of the commodity must be, in fact, greater than the labour value. There is a surplus value. For a part of the working day, the labourer produces the value of his work; for the second part of his day he produces a surplus value. This value goes directly to the owner of the factory. From this surplus value the owner deals with his own expenses and his profits.

Marx’s major critique of capitalism is that this surplus value must inevitably decline. So long as my surplus value is sufficient to generate a profit, other people will be attracted into my share of the market; hence, there will be less surplus value for me (since I will now be sharing the market with one more competitor). The more successful I am in generating surplus value, the greater my profits, and the more likely I am to attract competitors (my profit is always someone else’s opportunity). Hence, my surplus value will decline. This is the single greatest threat to my business, and I have no choice but to direct all my energies into keeping surplus value from shrinking too much.

One way to protect my surplus value will be to keep wages as low as possible. And the competitive realities of capitalism will inevitably require that, no matter how much I might like to pay the workers, I will have to lower wages. Otherwise, I will go out of business. The same holds true for any other expenses incurred by labour (such as safety, vacations, medical benefits, and so on). However, labour cost cannot sink below a subsistence level. I have to pay the workers enough to (barely) live. And over time the cost of that subsistence level will rise, because, as Malthus demonstrated, the population is increasing faster than food supplies, and therefore the price of food (the most essential part of the subsistence living of the worker) will over time increase. Hence the capitalist is in a historical squeeze that will eventually put him out of business.


Faced with the inevitable decline of surplus value, the capitalist will resort to a number of strategies in order to survive (other than reducing wages to the minimum). He will do this by necessity, since the only alternative to not doing these (or some of them) is to go out of business.

He will seek to make the workers more productive (with longer hours and less pay), use cheaper workers (like children and women, so that families can all work and each receive less). These steps may, in the short term lead to some improvements if the owner discovers that, say, treating employees better (e.g., with more rest periods, higher pay, and holidays) increases their productivity. However, there will be constant pressure from the declining surplus value to remove these costly benefits wherever they occur.

The desire to increase productivity will lead the capitalist ruthlessly to do away with any traditions which interfere with that priority (e.g., religious holidays, Sundays free of work, any traditional gender differentiation among workers, any traditional laws or customs which stand in the way of maximum efficiencyfor example the exploitation of children, common standards of “decent” treatment, any Christian reservations about abusing others).

The capitalist will seek to move his business to places where labour is cheaper (e.g., offshore) or where the price of doing business is to his advantage (lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper land, and so on).

The capitalist will seek to replace his human labour with machinery (but this requires often a large capital investment, which means loans and interest payments). This measure will lead inevitably to more people having no work at all, and it will initiate a retooling war, since any advantage gained by mechanization will have to be followed by all who want to stay in business. Hence, the competitive advantage of mechanization, like all other advantages, is only temporary.

The capitalist will seek to open up new markets in other countries or to persuade people to purchase what they do not really need; and he will always tend to overproduce goods and then attempt to find ways to sell them somewhere.

The capitalist will seek to obtain the cheapest possible materials necessary for his operation (if necessary, plundering the third world to keep operating costs low). This will be a great stimulus to research and development as well as to political exploitation (especially where land use and resource extraction are concerned).

The capitalist will seek to gobble up his owndealing with competition by takeovers, so that fewer and fewer big owners dominate more and more of the market place and the cost of entering into competition with them rises ever higher (no matter how high it rises, however, there will always be someone there to challenge those with an established market share).  Such mergers often enable the capitalist to “downsize,” that is, to lay off large numbers of workers.

In addition, of course, the capitalist may use illegal or deceptive means: cartels, monopolistic strategies, price fixing, false quality control, misleading advertising, and a number of other tactics that we are depressingly familiar with (like purchasing legislators who control regulations). Many of these, of course, are a violation of Smith’s vision of a level playing field for all small business people. The purpose of all of these moves is the same: to maintain the rate of surplus value, to fight against its inevitable decline, and a business person with scruples which prevent him from employing tactics which work well for his competitors is forced to adopt them or to go out of business.

All these strategies, Marx insists, will only purchase the capitalist system some time, because none of them solves the basic problem: the inevitable decline of surplus value (and hence of profits). The various strategies listed above can all provide a temporary breathing space, a sudden advantage in the competitive market, but sooner or later one’s competitors catch up, and the basic situation remains the same.

It will be clear from the above cursory analysis that capitalism, as Marx sees it, is a very tough system, very hard on the workers but also a constant warfare for the capitalist, too, a desperate scramble to stay on top in a situation where the basic conditions of the war never change, except the inexorable logic that sooner or later most businesses will inevitably fail or get swallowed up by a larger competitor.


A particularly important strategy the capitalist will use to protect the declining surplus value and to defend his system against the increasing social dislocation it causes is the development of ideological coverings for the brutal economic reality. What this means is that the capitalist will seek to find ways to persuade people that what is happening is the “right” thing, that it is “progressive” or “inevitable” or in some ways spiritually or ideally justified. In other words, the capitalist will have a great interest in developing ideas, entertainments, and ideologies which will conceal from the growing numbers of unemployed and alienated workers the economic reality of their condition, strategies to keep them productive (or at least obedient) in the midst of increasingly brutal conditions, while at the same time seeking to maximize the conspicuous consumption on which the system depends.

Religion, for example, is an invaluable tool in keeping the toiling dissatisfied masses persuaded that their harsh conditions are ordained by God; liberal democracy is an invaluable means of persuading the people that they are “free,” that in the “progressive unrolling of the historical development of freedom” they are precisely where they ought to be and have no right to complain, that in the concept of “progress” they are on the right track, and so on. To the extent that capitalism can persuade people that free speech is an essential duty, it will further persuade them to purchase newspapers full of advertisements which will be important stimulus to a more energetic participation in capitalism itself.

