Challenges to Marx and Marxian Socialism

Some Based on Mistaken Beliefs

By Dr. Jan Garrett

This page last revised April 30, 2012
(Items #10-14 were added in December 2011.)

1. Marxism is opposed to freedom.
2. Marxism is opposed to democracy.
3. Marxism has been tried in the Soviet Union, etc., and it clearly has not worked.
4. Marxism is no good for the environment.
5. Marxism would treat everyone the same—that would stifle initiative.
6. A person could never be a success in a Marxist system, at least if she did not belong to the ruling party.
7. The Marxists want to make all property public property, even my toothbrush.
8. Capitalism has been modified since Marx's day; his criticisms no longer apply.
9. Marxism is a deterministic philosophy; this implies that human beings lack free choice, and abolishes moral responsibility.
10. Marx's theories are an unstable mixture of ethics and half-baked social science.
11. Marx provides no alternatives when he claims we should do away with money.
12. Marx develops his concept of surplus value to condemn the exploitation of the working class.
13. Marx's diagnosis was always a moral one; he was concerned about protecting the rights of workers.
14. Marx does not really offer an alternative to capitalism.
15. Marx claimed that the anticapitalist, or proletarian, revolution was inevitable.

An especially interesting challenge to Marx not among those discussed in this web page is this one: Wilhelm Reich's Implicit Challenge to Marx's Conception of the Future.

1. "Marxism is opposed to freedom."

On the contrary, Marxists (in the spirit of Marx) want to establish a social system in which the workday can be shortened, with no reduction in pay, so that people will have more time in which they are not "chained to a job." Moreover, they advocate workers democratic control over the workplaces, which shorter workdays or work weeks will make feasible (since workers can use some of their non-labor time learning what they need to co-manage the workplaces). This alone would increase freedom, but with less wasteful forms of production and consumption, the work week could eventually be shortened to a small fraction of what it is today, freeing up time and energy for creative activities of all sorts. (How quickly this transition occurs depends on how much damage to the planet and social infrastructure takes place between now and the emergence of a global society fully committed to moving towards socialism. The more wars and environmental devastation occur, the longer the period of repair is likely to last.)

2. "Marxism is opposed to democracy."

On the contrary, the capital system is fundamentally opposed to democracy while the Marx philosophy wants to promote a high-intensity version of it. The capital system can tolerate a low-intensity version of democracy whereby people who lack real political power are permitted to vote every two or four years as to which political machine controlled by capital will make up the government, so it does not really matter which party is in power. Yes, there are small differences, on average, between, say, Democrats and Republicans, or between Conservatives and New Labour in England, but those differences are part of the illusion of choice that helps to block the decision by workers to form their own independent political organizations.

3. "Marxism cannot work in practice. It has been tried in the Soviet Union. China, and elsewhere, and clearly has not worked."

On the contrary, Marxists favor genuine socialism. These societies, some of whose initial leaders may have considered themselves Marxists, never became socialist, partly because they wrongly thought nationalized property all by itself created socialism (but it doesn't), partly because of the material poverty of those countries, partly because the managers of enterprises in those countries adopted, without necessarily being aware of it, methods of control similar to the globally dominant capital system. These methods introduce or reinforce a distinction between managers and workers, between head and hand labor. This distinction is the seed of the distinction between capital with authority and labor without authority, which is characteristic of the capital system. That explains why capitalism or a more overtly capitalist form of the capital system has been restored in most of those societies.

4. "Marxism is no good for the environment. Just look at the pollution in the formerly Marxist Soviet bloc countries, in China today."

The criticism of the practices that were in place in the so-called people's democracies are valid. What is mistaken is the view that these flowed from essentially Marxist policies or practices. In fact, they flow from capital system practices. The Soviet bloc countries were trying to accumulate capital, which belonged to the state rather than private capitalists, partly for reasons of military defense, partly because their leaders told themselves that without accumulated capital and improved technology made possible by it, the country could not survive in a world full of hostile capitalist powers. Like the capital system elsewhere, this approach can only regard nature as a resource, not as akin to us, as the "mother" of the real wealth on which we depend. As long as the workers lack democratic powers of control over the direction of the economy, they cannot insist on the defense of nature in their own interests, in the interests of future generations, or in the interest of nature herself.

