Friday, May 05, 2006

Marx is 188

Karl Marx was born 188 years ago today. Most people have only a vague and inaccurate notion of what his ideas were. Here’s my handy little one-page introduction.
Marx in a Nutshell

According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), the key factor in determining the structure and development of any society is the way it interacts with nature in order to sustain itself – that is, its mode of production. The mode of production comprises (a) the forces of production (society’s technology and resources), (b) the relations of production (society’s economic structure).

The economic structure determines (sets limits to) the political, legal, and ideological “superstructure” of society, which in turn reinforces the economic structure. The economic structure also enables the development of technology. But eventually technology outgrows its economic framework. It is this “contradiction” between the forces and relations of production that is the principal engine of historical change. When the tension between them becomes too great, there is social revolution: the economic structure is changed to make it compatible with the more developed forces of production; and society’s political and legal institutions and its ideology undergo a corresponding change. The historical evolution of society thus reflects the growth of human productive power.

The development of society is possible because human beings can generally produce more than they require for bare subsistence. The division of society into classes reflects the unequal distribution of this surplus product. Those who control the means of production are in a position to appropriate the surplus. When individuals are prevented from controlling their own productive activity, their creative human potential is frustrated. This is alienation.

The capitalist mode of production has given enormous impetus to the development of the productive forces. This has included turning the production process into a tightly connected network of individuals performing specialized functions. Yet at the same time society has become increasingly polarized between two classes: those who control the means of production and the mass of working people, who have only their labour-power to sell. This contradiction between the increasingly cooperative nature of the production process and the undemocratic nature of the economic structure gives rise to class struggle that will eventually lead to the downfall of capitalism. It should then be possible to establish a classless, democratic society.

Marx’s theory of history is called historical materialism. “Materialism” in this sense refers neither to material possessiveness nor to the relation between mind and matter, but rather to the thesis that human society is to be understood fundamentally in terms of productive activity: the interaction between society and nature. Marx viewed social processes in terms of system, development, and transformation (revolution). These are essential features of what is called his dialectical method. Dialectical materialism represents an attempt, deriving mainly from Engels and Lenin, to apply the dialectical viewpoint to nature at large. Whether dialectical materialism is a legitimate extension of Marx’s historical materialism is debatable.

Marx’s work, then, includes (1) a theory of history in terms of modes of production, (2) an analysis of the capitalist mode of production, (3) a vision of a classless society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (to quote The Communist Manifesto).

A final note of caution: On hearing about some of his self-styled followers, Marx wrote, “What I know is that I am not a Marxist.”
Did the fall of “communism” in 1989 and the 1990s disprove Marx’s theory of history? Hardly. If anything, it corroborated his thesis that the economic structure most likely to flourish will be that which best promotes the further development society’s productive powers. For most of the twentieth century it was not clear whether capitalism or state socialism did the job better. Once it became clear that capitalism was a more effective generator of technological progress, the collapse of state-socialist regimes and their replacement with capitalist regimes was rapid. Even China , which remains nominally “communist”, has an essentially capitalist economy today. Economically, state socialism was always (just) an alternative form of industrialism: the organization of society in the interest of maximizing production and consumption. A true post-industrial society would be one that transcended not only state socialism but also capitalism, the exemplar of industrialism.

Besides being overly optimistic about the likelihood of a liberating end to capitalism, one that would see the emergence of a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, Marx can be criticized for not being materialist enough. That is, although his view of history is predicated on the key role of modes of production, or what he called society’s “metabolism with nature”, in his writings he paid too little attention to the ways in which biology, geography, and energy resources shape the emergence and development of modes of production.

But, hey, it’s his birthday. Let’s give the man some credit.

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