Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Whereas the utopians believed that people must be persuaded one person at a time to join the socialist movement, Marx believed that people would tend to act in accordance with their own economic interests. So no persuasion needed. This belief is known as historical materialism, an argument which support that the world is changed not by good wishes and ideas but by actual physical-material activity and practice. Thus, appealing to the working class best material interest would be the best way to mobilize them to make a revolution and change society. Sounds like a very good plan. The best thing of the plan is that it was, according to Marx, inevitable; capitalism should fall by its own weight. Moreover, is not just any kind of capitalism; Marx states that perfect capitalism (modeled capitalism) falls, and consequently, all others.

This is said by a man that dedicated almost 20 years of his life going to a library to study all there was to be known about economics. If you are not impressed by that, knowing that four children of him died because the poverty he was living because of that hard study, should impress you. And if passion is not enough for you, the almost 2.500 pages of cold analyzing of capitalism in four volumes of Das Kapital should make you respect him, at least.

So what could be so power to dedicate your life to? I don’t know, but Marx gives you a hint: «philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it». But why to change society? Maybe Marx didn’t even question that; there were a lot people unhappy with social arrangement in those times (See more in Owen). John Stuart Mill (See more in Mill) characterized the French government as «wholly without the spirit of improvement and… wrought almost exclusively through the meaner and more selfish impulses of mankind«. Nicholas I (despite the Tsar’s one-time visit to Robert Owen’s New Lanark) was characterized by the historian Tocqueville as «the cornerstone of despotism in Europe«. Industrial workers realized that for all their work, they just weren’t receiving enough compensation. First, they were frustrated, then they become angry. Revolution was in the air. Changing wasn’t longer an option; it was the only way. 1848 was the terror year for the old order in Europe.

Had the despair been channeled and directed, it might have changed into a truly revolutionary one. But it was spontaneous, undisciplined and aimless; they won initial victories, and then, while they were wondering what next to do, the old order slapped them back into place. The revolutionary fervor was abated and crushed. In Paris, 10.000 people died in the mobs by the National Guard. In Belgium, the country decided that it is better to keep the king, and the king acknowledged it by abolishing the right of assembly.

The revolution was over, but not for a few: The Communist League, a group of communists which counted with the presence of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels. For them, 1848 was only the beginning for a massive change scheduled for the future with a undoubtedly success. The Communist League commissioned their ideas to Engels and Marx to produce The Communist Manifesto (See more here).
Deeper into the Manifesto you find a philosophy. It even has a name: dialectical materialism.

  • Dialectical because it incorporates Hegel ideas of inherent change. Change, according to Hegel, was the rule of life. Every idea, every force irrepressible bred its opposite, and the two merged into «unity» that in turn produced its own contradiction. So there is nothing wrong or right, but always struggle.
  • Materialism because it grounds itself to the real world, not ideas. As Engels put it in his work «Anti-Duhring» «..starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged. According to his conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sough not in the philosophy but in economics of the epoch concerned«.

So, whatever the solution to the the basic economic problem, society require a «superstructure» of noneconomic activity of thought. This is not an independent superstructure but deeply in connection with real economic activity. Moreover, this relation means that thought and ideas are product of environment, even when they aim to change the environment. Here is the constant struggle, the dialectical part: material life shape ideas, and ideas shapes material life in the next period. As Marx put it:

«Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past«.

The Manifesto wasn’t just a cry for revolution, but a philosophy of history in which a communist revolution was not only desirable but inevitable. Unlike the utopians, who wanted to reorganize society closer to their desires, communist did not appeal to men sympathies and desires. Marx criticized utopian socialists, arguing that their favored small-scale socialistic communities would be bound to marginalization and poverty, and that only a large-scale change in the economic system can bring about real change.
Communists, on the other side, appeal to a cold analysis of what social system inevitable will be; a social system ruled by proletariat. They have only to wait, they could not lose. They did wait; seventy years.

Marx contemplated the possibility of Russia’s bypassing the capitalist stage of development and building communism on the basis of the common ownership of land characteristic of the village mir. Was Russia what Marx had in mind?. Was U.R.S.S a government ruled by proletariat? Was it even a left government? (understanding left wing parties those who opposition social hierarchy). Maybe is not a good idea to bypass development.

The most important impact of Marx and Engels were not their revolutionary activities; none brought too much fruit during their own lifetimes. The most important impact of Marx and Engels were their vision and philosophy. For Engels, it was clear that private property was not a mean for organizing society, but for Marx it was even more: capitalism must finally collapse. As he saw it, pure capitalism must collapse, not by boycott but just itself. Marx didn’t just believe it, he modeled and he prove it (at least, his model of capitalism).

Marx did a complete study of the monster of capitalism and he foresaw his dead. The good thing was that the giant monster won’t need to be killed by armored knight, but just by himself: a monster will eventually fall by his own weight. The thing is that history tell us something different: that the monster did not fall but became stronger; capitalism evolve to neoliberalism. Improves made by Milton Friedman gave our most precious aspects of life to feed the monster: health, education and pensions.

So, the monster did not fall by his own weight, but it became stronger. What happened? Why he didn’t die and became stronger? How is that we are making him even stronger? What are we doing to kill him? Do we really want him to die?

Karl Marx wasn’t communism inventor, just like Adam Smith wasn’t capitalism’s, but they gave a deep and great structured description of the most well known kinds of economy and social order; market economy and planned economy. Is there something else?.

Dedicated to «Sepu, el Sepulveda».

2 pensamientos en “Karl Marx (1818-1883)

  1. Pingback: Victorian Economists | dmorls

  2. Pingback: Underground Economists | dmorls

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