The following research is on the subject of Marxist social theory. Perhaps no thinker has had a greater impact on the last century and a half than has Karl Marx. And, in what may appear at first to be a paradox, few thinkers of such impact have been less widely read and understood. With Soviet Russia the most visible heralder of “Marxist” thought, Marxism and all that it encompasses have become buzz-words synonymous with totalitarianism, oppression, and militaristic aggression.
That Marxist thinking has at least something to do with economics is understood by many though the humanistic core of Marxist thought and its philosophical antecedents generally are not. For the early Marx, that philosophical concept which held sway was alienation–the alienation of man from man, and of man from nature. The “I-not I” dichotomy had been dealt with by Hegel before him, but Marx pushed the concept and caused the popularization of the term as it related to the role of man in contemporary society. Alienation was an evil, and Marx saw the capitalistic society around him as the single most responsible causative factor in maintaining and increasing alienation. Socialism and communism, as conceived and developed by Marx, Engels, and those who followed, e.g., Marcuse, represented an alternative socio-economic structure, one which they felt would lessen alienation and reestablish harmonious relations among men and nature.
This paper, then, is an attempt to present Marxist thought as a logical continuation of existing trends in philosophy, and to go into some detail about the specifics as they related to alienation. It is hoped that at the end Marxist concepts such as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the “classless society” will be comprehensible as the humanistic and liberating mechanisms which Marx intended them to be.
Hegel’s magnum opus was The Phenomenology of Spirit, his first book, published when he was 36. To him, the world around us is largely of our own creation, and the social, political, and institutional life forms the “substance” of our existence (Schacht 31). These acts of creation–which Marx would see as labor in one sense–have a certain spiritual nature; what we create is the objectification of the human spirit. Hegel recognized that man’s basic nature is as an individual, but he talks of the faculty of reason as being a device which lifts man from his individuality or particularity into the realm of “universality.” One aspect of universality is the social substance around us.
The concept of alienation is understood by Hegel in a two-fold way: alienation of the individual from the social substance, and alienation from the self, from its essential nature. The idea that an individual is not what is around him, Hegel holds, is a recently existing one–the establishment of the I-not I dichotomy in which the unity of man with nature is lost. The world around man is something external and opposed to him, something alien.
Alienation from the universal, as manifest in the social substance, tends to result in an inner alienation from man’s own essence. This is self-alienation, a separation not only from the universal as it is embodied in things external, but from the universal as it is a part of each man’s spirit. Insofar as the social substance is not only the creation of man’s spirit but is objectification as well, this alienation is from the objectification of one’s own true self (Schacht 43).
Though it results in feelings of alienation, this awareness of the individual as being something apart from the rest is held desirable by Hegel, as a requisite step to each individual’s becoming all that he can be. Thus, while alienation has its drawbacks, it is in some way a desirable quality, one meriting continuance. Surrender and sacrifice are key aspects of alienation, aspects necessary to the ultimate rejoining of the individual with his essence and with the universal.
Social thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau speak broadly in terms of sacrifice and surrender when they discuss the theory of the social contract, in which man voluntarily surrenders some of the freedom he enjoyed in a natural state in favor of the positives of a “social” life. In what could pass for a double-reverse, Hegel says that yet another alienation is necessary for man to overcome alienation–the surrender of his particular self–and take possession of the substance.
Hegel wrote a substantial oeuvre on the nature of history as well. One must bear in mind the tremendous revolution in knowledge on a variety of subjects which was occurring while Hegel, Marx, and others were living. The biological revolution of Charles Darwin was perhaps the most important. In combining the idea of evolving life–evolution–with already existing ideas of historical progress, 19th century man developed a hybrid species, the Philosophy of History (Barzun 48). A number of such philosophies was offered, and Hegel’s was but one. He showed how man had progressed from the Oriental period of despotism, through a Classical period of slavery, and on to the Modern period, in which the dominant strain of thought was that of the idea of universal freedom. The state was seen as the vehicle for achieving this universal freedom.
For the men of Hegel’s and Marx’s time, historical processes involved continuous growth through stages, following observable laws, and allowing for the role of the Great Man in the process. Burke, Mill, Comte and others–positivists–believed in an evolutionary model, an ordered scheme of things, and a sociological framework. A great faith was placed in science, as successor to the theological and then metaphysical basis for thought and action.
