In previous posts, I have examined progressivism and conservatism as critical reactions to the emergence of classical liberalism in the enlightenment. These movements sought to correct various aspects of liberal polity, but neither movement advocated a wholesale abandonment of the politics of John Locke. Not so with socialism, which showed no such restraint; rather socialists advocated a radical revolt against the triumph of liberalism.
Quite simply, socialism is a system for determining the distribution of goods and services within a community. This may sound like boring stuff, but distribution is often at the heart of political drama. To simplify, there are three forms of distribution: tradition, competition (market), and command. Premodern societies tended to favor tradition; liberalism favored competition; socialism favored command. According to socialism society as a whole should determine and command the distribution of goods for the benefit of the whole society — distribution should not be left to tradition, voluntary choices, or competition.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century various forms of socialism emerged to challenge liberalism, but by far Marxism was the most successful and most radical. According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), liberalism is an ideology that masks the real meaning of history and social relationships. Like other ideologies, liberalism is part of a larger superstructure that hides and reinforces the real economic structure of society.
Man’s natural desire to produce and create is conditioned — either positively or negatively — by the means of production. One can only produce what one has the means to produce. And most importantly, whoever controls the means of production determines both production and the bounds of freedom.
According to Marx, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe had adopted a capitalist structure, in which the means of production are owned by those who possess capital — excess resources available for investment. This situation was a result of industrialization, which required the development and purchase of heavy machinery that made the tools owned by small property owners obsolete and could only be purchased by the very wealthy. Those without capital were left to sell their labor as a commodity to capitalists in exchange for a wage. Marxists criticized this arrangement for a variety of reasons.
- First, capitalism is “oppressive” because it turns honest workers into dependents who may be abused or discarded at will. This arrangement is oppressive because it subverts the freedom of workers. The liberal rhetoric of freedom is really just an instrument of oppression; liberalism secures the freedom of capitalists, while it “enslaves” the workers. When the means of production are monopolized by the capitalist class, laborers do not really have any choice but to accept the market wage. This is not really a situation of voluntary cooperation; rather it is the domination of one class by another.
- Second, capitalism is exploitative because it alienates the laborer from the value he creates. Within a capitalist system, laborers receive a wage that is fixed by the labor market, not the value of the product. Rather the capitalist owner receives the market value of the product because he owns the means of production, but he pays the laborer the lowest wage possible given the laborer market. The laborer created the valuable product, but does not receive the benefits of his work. In sense, the worker is exploited in order to fatten the capitalist class.
- Third, according to Marx, capitalism is irrational because it sows the seeds of its own destruction. This claim rests on three apparent facts: (a) status and freedom are determined by the control of capital; (b) all humans want to preserve or increase status and freedom; (c) capitalism is a competitive system. The upshot is this: constant downward pressure on the value of labor, which results in unemployment and wage stagnation. As more laborers are pushed out of gainful employment through “innovation,” the supply of labor on the market increases, which results in further reductions in the labor price. In this way, labor is subjected to a vicious-cycle of impoverishment. Eventually, capitalism will collapse because of falling demand that results from impoverishing most of the population; in addition, workers will revolt once the price of labor falls below the level of sustainability.
According to Marx, the solution to the problems of capitalism is communism. The essential problem of capitalism is the separation of the laborer from the means of production. To put it another, capitalist exploitation will only be overcome when society reclaims the means of production from capitalist hoarders. In communist society, class differences are eliminated; everyone is a worker and the means of production are returned to the society of workers. In practice, this means a temporary stage during which the state will control the means of production and distribute goods and services equally to all workers — the dictatorship of the proletariat. Eventually, the very nature of man will be transformed, he will no longer desire to accumulate and dominate, the state will wither away, and mankind will enter the state of total freedom — each person spontaneously creates and produces without oppression or exploitation.
In Marxism, liberalism met not a corrective reaction, but an entirely antithetical interpretation of human society and history. Indeed, it appears to me that the Marxist critique of capitalism scores some significant hits. The competitive nature of capitalism is subversive to authentic community; likewise, capitalism often creates dependency and instability for workers and reduces laborers to mere commodities to be bought and sold on the laborer market, denying them the dignity of citizenship and humanity. Perhaps Marx’s greatest insight is that the all of these ill effects flow from the combination of competition and the separation of labor from the means of production. These two points will serve as useful starting points for a positive appropriation of Marxism in subsequent posts. Nevertheless, Marxism is deeply misguided and may be criticized on multiple points.
- First, Marx is wrong about the nature of man. Man is not fundamentally a worker or producer. Rather man is made in the image of God in order to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The reduction of man to worldly goals and outcomes is one of the hallmarks of Marxism and the chief reason for its anti-religious animus.
- Similarly, human history cannot be reduced to economic class conflict. Economics is not first philosophy and the fundamental truth about human history is not group oppression and exploitation.
- Finally, it is well known that no communist society has transitioned from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the state of total freedom. Marxism ends up creating a totalitarian system that is even more oppressive than the capitalist society that it is meant to remedy. Inevitably, communism devolves into a command system entirely controlled by well-connected party elites.
Nevertheless, the vision of an egalitarian society, efficiently managed by “experts” is dear to the hearts of many elites in business and government; even more importantly, the Marxist interpretation of history in terms as the interplay between a victim class and oppressive class continues to inspire liberation movements and left-wing politicians. Indeed, in the reinterpretation of Marxism in terms of cultural oppression has become one of the most powerful and destructive forces shaping politics today.
In the next installment of this series, neo-Marxism will be defined and its role in contemporary politics will be clearly identified.
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