Introduction to Marx

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

These are mere lecture notes; they are not for citation in scholarly work.

Fully Restored to this Site: April 14, 2008

1. The chief problem that Marx was trying to address in his work

Europe had undergone rapid changes in the first part of the 19th century. Commerce and industry were transforming the world. Religion was losing its hold over the intellectuals of the time. A new, and for some frightening social class, was emerging: the proletariat. In the 1840's Europe in fact seemed on the verge of a revolutionary upheaval (it actually occurred in 1848).

By the early nineteenth century religion was increasingly a matter of personal piety for many educated individuals. It no longer was able satisfactorily to decipher the meaning of the world and our place within it. But that fact left a gap that philosophy tried to fulfill. In the 1820's Hegel answered the Big Question of the Meaning of Life for his time. He gave Germans a sense of their place in history, situating them in the latest and most mature phase of development of the World Spirit. He did so in universal terms, in terms of the World Spirit.

Sixteen years after Hegel's death, the 28-year-old Karl Marx (b. 1819) and his even younger friend Friedrich Engels were trying to answer the same question for themselves and members of their own generation. What is the meaning of world history, as perceived from our time, and how can we (young intellectuals and working class radicals) fit into it and our position? But the situation had changed since the 1820's. Hegel had been able to reconcile himself with historical reality by showing that it was, after all, an expression of the (rational) World Spirit. Reconciling with reality was not so easy for Marx and Engels.

By the 1840's it was clear that Europe, and under its influence, the world had entered the not-so-pretty phase that Marx first called bourgeois society and later capitalism. Bourgeois society, dominated increasingly by the industrialist and entrepreneurial classes, had succeeded in England, France, and the Low Countries in replacing the feudal regimes based on traditional land-ownership.

Within bourgeois society itself there was a growing propertyless class, the proletariat. In a society in which your status increasing depended on what you had to sell, the members of this class had nothing but its labor power to sell. Growth of this class was obviously the result of commercial and industrial expansion. It was also the necessary condition for the further expansion of commerce and industry.

Revolutions and reforms in England and France between 1688 and 1830 modified social institutions in several stages, so that most of the social and political power had been transferred from the monarchy and feudal lords to the bourgeoisie, at first the middle class and then the industrial capital-owning class. The right to vote had been extended to larger numbers of male citizens, chiefly those who owned some amount of productive property. But it was not clear how the growing proletariat would be integrated into society, especially since by definition they had no permanent places of employment.

Bourgeois economy was the scene of what Marx called immense contradictions, or rather contrasts so obvious that they provoked violent responses or seemed to call out for radical social readjustments. On the one hand, the tremendous growth in the power of technology, of machinery, applied science, and the production of commodities, a rapidly increasing standard of living for those with the money to purchase the products of labor. Rapid increase in travel and communication over great distances, the sheer quantity of goods exported and imported.

On the other hand, tremendous disruption of pre-modern traditional ways of life; the destruction of village life; the loss of the consolation of old forms of traditional religion; the breakdown of social hierarchies. Romantics might bemoan the loss of these things, but Marx and Engels actually welcome them. Optimistically (naively?), they at first anticipated and hoped that the destruction of old myths might force human beings to face reality as it really is, free from illusions and new myths. We will see that they hedged their bets at the same time, by introducing the concept of false consciousness or ideology.

Marx and Engels were unsparing in their depiction of the agonies of the business cycle itself: the absorption of workers into the factories in the times of economic boom, their expulsion from the factories without any social safety nets in times of depression.

They starkly describe the condition of workers in the factories. The proletarians become mere appendages of machines. The process of production itself is boring, repetitive, often physically deforming, mentally stultifying. The pace of production is set increasingly by machinery. The boss has one primary motive: to get as much out of the workers as possible and to pay them as little as possible.

The proletarians increasingly come into conflict with their own bosses and the class of bosses as a whole. Marx and Engels see the working class as the likely eventual victor in this struggle and find meaning for middle class intellectuals such as themselves in helping the working class understand its situation and its historical mission.