Reassuring messages will be promoted in popular entertainments, in state religions, and in the official educational institutions of the country. The ideal or spiritual life of the community, in other words, is a reflection of the interests of the ruling powers which control the production of those ideas, and the function of this ideational life is to mask or justify for the majority the concealed interests of the ruling owners: “Religion is the opium of the people.” But modern capitalism has a great deal more than religion to offer.

The ruling ideas, in other words, are always a mask for the interests of the real rulers, the capitalist owners, who are simply following what has always happened throughout history, namely that those in charge have developed official doctrines proclaiming the “truth” in order to shore up their own economic interests.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. In so far, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in their whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. (The German Ideology)

So, for Marx, something like Kant’s or Mill’s insistence on Free Speech is simply one more Liberal idea designed to deceive people about their alienated conditions, the idea is, as it were, a commodity whose purpose is to put an idealistic veil over the harsh capitalist realities. That is why the Marxist is less interested in the theoretical benefits of free speech and more interested in questions which focus on the owners of the places where this free speech is supposed to occur: Who owns the newspapers? Who runs the universities? Who controls the law courts? Who controls access to these public forums? Who owns freedom? Or as Joan Baez said after Woodstock: “Freedom might sell, but who’s buying?”

This idea, incidentally, is one of the most powerful and long lasting legacies of Marx’s materialistic emphasis, his concern that the real meaning of an idea is intimately bound up with the material interests which give rise to it. And ever since Marx, we are encouraged to examine the material conditions which are the working reality linked to the idea and to explore the economic agenda being pursued.

For example, if you ask a good liberal, like me, for a description and justification of, say, Liberal Studies, I would give you all sorts of labels like Critical Thinking, learning community, friendship, general skills, learning for its own sake, the pursuit of truth, and so on. For the Marx those are simply the “official” veil thrown over the economic realities by the ruling class. What is really going on at the material level is that, for example, students are being forced to carry out obediently a series of meaningless tasks, to meet deadlines, to comply with authority, to write official standard prose, to come to classes on time, to sit passively through boring lectures in freezing rooms--in short they are being required to turn themselves into people eminently well suited for a career as a mindless servant of the capitalist system and to call this a valuable education—i.e., to acquiesce in their own alienation.  And what is particularly interesting, many of those undergoing this process have to acquire a huge debt in order to complete such programs.  Thus, they have little choice but to sign on to the capitalist endeavour at the end in order to meet the bank’s demands for repayment.

An important part of this strategy will be advertising, because that will directly link people’s ideas, their sense of self, and their organization of their life’s purpose with commodities for sale. The capitalist thus has a direct economic interest in giving people what has come to be called a false consciousness, in colonizing people’s brains. The purpose of this is, first, to mitigate the social disruption and keep people’s minds off rebellion and, second, to sell more goods to keep surplus value sufficiently high to generate a profit. Hence, the close links between capitalist economic production and the marketing of “visions” of life brought to us by diet pills, running shoes, various forms of clothing, vacations, music styles, suburban living, universities, televangelists, political parties, a menu of therapies, and so on. Even rebellion of a certain sort becomes an important commodity for the capitalist (e.g., avant garde art, always a favorite commodity of the big corporate foundations, rock ‘n’ roll music, various Hollywood heroes). So when religion is no longer an effective opiate, well, the capitalist just turns to opium itself, generating huge profits for capitalists at the expense of the exploited and, by making it illegal, providing a perfect opportunity for the rulers to eliminate by force elements of society (like black men) that are potentially disruptive to established control, justifying what is going on with endless television specials on the so called War Against Drugs, and in the process securing huge public support for more police powers at the expense of the exploited.

This last point explains why Marx is so suspicious of the “noble” claims of the liberal tradition we have been following from Hobbes, to Kant, to Wollstonecraft, to Kant, and to Mill. Liberals talk endlessly about “rights,” “equality,” “freedom,” and so on, but how do those ideas actually cash out in the material world of liberal capitalism. Given the generative connection between the economic realities of daily life and the conditions of human thought and freedom central to Marx’s method, it is not surprising that he does not hold the same high hopes for political rights and political freedoms as many Enlightenment thinkers do. Granting people freedom of religion, or freedom to own property, or even the freedom to vote, or increasing their personal securitythese are all important steps, but they do not, in themselves, constitute the liberty Marx believes humans need to be fully themselves. And the reason is clear: they do not address the question of the underlying economic structure; they thus do not address the fundamental problems of human society. How much does one emancipate, say, a woman by giving her the vote and allowing her to work, when the only work she is permitted to do is in the pink ghetto?

What use are these freedoms, Marx asks, if the economic realities of the “free,” “equal,” and “rights-bearing” individual make him or her effectively an alienated slave. What use are rights without economic power? As the Marxist playwright Brecht observes, “Erst kommt das Fressen, und dann die Morale” [First comes a meal, and then the morality].

In that sense Marx is an unapologetic opponent of the liberal tradition, celebrated by Hobbes, Kant, and Mill. For him this tradition simply isolates human beings from one another, putting them into a state where they must compete against each other in specialized forms of work to an extent that prevents them from, first, leading complete lives and, second, from even recognizing the realities of the situation they are in. The liberal ideology is simply the smiling face of capitalism.

