In a recent podcast, I made the argument that Karl Marx, the philosopher who did not see himself primarily as a philosopher, remains one of the most widely referenced and extraordinarily influential writers over the past one hundred seventy years. In fact, when you take into account the more than one hundred million lives lost in his name, it is hard to argue that he hasn’t been the most influential philosopher since the Communist Manifesto was first published in 1848.
Despite Marx’s considerable influence, very few people who refer to him have read his work, and fewer still have any inkling as to what he actually wrote. This has led to a problem in two different ends of our population spectrum. Baby Boomers and older Americans tend to think that Marx died with the fall of the Soviet Union (not an actual Marxist project); Gen-Zers believe that his ideas will usher in a utopia.
The above misconceptions are creating a dangerous moment in American history right now as the self-proclaimed Marxist leadership of BLM, along with other forces within our country hostile to our founding precepts, seek a revolution to overthrow our system of government. This current movement in America is the closest to a true Marxist movement ever witnessed. Not academically perfect, but close enough.
That is why it is critical for every American to understand what Marx wrote, and why we need to fight back against this movement with every intellectual weapon we can wield. It isn’t necessarily because Marx was an evil person. It is because he was wrong in his fundamental assumption about why communism would usher in the start of true human history.
THE BACKGROUND AND BUILDING BLOCKS OF MARXISM
Most people think that Marx “invented” communism. He didn’t. Communist or communitarian political thought can be traced back far into antiquity. What Marx did, however, was to take these earlier theories of societies based on common property ownership, and translate their relevance for the industrial context he saw in the early 19th century. He (and his partner, Friedrich Engels) did this by embracing four philosophical concepts:
- Dialectical process: A concept developed by Georg Friedrich Hegel that suggests that all things, including history, grudgingly and deliberately move forward through a mechanical and oppositional process in which conflict is inherent. Hegel’s process, adopted and modified by Marx, has come to be described in terms of a thesis (the original term), which creates an opposing reaction (or antithesis), with the conflict between the two resolving itself by producing a “synthesis.” This synthesis, in turn, becomes a new thesis—and so on. This dialectical process is said to continue until a final synthesis is reached.
- Historicism: The belief that all social and cultural phenomena are determined by history. History for the historicist is not a simple recounting of what has happened in the past. Instead, history is “happening” with a purpose.
- Determinism: The belief that all events are ultimately caused by forces external to the human will. (We are essentially pawns to history. “The die is cast” for each of us and all of us.)
- Materialism: Nothing exists except matter, movements, and the modification of matter. Said in a more contemporary way, existence is about “stuff.”
Communist thought is indebted to Plato, his attack on private property, and the idea that it “takes a village approach” with regard to raising children and perfecting society. (These ideas could be found in the BLM platform until this past week, when ostensibly for PR reasons, they decided to remove them.) The modern movement started in places like Prussia, France, and Spain in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. It is the French who coined both the terms “socialism” and “communism.” These terms predate Marx’s writings.
Whereas Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” Marx might have said, “I am, so I need to think.”
Marx said that communism was ultimately going to be the solution to the problem of history, that problem being scarcity. Scarcity, to Marx, was the inability for people to have their basic material needs and wants met by the production factors of society. Starting with the earliest and most primitive societies, man has faced scarcity. This made us productive creatures by our very nature and caused us to develop our ability to reason out of necessity in order to produce. (Whereas Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” Marx might have said, “I am, so I need to think.”)
Everything about history, to Marx, is directed toward satisfying human needs. In other words, Marx thinks that economics is the driving force of history. And that history moves forward in a clunky dialectical pattern, but it moves forward nonetheless, and its eventual path has already been determined. There are three “stages” of history that Marx identifies, which culminate in the inevitable fourth and final stage, communism. Marx was a fan of Charles Darwin (he dedicated his magnum opus, Das Kapital, to the recognized father of evolutionary theory). Marx believed we were “evolving” toward a more ideal and higher level of existence.
History’s first stage, according to Marx, was that of slave labor. Marx felt that before the advent of machinery, physical strength was placed at a premium and was, therefore, the key element for “material production.” It made sense in this stage of human history for those who controlled production to “own” the means. That meant slavery.
As more refined techniques for production developed, particularly in agriculture, the era of slavery was replaced by the feudal period. In this era of human history, feudal lords owned land and allowed common people (the early proletariat) to work that land and generate crop yields. This was the second stage of history.