5. "Marxism would treat everybody the same. That would stifle initiative."

Marx was committed to the general (Kantian) principle of the inherent value or dignity of every individual. Indeed, that principle was one of the reasons he became an opponent of the capital system, which violates this principle in dealing with workers, whom the capital system cannot avoid treating as a means only, even while, on the surface, politely asking the worker if he or she is willing to work for the capitalist. The worker really has little choice: she may work for one capitalist or another. But she must work for a capitalist, or starve.

If you take this principle of inherent value seriously, you will go beyond Kant, who seemed to be satisfied with formal equality and a superficial respect for workers' freedoms, to endorsing substantive equality.

A society of substantive—real rather than merely formal —equality is a society committed to responding to human needs, above all the need for the development of human capacities or capabilities, the equal empowerment of all working people. But this would enhance their abilities to activate different skill sets, without freezing people into the damaging types of division of labor that make some people permanent commanders and the rest of them permanent subordinates.

The development of workers' control and workers' democracy would mean guarantee to everybody, at least to the vast majority of people, the same access to the vital skills of real, high-intensity democracy. This would be necessary to prevent the recreation of political inequalities and ultimately fundamentally exploitative forms of domination. But beyond what is necessary for that, people would be free to develop their talents as they choose so long as doing so is compatible with the freedom and well-being of others.

6. "A person could never be a success in a Marxist system, at least if he or she did not belong to the ruling party."

First, in a genuine socialist society, there would be no ruling party, in the sense of a party that monopolizes all the political rights, unless you wish to call all working people as a group the ruling party, just because they have final say. Talk about the ruling party seems to be raising the spectre of the Soviet system; the challenger has confused it with socialism, which it is not.

Second, What is meant by "success"? Perhaps by "success" the challenger means successful in accumulating under one's own ownership and control a large quantity of capital, which would give him or her greater economic power than those who control less capital or none. Yes, this road to success would be blocked under a genuinely socialist society.

But if by "success" you mean achieving recognition or honor for your positive contributions to society by your creative activity and hard work, there is no reason to fear the elimination of this possibility in a socialist society.

Perhaps, however, we should think a bit more about the desire to monopolize even this form of recognition, that is, to seek this recognition for oneself while wishing to prevent others from achieving it, or seeking this recognition for one group—oneself and one's family, one's self and one's tribe, one's self and one's country, while denying it to others. This might be a new form of capital, which could provide the seed of institutions that are stepping stones toward the reinstitution of the capital system, in which possession is of capital in the economic sense, rather than possession in the form of honors and recognition. With the establishment of the capital system, those without it would be forced to become wage workers and "all the old muck would be revived."

Marx and those who agree with him would oppose that. The new system would promote the culture of mutual empowerment and mutual recognition. We would learn to want others to contribute at a high quality level and received deserved recognition alongside our own.

7. "The Marxists want to make all my property public property, even my toothbrush. Who in their right mind would tolerate that?"

Marxists are perfectly capable of distinguishing between personal objects of use and means of production. The planned economy would focus on the major concentrations of the means of production along with the financial institutions that affect the over-all economic reproduction of society. At the opposite end of the material spectrum, there are objects of personal use. The current respect for private property in rather small objects of personal use need not be altered. Ownership of personal dwelling places fall in between these extremes. Those are already limited by zoning laws, even under capitalism. A really socialist society, an actively democratic society in which concern for the environment is an effective concern, would likely do much better than the current system in preserving the environmental quality of neighborhoods. It would surely rein in the polluting practices of productive enterprises that frequently cause pollution of residential spaces.

8. Leslie Stevenson, in Ten Theories of Human Nature (2009), argues against Marx's view that "only a complete revolution [to replace] the capitalist economic system could properly solve its problems." (p. 178) Stevenson rightly points out that capitalism was modified since Marx's day.