. . . we observe that the political emancipators reduce citizenship, the political community, to a mere means for preserving these so-called rights of man, so that the citoyen is proclaimed to be the servant of the egoistic homme. The sphere in which man conducts himself as a communal being is degraded, put below the sphere in which he conducts himself as a sectional being. Finally man as a bourgeois and not man as a citoyen is taken to the essential and true man. (110)

For the same reason Marx is hostile to any Romantic notions that human problems can be solved individually by a more energetic commitment to self-fulfillment. Since this requires an overwhelming preoccupation with the isolated inner self rather than with any communal identification, it is clearly an illusory freedom. Human beings cannot, by their individual imaginations and wills, transcend the economic realities which shape them and their community. The belief that they can, the Romantic ideology, is one of the chief ideational tools by which the ruling economic powers prevent the alienated individualists from recognizing the true sources of and cures for their distress (“If you don’t make it, you haven’t got it”). The Marxist is thus doubly suspicious of any artistic credo which celebrates personal expression and formal artistic merit at the expense of the viewer’s enriched understanding of the social realities of life. True freedom for the individual will come only after society has lived through the revolutionary transformations which will occur once we recognize our collective community obligations and reorganize the ownership of the means of production accordingly.


This observation leads me to a momentary digression into a subject which we have touched upon before, namely the fascinating and complex questions about the relationship between this free market capitalism and certain Protestant religions. For it seems clear that some Protestant groups were particularly well suited to Adam Smith’s economic notions, and perhaps it’s no accident that those countries in which these Protestants were particularly thriving quickly moved to the forefront in the new capitalistic age. This observation is of considerable interest to Canadians, since, as many have pointed out, our country, or a great deal of it, was established by Protestant venture capitalists (in contrast to, say, South America, where the Catholic Religion became the orthodoxy).

By way of exploring this point a little, let me make a couple of observations. One key to the success of the capitalist venture is the disposition of the profit. Since capitalists are engaged in a ceaseless war of competition, the most important place for any profits is reinvestment in the business (advertising, upgrading machinery, lowering prices, research and development, and so on). To direct profits anywhere else is to risk falling behind in the constant race to maintain surplus value.

What this led to, in practice, was a reversal of the notion, as old as the Ancient Greeks and New Testament Christians, that one vital function of personal wealth was community benefit or personal self-assertion. The moral duty of the best people was to distribute their wealth as a sign of their great spirit or their Christian charity. For an ancient Greek to sponsor a tragic chorus or outfit a warship or sponsor a charioteer in the Olympic games or provide grain for the poorthese and countless other social acts were the sign of one’s excellence, one’s arete, one’s superiority over one’s fellows. For the Christian, an act of public charity was a sign of one’s adherence to the principles enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount.

This practice of public charity or personal show continued throughout much of the Catholic medieval world. Celebrating one’s worldly success with acts of great public charity or military glory or personal splendor (palaces, magnificent gardens, churches, patronage of art, and so on) were signs of a great spirit, public manifestations of one’s superior status or one’s dedication to Christian principles.

Clearly, however, this attitude to money is not conducive to success in capitalistic business, because one will not survive very long if one’s competitors, rather than devoting a large share of the profits to public largesse, reinvest in the business, upgrade the machinery, advertise more, and so on.

One might argue that this traditional attitude spreads money around the community. And that is true. Unfortunately, however, the traditional attitude tended to encourage the most economically wasteful activity of all: warfare. The truly great person was the warrior who could march out against other countries and demonstrate his glory by expensive conquests. Thus, traditional wealth often tended to get squandered in long, expensive, and often disastrous foreign expeditions (no better example of this point can be found than sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain which spent the fabulous wealth it was plundering from the New World on endless and ultimately futile wars against the Protestants, especially in the Netherlands, so that while Protestant Europe emerged as the cutting edge of the ascendant capitalist class, Catholic Spain sunk into a deep economic decline from which, some argue, it is only now beginning to emerge).

For the purposes of generating wealth this traditional Catholic attitude was simply no match for the economic attitudes of certain new Protestantsespecially the dissenters. These people were the most formidable capitalists the world has ever seen. We have already discussed this point in connection with Robinson Crusoe, so let me just mention a few points again.

The Protestant capitalists were totally dedicated to work as a religious “calling”; what distracted from that was a sin. Thus, the energy they poured into business was totally focused, very narrow but highly energized. This view had little room for non-business activities, like patronizing art or orchestras, or, for that matter, even leisure or recreation of any sort.

They were in general in favour of the new science and technology which were God-given aids to the “calling.” They thus identified the application of technology to the control of the world as their god-given responsibility. Naturally this tended to put them in the vanguard of the technological changes essential to maintaining a healthy surplus value, for they had no traditional religious scruples about the new science. Moreover, they greatly valued literacy, which tended to make them better educated (and hence more productive) workers and excellent at keeping accounts and managing money.

Because they were a radically new sect, they were not bothered by indigenous traditions which might stand in the way of their economic and religious projects. They could piously order women and children to work in the mills, marginalize or exterminate non-Christian peoples (like Amerindians), without the sort of traditional scruples which were constantly plaguing Catholic thinkers, they could treat the environment as a heathen challenge to their fierce energies. They could demand the abolition of old customs as sin and inefficiencies (the two were so closely linked that they could be conveniently combined). Any scruples about carrying out such a stern agenda must, as a Christian duty, be overcome, for life was a mission in which one had to impose one’s will upon any feelings one might have about a different agenda.

Most important, they had nowhere to spend the enormous amount of profit they generated, since their religion prohibited any display of personal magnificence or even fun and since they regarded a good deal of charity as handing money out to sinners. Thus they ploughed money back into their businesses (the only place they could put it)--the surest way to make sure that a capitalistic enterprise is going to outlast any competitors who wish to divert profit into community works or personal pleasures.

The result, as I have mentioned above, was the production of one of the most amazing economic agents the world has ever seenthe figure created by a union of Calvin and Adam Smith and the new science, the Protestant capitalist ready to transform the world through technology into an economic commodity, even if that meant emptying the world of all its joy, community, variety, and tradition, all for the sake of an ever buoyant profit in the name of the Lord (e.g., Bulstrode--and many other “villainous” figures of 19th century fictionScrooge, Gradgrind, and so on).


