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May 28, 2013 / C H Thompson

Marxism continued 2

The Marxist, conflict approach emphasised a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical method of analysis. This method on analysis is key to understanding where Marx was coming from; the dialectic (the conflict) between incomparable ideas is the springboard for social change. Marx goes on to argue this source of change comes from the contradictions particularly within the economic system. It’s worth noting here that Marx places great emphasis on economic factors as he argues people’s consciousness is a mere reflection of the social relationships of economic production, they do not provide the main source of change. Instead it is the conflict within the economic system which precipitates change. Marx’s emphasis on economic factors is referred to as a dialectical materialism.

The materialist view of history starts from the premise that the most important determinant of social life is the work people are doing, especially work that results in provision of the basic necessities of life, food, clothing and shelter. Marx thought that the way the work is socially organised and the technology used in production will have a strong impact on every other aspect of society. He maintained that everything of value in society results from human labour. Thus, Marx saw working men and women as engaged in making society, in creating the conditions for their own existence.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness (Marx 1971:20).

Marx divided history into several stages, conforming to broad patterns in the economic structure of society. The most important stages for Marx’s argument were feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The bulk of Marx’s writing is concerned with applying the materialist model of society to capitalism, the stage of economic and social development that Marx saw as dominant in 19th century Europe.

For Marx, the key institution of capitalist society is private property, the system by which capital (that is, money, machines, tools, factories, and other material objects used in production) is controlled by a small minority (ruling-class) of the population (who own the means of production). This arrangement leads to two opposed classes, the owners of capital (called the bourgeoisie/ruling-class) and the workers (called the proletariat/working-class), whose only property they ‘own’ is their labour, which they sell to the capitalists (when people get paid in the form of an hourly rate).

Owners, ruling-class who own the means of production, are seen as making profits by paying workers less than their work is worth and, thus, exploiting them. (In Marxist terminology, material forces of production or means of production include capital, land, and labour, whereas social relations of production refers to the division of labour and implied class relationships.)

By being confined to selling their labour the proletariat results in alienation. This is because the ‘production-line process’ of manufacturing results in a disconnect between the person making the commodity and the commodity being created. For example the different feeling you get when reading a book because you want to, against reading a book because you have to, say for school. Being ‘made’ to read gives you a sense of alienation between you and the book you’re forced to read.

Economic exploitation leads directly to political oppression, as owners make use of their economic power to gain control of the state and turn it into a servant of bourgeois economic interests. Police power, for instance, is used to enforce property rights and guarantee unfair contracts between capitalist and worker. Oppression also takes more subtle forms: religion serves capitalist interests by pacifying the population; intellectuals, paid directly or indirectly by capitalists, spend their careers justifying and rationalising the existing social and economic arrangements.

What can seem confusing, but is later addressed by neo-Marxists, is that members of the working-class are largely unaware of the true nature of their exploited position. This ‘false-consciousness’ is due to the fact the relationships of dominance and subordination in the economic system are largely reproduced in the superstructure. For example in the UK there are two types of schools, state and fee-paying. The ruling class attend fee-paying (of which there are around 5%) while the working-class attend the remaining schools (the remaining 95%). The inequalities in state school students not gaining entrance to Oxbridge Universities is largely seen as due to their intellectual short-comings rather than structural differences in methods of schooling – such as smaller class sizes. Not ‘seeing’ this is a false-consciousness.

To conclude, the economic structure of society moulds the superstructure, including ideas (e.g., morality, ideologies, art, and literature) and the social institutions that support the class structure of society (e.g., the state, the educational system, the family, and religious institutions). Because the dominant or ruling class (the bourgeoisie) controls the social relations of production, the dominant ideology in capitalist society is that of the ruling class. Ideology and social institutions, in turn, serve to reproduce and perpetuate the economic class structure. Thus, Marx viewed the exploitative economic arrangements of capitalism as the real foundation upon which the superstructure of social, political, and intellectual consciousness is built.

Marx’s view of history might seem completely cynical or pessimistic, were it not for the possibilities of change revealed by his method of dialectical analysis. (The Marxist dialectical method, based on Hegel’s earlier idealistic dialectic, focuses attention on how an existing social arrangement, or thesis, generates its social opposite, or antithesis, and on how a qualitatively different social form, or synthesis, emerges from the resulting struggle.) Marx was an optimist. He believed that any stage of history based on exploitative economic arrangements generated within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For instance, feudalism, in which land owners exploited the peasantry, gave rise to a class of town-dwelling merchants, whose dedication to making profits eventually led to the bourgeois revolution and the modern capitalist era. Similarly, the class relations of capitalism will lead inevitably to the next stage, socialism.

The class relations of capitalism embody a contradiction: capitalists need workers, and vice versa, but the economic interests of the two groups are fundamentally at odds. Such contradictions mean inherent conflict and instability, the class struggle. Adding to the instability of the capitalist system are the inescapable needs for ever-wider markets and ever-greater investments in capital to maintain the profits of capitalists. Marx expected that the resulting economic cycles of expansion and contraction, together with tensions that will build as the working class gains greater understanding of its exploited position (and thus attains class consciousness), will eventually culminate in a socialist revolution.


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