However, the reforms that were won in Europe in the late 19th century and in the United States in the 1930's and in the "West" generally (Western Europe, North America (north, that is, of the Rio Grande), and Japan after World War II came under sustained attack in the late 20th century. Stevenson does not seem to appreciate this fact, perhaps because this chapter was not revised very much for the current edition.

What Marx did not "take into account," chiefly because it was only beginning to happen around the time of his death, is that the global capital system was being restructured around what Samir Amin has called the center-periphery axis. The center today includes Western Europe, the U.S., and Japan. Its major corporations and their allies in government have several monopolistic advantages (control over finance, trade regulations, communications and "culture," copyrights and patents rights, and military force) that businesses in the countries of the periphery lack and are prevented from acquiring by the monopolies that already exist. This has enabled the corporations located in the center countries to make superprofits, on the one hand, and, on the other, to grant higher wages and better working conditions to workers in the center countries while workers in the periphery have fewer economic rights, much worse working and living conditions, and much lower wages.

So the temporary improvement of workers' conditions in the center arguably depends on the super-exploitation of workers and peasants in the periphery.

Moreover, since the mid-1970's, the advantages of workers in the center countries compared to those in the periphery have shrunk. The dominant political ideology in the center countries has shifted towards what is called neoliberalism—in some respects a return to the capitalism of the late 19th century. The neoliberal capitalist regime is characterized by weak or nonexistent unions, stagnation or reduction in wages, erosion of consumer and environmental protections, privatization of public functions such as education, health care, postal delivery. In a word, increasingly "naked" capitalism, very much along the lines described by Marx.

9. A Philosophical Objection. "Marxism is deterministic, arguing that the economic basis, the forces of production, determines the relationships of production, and the relationships of production determines the superstructure, which in turn determines how people think and act. This denies that human beings possess free choice, and therefore it undercuts or makes nonsense out of the idea of moral responsibility."

There are several errors here. One is to interpret Marx's statements about the causal relationships between the foundation (or base) and things that are "based on" the foundation as strictly speaking deterministic, in other words to think that the actually existing tools and machines, or the actually existing class relationships, entirely determines everything else down to the last detail.

Marx's view, which is clear from his detailed analyses, is that the base sets limits upon the other layers, the base causally explains the general nature of the other layers, not every detailed feature of them.

Moreover, the so-called upper layers affect the lower layers. It is not a matter of one-way causation, but of mutual influence, mutual causation.

Remember also, that this takes place in historical time. Causation at one point in time sets up facts that linger into the future. What we do or produce today determines what we or others are faced with tomorrow. Marx operates with a very dynamic, but also very realistic, picture of historical change.

Another possible error in challenge #9 is philosophical. As philosophers since the ancient Stoics have argued, even if our judgments are products of prior events, including events that have shaped our beliefs, actions that flow from those judgments are still our actions, and therefore it still makes sense to attribute moral responsibility to moral agents, even if their actions are part of a long chain of causes and effects.

Philosophers who have studied the free will and determinism issue tend to distinguish three metaphysical positions on this issue:

Determinism Excludes Freedom (sometimes confusingly called Hard Determinism); which argues that because all events are determined by prior events, and our actions are events, our actions are unfree (and so we have no moral responsibility for them).

Determinism with Freedom (sometimes called Compatibilism); which claims that free actions are among those in which a person's beliefs and wishes enter into his decision as causal factors, but recognizes that those beliefs and wishes have their own causes rooted in prior events, so that determinism does not contradict freedom.

Freedom Excludes Determinism, sometimes called metaphysical libertarianism (not to be confused with political libertarianism). Jean-Paul Sartre and, on some interpretations, Immanuel Kant, hold this view. Roughly, Sartre argues this way: "Each of us, whether he admits it or not, is conscious that he is free; my philosophy only makes that explicit. Because freedom is incompatible with Determinism"— on this Sartre agrees with Hard Determinism—"not every aspect of reality is deterministic."