In Marx’s view, however, in the long term, no matter how hard one works and how much of the profits one invests, fewer and fewer workers will be employed, and they will earn less and less money. Capital will be concentrated and centralized in fewer and fewer hands, there will be rapid technological advances, which banish even more people from the world of production of living labour. And there will be a falling rate of profit because industry will tend to overproduce and the labourers will increasingly lack the income to purchase commodities. In addition the cost of labour will inevitably rise because of the growing scarcity of food.

It’s really important to stress that, according to Marx, these are the necessary results of a system which sets every business enterprise in private competition with every other business enterprise. Because of the competitions over prices, the quality of the capitalist enterprise sinks to the level of the least caring employer. Anyone trying to run a business on other principles (e.g., on the basis of the traditional fair wage and just price) would not survive, since no one would purchase his goods.

The result of the various attempts to deal with a declining rate of profit will, Marx insists, create enormous social dislocation. More and more people will be replaced by machines, wages and working conditions will sink as the cost of subsistence life increases, workers will become increasingly alienated. Capitalism will put the small capitalist out of business, so that he becomes either one more alienated worker or one of the growing numbers of unemployed. Economic life will be characterized by boom and bust cycles, depending on the unpredictable effects of excessive production, opening of new markets, and the price of basic commodities.

The result will be increasingly the division of society into two antagonistic camps, the relatively small but very rich group of capitalist owners and the increasingly large and individually powerless workers, whom Marx calls the proletariat. The former group will reap and retain the immense financial advantages of the enormous wealth generated by capitalism and the latter group will be increasingly left to fend for themselves.

The creation of a large pool of unemployedthe Reserve Labour Armyis an important tool of capitalism to keep wages down and to divide the working class against itself. As one American capitalist boasted, “I can always hire one half the working class to kill the other half.” Given the desperate conditions of life, the growing scarcity of work, and the lower and lower pay, the proletariat at first will do anything, even turn against each other, in order to survive. As we shall see, one of the first tasks facing the Communists is to address this problem by educating the workers about their shared class conditions.

The growing dislocation which is an inevitable product of the capitalist system must lead, in Marx’s view, to a condition in which there is civil war between the antagonistic groups, or, as he calls them, classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. That war can have only one final result, the victory of the proletariat.


Marx’s economic analysis led him to conclude that the social dislocation brought about by capitalism could only endand must inevitably endwith the overthrow of the owners of production, the bourgeoisie, and the victory of the proletariat. The conditions of modern work would lead inexorably to an end to private ownership of the sort essential to capitalism.


Marx was by no means the first to see that the essential response to the growing dislocation brought about by capitalism was the empowerment of the workers. Unless those who individually were very weak, possessing only a small labour power as individuals, could combine, they would never acquire enough collective power to challenge capitalism. Out of this awareness was born the concept of socialism, which, briefly put, holds that, in contrast to capitalism, the means of production should be owned by the community, that there should not be bourgeois private property in the capitalist sense, and that wealth should be distributed more equitably, without the economic domination of a ruling class of owners. This movement was both theoretical and practical, and it took on a number of different forms, which shared the sense that something must be done about the growing social distress brought about by the industrial factory system of modern capitalism. The leading theorists and practitioners of this new socialism were mostly, but not exclusively, French.

This idea of socialism was the product of a number of thinkers responding to what was perceived as the great failure of the French Revolution. This cataclysmic upheaval had arisen, in large part, as a mass revolution against economic and social injustice, and its inspiration had come from the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality. The fact that, for friend or foe, Rousseau was seen as the presiding deity of the Revolution makes its ideals clear enough (not that Rousseau himself would have approved of the course of events).

Judged by these ideals, the Revolution had clearly failed. The early republic had quickly given way to an imperial dictatorship under Napoleon and to a series of disastrous wars, culminating in the final defeat of the French armies. The Congress of Vienna (in 1815), which marked to end of the Napoleonic Wars, reinstated the monarchy, reinforced the Church (including bringing back the Spanish Inquisition), and seemed to endorse the view that the masses who had risen up had merely exchanged masters. In some cases, the new factory owners were no better than the tyrants of the old regime.

Many of these early socialists envisaged a more cooperative but rather paternalistic society in which the rich helped to set up or guide a more communal distribution of the benefits of capitalism; in others, the guiding principle was a series of small communal experiments under common ownership; in still others, there was a much more anarchist edge where the first goal must be the elimination of all private property, if necessary by violence; in others there was, by contrast an emphasis on a return to the ideals of the medieval Christian community, and so on..

In this early socialist movement there was no theoretical unanimity and, in many cases, no agreement at all about what practical measures one should undertake to deal with the present social crisis. The leaders were divided on many key questions about who owned the means of production, about the role of violence in politics, about the status of private property, about religion, and so on. The bourgeois authorities in general interpreted the growing socialist movements as a serious threat, and harassed or jailed many of its leaders.

Marx took issue with these Socialists largely because he saw their efforts, however inspired by worthy motives, as at best temporary expedients and, at worst, as futile. They were futile because they sought to opt out of the class struggle, to establish independent communal experiments outside of the mainstream of industrial life. They were, above all, politically naive and theoretically incoherent, for they failed to recognize the reality of the class struggle and the real forces of history. Many of them were too romantically radical, unwilling to carry out the detailed organizing essential to the development of the only political process which would destroy capitalism.

