Marxism is much more than a theory or even a school of thought. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes is a body of doctrine that was developed by Karl Marx with contributions from Friedrich Engels in the mid-19th century. Marxism is a way of viewing the world from an economic and socio-political context. Originally, Marxism consisted of three basic ideas that were in some way related to each other: a philosophical anthropology, an economic and political, and program a theory of history. In other words, it is a combination of an economic theory, a political school of thought as well as a view of social change that was later picked up by socialist political movements across the globe. It has often been viewed as an analysis and critique of the development of the theory and practice of capitalism.
Marx’s work cannot be defined as a mere philosophy or even a philosophical system for that matter. In fact, it is a critique of philosophy, that of GWF Hegel in particular. The basic tenet of the Marxist school of thought is that philosophy has to be translated into reality. Marx said that merely interpreting the world should not be the goal of a philosopher or a political thinker. In fact, one must work towards changing and transforming the world we live in, thereby bringing about a change in not just the society but also the human consciousness of it (Marx, 1869). Marx’s work and the ideals of Marxism were heavily associated with concepts such as appropriation, alienation, praxis, creative labour, value, and so on. The basic political thinking within Marxism is built upon the notion of positive change and that a critique of ideals is the basis of all knowledge. This way, Marxism defers from empiricism (Britannica, 2011).
Marxism has found great appeal as a political thought for several class-based revolution and have been the theoretical basis for the policies and politics of several regimes across the world. However, most governments and rulers have interpreted the political writings of Marx in their own way and consequently; several of the policies of these so-called Marxist states are often dramatically different and conflicting from the basis of Marxism.
Marxist View of State
The Marxist theory on states can be roughly divided into three main focal areas: pre-capitalist states, capitalist states and the state in the post-capitalist society. According to Marxism, the civil society and the state are two different instruments. However, Marx did admit that there were some limitations to such a model as a political state always needs the guarantee of spheres that lie outside of it (Marx, 1843). This implies that the state is actually something that has a bourgeois interest, at least economically. Marxism refers to the state as a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ (Marx, 1846). In a way, Early Marxism looks at state from an economic perspective. In viewing the state and its functions, Marxism adopts a strict economic interpretation of history.
According to Marxism, in every state, the production relations of the people are determined by the forces of production in the state, and these production relations later tend to condition all other relations, which includes the political as well. In a capitalist state, the economy and consequently the state are controlled by the bourgeois and the state in itself is rendered to becoming nothing more than just an instrument of class rule. So as the bourgeois accumulate more and more wealth and property through the development of industry and commerce, it is the individuals that grow richer and richer while the state continues to fall into considerable debt.
However, Marx later made some modifications to this thought allowing certain amount of autonomy for the state. Here Marx contended that in some states, the bourgeois do not wield the power directly as they realize that the disadvantages of doing so are far greater than any potential advantages. Hence, in such a state they allow any aristocratic government to hold on to power as long as its policies are not detrimental to their interests. Such an indirect wielding of power also shields the bourgeois from a proletariat attack (Marx, 1963).
Hence, it can be said that Marxism views the state as an instrument of bourgeois control, which is directed at the accumulation of wealth and power for them. When the bourgeois control the state, the working class cannot rise up and cannot find ways to prosper as they cannot break the existing shackles of class boundaries and find ways to make it own their own without the help of the ruling class.
Marxism as a Social Thought
Marxism lays special emphasis on understanding the distinction of the classes as Marx found it important in order to better understand the nature and functioning of capitalism. Marxism defines and structures classes based on their relations concerning either work and labour or the means of production and ownership of property. For a capitalist society, these divisions can perfectly define the classes that exist in them much better than earlier societies which included classes of nobility as well. On these bases, Marxism divides the society into two main classes i.e. the bourgeois and the proletariat where the former are the ruling class and own the means of production as well as much of the property in the state while the latter are the working labor class that work towards the production of all goods but do not own anything other than labor power.
In a capitalist society, any surplus production at the hands of the working class turns into capital and ends up in the hands of the ruling class and the working class are left as property-less members of the proletariat. Marxism maintains that individuals form a class only when they have common interests and can hence, wage a common battle against another class, or else they would continue to be competitors for one another (Marx, 1846).
