Karl Marx and Marxist Theory

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In The Communist Manifesto, German theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883), the father of Marxist theory, explained that 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, 19th century Germany saw some social and economic major changes which he witnessed. This included the increase in urbanization and slums. He saw how much of the working class lived in great poverty while a minority of capitalists lived in material comfort. He saw major increases in industrialization which, among many things, led to devaluation of labour and workers. Marx’s attempt was to try and explain why all this was happening, which laid the groundwork for his political theories. Marx claimed that in modern times (by which he meant at the time of his own writing in the 19th century) there were new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle. He referred to this time as the “epoch of the bourgeois,” a time that was unique in that it simplified class antagonisms. Society, witnessed Marx, was split up into two classes directly in opposition of each other: 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, legal system, police, and prison system. The bourgeois had become the ruling class of owners of the means of production. They owned the products produced by the proletarians, and their goal was to preserve capital as a means to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy in society.

The other class, proposed Marx, 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, and 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 who 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 stating that “The bourgeois is itself 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 of 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 then grew due to an ever increasing demand which propelled forth the industrial industry consisting of “industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.” This market gave rise to development of commerce, navigation, and communication allowing the bourgeoisie to extend themselves, increase capital, and push back the other lower class.

For Marx, the development of the bourgeois was accompanied by political advance given that through the establishment of the modern industry and world market they had managed to attain exclusive political sway: “the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeois” (36). Political centralization followed through which “Independent, or but 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 believed by Marx to be far reaching. Through the rapid improvement of instruments of production via means of communication, the bourgeoisie drew even “the most barbarian nations into civilization.” They thus compelled other nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, to become bourgeoisie themselves. Through the creation of enormous cities the bourgeoisie had also increased urban population and centralized the means of production, through which they had successfully given property to a minority few people. Marx saw that the bourgeois could push themselves to an ominous place of overdevelopment through way of developing too much civilization, industry, commerce, and means of subsistence. Such overdevelopment could result in devastation and destruction of society which could recede into a state of “momentary barbarism.” Disorder could too be brought to the bourgeois class as they grew to small to control the wealth created by them.

Marx was clearly critical of the bourgeoisie, condemning them. Although he acknowledged that through their development much wealth had been created he could not credit them for their “naked, shameless, direct, brutal” exploitation of the proletariat. Although the bourgeoisie had created wealth one could not ignore the origins of their wealth, namely, through the exploitation of workers. Marx noted that this exploitation could lead to conflict between the two classes and thus to violent revolution. Contest “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.” Prior to conflict and revolution the power of the proletariat would grow as the further industry developed the more workers would be needed and more workers there would be. The result was a concentration of “their masses” who would go on to form combinations known as trade unions against the bourgeoisie. Conflict such as riots and open revolution would occur as the proletarians would attempt to overthrow the bourgeoisie. 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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