For Marx the true role of the committed reformer or revolutionary was not to devise or to describe utopian experiments on the model of these socialists, but to undertake the much harder work of grappling with the economic realities of history, recognizing the class struggle, and putting one’s efforts into the service of the march of history towards the final decisive class war: that between the capitalists and the proletariat. For Marx, the French socialists were simply not sufficiently hard-headed materialists, as he was; they were, by contrast, sentimental utopians. In addition, of course, they were his rivalsoffering solutions different from his own. Thus, although he derived some important theoretical and practical things from them, he goes out of his way to remind the workers that these socialist visions are hopelessly wrong. That is the reason why the last part of the Communist Manifesto devotes so much space to pointing out the errors of those people who are, in a sense, Marx’s allies in the fight and to demonstrating to his readers why Communism is the “true” socialism.

Many of these early socialists quickly recognized in Marx someone who could provide what they seemed to lackthe enormous intelligence and total dedication which might provide some theoretical unity to the different socialist splinter groups. Marx’s best known publication, The Communist Manifesto, was commissioned by the Congress of Communists for its second congress (in November 1847) as part of a movement by the growing anti-capitalist groups to consolidate their efforts.


And that brings us to the final major element in Marx’s complex theories, something we have already had to anticipate: his sense of history as an inevitable development driven by the material forces of production. This introduces what is no doubt the most controversial of part of his theories and the one most of us would be inclined to question seriously. Briefly put, Marx’s view of historical development as driven by the material forces of production goes something like this (once again, a simplistic summary)

Human beings are what they do. In their productive lives they use tools and machines, and they work on the land or in small industries. Thus, their identity and the nature of their lives is determined by the nature of the productive forces and by the ownership of the means to production.

Throughout history, the divisions in the economic life of the community (in the work which people do) has produced antagonistic division among the people, as a result of which they form distinct classes. Classes are formed on the basis of the different economic interests of exploiters and exploited, and those interests are over time irreconcilable. Hence, traditionally society has always been characterized by a class warfare, which is always economic in origin, no matter how much it may mask itself with other labels (like religious or ethnic conflicts).

Eventually, because of the material conditions of life, the exploited rebel, overthrow the existing ruling class. Out of this rebellion a new ruling class emerges, which, in turn, produces the class of exploited who will, in time, overthrow it. The new ruling class will advance history in the sense that its members will do away with the stage immediately before them, and their ascendancy will be driven by changes in the means of production. But inevitably, the changing nature of work will make sure that that newly ascendant class is overthrown by those it exploits.

If we look at the facts of history, Marx claims, we can see that there have been at least three such decisive phases or revolutionary transitions in the economic and class arrangements from primitive communal, to slave states, to the feudal system, to modern capitalism. At present we are in the latter stages of capitalism as we head towards the next major transition.


The key concept here is that of class (and Marx is the thinker who made that term absolutely central to our analytical understanding of events), those members of a society who have banded together, not because they have a common religion or political ideology (although they often do), or because they live in the same region, or because they share a common ancestry, but rather because they recognize their common economic interests (in the widest sense of that phrase). And they are gradually driven to organize to do battle against those in the society who have rival economic interests (i.e., another class).

Marx’s insistence upon an understanding of society and history based upon class is his attempt to get us to rethink our criteria for understanding ourselves: it is, in the terms of what we have studied in Liberal Studies this semester, an attempt to reclassify human and social life, so that we understand those, not in terms of the traditional categories of rank, religion, neighbourhood, language, or whatever, but rather in terms of economic power and material conditions.

The formation of a class takes time, because it requires the development of a class consciousness, the recognition that our primary allegiance is not to family, region, overseer, or regional lord, or some notion of the individual self, or to some prevailing idea given to us by our exploiters as a version of the eternal truth, but to one’s economic peers (one’s comrades) throughout the world. Only as this class consciousness gathers force, does the revolutionary potential of a shifting economic culture grow.

There is, in Marx’s view, an inevitability about the development of a class consciousness, for it arises out of the growing contradictions in the economic life of the culture. But its development can be aided by intellectual effort, by a constant critique which helps to educate the oppressed and alienated about the economic realities and thus to foster their recognition of a common class identity and purpose. In contradiction to Mill, Marx does not see heroic individuals as the agents for change; he sees the growing consciousness of class and the organized antagonisms which grow out of that as the driving force of history. Individuals (as we shall see) can assist in the development of that class consciousness, but they do not initiate it, and the process will inevitably take place without them.

[This emphasis in Marx is, more than anything else, responsible for the view, very common in the university today, especially in history departments, that to understand the past one has to study the full social, material context of a society. It is no longer sufficientor in many cases even necessaryto study the great people or the great events. History has become in many quarters essentially the a sociological study of a period in history, a study which makes the conditions of the poorest, most traditionally insignificant members of a society the major subjects of study, far more important than individual Kings and Popes and great philosophers or scientists, who, in effect, have merely responded to the major forces generated from the material conditions]

At each stage there is a revolutionary classone seeking to overthrow the old order and impose a new order in keeping with its class interests. Thus, the new order which is formed as a result of historical revolutions reflects the economic interests of the new class and, no matter what it apparently professes, does not fully represent all the citizens.

Thus, we can understand the major events of history as a linear progression, in each stage of which the existing economic conditions have helped to create a social contradiction, which has prompted a clash of interests between rival classes. This class conflict has eventually erupted into a class war. Whatever historical form this war has apparently taken, the underlying causes are always economic:

It follows from this that all struggles within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another. (177)

The progressive unfolding of history, according to Marx, consists in the succession of class wars which this process has engendered.

In the recent past, the bourgeois capitalists formed the revolutionary class which overthrew the aristocracy and the monarchy and the mercantilist system in favour of individual liberty, property, commodious living, free trade, and the new science. And that for Marx was a necessary, even praiseworthy, event. For the forces of bourgeois capitalism have ruthlessly done away with the old traditions and provided an enormous capacity for generating wealth. Marx admires this qualityhe is by no means a sentimental utopian who wants to deal with the problems of capitalism by turning his back on technology or seeking to return to some previous “golden” age (e.g., retiring on a Gulf Island so that one can life without electricity, cars, and modern technological convenience). The problem with capitalism for Marx is not that it is evil but that it is rapidly growing out of date.

