One of the greatest debates of all time has been regarding the issue of the freedom of mankind. The one determining factor, for Marx, it that freedom is linked with class conflict. As a historian, Karl Marx traced the history of mankind by the ways in which the economy operated and the role of classes within the economy. For Marx, the biggest question that needed to be answered was Who owns freedom? With this in mind, Marx gives us a solution to both the issues of freedom and class conflict in his critique of capitalism and theory of communism, which is the ideal society for Marx. His theory of communism is based on the ultimate end of human history because there will be freedom for all humankind. Marx saw communism as the ideal society because it is “the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and man- the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence…between freedom and necessity” that capitalism fosters. Marx was also committed to the notion that theory and action go hand in hand. Marx dismissed earlier thinkers because they (philosophers) “have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” He also stated “Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force”. However, Marx would have been appalled by the way his theory of communism was misused. It can be said, though, that Marx’s theory of communism was clearly open for interpretation because he failed to offer “principles or guidelines of even the most general kind” for how the system of communism was to be fully established. It was this opportunity for interpretation that made Marx’s theory of communism doomed for failure when it was used in practice.
Marxs theory stems from the social conditions existing during his lifetime. This was when the industrial revolution was hitting its stride. Great technological advances were being made to the modes of production, especially in the areas of agriculture and textiles. This was the main factor that drove peasants from the countryside to find work in the cities. In addition, capitalism had emerged as the dominant form of economics. Marx contended that class is based upon the economic conditions of society. He identified class through the history of the changing modes of production. In a capitalist society there are five classes: the landed aristocracy, the bourgeoisie (large-scale capitalists), the petty bourgeoisie (small-scale capitalists), the proletariat (the masses of workers), and the lumpen proletariat (the social degenerates). Marx dismissed the relevance of all but two of these classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, because they didn’t have any real impact on society as a whole. They weren’t in a position to exploit labor. His theory focuses on the conflict and antagonism between those who owned the modes of production, the bourgeoisie, and those who were forced into selling their labor to them, the proletariat. As Marx saw it, “class is about the transfer of surplus (profit) from below and the exercise of power from above”. The class with the means of material production also has the means of intellectual control. Those in charge have a political doctrine to control their interests, at whatever cost. This led to what Marx terms “brain colonization”. The concept of ideology was used in the defense of capitalism. It was a strategy used to support the system and keep the workers concerns quieted. Liberalism was the ideology used by the bourgeoisie. Marx said, “Liberal ideology is used to blind the workers to the injustice of exploitation”. It was an official veil to persuade the masses that they are free by extolling the myths of progress to them. They argued that since slavery was no longer used for labor, the workers were indeed free. The workers were also told to find happiness and freedom through religion for their material conditions were as they should be. Marx claimed that religion was merely an “opiate for the masses”. Basically, they were told to trust in the system and with future progress their situations would improve. This false consciousness was necessary to keep the proletariat’s minds from ideas of rebellion. He questioned what would happen if it stopped working. Would the liberals turn to the real drug to continue the myths of the bourgeoisie?
It is interesting to note that Marx also saw the benefits of capitalism. He claims that capitalism is not evil, just outdated. He agreed that it was a very efficient means of production. However, he asserts that capitalism leads to social dislocation, when workers are forced to find work elsewhere, and human suffering, the alienation of workers. The end result from this will be the collapse of capitalism. History is constantly changing and that a new class war was inevitable, one between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
Alienation of the workers, for Marx, was seen as imposed on “a class that has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages”. This alienation forces that class “into the most decided antagonism to all other classes”. Furthermore, it is the capitalists system that necessitates such alienation. In a capitalist society, over the long term, fewer and fewer people will own the means of production and the proletariat will be ever increasing. This happens because of the bourgeoisie’s need to protect and maximize profits. Although Marx believed that human identity and consciousness should be attained from the work one does, this could not come about in a capitalist system where profits come before human needs. The bourgeoisie could quite effectively keep their profits increasing by denying workers any kind of benefits. As a humanist, Marx wanted to expose the proletariat to their horrible exploitation by the bourgeoisie. He said that they should wake up and look at the world for what it really was.There was no sense in being a romantic and buying into the ideology you were told, seek to find the real truth. Therefore, humanity is denied, in favor of profits, by keeping workers degraded and dehumanized. Man exists as an object of his work, which is repetitive and gives him no claim to ownership of that work. In other words, man lives solely as an extension of the machine he operates. Humanity is also denied by mans living conditions. With more and more rural peasants flocking to the cities for factory work, slums quickly developed. The economic conditions of the proletariat were the sole basis of how the capitalist system operated. In order to maintain and maximize profits, the bourgeoisie kept wages as low as possible, increased the hours of a standard work day, did away with traditions such as giving workers holidays and Sundays off, and by replacing, wherever possible, human workers with machines.The dream of making a better living never materializes for these people. And because of their conditions, they are still lacking the most basic freedoms of life, most importantly, the freedom to love themselves. The ultimate vision of freedom for Marx is when the proletariat “is separated from the work that alienates them and denies them an identity and humanity”. Marx thought, “the economic arrangements of a communist system will end the exploitation of any group”.
According to Marx, since the systems of production are organized by the exchange of the products being produced, the value placed on those products is socially determined. In turn, the principle source of the value of a commodity (product) is the labor that produced it. This value changes over time in a capitalist market system because the bourgeoisie will find ways of making workers more productive. Due to this change in value, the alienation of workers will grow to unbearable degrees, due to the previously mentioned tactics of the bourgeoisie; this would be the catalyst for the proletariat to rise to revolution against the bourgeoisie.
