A Beginners’ Guide to
A Revolutionary social, political and economic philosophy
Brief Biography of Karl Mark
Karl Heinrich Marx, a great 19th-century philosopher, is famous for his ideas about capitalism and communism. Born 5 May 1818 in Trier, Prussia, in today’s Germany, Marx is also accredited as an economist, a socialist and a mystic owing to varied interpretations of his landmark writings contained in “The Communist” Manifesto and “Das Kapital” (also known as Capital: A Critique of Political Economy). He was born to a hardcore Jewish family and was tutored by his father until high school. He completed his higher studies at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. After completing his studies, Marx joined journalism for a year but when the newspaper he worked for was forced shut, he moved to Spain, where he spent two years. Afterwards, he moved to Belgium and after a short stay there he moved to London where he spent the remaining years of his life. He died of cancer on 14 March 1883.
What is Marxism?
Before starting our journey to know Marxism, it is important to know the different domains in which he has left indelible imprints, e.g. philosophy, history, sociology, and also the ramblings of a few powerful outsiders and the writings of thinkers who opposed dogma and believed in social change through the empirical technique of reason.
This starter helps understand certain preliminaries about Marxism.
Firstly, it has had a great impact and influence on human intellect as it engaged people into reflections for as long as today. For example, till today the exact scope of base and superstructure within the Marxist structure is contested.
Secondly, it has been misinterpreted and misapplied. This has made some say that there are many accounts of Marxism and finding out its true spirit is a daunting task. At the same time, others complain, that it is being seen as a disfavoured political doctrine instead of a vehicle for social change and progression. There are two lessons to draw from this: to read it from the most authentic source(s) and to draw conclusions only after its basic framework is understood.
Tenets of Marxism
The complete account of Marxism deals with the materialistic conception of history (Hegel’s dialectics and historical materialism), a critique of capitalism (mode of production, class division, base and superstructure, false and class-consciousness) and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its substitution with communism (alienation and communism). This approach is the best way to understand this topic because it puts the bits and pieces of the Marxist jigsaw into an understandable image.
a. Hegel’s dialectics
This is the three-fold explanation of human societies and their progression. It comprises three postulates, namely:
ü human societies are in perpetual tension or conflict because there are always nations developing (thesis) and attracting opposition from other nation (antithesis);
ü the root cause of this is their ideological difference and competitive character; and
ü this facilitates progression through the birth of a third nation which consolidates useful and progressive ideas of its predecessors (synthesis).
This became an inspiration for Marx as it gave him the confidence that the world and its realities could be explained through events, history and empirical data. He used it to employ historical materialism.
b. Historical materialism
This is a three-fold explanation of human societies as a history of class struggle. It comprises three postulates, namely:
ü within human societies, there has always been a notable tension or conflict because of class division (bourgeoisie and proletariat);
ü the root cause of this is their economic difference and exploitive character; and
ü this, when realized, leads to the abolition of class division, facilitating smooth coexistence.
c. Mode of production
This is the framework through which society organizes its productive and relational forces. It has two subsets: forces of production and relations of production. The former consists of all those means that precipitate class division, e.g. raw material, land, fuel, factories, machinery, tools and human skill. The latter, on the other hand, is the false consciousness that maintains class division such as the mindset of factory workers, employees and labourers that wage-labour relationship is not exploitive. Marx used this to explain Neolithic, Asiatic, Roman and Feudal societies. Neolithic society was a community of hunter-gatherers. Here the commodities or possessions belonged to a tribe, which decided the terms on which these could be sold and distributed to others. Asiatic society was a community where technological advancements such as standardized weights belonged to a few and they were empowered to determine the units in which things were to be sold. Roman society was a community where ownership of coinage by a few aristocrats empowered them to enslave people and trade them. Feudal society was a community where land-ownership by a few led to selling of labour for wage on terms of the proprietor.
d. Class division
This is the stratification of human beings into two main camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. The former are those who owned property and profits and the latter are those who sold their labour for wage. Marx noted this division was a characteristic of medieval Europe and Industrial Revolution, and he concluded that the history of human societies was the history of class struggle and argued that individuals’ consciousness corresponded with what they produced and how they produced.
e. Base and Superstructure
The base is the material structure of society. It includes all those factors that facilitate the production of goods such as productive and relational forces. The superstructure is the non-material structure of society. This includes values, ideology, law, religion and political institutions. It facilitates the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.
f. False and Class-consciousness
False consciousness is the oblivion of the proletariat from the oppression of the bourgeoisie while class consciousness is where they come to realize this and stand up to overturn their power for social harmony.
