If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas.
Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation has enjoyed something of a renaissance in spite of the atrocities associated with his name. Indeed, even pro-capitalist outlets such as the Economist have begun to concede there is much we might learn from Marx’s analyses, even if we must discard much that is anachronistic or tarnished by association with totalitarianism.
In what follows, I will argue that there is much that even opponents can learn from a careful look at Marx’s work.
The Controversy Surrounding Marx
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
~Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx is a difficult thinker to analyze, not least because so very much has been written about him, a great deal of which is so biased on one side or another that it abstains from all regular standards of interpretation. This is in part due to the tremendous influence his work has had, for good, and as many know, for ill. If nothing else, this influence is a testament to the tremendous power of both his writing and his arguments. Like Rousseau, Marx was often an excellent writer. His work is filled with stinging denouements, striking metaphors (capital as a vampire comes to mind), and revolutionary turns of phrase. Moreover, unlike Rousseau, Marx’s thinking is a paradigm case of systematicity. Inspired chiefly by the idealism of Georg Hegel and the logical approach to political economy pioneered by David Ricardo, Marx’s mature works are immensely architectural. Virtually any topic of interest in the humanities finds its place within the Marxist system: history, philosophy, sociology (Marx was a founding figure of the discipline along with Durkheim and Weber), political economy and more all have their place. From a purely intellectual standpoint this can be very impressive, but it also becomes clear how such systematic grandeur can become a serious weakness. The attempt to assimilate so many strands of thought into a systematic whole can give the impression that the important ontological differences between them are sometimes being abandoned; an criticism which even some Marxist thinkers such as Adorno and Žižek have been willing to concede. This flaw has practical consequences, since many accuse Marxism of being a kind of dogma forced onto the world by its adherents, with the tragic consequence of millions dying beneath the boots of totalitarian regimes.
This accusation may be levelled against many Marxists, but it has less weight when applied to Marx himself. This isn’t just because Marx’s approach was more nuanced than that of his followers, but because that approach often evolved and changed in ways that are both interesting and frustrating. The early Marx’s work is very much that of a Young Hegelian. His Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and “On the Jewish Question” are very much concerned with what constitutes real freedom in modern society, with the conclusion being that stark inequalities in political power substantially restrict the capacity of most people to have a meaningful say in how they are governed. This is at the heart of Marx’s critique of liberal rights in “On the Jewish Question”; his concern isn’t that they grant too much freedom, but that they only grant meaningful freedom to a select few. Consider, for instance, the right to freedom of expression. Marx was a man who detested the censors constantly agitating against his work, so he was certainly not opposed to free expression. But he was well aware that this right meant a great deal more to individuals with the power and resources to have their voices heard by a great multitude. In that respect he was undoubtedly right, and recent empirical studies by figures like Martin Gilens have borne out his claim that wealthy and powerful individuals have far more opportunities to have their interest heard and reflected by political authorities than the poor. The more serious problems emerge when one moves from what Althusser characterized as Marx’s humanist phase to his more ambitious period, during which he sought to develop what Engels called a “science” of history. This project really picked up steam in the 1850s, when Marx was living as a poor exile in London with his family, dependent on handouts from Engels and the occasional lifeline provided by journalism. This was Marx’s most creative period, resulting in unpublished works such as the Grundrisse and the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
These efforts culminated in the 1867 publication of the first part of Marx’s magnum opus Capital: Volume One. This book systematically incorporates all the different strands of Marx’s thought into a singular whole for the first time, and contains many of his most original ideas. The most insightful is the reorientation of Marx’s earlier theory of alienation into an account of what he called “commodity fetishism.” But it is also a book which is woefully unclear about the kind of society meant to replace capitalism when the system’s insolvable contradictions invariably catch up to it. According to Marx, capitalism generates the highest form of social organization seen thus far. But it is also beset by contradictory dynamics which it cannot resolve without ceasing to be capitalism.
Consider the following simplified scenario: It is in the interest of individual capitalists to pay their workers as little as possible for their labor, since doing so increases competitiveness and can result in a higher rate of profit. But the aggregated consequence of all capitalists paying low wages to increase competition is that consumption declines because the mass of people do not have enough money to pay for the goods produced under capitalism. This leads to a crisis of overproduction during which capitalists produce more goods than people are able to buy, eventually leading to a recession rather like the one we experienced in 2008. In these circumstances, Marxists would claim that low wages inhibit people’s ability to buy all the real estate available in the United States. The system tried to compensate by offering low interest loans hedged against the expectation that the value of housing would continue to increase. But once it became clear that the real estate bubble was going to burst, the possibility of such repayments collapsed, and the whole system broke down for a time.
