Karl Marx and Marxist Theory

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In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (d. 1883), the German theorist and the father of Marxist theory posited the theory that the history of society is a history of class struggles, a constant collision between the oppressed and the oppressor.

This was a constant fight that ended in a revolutionary reconstitution of society or in the common ruin of conflicting classes. Marx suggested that human history witnessed an arrangement of societies into various orders and gradations of social ranks, which meant that there were always subordinate and superior classes. Importantly, during the time of Marx’s writing, nineteenth-century Germany underwent social and economic change. This included an increase in urbanization and in slums, and Marx saw how much of the working class lived in poverty while a minority of capitalists lived in material comfort. He saw major developments in industrialization which, among many things, led to the devaluation of labour and workers. Marx’s tried to account for why all of this was happening and this laid the groundwork for his political theories. He claimed that in his time there were new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle. He referred to this time as the “epoch of the bourgeois,” which was unique in how it simplified class antagonisms: society was split into two classes in opposition to each other, namely the bourgeois and proletariat.

During the industrial revolution (1750-1850) the bourgeois had become the economic ruling class who owned the means of production such as capital and land. They also controlled the means of coercion such as the armed forces, the legal system, police, and the prison system. The bourgeois owned all of the products produced by the proletarians and their goal was to preserve capital to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy.

The other class was the proletariat. The proletarians were the class of labourers who sought employment by bourgeoisie capitalists. They were from the “lower strata” of the middle class and of the lowest “stratum of our present society.” They were the slaves of the bourgeoisie. The advancement of industry and machinery made their jobs and livelihood uncertain as new methods of production rendered their skills worthless. In this respect, they were mere commodities to the bourgeoisie and they lacked any sense of individuality. According to Marx, they were cogs in the machine, “masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers” beneath the command of a hierarchy.

Marx attempted to trace the development of the bourgeois believing them to be “the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.” Bourgeois growth was largely a result of the change in social systems. As the feudal system died in the face of a new growing market, a new manufacturing system took over through the manufacturing middle class. Markets grew in response to an ever-increasing demand. This propelled an industrial industry contributing to “industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.” This market also gave rise to the development of commerce, navigation, and communication allowing the bourgeoisie to extend themselves, increase capital, and push back the lower class.

The development of the bourgeois was accompanied by political advances given that the establishment of the modern industry and world market gained for them exclusive political sway: “the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeois.” Political centralization followed as “Independent, or loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.”

The influence of the burgeoning bourgeois class was far-reaching. The rapid improvement of instruments of production through means of communication enabled the bourgeoisie to draw “the most barbarian nations into civilization.” They compelled other nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production and to become bourgeoisie themselves. Through the creation of enormous cities, the bourgeoisie had also increased the urban population and centralized the means of production, through which they had successfully given property to a minority few people. Marx also claimed that the bourgeois could push themselves to a place of overdevelopment by developing too much civilization, industry, commerce, and means of subsistence. Such overdevelopment could well cause devastation and destruction that lead society into a state of “momentary barbarism.” Disorder could also come about if the bourgeois class grew too small to control the wealth they created.

Marx was harshly critical of the bourgeoisie and condemned them in no uncertain terms. Although he acknowledged that through them much wealth had been created, he could not credit them for their “naked, shameless, direct, brutal” exploitation of the proletariat. One could not overlook the origin of their wealth in the exploitation of workers. Marx also claimed that this exploitation would lead to conflict between the two classes and to violent revolution. Contest, he writes, “is carried on by individual labourers, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operative of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them.” Before there was conflict and revolution, the power of the proletariat would grow. The more industry developed the more workers would be required leading to a concentration of “their masses” who would form trade unions against the bourgeoisie. The result would be conflict, riots, and open revolution as the proletarians attempt to overthrow the ruling class. The destruction of machinery and factories would follow and sometimes the proletarians would taste victory but only for a temporary period of time.

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