Consequently, a class struggle soon emerges as the two basic classes in the society harbour conflicting interests and yet have to work with one another in order to survive. The capitalists i.e. the ruling class intends to reduce wages as much as they can and still have the workers working at their hardest as that will ensure maximum production at minimum investment, which would be in their favour. However, the workers on the other hand, want the diametrical opposite of that and this contradiction forms the basis of a class struggle in Marxism.
Historical Materialism- In order to understand the framework of the society under the Marxist scheme of things, Marx introduced a methodical approach for studying economics, society and history, known as historical materialism. The term itself, came into being much later and Marx himself referred to it as ‘the materialist conception of history.’ Historical materialism looks at all non-economic features of the society such as social classes, political structures and ideologies as derivatives of the society’s economics itself. It tries to find the root causes of growth and changes in the history of mankind, particularly pertaining to those the means employed by humans to produce the essentials of life.
Marxian economy, in its essence, is different from Marxism as a political ideology or a sociological theory as many critics argue that Marx’s understanding of economics is independent of his political thought of revolutionary socialism (Munro, 2007). According to Marxian economics, the value of a good or service is determined by the socially necessary labor time that is invested in it. Since the capitalists only pay the workers as less as they can afford to pay without inciting a large scale rebellion in them, the workers only receive a fraction of what they should be receiving. As a consequence of this, the extra amount i.e. the surplus is pocketed by the capitalists and does not help the state or the society in any way. This led to Marx coining the term ‘commodity fetishism’, which refers to the blurring of the social relationships and process of production by the market forces.
Criticisms of Marxism
Over the years, Marxism has probably attracted more critics and detractors than any other political thought or philosophical school in the recent times.
• The biggest criticism levelled upon Marxism is that it might be a steady principle but it has never translated into good practice. Critics point to historical examples saying that it has been in the nature of Marxist states to turn into totalitarian regimes rather than lead to a condition of equality and cohesion between the classes. Ideally, the ruling class should fade away in a Marxist state and the proletariat should be liberated. This way the class differences will cease to exist. But as in the former Soviet Union, the Marxist governments often turn into ruling classes themselves, unleashing a new wave of terror, oppression and wide-ranging class disparity (Williams, 1977).
• Critics have claimed that Marxism and neo-Marxism are both unscientific in their methodology. In particular, they say that neo-Marxism is not a theory as it cannot be tested and possibly falsified. This is mainly because it involves the replacement of Capitalism by Communism as “historically inevitable”.
• Marxism calls for redistribution of land and production in order for a nation to transit from a capitalist economy and society to a communist one. Pro-capitalist economies have called this a form of coercion as the political leaders will have absolute powers in the absence of any market exchange. Many critics say that this way a truly Marxist society would erode the basic rights of its citizens.
• Anarchists like Bakunin have argued that Marxism is the first step towards coercion and eventually state domination, and that under Marxism, one day the state will be controlled by despots and a select few of autocracy (Bellamy, 2003). Even if this autocracy emerges from the proletariat, their new-found power will soon transform them into bourgeois and they will tend to look down upon the working class.
• Gandhi was a vocal critic of the Marxism’s ‘end justifies means’ outlook when he proposed that end and means are inseparable. However, this is one of Marxism’s tangential developments and not one that Marx had proposed initially. Instead, this was developed much later by the Bolsheviks and specifically by Trotsky. He said that the means are subordinated by the end. Many thinkers and philosophers have criticized this approach in Marxist thinking as this readily implies that if you are not agreeing with Marxist thinking, then you are hindering progress. It leaves no room for freedom of political thought.
• Economists have proposed a huge problem in the Marxist economics by pointing out the economic calculation problem in the central economic planning in a Marxist state. This problem concerns with the question of how to distribute resources and/or wealth in a Marxist economy. In a free market, people have the freedom of choosing how goods have to be distributed as they have the option of paying for what they choose. This creates a trend in which the demand of the goods and the supply of resources become embedded and economists say this is the only solution for the problem. As a result, they argue that a planned socialist economy can never work.
• Critics of the concept of egalitarian or utopian socialism argue that the concept of income sharing actually reduces the incentives to work for the common working class man. Since everybody holds equal wealth in a Marxist society, critics say that no one has any material incentive to work extra hard because they would not be receiving any extra reward for extra work. If this is continued over a long period of time, the workers will not work to their full potentials due to the lack of motivation and the production will suffer. This can eventually lead to economic stagnation throughout the state.