For by the inexorable march of history, the establishment of a new capitalist economy creates a new class war: this time between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between those who own the means of the production and those who do not. The productive forces of the society are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and those in the middle are being ruthlessly squeezed down into the proletariat.

The logic of the materialist view of history sees the class war as having an inevitable outcome: the proletariat (the new revolutionary class) will rise up against the bourgeoisie, overthrow the existing order, and reorganize production so that the central logic of the class war will come to an end. Once the means of production are no longer owned privately and the specialization of labour comes to an end, the oppressive conditions of modern society will cease. Since the proletariat represents the interests of all society, the proletarian revolution will not engender a new class rivalry. Thus, human beings will be able not only to find the necessities of life but will be able fully to realize their identities in freedom, in the sort of work which does not alienate.

This vision of the class war as the engine of historical development explains most clearly Marx’s objections to the various forms Socialism mentioned earlier. His major objection to them is that they are seeking to reconcile the antagonism between bourgeois and proletarian, rather than to foster that antagonism. Thus, they are clearly setting themselves in opposition to the inevitable course of history. However valuable their critiques of capitalism may be (and Marx acknowledges that they are), these socialist experiments are, in the solutions they propose, “reactionary conservative socialists” characterized by “more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science” (239).


At this point, some distant memories of Kant’s view of history might be stirring in your memories. For Kant, you recall, also claimed that one could form an idea of history as a progressive manifestation of increasing freedom, leading towards the full enlightenment of a civil society. Kant pointed out that gathering such an idea from the facts of history might be difficult, but that, as a hypothesis, this sense of history as the progressive development of an idea over time was attractive (and better than the alternative, a vision of history as meaningless).

From an analysis like Kant’s developed a tradition of German philosophical idealism, manifested most famously in the work of Hegel. I don’t want to go into this here, except to refer to Marx’s famous boast that what he had done with his vision of history as a class warfare fueled by the material facts of economic life was to turn this tradition on its head. The changing ideas of history are, for Marx, not the progressive manifestations of a controlling spirituality or idealitythey are the products of the real driving force of history, the changes in the material facts of the productive life of the workers.

Kant, for example, argued that if we consider history, we can see the progressive development of an ideathe idea of rational freedom. History may appear empirically as a meaningless collection of events, but we have grounds to hope that there is a controlling idea which is manifesting itself. According to Kant, conflict was an unfortunate but essential part of this “progress,” since wars, for example, eventually force people to become more rational, to place their trust in reasoning together rather than in killing each other. Conflict is thus an essential engine of progress.

The most important pre-Marxist developer of this idea was Hegel, who introduced into this notion of progress the concept of Dialecticsthe idea that the spirit of the world was driven by opposition, by antagonism, each idea giving rise to its opposite, then coming into conflict, and producing through a synthesis a new idea, which in turn produced its opposite (thesis, antithesis, synthesis. . . .).

According to Hegel, the present conditions of the world are a reflection of the state of this ideal conflict, a stage in the process; hence the material conditions of life are as they ought to be, and therefore we have to accept that. The dialectic of history is producing more and more freedom. We have proceeded from ancient tyrannies (one person free) to aristocracies (more people free) and so on up to the modern Prussian state. The abolition of slavery is among the latest manifestations of this progress which has been achieved by the struggle between the contraries.

For instance, if someone complained to Hegel about material oppression, Hegel would argue that reality is spiritual, once has to accept the present state of things and find happiness and freedom in the existing situation (e.g., by obeying the sovereign authority which is the earthly manifestation of the present state of the progress of the dialectic).

Marx retained a great deal of Hegel’s method, but turned it on its head. Where Hegel was a dialectical idealist, Marx is a dialectical materialist, seeing the driving force of history a conflict that was initiated not by ideas in a process of development but by the changing material conditions of work (the ideas are a product of this material conflict not its source). Marx’s history is, like Hegel’s, dialectical, that is, it is driven by the tension and conflicts between opposites. But in Marx these opposites are not ideas but economic material conditions and the class warfare which results from them.


Marx (and his followers) make the claim that this view of history is not merely an empty theory but a scientific hypothesis which one can verify against the facts. That’s why he is contemptuous of historical thought experiments, like those undertaken by Rousseau and Hobbes (thinking back to some hypothetical state of nature). Marx has confidence that the facts of history (which can be checked) provide his theory with a scientific basis which the analyses of earlier thinkers entirely lacked. Thus, his analysis and his predictions have the force of established scientific truth.

Thus, it’s quite legitimate to make the demand: Where in history do we see the sorts of class revolutions out of which emerged a new stage in the historical process? Where is the evidence that history proceeds in this fashion? Do the facts of the case in these examples bear out Marx’s claims?

Marxists point immediately to the English Civil War as an example of the emergence of bourgeois capitalism from the uprising of the exploited middle-class gentry against the exploiters (the traditional aristocracy and the king). They can also point to the American and the French Revolutions as historical examples of class warfare, the facts of which confirm his theory, in the same way that the evidence of the Grand Canyon confirms Natural Selection. Whether the facts of these historical events do really confirm Marx’s analysis or not is a question many historians have been arguing about ever sinceand there is no time to enter that debate here, except to remark that it is still going on (for instance, the fact that many business interests apparently supported the Royalist party in the English Civil War would seem to suggest that a Marxist analysis of that event is not true to the facts).


To this view of history, Marx advances the claim that history has a decisive end point in viewthe end of the class warfare in the establishment of the communist state. Because the communist state will effectively end, through its economic arrangements, the exploitation of one group by the other, it will end the class warfare and will thus, in a very real sense, bring history to a close. Marx, in other words, projects his sense of history forward into the future, outlining the series of stages by which the bourgeois capitalist system will be overthrown.