Marx does not clearly take a side in this dispute, but it is obvious that he does not hold the Determinism Excludes Freedom position, which would contradict his personal engagement as a thinker who hopes to make a difference in history. Marx's friend Friedrich Engels and some later figures who consider themselves Marxists sometimes write as if they accept the Determinism with Freedom position, of which Hegel seems to have had a version. My own judgment is that Marx did not care much about the endless philosophical debate that seems to cycle between these three views. He assumed that what you believed had consequences for action. "Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Added Challenges and Responses (December 2011)

10. Marx's theories are prophetic predictions about society based on economic facts. It is an unstable mix of ethics and partially developed social science.

Marx's analysis does have both social-scientific and prophetic aspects. Unlike Marx, academic thinking tends to be split up into departments that do not communicate very well with each other. Social science is supposed to be value-neutral and to make factual predictions that can be tested. Ethics, which is usually considered part of philosophy, investigates moral values that allegedly cannot be confirmed or refuted scientifically. Prophetic thinking is sometimes regarded as an unstable mix of ethics and primitive social theory that cannot be scientifically tested.

It is true that there are echoes of Hebrew and Christian prophetic traditions in Marx. To that extent, however, what looks like a prophecy is not an unconditional prediction. The reason is that, in the real context of "prophecy," what human beings do or do not do in relation to what the prophet writes or says is important. If the working class is successful at an early date in organizing to overturn capitalism, some of the so-called predictions or prophesies regarding the future of capitalism no longer apply.

11. Marx provides no alternatives to the necessary role of exchange in the present economy when he claims that we should do away with the exchange of money.

It's true that he does not discuss this issue in great detail. But his principle is clear. The socialist society of the future will be a planned economy where production aims to meet human needs. It is also true that human societies have existed without the use of money. Recent writers in the Marxist tradition like Michael Lebowitz (see course website) have discussed how that might be possible in the societies of the future. One possibility is accounting in terms of labor-time contributed. People's individual rights to draw on common stores could be proportioned to the labor-time they have contributed to the production of items in the common stores. These rights are not conceived as eternal rights, but only temporary rights corresponding to the period of transition from capitalism to full-fledged socialism that operates on the principle from each according to her ability, to each according to need.

12. In later writings he gives "a more direct diagnosis of the evil of capitalism," with "a 'labor theory of value' and a concept of 'surplus value,'", which he used to condemn the exploitation of the working class, whose members "have to sell their labor[,] by the…class of people who own capital." (cf. Ten Theories of Human Nature (2009), 175)

Actually, in Marx, exploitation is a descriptive term, not a moralistic one. It is a fact for him that workers are exploited, not a moral judgment. Workers work, say, eight hours a day, adding value to the commodities on which they labor. They receive wages for their labor, but the wages correspond only to a fraction of the labor the workers contributed. If, in two hours, workers add value equivalent to their wages, in the remaining six hours, they are adding value to the commodities that the capitalist will sell but they do not receive back in wages. This is unavoidable under capitalism, because if it did not occur, the capitalist would have no source of profit and thus no motive as a capitalist to organize production. Still, part of the labor contributed goes to cover wages, and part of the labor contributed does not. The value of the latter is called surplus value. Surplus value is mostly reinvested in expanding production. This growing mass of value is capital itself. The existence of surplus value under capitalism corresponds to exploitation. The ratio of surplus value to wages is what Marx calls the rate of exploitation.

Marx grants that it's not unjust under capitalism that surplus value is extracted from labor-power. But if the workers themselves could organize the productive process—if they did not mistakenly assume they needed the capitalist to do that—capitalism could be done away with.

13. "Marx's main diagnosis was always a moral one, about the injustice of the economic structure of capitalism." (Leslie Stevenson, Ten Theories of Human Nature (2009), p. 176) A related view is that in Marx's "social scientific theories," he is concerned about protecting the rights and well-being of the working class from what he believes is the evil of capitalism.

Determining how correct this view is requires that we read a substantial quantity of what Marx wrote and ask ourselves, "is he criticizing capitalism from a human rights perspective?" You will observe that he rarely if ever uses the term "rights" (or for that matter "injustice") in his own critique of the capital system. His main emphasis is the suffering that the capital system imposes on the workers and the way it prevents the basic needs of the workers—needs that relate to human beings' social and creative capabilities as much as their needs for material goods—from being met.

