Marx’s theory of working-class revolution

October 14, 2010

Alan Maass looks at the building blocks for Karl Marx's view of the world.

WHEN I was a senior in high school, I learned about what happened in England in 1215. But not 1213 or 1217. And I didn't have a clue about anywhere else in the world at any point in the 13th century.

1215 was the first date we had to memorize in our Modern "World" History class. It was the year that a group of English barons cornered King John and forced him to agree to the Magna Carta, a document that limited the king's powers and protected the barons' privileges.

Okay, but why pick this as the starting point of Modern "World" History? Why start with England, which until recently had been an isolated backwater? What happened to everybody after 1215? I had no idea. My history class was silent about the "world" for another 100 years--the next date to memorize was the 14th century, when the Renaissance began.

And why on earth did Modern "World" History not even consider any events outside Europe for centuries to come--and then only because the European colonizers started claiming the rest of the globe in the name of this or that king?

Karl Marx

The reason the class started with 1215 in England was that the Magna Carta bears a passing resemblance to the ideas of democracy as they exist under capitalism today. It put limits on the absolute authority of England's monarch, and it established the political power of the aristocracy, eventually enshrined in the House of Lords, which is at least a little bit like Congress or a parliament.

So the Magna Carta could be portrayed as a kinda-sorta Constitution--a first primitive experiment with principles of representative democracy that would take root and flower through the centuries. And, naturally, reach their fullest expression with that great beacon to the world, the United States.

I was being taught history as the story of a few Great Men (very, very occasionally a Great Woman) and their Great Ideas. Such a view of the world has the advantage of flattering the small group of people at the top that they're the ones who matter. It sanctifies the status quo as the natural end point of all historical developments, and it safely locates the driving forces of history in the lofty realm of ideas, philosophy, religion and morality.

This was the version of history that Karl Marx encountered as a student in Germany in the 1830s, and his first attempts to explain the principles of scientific socialism began with standing this view of the world right-side up.

As Marx's collaborator Frederick Engels said in a memorial speech after his friend died, Marx started out from "the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.

At the heart of Marxism is the understanding that history's Great Men--its Great Villains, too--and their Great Ideas are the product of the material conditions and social relationships that shape people's lives, not the other way around. Marx called his approach "the materialist conception of history"--"materialist" because it starts with concrete material conditions rather than ideas, "history" because it recognizes that those conditions and the social relationships that spring from them change.

FOR THE vast majority of human history, human beings lived in small groups that provided for their basic necessities by hunting and gathering their food.

These early hunter-gatherers had to be nomadic to find more food. Therefore, the bands of hunter-gatherers had to be small, in line with what available supplies could support, and everyone had to be adept at hunting or gathering--the means of providing basic necessities didn't allow for social differences to take root.

The Magna Carta would have been inconceivable in these circumstances, and not just because written language had not yet developed. The idea that one member of the group would claim to rule by "divine right," much less that another minority within it would seek to limit that rule for its advantage, would have seemed utterly foreign--likewise, with the ethic of individualism promoted by capitalism.

Human history began to change only when the basic means of providing food, shelter and other necessities began to change.

This transformation in material circumstances took place in different parts of the world at different times--first, apparently, around 12,000 years ago in the Levant region east of the Mediterranean Sea, where Syria and northern Iraq lie today. The most likely explanation is that favorable climatic conditions made food supplies more abundant, so it became possible for hunter-gatherer bands to be less on the move, and to start investigating how to cultivate plants, rather than gather them.

The cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals to replace hunting made it possible for the first time for humans to produce a consistent surplus--slightly more than was needed to feed, cloth and shelter everyone. This advance in turn reshaped everything about how human beings lived.

Societies built around growing and raising food, rather than gathering and hunting it, had to be stable, not nomadic. The size of the groups could increase. Instead of a need to limit births, there was a need for more children, since each would eventually contribute their labor. This led to a new distinction in society--women, who had equal standing in hunter-gatherer bands, were burdened with the responsibilities of greater child-rearing and consigned to a subordinate status.

If more food could be grown than was necessary for immediate needs, then that food had to be stored. Early settled societies had a motivation that hadn't existed before to develop tools and implements for the task. Because of greater abundance, it became possible for individuals to be freed from the immediate work of producing so they could make these tools and come up with new techniques for producing even more. A basic division of labor--and with it, another social distinction--could take shape.