Marx drew from Hegel, and admired him greatly as a guiding influence on his own early thought. The Hegelian concept of the dialectic formed the basis of much of Marx’s own philosophy of history. Hegel’s ideas on alienation, and alienation to undo alienation, suggested an inherent contradiction within all things. Nothing can be understood in isolation from other things, nothing is the simple outcome of cause and effect. Things conflict with themselves, produce their own negation,
their own undoing–or redoing, actually, into something entirely different from either of the two (Schacht 71).
Hegel would be criticized by Marx for the abstract nature of his thought, for being metaphysical instead of material, but in Marx the same basic terms are used, though often with different analysis and background. It is important to realize that, while Marx’s thought was in ways radically different from that of his predecessors, it was thoroughly grounded in the philosophical and scientific ambience of his day.
Karl Heinrich Marx was born on the 5th of May, 1818, at Trier, Germany. His father was a solicitor and a recently converted Jew. Karl attended a Jesuit grammar school for five years. After two terms at Bonn University, he enrolled in Berlin University as a student of philosophy, history, and jurisprudence. He is influenced by Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant, and at first dismisses Hegel as a “grotesque craggy melody.”
In 1843 Marx went to Paris, where he met Frederik Engels and came to know the proletariat. Hegel had written little of labor as it related to alienation, though in The Philosophy of Right he had said that (I) “make into another’s property the substance of my being . . . , my personality” (Schacht 71). The whole concept of “creation” relates easily to work, as the primary function in which the majority of people engage during the course of their lives.
Marx wrote of what to him was Hegel’s outstanding achievement. In his Economic and Political Manuscripts he wrote of Hegel “that (he) grasps the self-creation of man as a process . . . that he, therefore, grasps the nature of labor, and conceives objective man (true, because real man) as the result of his own labor” (Fischer 31). Marx in Paris saw the condition of the proletariat, the working class, and connected the Hegelian concept of the self-alienated man with a concept of alienated labor. The essential nature of man was manifested in the kinds of “activity” or “life” which were the objective aspects of it. The character of a person was founded in his life-activity; productive activity corresponded to the characteristic of individuality or personality. One expresses one’s self in what one does.
What Marx saw in the living and working conditions of the proletariat was the negation of man.
Labor certainly produces marvels for the rich,
but it produces privation for the workers. It
produces palaces, but hovels for the worker.
It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker.
It replaces labor by machinery, but it casts some
of the workers back into a barbarous kind of work
and turns the others in machines.
The worker is “physically exhausted and mentally debased,” and
therefore feels himself at home only during his
leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless
Marx began to see, though, that this alienation and
dehumanization held within it the hope of its reversal.
Conditions would become so bad that they would force the
proletariat to liberate itself by attacking those conditions at their very foundation.
The trends in science–particularly biology–and social theory of Marx’s time, when applied to an analysis of the evolution of the world’s economic structure, left Marx with a sense of inevitability about what was to come. Primitive man existed in an “economy” based on individual self-sufficient farms and households or regions. What was produced was enough for one, two, or a small group. Advances in travel, increases in the sophistication of the means of production, and so on, saw the creation of a barter economy and finally a money economy. Regions lacking in the resources or skills to produce a commodity could trade with other areas which could provide them. This leads to a specialization of function, and its concomitant, the division of labor. Specialization leads to automation and the use of labor-saving capital as well. But, “too often, (it) breeds half man–anemic clerks, brutish stokers– . . . becoming socially ‘alienated'” (Samuelson 53).
Production, to Hegel, produces property, and “property is the embodiment of personality.” If a person is understood to exist as his distinguishing characteristics and the freedom to express them, then property becomes freedom in one sense. To Marx, labor should be the activity through which man expresses himself. Labor should be a positive end in itself, an act of self-fulfillment. But, as Charlie Chaplin found in Modern
Times, spending your days turning bolt 999 is hardly a fulfilling activity.
