As a sociological theory, Marxism, or its more general counterpart, Conflict Theory has a number of positive and negative attributes. Born in the midst of the sociological turmoil associated with the German Industrial revolution, it provided an explanation for the social tensions that were apparent at that place and time. (Albert, pg. 43) Marxism evolves from an economic theory that divides the population into two groups: those who control the means of production, and those who provide the labor.
Those who control the means of production are referred to as capitalists (since they have the money, or capital), and the laborers are called the proletariat. (Albert, pg. 44) The sociological aspect of this paradigm is the notion that there is an inevitable conflict between the capitalists and the laborers as it is in reality the laborers who ultimately produce the goods in the economy, for which the capitalists get money. (Albert, pg. 44)
The overall constructs of this theory have certain advantages, but they are far outweighed by the disadvantages inherent in the theory. One advantage of the theory of Marxism and the corresponding conflict theory is that it is all-encompassing. (Albert, pg. 46) The theory can be brought in to explain virtually every major economic and social upheaval in history. Since under conflict theory, war in the form of proletariat revolution is a historical inevitability, all geopolitical conflict can be defined in terms of labor versus capital.
(Albert, pg. 47) It would be difficult to cite a historical event of consequence that did not have an economic cause at its root, and from that economic cause, one can easily extrapolate a conflict between those who have capital, and those who do not. (Albert, pg. 48) Unfortunately, this same virtue is one of the key disadvantages of Marxism and conflict theory. The theories are merely descriptive. Marx wrote extensively about the inevitability of proletariat revolution and related conflict.
Such a paradigm does not suggest a course of action that might be taken to alleviate or mitigate the damage of such a conflict. (Lowy, pg. 33) Additionally, the alternative to the conditions that necessitate revolution, the “ideal society” does not stand the scrutiny of realistic evaluation. Marx contended that the “fully evolved” society that would emerge from a proletariat revolution would be one of communal production and universal receipt of needs.
This conveniently explains previous wars as “unsuccessful” or “incomplete” revolutions, in that they do not result in these conditions. (Lowy, pg. 34) In Marx’s ideal society, all members of the society would selflessly labor for the common good. Capital and assets would be accumulated and shared “each to his own ability, and each to his own need. ” (Lowy, pg. 34) Government as we understand it would be unnecessary, since a population with all their needs being met would have no reason to violate rules of civilized conduct. (Lowy, pg. 34)
There are several problems with such a theoretical construct, the most overwhelming of which is the fact that it ignores one of the more base and universal of human flaws, that of greed. John Locke wrote “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. ” (Lowy, pg. 36) He acknowledged immediately thereafter that men were not angels and required government in order to allow a society to live harmoniously with one another. Thomas Hobbes also supported this view, describing life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short. ” (Lowy, pg. 37)
In the absence of a civilized society, man, as an animal is genetically programmed to accumulate as much wealth to himself as possible. While individuals may overcome this instinct in specific instances, it is absurd in the extreme to suggest that all the people in society would abrogate the accumulation of wealth in favor of a classless society in which even the lazy and indolent are supported upon the backs of those who work hard. (Lowy, pg. 38) An illustration of the flaws in Marxist theories can be seen within those governments that attempted to realize Marx’ ideal society.
Rather than a utopian “workers paradise”, they achieved nothing more than a repressive totalitarian government that presided over a populace that was unable to meet their own basic needs. (Lowy, pg. 40) There appear to be two factors that contributed to the failure of the Marxist societies of the 20th century. The first is the systemic corruption inherent in a system that was intended to collect and distribute all the wealth of a nation to all of its population. The other factor is the ineffectiveness of centralized planned economies. (Lowy, pg. 41)
When the governments of nations such as the Soviet Union and China produced long-term economic plans, they failed to take into account factors such as climate (for agricultural production) supply and demand, market fluctuations and other factors, many of which are impossible to predict with any reliability. (Lowy, pg. 42) Additionally, the imposition of arbitrary quotas on factories and agricultural regions, coupled with severe penalties for failure to meet these quotas led to a political environment where it was commonplace for managers to falsify records and reports to the central authority.
(Lowy, pg. 42) This meant that the central government was predicating quota demands on the basis of inaccurate information. The net result of these factors is a “planned” economy predicated entirely upon unrealistic expectations and faulty or false information. (Lowy, pg. 43) The ambition of a “classless” society outlined by Marx was also subjugated to the realities of human nature. (Lowy, pg. 45) As George Orwell pointed out is his critique of Marxism, Animal Farm “some are more equal than others. ” (Lowy, pg. 45)
When monetary wealth disappeared as a standard of class distinction, it was replaced by rank in the dominant political party as a basis for distinction of individuals. Higher ranking party officials had the same advantages and prerogatives that the upper strata of capitalist societies enjoyed, with the disadvantage of not having earned those prerogatives. (Lowy, pg. 47) Given the fact that these were the individuals responsible for planning the economy, it is certain that a working knowledge of how money is earned might have been helpful.
Some might argue that the failure of Marxist-style governments lies not in the basic theory, but in the interpretations and changes made by those who promoted the theory in their nations. This argument, however fails in the face of basic logic. It stands to reason that if Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and the others all predicated their governments upon a single theory, and these governments all failed to meet the aims predicted by the theory, then it is the theory, rather than the methodology of all of these individuals that contains the flaws.
Marxist/Conflict theory has the advantage of being universal in its application, but the disadvantages of being unproven in fact, and misattributing human nature. Marxism will go down in history as a failed experiment that cost millions of lives, billions of dollars and untold amounts of suffering and hardship.
Work Cited Albert, M. (1987) “Why Marxism Isn’t the Activist’s Answer” Monthly Review, Vol. 39, No. 7, pg. 43-51December 1987. Lowy, M. (1991) “Twelve Theses on the Crisis of “Really Existing Socialism. ” Monthly Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, pg. 33-48, May 1991.