2. Marx and German Philosophy

Marx began his young adulthood as a student of philosophy in the German tradition - familiar with Kant and Hegel. He and Engels were for awhile enthusiastic disciples of the humanistic left Hegelian philosophers. One of the most important among these was Ludwig Feuerbach, who in his book The Essence of Christianity demystified the symbols of Christianity. Feuerbach tried to show, for instance, how the loving Father God is a mystical compensation for the lack of love and protection human beings experience here on earth. Marx is at first an enthusiastic supporter of Feuerbach's approach. He later criticizes Feuerbach for failing to take into account the social and economic context that produce religious and political illusions.

3. A Special Perspective on Emerging Capitalism

While Western Europe was rapidly developing modern industry and trade, Germany was still relatively backward in economic terms compared to Holland, England, and France. But by the 1840's the working class and working class radicalism were growing, although the German bourgeoisie had not completely pushed from power the landed aristocracy that had roots in feudal society. Marx observed the condition of the workers in Germany and France, and Engels described the condition of the working class in England, where his father owned a factory. They came to see the various social classes as so many actors or potential actors on the historical stage.

4. Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Historical Materialism

Marx's Hegelian training enabled him to see philosophical systems as totalities, as wholes, as expressions of something deeper in the culture and partly hidden.

Marx's approach illustrates what Paul Ricoeur calls a hermeneutics of suspicion. Hermeneutics is an art or method of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics is an art of interpreting Scripture. Two hermeneutical strategies are hermeneutics of recovery and hermeneutics of suspicion.

A hermeneutics of recovery, exemplified by most forms of biblical hermeneutics, aim to recover and restate for our time the hidden meaning of texts produced in another time and place. By contrast, a hermeneutics of suspicion reads texts and other linguistic expressions in order to expose the less than admirable forces that underlie them and produce them so as to disguise their true nature.

Forms of hermeneutics of suspicion:

a) Marx: Superstructural cultural products (art, religion, philosophy, political and economic theory, etc.) express and yet prettify and conceal the class relationships of society.

b) Nietzsche: substitute the will to power for class relationships.

c) Freud: substitute the operations of the id, the libido, etc. for same.

d) Feminists: substitute gender hierarchy for same.

e) Race Critical Theorists: substitute relationships of race privilege for same.

Ideology, or false consciousness, is a key concept of Marx's hermeneutics of suspicion. The ideas of every age are the ideas of its ruling class, he says in the Manifesto. Bourgeois ideology, the reigning ideology of present era, serves at least two functions: first, it provides the bourgeoisie with a noble self-image and self-justification; second, it serves as a tool of mystification that prevents the victims of bourgeois society from understanding the nature of their oppression and what they can do to combat it.

Seeing ideologies as wholes, Marx also sees the classes that benefit from them as wholes. He is not inclined to tinker with bourgeois ideology or the bourgeois system. He rejects bourgeois ideology and looks forward to the replacement of the bourgeois system. His Hegelian vision leads to a theory of historical stages.

What Marx understood as bourgeois ideology is roughly the ideas we know today as libertarianism. The emphasis is on the rights of individuals, largely abstracted from their social context, with rights to property and to engage in free trade taking practical priority over other rights.

Marx holds that bourgeois ideology serves to justify or rationalize the bourgeois or capitalist mode of production. The notion of the employment contract as an exchange between the worker and the bourgeois presents the two parties as equals entering into a voluntary bargain. But Marx exposes this equality and voluntariness as a sham. The workers possess only their labor power and thus approach the employment deal from a position of vulnerability not experienced by the comparatively wealthy bourgeois. Thus the employer need pay on average only a subsistence wage, i.e., what is required to reproduce the worker from one day to the next, but the employer can sell the product of the worker's labor for considerably more and keep the difference, the surplus, for himself. (He tends to reinvest most of it in pursuit of ever more productive wealth.) Thus, over time the bourgeois is enriched, the worker impoverished.