Further, man is a social animal, and human life is essentially communal life with what Marx called “species-bonds.” Marx, therefore, did not perceive the relationship of man to society through the discordant state of alienation as did Hegel. Production, furthermore, does not necessarily constitute alienation per se, but does so only when production and the thing produced exist outside of him, outside his control. The thing produced becomes alien under capitalism, something no longer representing the objectification of himself. A hostility sets in, both against the object itself and against the person for whom the object is produced.
Alienation is apparent not only in the fact
that my means of life belong to someone else
. . . but also that . . . an inhuman power rules
over everything (Schacht 87).
A direct consequence of alienation from one’s self and from the means of production is the alienation of man from other men. Individuals tend to regard other individuals along the same lines as they feel regarded by the system. Communal bonds are severed, and the basis of the “civil” society becomes that of man separated from man. Egoistic man is separated from the community, with each becoming little more than a means to another’s ends.
To Marx, communism is a means to overcome this antagonism, a “definitive resolution.” Social institutions as they exist
under a capitalist system cannot serve this end; in fact, they tend only to further the interests of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie.
MARX AND HISTORY
Marx went beyond a simple historical analysis based on the progress of the human mind and an understanding of institutions as they were. The forms of the state and all its components were rooted in the material conditions of life, and hence his philosophy of history is variously called “historical materialism” or “dialectical materialism” (Barzun 132).
The method of production in material life
determines the general character of the social,
political, and spiritual process of life . . . .
It is not the consciousness of men that deter-
mines their being, but, on the contrary, their
social being determines their consciousness
Marx was preoccupied not with the life of the individual,
but with the life of the aggregate of individuals of like circumstance–the class. And he proposes a conflict between the material forces of society which develop and the existing relations of production. There is a two-fold structure of society: first, its economic base or foundation; second, the political, legal, aesthetic, and religious superstructure. Marx holds that it is in this superstructure that men become aware of the underlying economic foundation of all things, and it is in the superstructure that men fight for control of it. It is in the superstructure that the above-mentioned conflict is waged.
Hence, history is no mere collection of accidents, it is not a thing preordained and run by mysterious forces, nor is it an accumulation of the deeds of great men. History, as the development of the human race, is determined by the nature of labor, with each epoch, the development of productive forces, the division of labor. Certain forms of production, certain relations between human beings and between the forces of production must exist, or else the productive forces cannot operate and society cannot function.
Within this system there are and will be contradictions. The capitalist system has certain requirements, but the meeting of those requirements imposes a condition antithetical to its continued existence, conditions which lead inevitably to its own downfall. The greatest productive force of all is people, the revolutionary class (Fischer 82-3).
The idea of classes had existed before Marx, and classes had been a part of the social scene since well before industrial capitalism. In springing from “the ruins of feudal society,” the modern bourgeois society did not do away with the antagonisms of class, but simply created new ones, with new oppression.
. . . it has simplified the class antagonisms.
Society as a whole is more and more splitting
up into two great hostile camps, into two
great classes directly facing each other:
Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Fischer 62).
With this background of Marx’s thought on alienation and
the motive forces of history, we can begin to analyze how the inevitable class struggle would lead to a proletarian revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat. It must be remembered that Marx’s motives and sentiments were essentially humanistic. The “early” Marx was preoccupied with alleviating alienation, with enabling people to become all that they could be. His was the dream of the “whole” man.
It is not the purpose here to go into great detail on Marx’s analysis of the economic structure of capitalism per se. The “old” Marx generated the thousand-page Das Kapital–much of which was published posthumously–and did this. Some discussion of how the mechanics of capitalism, as they pertain to bringing on the inevitable revolution, is, however, necessary. One of the fundamental lubricants of the capitalist system is the idea of surplus value, which is realized as goods work their way through the industrial process on the way toward eventual consumption. Beginning with the abstract idea of “value,” a raw commodity is obtained for a certain price, whether it be metal, wood, or the fiber which becomes fabric and then clothing. Each step in its refinement adds a certain degree of value to it. To create a homeostatic one-for-one situation, a worker who is paid one dollar a day and produces five “things” must add twenty cents worth of value to each thing for the owner of the business to break even. If, for that same dollar a day, the worker can produce six things, then he has created surplus value; he has
created more than he has been paid for. This is the source of profit for the employer, and one has only to think of assembly-line speedups to understand that profit is directly related to the amount of work produced by each laborer (Mandel 25).