He is, of course, aware of the rights language used by the bourgeoisie to justify their own system. In describing the system, he frequently cites bourgeois rights principles as ground rules of the capital system. For instance, the capitalist has a right to the use of the worker's labor power for, say, eight or more hours per day, insofar as the worker has "agreed" to that arrangement in exchange for a wage. But this is a right in the context of the capital system, not an eternal human right. Marx himself does not develop a moral theory of his own that uses the language of human rights. He is critical of moral theories that postulate or argue for historically unchanging moral principles. Even in the case of human needs, Marx emphasizes their tendency to change with social and historical conditions.

Whether 21st century Marxists who do speak in terms of human rights have abandoned Marxism or just enriched it is a different question. My own view is that one cannot be a Marxist without understanding that many human needs make sense only in particular, historically developed social, productive, environmental, and material contexts. I also think that since the evolutionary emergence of human beings, some needs have remained more or less constant. (Many of those we share with our primate cousins.)

14. Marx does not really offer an alternative to capitalism.

Actually he does, but he is reluctant to give a detailed description, and for good reason. Marx is a vigorous critic of the division of labor between head labor, that is, intellectual labor, and hand labor. He sees in this division of labor the embryo of social class distinctions and the exploitation of labor. So he is reluctant to lay down, as an intellectual authority of some sort, the details of the society of the future which will have to be essentially controlled by the "associated producers." The emancipation of the producers must be essentially their own activity. That holds for the revolution that moves beyond capitalism to the transitional society (sometimes called the dictatorship of the proletariat, a term which was abused by Stalinist dictators), and for the society that comes into existence as the traces of the capitalist society disappear.

15. Marx claimed that the anticapitalist, or proletarian, revolution was inevitable.

It's true that he claimed this in at least one famous passage and strongly suggested it in another. For instance, we find this in the final paragraph of chapter 1, The Communist Manifesto.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
And we find this at the end of chapter 32 of Capital, vol. 1:
[A]s soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialization of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.

The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialized production, into socialized property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.

Neither of these proves that Marx thought socialism was fated, or inevitable, in the sense that it did not matter what the working class or the proponents of socialism did, that socialism would arrive some day in any case. Marx clearly thought that it mattered what he and other socialists did by way of explaining how forces were developing within the context of capitalism that made socialism increasingly possible and desirable, and by way of helping to organize the workers to "expropriate the expropriators." Any decent biography of Marx makes this quite clear.

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1847 when Marx was 28 and Engels even younger, was a youthful work designed to rally the revolutionary forces in a general European ferment that was rightly expected to break out into revolutions in the near future. There is no reason for anyone who has respect for Marx and Engels to deny that its final sentence contains an overstatement.

The revolutions of 1848 had mixed aims; they did not succeed in overturning capitalism but weakened the landed aristocracy and other feudal remnants; capitalism then entered upon a new period of expansion, which postponed the prospects of socialism for at least a generation.

Later, Marx and his friend Engels would recognize more soberly that socialism is not inevitable; as Engels put it toward the end of the 19th century: the alternative is socialism or barbarism ("the common ruin of the contending classes," to quote another phrase from the Manifesto).

Chapter 32 of Capital, vol. 1, does not say socialism is inevitable, but that the process by which capital begets its negation, the proletariat, is inexorable. That is compatible with Engels' mature statement of the alternative "socialism or barbarism." The existence of increasingly antagonistic classes—the fact that the proletariat constitutes the negation, or contrary force, to capital—excludes the immediate possibility of genuine social harmony; it does not guarantee the establishment of social harmony beyond the social "order" established by capitalism.

Note that the passage from chapter 32 of Capital is written in the present tense, not past or future. This suggests that Marx's concern is to describe, in a general way, an ongoing dynamic process that can end in a proletarian revolution. It is not possible to say with absolute certainty that it will, much less to give a precise date by which it will have happened.

See also related Challenge #9 above.