If the next class conflict will be the cataclysmic struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat, what will be result? Where is history leading us? In the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, Marx provides us with a fairly detailed answer.

The Communist state will end the class warfare which drives historical change. It will do that because it will end the inevitable oppression which arises from private property, which divides all societies into those who own private property and those who do not. Once the proletariat takes over, it will eliminate this distinction. Since the proletariat will own all means of production, no one class will exert oppressive power over any other class.

When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. (Communist Manifesto, end of Section II)

This is a staggering but attractive claim. It amounts, in brief, to saying that since all the evils of society are occasioned by private property, then once we have removed private property we will be able to solve all social problems. Politics, in fact, will be as simple as running a well-regulated machine and, as Lenin observed, can be left to the cooks. This is a far cry from, say, the ancient Greek notion of politics as the supremely difficult art which admits of no facile solution (and indeed calls for the highest of all human virtues) or, indeed, from the orthodox Christian view of human life, which sees evil as a much more complex and enduring issue, for life is not simply a matter of economic freedom (“Man does not live by bread alone”).

Marx charts the various stages this revolution will take: the increasing social disruption brought about by the struggles of capitalists to deal with the inevitable decline in surplus value will lead to more and more socialist experiments; eventually there will be a socialist revolution in which the proletariat will overthrow the bourgeoisie, take over all private property, and initiate the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, a period of transition from socialism to communism (this period will be necessary to reorganize the state, to abolish all class consciousness, and educate the citizens for the new utopia). The dictatorship of the proletariat will give way finally to communism, when the class struggle finally ceases.

[It’s worth noting, and many have, that this concept of history bears a close resemblance in many respects to the ancient notions in the Apocalyptic Literature about the Second Comingespecially in the Book of Revelations. And it is possible to see Marx’s historical vision as a secular materialistic version of one of the West’s oldest dreams, the successful completion of a journey from Egyptian Slavery into a Land of Milk and Honey. This aspect has led one economist, Tawney, to describe Marx as the Last of the Schoolmen (Medieval Christian scholars) and others, like Cohn, to see Marx’s theory as a modern version of ancient medieval apocalyptic theories promising an end to history]


The extent to which Marx’s view of history, past and future, is scientific is open to all sorts of objections from many quarters (and has been extensively criticized and defended). But there is no doubt that it has provided and continues to provide many of the Enlightenment political radicals with something they had always lackeda comprehensive and practical political platform. One of the great attractions of Marx’s theory is that it establishes for the revolutionary a clear, sequential, and theoretically coherent explanation for a sustained program of action. And to become a Communist is not simply to accept a particular understanding of the world; it is also to commit oneself to a very specific course of political action.

The Communists, Marx argues, are the only political thinkers and activists who have thought through clearly the modern contradictions of industrial capitalist society. Their task therefore is threefold:

First they must untiringly point out the fallacies of the other options being paraded as answers for the distresses of modern life, whether these come from the liberal tradition, with its emphasis on the individual as more important than the community or from utopian democratic socialism with its faith in utopian communal experiments out of the main stream of modern life, or from politically naive Romantics who believe that revolutionary gestures or luddite attacks on technology will do the trick or from traditional Christians still locked into notions of charity like the Salvation Army or Food Banks or from workers themselves who enter into alliances with the owners to secure temporary advantages for a small group.

Second, they must keep up the critical work of unmasking common ideational or religious explanations for historical events or present conditions; they must encourage people, especially the intelligentsia, to see that the Communists’ economic logic, the scientific basis of their analysis, is offering the only true story of the often bewildering and oppressive conditions of modern life.

Finally, they must work to educate and organize the proletariat, to foster in it the class consciousness essential to the revolutionary movement. So long as people identify first with their religion, their region, their family, their traditional authorities, their gender, and so on, their understanding of their condition will be limited and limiting. They must come to see that their real identity is bound up with those who share the same class definition, whether those people be neighbours, citizens, people in another country, a different minority, and so on.

Out of this theory, then, Marx developed what no other major Enlightenment thinker had so far managed: a practical program for radical political action, both in the short term and in the long term. Unlike Rousseau, Marx makes no gestures to uncertain creatures like Lawgivers or, unlike Kant, Marx does not invoke a faith in a providential historical idea. He urges all those concerned with justice, fairness, the good life, the full realization of our humanity to join in a very practical struggle, day by day, to advance the cause of the emancipation of humanity from the oppression of this particular historical moment.

This analysis raises, of course, an interesting question. If history is going to bring the revolution anyway, why should I bother about it? Why do I need to join the struggle, rather than enjoying while I can the diminishing comforts of what remains of my bourgeois existence? There is no answer to this contradiction, other than the reply which is as old as Exodus, that we have an obligation to assist the providential unrolling of history. If we despair of our efforts, we can take consolation from the fact that history is on our side, but we should not therefore avoid our commitment to the struggle, to organize, enlighten, unmask oppressive ideologies with our economic critique, and promote as best we can the last and most important revolution, the one which brings us to the promised land.


As I mentioned above, Marx’s vision of history as a series of progressive revolutions leading to the communist utopia has, for many people, been problematic, especially since the widely celebrated collapse of the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. So I want to urge you once more that if you have strong reservations about it, as you probably do, then you must be careful not to throw out all of Marx just on that account. I also wish to head off a couple of very likely objections which will arise in the seminars.