At first, from what we know of early societies, these individuals would have been those who worked the hardest to increase food production--who gained prestige because of their ability to provide more for everybody. But over generations and centuries, such individuals and groups came to see their own place in society as superior. As Paul D'Amato wrote in The Meaning of Marxism, "a figure that begins as a giver turns into its opposite, a taker--that is an exploiter."

Settled societies and the advances in the means of producing what people needed to survive therefore gave rise to something unheard of in most of human history--of classes within society, with a minority ruling class surviving not on the basis of its own labor, but by controlling the labor of others and benefiting from their work. As Marx wrote:

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relations of rulers and ruled...Upon this is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the conditions of production itself, and this also determines its specific political shape.

It is always the direct relation of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden foundation of the entire social construction, and with it of the political form of the relations between sovereignty and dependence, in short, of the corresponding form of the state.

MARX TALKED about different forms of exploitation based on distinct "modes of production" through history.

He particularly described three kinds of class societies: the ancient mode of production, in which the dominant relations were between master and slave; the feudal mode of production, in which the lord exploited the serfs or peasants; and the capitalist mode of production, with capitalists exploiting free-wage laborers. These weren't the only classes in society, but they were the main ones--standing "in constant opposition to one another, [carrying] on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight."

Why did the mode of production change through history? Marx described the way that each form of class society went through a process of development. In a preface to a book called A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he summarized the dynamic:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite, necessary relations which are independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a legal and political superstructure rises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.

The mode of production conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

In the early stages, the "relations of production" contribute to advances for society--they make it easier to produce more and to develop new and better techniques of production. But the story doesn't end there. Eventually, the possibility of developing still more efficient methods of producing are blocked--because putting them into effect requires new ways of organizing society, and the old forms of exploitation have become an obstacle.

As Marx continued:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or (and this is simply a legal expression of the same thing), with the property relations within which they have operated up to that time. These relations change from forms of development of the productive forces into their fetters. There then begins an epoch of social revolution.

For an example, take feudalism as it arose in Europe over the centuries following the decline of the Roman Empire.

When they arose--and it's important to say that there was variation in the exact details and timing--the relations of production in which the lords extracted surplus labor from peasants was well adapted to the existing techniques of production. Specifically, by giving peasants their own land to cultivate--in return for peasants paying a tribute--the exploiters were able to preside over a much more widespread system of production than was possible by exploiting slaves at the end of a lash.

After a period of centuries, however, new ways of producing began to develop--in the towns, which had previously been centers of trade. But unleashing these new techniques couldn't work--or worked very badly--in the context of the old form of exploitation and the "legal and political superstructure" that had developed out of it.

This conflict between the new possibilities and the structure of the old order showed itself in terrible crises. Without new developments, the existing means of producing couldn't support any further growth in the population, and so the result was famines and disease and violence--episodes of the Black Death alternating with the carnage of wars like the Hundred Years War.

The old ways of organizing society became a block--a fetter--on the potential for further developments in production. And the conflict could only end, as Marx and Engels put it starkly in The Communist Manifesto, "in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."

Surely the parallels to the capitalist system today are obvious. We live in a world with the potential to feed everyone in the world, to provide a roof over their heads, to use the latest advances in health care to increase the length and quality of every life, and much more besides. And yet 6 million children die every year of malnutrition and related diseases, and half the world's population struggles to survive on less than $2.50 a day.

The fundamental obstacle to a new world of abundance, organized around solidarity and freedom, is the old order--capitalism.

"THEN BEGINS an epoch of social revolution," Marx wrote. The word "begins" is an important one.

Marxism is commonly criticized--including among academics and those on the left who should know better, or would know better if they read some Marx--for being mechanical. The complaint is that Marxists see the progress of society toward socialism as inevitable.

But there's nothing inevitable or predetermined about the outcome of the conflict between the new possibilities for society and the old order that blocks them. That outcome depends on the class struggle.

Why is it that the old order doesn't just fade away when it has outlived its usefulness to society? Because the ruling class controls not only the way production takes place, but all the other institutions and relationships in society, whose structure helps the exploiters maintain their power.