In a limited, supply-and-demand economy in which more than one agency produces a good, the producers compete for the largest possible share of the market. Achievement of control or dominance is generally achieved by keeping costs down. If the costs of raw materials remain the same item by item, then the principal means of lower costs among competitors is in labor. Either pay each worker less or get more work out of him for what he is paid.
Marx saw the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the capitalist appropriation of the product as creating inevitable conflict. As productive forces develop, they take on and extend a social character, and private ownership eventually becomes a fetter on the development of the productive forces themselves. Institutional control of the means of production tends to dominate the life of society, when, for Marx, the social character of production seemed to demand social ownership of those means of production. Crises become commonplace as the productive forces revolt against the conditions of production, and against the property relations which are the essence of the bourgeoisie.
Ownership of the means of production must be transferred to the public, under the leadership of the proletariat, since they
have a greater interest in it than any other class.
Whereas Marx held that Hegel proceeded from the State and made man the State subjectified, democracy made man the starting point and the State man objectified. The State under capitalism was the expression of human alienation. Though it was created by men, the state acquired a life of its own and had a tendency to turn against its creators–the people. For the most part this relationship serves the ruling classes, and Marx felt that overcoming this political alienation was a principal task of a socialist revolution.
The revolution could proceed peacefully or through violence, Marx held, but the role of violence was at best that of midwife to revolution, for violence alone did not necessarily guarantee positive change. The phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” was originally invented by the French socialists and Marx later appropriated it. Marx did not hold in The Communist Manifesto that a state apparatus as such would necessarily cease to exist under proletarian rule, but it appears to have been his goal (Fischer 134). Surely a state apparatus would be necessary to oversee the transfer of control of the means of production to public control.
THE END OF ALIENATION?
Marx saw the role of the state and state apparatus under capitalism as becoming more and more that of doing the will of the owners of production, subjugating and where necessary
oppressing individuals. The state became the embodiment of the power of capital over labor, the guarantor of property rights. To a degree this is even observable in the history of our own Constitution. Those most earnestly desiring a replacement for the old Articles of Confederation were the holders of personality, bonds, the lenders of money at interest (Beard, passim). Personal rights and liberties, as opposed to the rights of property or those who held property, were secondary.
At the end of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat–the transition from capitalism to communism–control of the forces of production would be in the hands of the people. Under capitalism, goods are distributed along the guide of performance. Under communism, without the profit motive which guided the few, consumer goods could be distributed according to need.
Since capital would no longer be concentrated in the hands of the few the fruits of production would not be appropriated for another. The basis for the alienation of the industrial worker–the I-not I dichotomy–which engendered hostility toward the thing produced and the person for whom it was produced theoretically should cease. Workers would produce for themselves and for the community. It is then possible, the reasoning goes, to take pride again, to feel fulfilled again in the act of creation. One now creates for oneself and for the others within society. The communal bonds which were severed under capitalism–man with man, man with nature–would be reestablished.
Class conflict would cease, for with production controlled by the proletariat, no class–for the proletarians are the largest class in an industrial society–would be able to dominate the mass of people. Instead of the institutions of production dominating the social life of a nation, the social life of the nation would dictate the direction in which production moved. Man would not serve the means of production; the inverse would be the case.
It is not without reason that a pure Marxist state would be referred to as utopian. As even Marx recognized within the industrial conditions of 19th-century Britain, industry comes to be run not by the capitalists but by the managers. Specialization and a division of labor cannot be abolished as vital aspects of an industrial society. In short, on an operational level it is hard to see a classless society ever existing. Assuming, arguendo, that private ownership could be abolished, an element of control or domination is inescapable. Large-scale economies demand coordination, direction, even a degree of coercion. “To each according to his needs” in a nation demands an administrative class, whose members have skills not within the grasp of all people, a class which of necessity wields a great deal of power.
The problems of operating an economy without the incentive system have been experienced in both the Soviet Union and China. Incentive yields money, which yields material gain, which starts to take on the appearance of a class structure.