This was the sense of detachment and disenchantment that the proletariat suffered as a result of being bonded to the bourgeoisie. It isolated them from product, production, self-determination and empathy for others.
This is Marx’s prediction that the tensions between the bourgeoisie and proletariat would push the latter to stand up against the former and take over from them. This would, in turn, introduce governance by a large majority of the people rather than a few ruling elites.
Marx’s influence on World leaders
a. Vladimir Lenin
Lenin was the head of the Bolshevik or Russian Communist Party from 1914 to 1924. He made use of Marxist writings to topple the Provincial government of the time. In so doing, he made a major change to Marxist thought. Whilst Marx had predicted the realization of false consciousness by the proletariat Lenin did not see it coming forth. He made a vanguard party of his own, comprising intellectuals such as Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin. He convinced the Russian peasants that his party would help them achieve the much-desired revolution. This is because the Bolsheviks were committed to the Marxist agenda in three ways. First, they had a Marxist understanding of history and society. Second, they were committed to ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism. Third, they were committed to achieving this right after assuming power, even if it meant the use of force. Believing these the Russian peasantry clubbed with them and successfully overthrew the Provincial government and came to rule as proletarian dictators. To this end, Stalin introduced New Economic Policy. But his death in 1924 opened a gateway for his disjoined party members to succeed.
b. Joseph Stalin
As Lenin died in 1924, a power vacuum was created which was filled up by Stalin. He convinced the people that the Vanguard Party was going through false consciousness and the only person worth trusting from the party was himself. In this way, he reconciled with the peasantry and promised them land which they would be able to run individually without interference. But later on, collectivized farms and started collecting surpluses from the peasantry, as a result of which famine broke out in the country, making peasants anti-Communist. This generated tension between Stalin and peasants leading to the loss of many lives.
c. Mao Zedong
In around 1920, Mao became interested in communism. He believed that through appealing to the Chinese peasantry, he could come to power, which he did in 1949, making China a communist state.
Marxism in the 21st Century
Today, Marxism looks either irrelevant or limited. These perceptions arise from two mistakes: The first is to think that Marxism is just about finding an alternate to capitalism. This is true, albeit partly, but it is not the whole picture. Its starting point is to understand the human condition, that is, our ability to lose sight of ourselves in making a living. For example, in an employer-employee relationship, both are struggling to make their ends meet. The employer has his bills to pay and the employee has his needs to meet. But the former knows that he/she is more resourceful and can always lay off the latter if there is another employee available to help reap more profits/labour for less salary/wage. As a result, the employee spends most of his/her life pleasing their bosses in fear of being fired or replaced by someone new but cheaper. This deprives him/her of the experience of life because their life is spent around pleasing the bosses. The second is to think that communism is a fiasco. This upset with the alternate to capitalism ensues from limited understanding of Russian Communism. The question of failure is wrongly situated here. This is because the Russian leaders never applied Marxist theory as Marx contended it to be. Marx never proposed the creation of a Vanguard Party under Stalin-ruled Russia. Neither did he predict creation of a personality cult by Lenin. Since these leaders did not apply the theory in its original form, it was definite that it will not achieve the Marxist outcome of a classless society. Therefore, before bidding farewell to Marxism, it is important to work out what it was and how it needs to be applied.
Marxism is an effort to study the worries of humans. It argues that humans use resources to exploit each other as a result of which class division comes into being. It further argues that this has been facilitated through capitalism. It predicts that the solution to this human predicament is its substitution with communism, which will come about with the self-awakening of the working class. Since its picture cannot be developed without its essential links; therefore, an attempt has been made here to explain it in bite-sized fashion.
The author teaches jurisprudence and legal theory at Pakistan College of law, Lahore. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org