According to Marx, there are three phases necessary for the transition from capitalism to communism. The first is the universal uprising of the “proletariat in a socialist revolt to overthrow the bourgeoisie”. He claimed that “the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself”. The second “socialist” phase is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which “itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society”.Marx claims that a dictatorship is necessary during this phase “to prevent a counter-revolution of the capitalists”. The final phase is communism, “when the capitalist mentality has been eliminated from the world”. At this the point man attains true freedom. For it is “only when the real, individual man reabsorbs in himself the abstract citizen…only when man has recognized and organized his own powers as social forces, and consequently no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.”In communism, the interests of the proletariat are represented in all society. This is the “ultimate end of human history” because “there would be no more scarcities, only a happy situation of plenty”. All people would take from society only what they needed and contribute to their fullest capabilities. There would be no need for any type of government because the communist society would be altruistic and unselfish. This would also be end to the state itself because everyone would be “morally pure”. Therefore, communism would be a society without an exchange economy, class, or state.
For all its purposes, Marx’s theory of communism was as doomed to failure as was the collapse of capitalism (as Marx had predicted). The main reason for this is that instead his models being take for “the representation of a theory in which one suppresses contradictions”, they were instead used as absolute truths. Furthermore, Marx himself would contend that “if everything is to be encompassed in one model, either that model becomes impossibly strained, or contradicting evidence has to be denied and dismissed”. It is here that one can see how the interpretation of Marx’s theory of communism led to its failure. This can be seen in looking at the former Soviet Union and the views of its establishment. Stalin clearly interpreted Marx’s theory to suit his own interests. Marx offered communism of “all people simultaneously”. The only requirement for this was the development of class- consciousness of the proletariat. However, it needed to be “a primary allegiance to economic peers throughout the world”. Stalin believed that this could be achieved within a single country. Lenin took this to heart when he explained his views on revolution and his interpretation of Marx’s theory. Lenin saw capitalism as “a chain with weak and strong links”. He also believed that capitalism was a “unified world order” and if a communist revolution occurred in Russia it “would quickly spread to Western Europe” like a contagious virus. Marx would not have agreed with this because he saw the revolution beginning in a much more developed capitalist society, such as England or Germany, not Russia.
Lenin viewed the state as “bodies of armed men”, whereas Marx saw the state as “the indirect spokesman and protector of the exploited class”. Lenin also turned to Marx’s words to see them “in favor of the equally authentic language of violent transformation”. He focused on passages that called for “the need to smash the state, destroy all existing institutions, and suppress the former ruling class”. Marx knew that violence may become necessary, but by no means legitimized its use as the sole weapon to be used during the proletariat revolution. Lenin further changed Marx’s theory to support his ideas about the proletariat. Marx believed “the proletariat was felt to be unique in the annuls of class struggle in that one of the preconditions for its eventual triumph was the ability to become politically conscious of its historic mission”. On the other hand, Lenin believed “that workers could not by themselves become fully conscious of their political destiny”. For this reason, Lenin saw “the tasks of the revolutionary transition would therefore seem to require the party to maintain a healthy distance between itself and the working masses”. With these views, Lenin laid the ground for only type of communism we have seen in practice. By insisting on strict party discipline, Lenin could achieve totalitarianism and repression. It has been said that the Soviet Union failed because of “the lack of humanity shown to its citizens”. This is because they never ascended above the socialist phase, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Another fatal blow for Marx’s theory of communism is that the alienation of workers has not worsened. During Marx’s time and location, it could be easy to see that the capitalist system was strained and reaching its limits. Its eminent collapse may very well have been near. However, there were many other countries where this was not the case. Although he spearheaded the workers efforts to unite, Marx was unable to see that through labor organizations alone, workers could achieve a great number of benefits without a revolution overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Working conditions did indeed improved and wages increased through unionization of industries. These unions were able to negotiate on behalf of the workers to obtain better standards of work and, in turn, better standards of living for workers. Workdays were limited to a certain number of days and hours, wages were increased, and workplace safety issues were addressed, as well as medical and time off benefits. The bourgeoisie was all of a sudden put in a position that made concessions on its behalf necessary. Unionized workers were a threat to profits. If the workers didn’t get certain things out of negotiations, they could strike and shut down production. Furthermore, the capitalist system has shown that the gap between the classes has not widened, but instead is becoming narrower, “the worker-capitalist bourgeoisie class will surely grow”.
Whereas Marx extolled mankind’s freedom being obtained only through a communist society, he doesn’t really address the answer to his question, “Who owns freedom?” By linking freedom with the mode of production of a society, the answer for communism would be everybody. It is no great mystery that class conflict leads to change. Marx certainly believed and documented this and based his theory of communism upon it. However, the gaps left in his theory have resulted in varying interpretation to what he originally envisioned. A society without class or state may very well have been achieved if his theory had given more direction as to the details for its establishment.Instead, Marx’s theory has been twisted and rewritten to suit the interests of others. Perhaps the greatest problem with his theory “is that no one has tried it”.
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Capital, Karl Marx, Progress Publishers, 1971.
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The Outlook: Worker-Capitalists of the World Unite, Jacob M. Schlesinger, The Wall Street Journal, Monday, November 15,1999.