As Marx described, all class societies produce a legal, political and ideological "superstructure" that operates to freeze the existing relations of production and protect the rulers from the ruled. The most obvious example is what Engels called "bodies of armed men"--the armies and police that the exploiters rely on to counter challenges to their authority.

But in most times, an even more important weapon for the ruling class is ideology--systems of ideas that portray the established order as natural and beneficial to everyone, whatever its self-evident flaws. For millennia, the ideology of the ruling class came in the form of religion, which taught--to take a lyric from an old Christian hymn--"Rich man in his castle / Poor man at his gate / God gave each his station / And ordered their estate."

Most of the exploited--even if they are rebelling against aspects of the system or chafing against the constraints that the conditions of their lives put on them--accept these ideas most of the time.

On the other side of the conflict is the social class associated with the possibility of reorganizing society--the force capable of carrying out a "revolutionary reconstitution in society."

But it doesn't appear that way at first. The struggles we see in society today, as in the past, aren't organized around overturning the existing relations of production to allow the further development of the forces of production for the benefit of all. While the class struggle is fundamentally about this conflict in the economic base of society, it gets expressed in all kinds of ways--not only battles over different aspects of economic conditions, but, as Marx put it, the "ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out."

Engels elaborated on the point in a letter written after Marx's death:

The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure--political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas--also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary.

The critics of Marxism who claim that socialists care only about economics and expect social change as inevitable have it wrong. Marx's entire theory of working-class revolution is built around the centrality of struggle--and in all the forms that struggle takes, from the class struggle at the base of historical development to the countless ways that it is expressed in conflicts, protests and rebellions around every kind of issue.

And the outcome of the class struggle determines whether society moves forward or backward. The victory of the class associated with the new productive forces is far from inevitable--in fact, there are many examples in history of its defeat, leading to stagnation or even regression.

For example, the Sung Dynasty that began in China in the 10th century saw a number of technological innovations, like iron foundries, firearms, moveable type for printing and others, that were centuries in advance of Europe. But China's ruling class feared the power of a new social grouping that wouldn't be under its control--so it took harsh measures to curtail the new economies that developed around these productive techniques, including at times the physical destruction of the towns. As a result, Chinese society had changed little even a whole millennium later--compare that to the transformation of Europe from the Dark Ages to the era of industrial capitalism.

THE MARXIST view of history is a radical challenge to the prevailing ideology in society that capitalism is natural and the highest social expression of the basic characteristics of human beings through all time. By contrast, according to the materialist conception of history, capitalism is only the latest form of social relationships, and not the last one either.

But Marx and Engels did believe that capitalism was unique among all previous forms of class societies. As they wrote in the Communist Manifesto: "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority."

Why is capitalism different? In the first place, it has raised human knowledge and technology to the point where society could be reorganized around the world on the basis of abundance--of every person getting enough to eat, a sturdy roof over their head and everything else they need.

At every point in history, the oppressed and exploited have dreamed of such a world of equality and abundance. But the creation of such a society only became possible in the last several hundred years. As Marx and Engels wrote:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

For the first time in human history, the possibility exists of a society with enough to go around for all--and therefore one that abolishes the differences between rich and poor, exploiter and exploited.

But whether there will be a "revolutionary reconstitution of society" on this basis depends on the class struggle--on the social forces associated with a new way of organizing society overcoming the power of the old ruling class.

This is the other unique aspect of capitalism: It produces a gravedigger--the proletariat, or working class--with the power to overturn the old system and, because it is the vast majority in society, to establish a new society not divided between haves and have-nots.

Marx and Engels did believe that the formation of this class--forced into conflict with the rulers of society and with the potential to confront the whole system--was inevitable. It isn't a matter of socialists recruiting a social force to fight the system. The workings of capitalism itself form a new laboring class with a different kind of economic power--the power to withhold its labor and shut off the source of wealth in the system--and the instinct to use that power collectively. As they wrote:

[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level...

Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (trades unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.

Now and then, the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.

Does this 160-year-old description of the working class fit the world today? One of the loudest criticisms of Marxism is that it doesn't--that the working class has been shrinking in importance and numbers as capitalism has developed.