In his analysis of society, modern society included, Marx stresses material conditions and social realities rather than noble ideals, the high products of art, and fine sentiments. His historical materialism does not deny the existence of ideas or the fact that occasionally new ideas cause profound social changes. It is a strategy for explaining human events that calls attention to the causal contribution of social and economic relationships with cooperative human labor at the center. Human labor is itself a social product but it is also an interaction between human energies and the natural environment.

In employing his hermeneutics of suspicion Marx does not allow the apologists for bourgeois society to conceal the violent, destructive, costly side of so-called progress. Capitalism did not rise for the most part in a peaceful way, but made use of slavery, colonialism, and often genocide of precapitalist peoples. Its economic activities have not all been voluntary trade. It established its dominance by doing away with time-honored institutions.

5. Marx and Justice: An Imperfect View

In spite of Marx's opposition to oppression, he oddly never argues that the workers have a right to overthrow capitalism or that the capitalists have no right to exploit workers. Instead he says that talk about Freedom and Justice is a mystification. Freedom in bourgeois society is not the freedom of workers to organize in their collective self-interest but free trade for the bourgeoisie. The rights that count under capitalism are not rights to eat or to a fulfilling well-paying job but, say, rights to property for those who own some already.

Marx's lack of attention to the positive role justice and rights might play in the struggle against oppression turns out to be a serious weakness for later Marxists. It left unprepared the Marxist opponents of Stalin when Stalinism, in the name of Marxism, established a one-man dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

6. The Marxian Dialectic

Inspired by Hegelian dialectic, Marx discovered, or thought he had discovered, a dialectical process in the history of the class struggle:

a) Corresponding to opposition between the thesis and its negation in Hegelian dialectic is the class struggle in a given historical period.

b) Corresponding to the negation of the negation (the Aufhebung) in Hegelian dialectic is the social revolution that leads to the next phase.

c) The expansion of the productive forces drives progress from one phase to the next, but does not make it inevitable. The term "productive forces" refers roughly to the productive clout of a society's economic system: the productive forces are composed of available raw materials, tools, machinery, available scientific and technological knowledge, the quantity and skill-level of the available workers. Generally, a certain constellation of productive forces requires a certain type of owning class and vice versa. Roman patricians would not have been able to run a modern capitalist economy, nor would modern capitalists have been able to operate effectively as feudal lords.

This growth of the productive forces is not as inevitable as some accounts make it seem.

d) The social relations of production, i.e., a particular set of relationships between oppressors and oppressed, do three things: (1) they are conditions that enable expansion of the productive forces; (2) they are conditions creating new social classes that may become ruling classes in the future; and (3) they eventually turn into brakes or fetters on the growth of the productive forces.

e) The working class is a revolutionary class created within the framework of capitalist relationships of production. But unlike all preceding classes it is a universal class. Stripped of all property, Marx seems to think, members of the proletarian have no interests that would divide them one from another. When the proletariat comes to power, it will not establish a new class society, a new system of oppression, but will prepare for the elimination of all class rule whatsoever.

The end of class rule, i.e., working class rule, will come about, after a generation or so, when the cooperative culture based on the proletariat replaces the culture of competitive individualism fostered by the bourgeoisie in the previous period. Marx seems confident that the rapid expansion of the productive forces characteristic of capitalism will continue at least in the early phase of post-capitalist society. He anticipates that average per capita material wealth will be greater than ever, so that scarcity can be abolished once and for all. With the end of scarcity the positive function once played by competition (so important in bourgeois society) will vanish.

The environmental literature of the late 20th century, however, has convinced all reasonable observers that there are definite ecological constraints on human attempts to produce material abundance. A more just and stable society than we now enjoy might enable nearly every human being to avoid poverty, especially if the wars might be averted, but the total abolition of scarcity will remain out of reach.

Note (Added April 2008)

Insensitivity to environmental limits has characterized the writings of most 20th century Marxists prior to the environmental movement of the 1970's. But John Bellamy Foster, in his fine study Marx's Ecology, has recently shown that Marx himself was not insensitive to the environmental havoc that the industrialism of his own time was causing. This article by Foster and Brett Clark, in fact, shows that an intellectual and activist tradition going back to Marx himself played an important role in the revival of environmentalism in the twentieth century.