According to Karl Marx, capitalism will inevitably turn to socialism. This alludes to his belief that capitalism contains within itself conditions that would be detrimental to its own existence, factors which would eventually lead to the population to adopt a socialist mode of living. In fact, Marx surmised that socialism is a natural development that follows capitalism in his conception of historical materialism. Whether or not such a change has occurred can be seen in subsequent events in history, although perhaps not to the extent that Marx had predicted.
When considering the state of capitalism during the time of Marx, we refer to his writings with Friedrich Engels on the issue. These can be found in several publications such as The Communist Manifesto, The Capital volumes and The Poverty of Philosophy. His first and main influence was Hegel (specifically the philosophical ideas of Young Hegelians) who developed a dialectical method to with metaphysical assumptions to which Marx disagreed on. Marx instead assumed a materialistic conception of history, stating that history is the development through class struggles as a result of economic differences.
Throughout history evidence can be found of subordination of one class to another, separated by a wealth gap, leading to conflict in the realization of their respective economic interests. Indeed, one of his more famous and provocative quotes lie in the opening of The Communist Manifesto: “History of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.”
In this publication he addresses the development of two opposing classes: the bourgeoisie, who are the owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, the common workers who own only their labour.
The bourgeoisie have adopted the capitalist mode of production in their search for increased profits. It is this way of production that have done away with the old feudal system, granting the bourgeoisie political and economic power and changing society around them. However, the bourgeoisie movement carried with it the degradation of the living standards of the proletariat, a factor which Marx believed would lead to the fall of the capitalist system.
Marx argued that the exploitative nature of the bourgeoisie capitalists would become the source of class antagonism. It was essential that the capitalists exercise such practices on the workers in order to maintain monopoly over them as well as in the survival of their enterprises. The nature of this exploitation can be understood through Marx’s labour theory of value. This involved expressing human labour into a standard measure, namely time, which would then indicate the value of the commodity that is resultant from this labour. Marx believed that the worker’s work day can be divided into two parts: necessary labour time during which the worker produces an amount that is equal in value to his wage, and surplus labour time which accounts for the rest of the day where the worker produces what Marx termed as absolute surplus value. It is with this surplus value that the capitalist gains profit. This then becomes the source of exploitation, as the capitalist, in his venture to increase his profits, would shorten the amount of necessary labour time via increased productivity, effectively increasing the surplus labour time and therefore the profits. Moreover, the profits effectively go to the pockets of the capitalist even when production is considered a social activity.
This theory highlights an issue with the capitalist system which Marx called fetishism of commodity. This is the belief that commodities have power capable of controlling producers rather than the other way around. Commodities were seen to have inherent value which can then be exchanged with other commodities using a measure of price. This value is an expression of the average conditions of production involved in the manufacture of that commodity. However, this does not necessarily reflect the labour value of the commodity, which is the social dimension of production. As opposed to Marx’s labour theory of value, labour power was seen like any other commodity. Its value is instead given by how much is required to just sustain the worker and in maintaining reproduction. As such it is necessary for the bourgeoisie to ensure that the proletariat is only given enough so as not to own property. This is crucial for the continued survival of the capitalist system.
Despite the worsening conditions of their workers, the capitalists have no choice but to enforce this system as competition between them grows. There would be a pressing need for increased profits and thus increased production, which led the capitalists to begin employing machines for their better efficiency in churning out produce. The production system becomes more monotonous, effectively eliminating the need for specialized labour and thus reducing the status of the worker to a simple caretaker for machines. For the proletariat many would become part of a group that Marx called (although it did not originate from him) the industrial reserve army which consisted of such collection of workers who have been replaced from the workforce by machines.
Those in the industrial reserve army would eventually face competition with one another for places in the diminishing workforce. The situation is aggravated by the reduction of the gender and age barrier, as the operation of machines did not require the heavy workload of past manufacturing systems. Moreover, their ranks are joined by small capitalists who could not keep up with the rapid advancements in productive labour.
For the capitalists, less labour to pay wages for while maintaining rate of production meant lowering of production costs. However, profits are proportional to exploitation of the workers. Thus, for those who are still in the workforce, not only are their labours reduced to uncreative repetition, they are subject to more exploitation by the capitalists.