These criticisms, though, mostly rely on a stereotype of the working class--that it is made up of predominantly male, blue-collar workers employed in factories. But from the beginning, Marx defined the working class not by the kind of work people did, but by their position in society--as "a class of laborers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital."

Obviously, that description applies not only to factory workers, but to people who work in offices or the service sector. In fact, one of the most important trends of the past few decades is the way that people in jobs once considered privileged and "above the working class," such as teachers, certain office workers, nurses and even doctors, have been "proletarianized"--that is, their conditions of work have been subjected to a degree of discipline and subordination more typical of factory work.

And of course, the idea that the working class has shrunk on a world scale flies in the face of reality. Actually, the "conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat" have been "equalized" to an extraordinary degree, even between countries that are half a world away.

When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, a working class of real size and significance existed in only a few countries of northern and western Europe, and along the Eastern coast of North America. Today, the working class exists in every country, and is incomparably more powerful in even the poorest regions of the world, where it has been brought together in large numbers by globalized capitalism.

IT'S ONE thing to identify the existence of the working class, whether in the U.S. or around the world, but another to see it as a social force capable of uniting in a struggle to transform society. At most times, in fact, that potential seems distant--or at least uncertain to be realized.

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx stressed the distinction between a "class in itself" and a "class for itself":

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.

The distinction is important because the conditions of work and life under capitalism don't push workers only toward "combinations" and "permanent associations," as Marx and Engels wrote in the Manifesto--that is, toward unity and solidarity. Other aspects of the system drive workers apart.

One obvious example of this are the divisions within the working class, created and promoted by capitalism, that pit workers against each other on the basis of race, gender, nationality and other differences.

But workers are set against one another in another fundamental way because everyone in a capitalist society, at the top and at the bottom, is forced to compete. In order to provide for themselves and their families, working people are pushed to participate in the capitalist rat race--the scramble over scarce job openings in a recession like today's, for example, or to be more productive to avoid the threat of being replaced.

How can these divisions among workers be overcome? The answer is struggle.

The basic conflict between exploiter and exploited under capitalism produces many grievances among working people. But trying to address them individually won't do it. Workers have little power if they withhold just their own labor--they are too easily replaced. So even basic acts of resistance require individuals coming together to fight.

The longer a struggle carries on, the more the need for unity asserts itself, and the more its participants can become committed to solidarity as a principle. Thus, for example, strikes usually start over a specific workplace issue--a demand for higher wages, for example. But trying to win that demand forces strikers to act in a way that goes against what society teaches them--and it opens up people's horizons about other issues and political questions, sometimes far removed from the original grievance.

Above all, working people involved in any kind of struggle ultimately have to confront the divisions built up in their ranks--and as the struggle continues, feelings of solidarity and a sense of the wider questions at stake start to become as important as the original issues.

Marx described the dynamic this way:

Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance--combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist.

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages...In this struggle--a veritable civil war--all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.

Marx had more to say about how these "associations" of workers develop and deepen in an 1853 article for the New York Daily Tribune about a wave of strikes in Britain:

In order to rightly appreciate the value of strikes and combinations, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the apparent insignificance of their economical results, but hold, above all things, in view their moral and political consequences.

Without the great alternative phases of dullness, prosperity, over-excitement, crisis and distress, which modern industry traverses in periodically recurring cycles, with the up and down of wages resulting from them, as with the constant warfare between masters and men closely corresponding with those variations in wages and profits, the working-classes of Great Britain, and of all Europe, would be a heart-broken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass, whose self-emancipation would prove as impossible as that of the slaves of Ancient Greece and Rome.

This dynamic that drives workers to overcome what separates them and to unite and fight is central to the case for socialism. No other oppressed class in history has had the capacity for this degree of unity--for self-organization and self-emancipation based on its collective power.

Marx referred to the proletariat under capitalism as the "universal class" because it is capable, once it overturns the old order, of abolishing class distinction once and for all. That revolution, Marx wrote in The German Ideology:

can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organization is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.

It should go without saying that this is not a view of social change that is mechanical or predestined. Struggle is at the heart of Marx and Engels' theory of working-class revolution, which is why they ended the Communist Manifesto with this call to action:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

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