Pro-capitalist advocates have maintained that the Marxian conception of society is a flawed one and that on an empirical and epistemological level, the whole doctrine is flawed. Critics also say that since it is not falsifiable, it cannot be considered an actual science. In fact, academic Karl Popper once stated that had Marxism been scientific and falsifiable from the very beginning, its flaws could have been corrected today, but now it has been reduced to a pseudo-science.
Relevance of Marxism Today
The biggest question between the advocates and critics of the Marxist theory is that whether it has any relevance in the modern world or not. Marx proposed his ideas for the industrializing world of the 19th century, and in fact, 19th century Europe to be more specific. It is vital to know whether those ideas can still be applied to the prevailing social and economic conditions in the 21st century modern world. Many believe that Marx’s theory is the theory of our time since the prevailing conditions have not changed drastically since Marx’s time and hence, the theory holds substance. However, both economically and politically, the world of the 21st century is drastically different from the world of Marx’s day and age.
The biggest difference between the two times is that today there are more social classes than Marx had described. Marxism only talks about two social classes- the bourgeois and the proletariat. However, with economic proliferation and changes in the global economic structure, several new classes have emerged, such as the landlords and the middle class, which Marx had not envisioned. Middle class, or petty bourgeois as some academics call it, has been one major issue with the Marxist thinkers in the 21st century. Marx was of the view that with time, the middle class would merge into the bourgeois and the class distinction would become more pronounced. However, even one and a half century later, the middle class is still going strong and in some societies is the major force behind the economic process (Mohan, 2002). This is a major drawback that makes Marxism somewhat irrelevant in today’s times.
One of Marxism’s basic assertions is that the class structure is too rigid to be broken by individuals alone and has to be transformed by revolutions instead. Marx felt it was necessary because without a social revolution, the proletariat did not have the means or the opportunities to make it on their own. However, history has been abundant with examples of working class success stories, particularly in the capitalist societies like America. In the 21st century, this assertion has been left meaningless with the emergence of so many new avenues of generating income for the working class (Tetsuzo, 2006). With internet based businesses and the rise of self-made entrepreneurs, Marx’s claim has become somewhat obsolete. Another nail in the coffin for this assertion has been the widespread acceptance to sports as a career and a means of livelihood, which has enabled many working class citizens to earn money without the interference of the bourgeois.
The recent economic crisis has been a real eye-opener for many o Marxism’s ardent supporters. Marx suggested that a great economic crisis could only take place when the whole system would crumble. Hence, Marxism doctrine maintained that the finances would never be short as the institutions forming the great economic system could never fail individually and that it would always be the system that would fail as a whole if such a situation arose. However, the recent economic downturn showed exactly the opposite as individual institutions went bankrupt one after the other (Lebowitz, 2007). This created a sort of domino effect leading to an overall collapse of the entire system, and not the other way round.
Marx maintained that without the services provided by the labour class, no production could be achieved. He was of the view that in order for the bourgeois or the capitalist class to make money, they would always require services from the working class. However, many individuals from capitalist class have ventured into alternate business fields like writing, entrepreneurship, etc. which do not require any involvement of the working class.
Neo-Marxism- Proponents of the Marxist school of thought have tried to keep it alive in the contemporary world by applying the elements of other intellectual traditions to the classical Marxist theory and given rise to what many term as ‘Neo-Marxism.’ Neo-Marxism, as the name suggests is an extension or a sort of an amendment to the Marxist theory, which has gained prominence in the second half of the 20th century. But the truth is that even Neo-Marxist thought has undergone substantial changes in the last few decades and many are beginning to question the relevance of this school of thought in the 21st century.
Researchers and analysts have stated time and again that slowly and gradually the classic schools of neo-Marxist theory are declining in utility and significance constantly. In fact, many believe that this decrease in significance of the neo-Marxist ideology is a direct result of the fact that Marx’s own ideas are now slowly losing their importance globally. In fact, the post-Marxist thinkers are now drawing less from the Marxist theory and the neo-Marxist ideologies and more from other different intellectual tradition (Ritzer and Schuebert, 1991).
The biggest blow to Marxism has probably been the unexpected stability of Capitalism. As an economic and political system, Capitalism has proven to be much more durable and flexible than Marx had maintained. Hence, critics of the Marxist school of thought argue that the advent of Communism does not appear imminent in modern social systems.
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