Thus anarchy of production was observed, whereby the absence of a plan in production was evident in a society driven by competition; those capitalists who survived are those who were better equipped. According to Marx, this would lead to economic crises. In a nutshell, it is the effect of overproduction resultant from a contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The proletariat cannot afford to buy goods which they cooperate in their manufacture. The capitalist, however, develop productive forces as though their only limit is the consuming power of society (Capital, vol. III, p. 472-3). Since the drive of the producers is in the expansion of surplus value, they are in fact over-producers as they must produce surplus value in order to be consumers themselves (Theories of Surplus Value (1951), p. 397-8). The difficulty in transforming a commodity into money is that there is no need to transform the commodity into money to be immediately transformed into commodity, thus the system of sale and purchase fail. In the words of Marx, crisis is nothing but the forcible assertion of the unity of phases of the production process which have become independent of each other. (Theories of Surplus Value, p. 383)
The capitalist system further reflected this gloomy condition in Marx’s conception of alienation. He identified four types of alienation. The worker is alienated from his produce as it is taken from him by the capitalists for the appropriation of profit. The worker is also alienated from his labour as it is reduced to repetition by the mechanization of production. Third, the worker is alienated from himself as he is not allowed to exercise his will and creative nature to actualize his product. Finally, he is alienated from others as they are engaged in a competition for higher wages. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844) The concept of alienation was an important point for Marx as he believed that the human nature is expressed through labour, not a predetermined character. History, he argued, is built upon the successive labour of each generation, each one benefitting its successor.
In order to do away with alienation, Marx believed that a revolution is required, but not of the violent sort. The purpose of the revolution would be to eliminate the conditions that precede alienation. This can be done by state-wide action such as abolition of private property and wage labour. Once these inequalities are removed, it is then possible for the people to emancipate themselves, i.e. to fully express their consciousness through labour, for their own benefit.
Such strategies would become increasingly viable as the capitalist system become no longer able to sustain society as an economic system, allowing conquest of the state by the proletariat. The wealth gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have been so wide and each group so far removed from each other that the proletariat were classified as a class itself. The exploitation of the proletariat class have resulted in a class consciousness of their state of affairs, leading to the proletariat class gaining political power as the capitalists fail to uphold credibility as rulers of the state. The elements of socialism would gradually be introduced into the state, whereby conditions were placed to invoke an environment of freedom of autonomy and benefit for society rather than concentration to a select few. The capitalist system would not immediately be removed, however, but would be nationalised.
In validating Marx’s theory of historical materialism and the natural progression of capitalism to socialism, one has to consider the events that followed since the time of industrial strife of Marx’s time. Many have argued that Marxist theories have been discredited by history, or at least his ideas were correct but what transpired were not exactly how he had predicted.
The first of these critiques point to the nature of the 1917 Russian revolution and its aftermath. Marx expected that revolutions would first occur in advanced industrialized countries, but Russia back then was the exact opposite. Furthermore, ‘Marxist-Leninist’ regimes sprout in similar countries such as Vietnam and Cuba. A more important effect was not the expected extension of democracy and abolition of classes as Marx had predicted but the emergence of tyrannical bureaucracy as seen in Russia even today. Stalin established a socialist rule using forced industrialisation amidst fears that Russia might fall behind in military might against rival countries. However, Marx did argue that socialism will only work on a global scale. Confinement of its practice to a single country would only lead to its eventual demise, which was what exactly happened in Russia. Moreover, the socialist regime under Stalin was not based on self-emancipation as supported by Marx, but on exploitation of the working class. What followed out of the Stalin regime was the alienation and degradation of living conditions as foreseen by Marx.
Secondly, as argued by Anthony Crosland and John Strachey (The Future of Socialism, Contemporary Socialism) the capitalist structure has changed since the days of Marx with the convergence of big companies and the state, thus providing incentive for economic planning. Also, the ‘separation of ownership and control’ within companies meant that managers who have little personal stake in the company are oriented towards long-term planning for economic growth. The economist John Maynard Keynes justified the techniques for demand management, which meant that economic slumps can be avoided through governmental planning. (General theory)
The third point of the argument lies in the non-existence of the working class as conceived by Marx. In fact, manual labour only accounted for a small percentage of the workforce, the majority of which are middle-class white collar workers. In contrast to Marx’s predictions, wages have risen with this change in the employment environment. As a result of this, the bourgeoisie-proletariat divide central to Marxism was replaced by a post-industrial society consisting of a large middle class.
Marx was a strong advocate for the self-emancipation of the working class through the destruction of the exploitative practices of capitalism which was rampant during his day. However should he had seen the development of the capitalist system today it is unsure if he would still have such a conviction. Nonetheless capitalism is still built upon exploitation of the working class, the effect of which is leading the global economy to yet more crises. As such socialist practices and ideals are needed more than ever. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 that has seen many counterparts in many countries attempted to highlight the social and economic inequalities that corporatism have influenced onto the government, pushing for fair distribution. This may be a signal that the proletariat awakening central to Marx’s revolutionary theory is at hand.