First, there is the objection that Marx is being hopelessly naive if he thinks that human beings can function without oppressing each other, that some form of human community will ever exist from which all forms of injustice will be banished. But Marx is not being this optimistic or naive. Closer to his central position is the notion that customary forms of oppression will lose much of their effectiveness because, with the proper redistribution of the productive forces of society, people will not be forced to remain in relationships which oppress. The industrial society produces immense wealth, and if this can be properly reorganized, then, for example, women in oppressive marital relationships or in oppressive jobs will have the wherewithal to move away from them, to better relationships, better jobs; those who find their work unrewarding can change it. If we cannot have perfection, then we can certainly, through a revolution in the productive means of society, through the abolition of private property, through a much more just distribution of wealth promote a just and more fulfilling human life (“From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs”).

Second, there is the objection that Marx failed to anticipate certain developments within capitalism, the two most prominent being the union movement and nationalism. The union movement, by easing enormously the worker’s material lot, has given him or her a stake in the existing state of things (has made him and her a petit bourgeois), and therefore the worker has not developed the revolutionary consciousness necessary for the final class war. This phenomenon is particularly observable in the United States, where the major unions have traditionally had no interest at all in radical political reform, let alone revolution, and where attempts to radicalize the workers along Marxist lines, have consistently been ineffectual (interestingly enough among Afro-Americans just as much as among whites). Similarly the worker has responded far more enthusiastically to nationalism than to any internationalism, seeing his or her identity more fully defined by participation in a particular country rather than in an international revolutionary class. And this, too, is hard to deny, especially in a Canada where the major opponents to free trade with Mexico are the socialists defending the rights of the worker (by which they mean only the Canadian worker).

The development of Nationalism seems to offer an important objection to Marx’s analysis of the development of class consciousness under the conditions of capitalist oppression. For the history of our culture since Marx seems to indicate that the workers of the world are all too eager to unite along nationalistic lines and set to war against each other, firmly following the orders of the ruling classes to kill their comrades on the other side of the border. The most compelling evidence of this, of course, is World War I (which many sanguine communists had predicted would be impossible, because the working class of one country would never march out to kill the working class of another country)..

But these developments do not invalidate Marx’s analysis. He may well have been wrong about the schedule, about the various resources capitalism has at its disposal to deal with the revolutionary possibilities of class awareness. And it may well be the case that, as our condition worsens (especially in regard to the environment and the economic prospects of our children) our international consciousness will grow to overcome the very things that Marx saw as inimical to the development of an international revolutionary movement for the emancipation of all. At a time when many committed socialists are deeply suspicious about the way in which many unions enter into associations with owners to protect the economic benefits for the fewer and fewer union members (and remember the agreement between Jack Munro and Premier Bill Bennett to end the Solidarity Protests in BC), we should not deceive ourselves that the union movement has satisfactorily taken care for ever of Marx’s critique.

Thirdly, it is obviously no serious refutation of Marx to point to the experiences of the USSR and Eastern Europe, since it is fairly easy to demonstrate that these countries, for all their commitment to theoretical communism, were never based upon anything approaching Marx’s humanitarian views of justice in the community. We are only just beginning to realize how corrupt and grasping those governments were, how far from Marx’s basic principles.

Fourthly, one may make the much more subtle objection that Marx was quite correct to see in modern conditions of work the cause of increasing social and personal distress, together with all sorts of other problems, but wrong to believe that merely dealing with the ownership of the means of production would resolve the difficulties. This objection might take at least two forms: either human beings are simply not capable of cooperating in a matter in which what is at stake is a vast amount of power, or else the problems of alienation are inherently part of an increasingly mechanized, mass workplace. Either of these objections leads one to raise some very awkward questions concerning Marx’s Enlightenment optimism about human nature as capable of radical improvement or about his insufficiently complex understanding of the psychological effects of technology (no matter who owns it) on human consciousness. For if the real source of alienation is the machine, then Marx’s emphasis on the ownership will be something of a red herring.

The most serious objection I would want to raise, in this regard, concerns Marx’s understanding of evil. From his optimistic, rational Enlightenment perspective, evil is something that can be organized away. The proper attention to economic ownership and distributive justice will resolve the major causes of human beings’ inhumanity to each other. Marx is undoubtedly correct in insisting that any evaluation of personal or social evil must take into account in very particular details the material conditions which determine our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens around the world. However, he may be far too naive in assuming that that is all that is necessary, that the arrival of the communist state will take care of the complex problems of racism, sexism, religious persecution, and so on.

Many once committed Marxists have come to the conclusion that Marxism is too naive in this respect. The modern radical feminist movement (in Canada) arose out of working class socialism with the perception that the class consciousness of Canadian workers seemed to do nothing to eliminate the prejudice against women. This led many to the conclusion that the problem was not a matter of economics but a matter of gender. In similar ways, minority groups, who often find in Marxism an important theoretical framework for organizing their opposition to the ruling classes, have often come to the conclusion that racism has roots far deeper and more complex than the ownership of production.

These issues are still very much on the table, as we all try to wrest with the social dislocation occasioned by the continuing strategies of capitalism to keep surplus values high. We are living in the midst of such dislocation, and there is no shortage of ideal justifications or slick commercial advertising to sell us an explanation of what is happening to us. Marx is surely correct to insist that we have a duty to ourselves and our fellow citizen everywhere to be suspicious of all “official” reassurances and to bring into play in our understanding of ourselves and our society the method of analysis he championed.

In coping with these and other issues, we should quickly come to realize, whatever our reservations here and there, the breadth and importance of Marx’s thoughtone of the inescapable features of modern culture. He is, quite simply, a thinker whose contributions to the way we think, the way we organize our understanding of ourselves and our society, and to the framing of the questions we think most worth asking are absolutely fundamental. One does not have to subscribe to Marx’s view of history in order to appreciate (and to need) the materialistic form of inquiry he, more than anyone else, placed at the centre of our understanding of ourselves. In fact, it is virtually impossible to function intellectually in modern society without a firm grasp of that method.



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