Here I will put aside the technical accuracy of such an analysis to describe the bigger picture. For Marx, these contradictory dynamics were inevitable and would ultimately lead to capitalism’s replacement by a more rational form of society. Despite living for almost another 20 years, what form this new society would take was never elaborated upon. Passing remarks appear in The Critique of the Gotha Program, his various correspondences, and of course the posthumous volumes of Capital. But these fragmentary comments never went much beyond his far earlier claim in The German Ideology that under communism, human beings would be able to realize all aspects of their nature through hunting, fishing, and philosophizing without becoming a hunter, fisher, or philosopher. Most damningly, he did call for the formation of a post-revolutionary “dictatorship of the proletariat” to assume control of the state to redistribute resources and bring about a classless society in preparation for communism. But, again, what form that would take was unclear.
This lack of specificity demonstrates Marx’s fundamental limitations as a constructive theory next to his acute skills as a critic. It also has had far more profound consequences, as many figures inspired by his critique of capitalism saw fit to interpret how the revolution and a new society would come about in ways that differed quite strikingly from Marx. Perhaps the most obvious was the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as less concerned with scientific historical processes, and more as an account of political praxis. For Lenin and others, the point of Marxism was to change the world and not simply to interpret it and wait for the contradictory dynamics of capitalism to bring itself down. This necessitated that a vanguard party seize control of the state and institute dramatic reforms. In theory, Marx proposed that the dictatorship would simply be a transitory phase before the “withering away of the state.” In practice, of course, virtually every dictatorship erected in Marx’s name had little inclination to give up power, and the state never began to wither away. Many explanations have been given for this, from flaws in Marx’s understanding of human nature to his failure to take the problems of relative scarcity seriously enough. I will not dwell on this well tilled soil here. Instead, I will conclude this piece with a brief analysis of what Marx still has to teach us today.
Conclusion: What Can We Learn From Marx?
Marx was an acute social analyst whose insights have appeared in novel places. Even conservative and pro-capitalist figures—from Max Weber to Joseph Schumpeter—have at times grudgingly conceded the accuracy of his analysis on many points of importance. Here I will highlight three.
Firstly, Marx was correct to describe capitalism as a “revolutionary mode of production.” This insight was well captured in the passage from the Manifesto quoted above, in which he discusses how, even in the nineteenth century, capitalism was transforming everything from the physical landscape to the cultures around him. In today’s world, defined by globalization and its discontents, not to mention the immense transformations wrought by profit-driven technological change, it is clear that Marx was right about this. Capitalism transforms human relations along countless metrics. The question then becomes how we should respond to these transformations. This is why some conservatives, notably Weber, have pointed out that Marx has much to offer traditionalists. To the extent a society becomes increasingly driven by an impetus for technological innovation and the satisfaction of consumer desires, it becomes more and more difficult to preserve traditional cultures and mores against the drive for profit. A good example highlighted by Patrick Deneen is the recent capitalist embrace of LGBTQ rights. It is likely that Starbucks and Wal Mart are not doing this out of some sincere commitment, but because the cultural capital they accrue by appearing to be on the “right” side of history can be valuable. Marx was a pioneer in examining how the sacred traditions of a society can become “profaned” under pressure by capitalization, and this analysis has been vindicated today.
Secondly, Marx’s examination of consumption remains highly interesting and informative. This appears most clearly in Capital: Volume One when he discusses the “festishism of the commodities.” According to Marx, outside of our basic necessities, many of the objects we acquire are not desired because of the individual satisfaction we will get from them. We desire them for the value associated with those objects as a matter of social prestige and status. Consider a diamond. While it certainly has certain functions as an exceptionally hard mineral that can be used in industry, that cannot explain the value placed on diamonds as objects of aesthetic ornamentation. The reason we buy jewelry and wear it may be partially explained by its purely aesthetic qualities—being luminous and attractive—but it is also because diamonds display wealth and affluence. They are purchased and displayed as examples of what Veblen would later call “conspicuous consumption”; to be displayed as signifiers of our status and worth relative to other people. Beyond that, Marx made a sound point in observing that while consumption of such fetishized commodities may provide temporary gratification, it can only do so because a mere object can never actually provide us with the sense of status and respect we desire. Indeed, capitalist firms have a vested interest in creating new anxieties which they claim can be relieved through the satisfaction of new needs, meaning consumption of fetishized objects will never deliver the final happiness they promise.
Finally, Marx made poignant observations about the problems which emerge through wage suppression, automation of labor, and so on. These are especially pertinent today, when many people have seen their wages stagnate for decades and feel that their jobs are increasingly threatened by globalization and automation. How these problems should be addressed has become a major political issue in our time, with some calling for the wholesale replacement of capitalism and others seeking to amend it through policies such as the institution of a universal basic income. Which type of solutions may be better is a question I will set aside for now. I will conclude instead by observing that on this point Marx still provides useful guidance, which is valuable in these unstable times.
Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf