Oh, Marx. I sort of feel bad for him because he gets handed the responsibility for some pretty crappy political projects, but he is so much more than Lenin and Mao. Let me show you how!
Perhaps the biggest idea in Marxism is the idea of community ownership. Marxists want to distribute wealth and power more evenly in society, which means that society as a whole, and not private individuals, should own and control property for the benefit of everyone.
As I mentioned last week, this idea of community ownership of property does not start with Marx. Plato discussed it in The Republic and Thomas More had similar ideas in Utopia. What Marx did was take these ideas and put them into a policy-driven program. And when he wrote with Engels, his prose was fiery enough to ignite the popular imagination.
Before Marx became a significant political theorist, he was a journalist. He was always pretty liberal, but it was observing and reporting on the economic inequalities of the day that turned his perspective to what we call Marxism.
Another important influence was the German philosopher Hegel, who saw history as the story of human labor and struggle. But where Hegel thinks history is about the struggle of the human spirit, Marx believes that it’s about the struggle of one class against another.
There are a few vocabulary words that are necessary to understand Marx. The first being the material forces of production, which are the raw materials that are used to make things. The second is the social relations of production, which is how people organize themselves in order to turn the raw materials into things to sell. And here is where class comes in, because at some point, there is going to be one group that controls the material forces of production (in Marx’s world, the capitalists, or bourgeousie) and the people who are directed to make these, the workers, or the proletariat.
In simpler terms, there is one group that gets the money, and there is one group that gets screwed. What’s more, the group that is winning everything also controls the ideas, ideals, and beliefs of society. This is bad, which is why Marx wants things to change. He wants revolution.
Here’s how the revolution happens. First, there are a series of economic crises, otherwise known as recessions and depressions, that eventually get corrected. At some point, Marx believes, these will cease to be corrected. As these crises happen, the poor get poorer and more miserable. The rich still have oodles of money.
Once people are poor enough, they start to wonder if maybe the problem has nothing to do with them not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and they start to point the finger at the ruling class.
So far, so good? Okay! Once the proletariat realizes that it isn’t them causing the problem, they move to seize state power. This can happen many ways, from a bloody revolution to a peaceful election. Having seized power, a new state is set up – the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. All this really means is that the proletariat need to do what it takes to maintain power, though in the past, it has lead to some pretty brutal regimes.
After all this, Marx believes that we’ll get to a period of socialism, which is the form of the state that makes the transition from capitalism to communism possible. After this period, the state will wither away and we’ll enter communism. Marx actually doesn’t say much about what communism will mean, but the general rule is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Of course, some terrible people did some terrible things with Marx. Of that there is no denying, but Marx is much more than someone who imagined a different political state. Within political theory, he is often used for what is called radical critique that has nothing to do with communism or socialism. Instead, it is using his methods of pointing out bad shit in society to point out new bad shit in society. Because even though Marx has been much maligned, he can be admired for his ability to courageously point out that the emperor has no clothes and then to speak to people in a way that makes them want to get up and move.
As you are reading this, you may be drawing parallels between class consciousness and Occupy Wall Street. Certainly these protestors are pointing out some serious inequalities, but I would say it is grossly inccurate to call them Marxists. First of all, they are not calling for revolution, nor are they calling for each according to his ability to each according to his need. No, they are calling for holding the people who messed up the economy accountable, and while Marx might inspire some of the radical critique that let people recoginze this, it is certainly not Marxist. If anything, it is plain common sense.
Next week, we’ll talk about fascism, because I’m convinced most people don’t understand what that word really means.