With the advent of even more sophisticated tooling and technology, as witnessed by the Industrial Revolution, human labor became easier to control by simply “renting” it in the form of wages. That “rented” human labor was then applied to operate the machinery, which was the principal mode of material production. The renting of labor for the purpose of maximizing profit was, to Marx, at the very foundation of capitalism—his third phase of history.
Marx says capitalism is the first “dynamic system” of production. Like Adam Smith, he subscribes to the labor theory of value. Technology is constantly improving, so each laborer becomes more productive and can produce more while exerting less effort. Increased productivity allows for increased profitability. Remaining profitable, however, requires that you keep a leg up on the competition. According to Marx, that competition destroys our humanity. Profits become the all-consuming goal. Marx refers to this as the “money nexus.” Everything revolves around money.
Marx understands all profits as nothing but the excess of price over the value that has been created by and paid for by labor. If you can exploit labor, you can make more profits. The good news, however, is that capitalism seems to solve the problem of scarcity. It provides for all needs. To make more profits, however, it has to expand the list of wants of people. It taps into the human inclination toward envy and creates a preoccupation with status. This can be readily seen in the efforts of modern-day advertising in any predominantly capitalist society.
Marx says that the revolution will necessarily be violent because those who are in control of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, will not be willing to voluntarily part with their accumulated profit, power, privilege, and prestige.
To satisfy the ever-increasing list of wants, more and more things are produced with more exploited labor. Under these conditions, workers feel alienated from their work and themselves; they feel they are being overworked in a job they do not enjoy. Moreover, they can’t afford to participate in all this wealth that their hard labor is producing; a disparity in income develops. Workers can’t afford to purchase their own production, so recessions happen. Factories eventually sit idle because the system has produced more than can be sold to people who can’t afford to buy. As these recessions get progressively worse, workers begin to resist the economic system and their capitalist overlords—inevitably, leading to violent revolution. Marx says that the revolution will necessarily be violent because those who are in control of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, will not be willing to voluntarily part with their accumulated profit, power, privilege, and prestige.
To pause on that point regarding the violent nature of revolution, it is interesting to note that in today’s America the ruling class has, to this point, seemed quite accommodating to the demands and behaviors of the revolutionary movement—even to the extent of providing funding for its operation. This reflects either an a) misunderstanding on the part of Marx as to the bourgeoisie’s participation in the historical process, or b) that today’s bourgeoisie are not yet seeing the movement as a true threat to its own existence. Only time will reveal the correct answer.
According to Marx, once the revolution happens, workers are able to take over the means of production themselves—the factories and technologies that they’ve been applying their labor to. There are no more profits in this “enlightened future,” just producing. And, most importantly to Marx, each person is producing under these conditions what they want to produce, and doing so using their own talents and skills. There is autonomy, control, and freedom in this Marxist vision for our labor future. Workers can embrace their passions in their productive lives, remembering that humans are naturally productive. Everything they produce will be of benefit to the entire community.
“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” This often used, little-understood quotation of Marx refers to men being able to fulfill the potential of their true, non-alienated, self for the good of mankind. This is communism, and, according to Marx, this is when true history starts: scarcity solved, and individuals fully self-actualized.
It is important to note that for Marx, each new phase of history cannot begin until it is ready to satisfactorily replace the previous phase in terms of better providing for human needs. This means that the seeds of each new phase need to be sewn in the present phase. For communism, those seeds inside capitalism come in the form of labor unions and socialism. Socialism is a necessary transitional step for Marx.
WHY DOES MARXISM MATTER IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY AMERICA
If we could bring back Marx from the dead, give him a nice shower and hot meal, and then catch him up on history since he died, what do you think he would say? I am sure that if we showed him recent examples of work done in his name (in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere), he would say those nations were not what he was predicting.
He might, however, be very interested in today’s United States. We are:
- A fully matured capitalist nation.
- We have large perceived gaps in income.
- We have people claiming to be overworked and continually bored with their work.
- We have militant labor unions, especially in the public sector.
- We have big government and big business partnerships that display socialist characteristics.
- Technology has advanced to unimaginable levels and has greatly reduced the need to rent labor at a “fair” wage.
In short, we are near where Marx said history would bring us whether we wanted to go or not. This was determined. The dialectic has been moving. We would seem poised to enter the beginning of communist history. Rejoice!
Here is the problem: what Marxist communism hinges upon to make the fourth and final stage of history a worker’s paradise is that people are inherently good by their nature. Marx believed we are all fundamentally communal and civic-minded at our core, and only private property and our relationships to the means of production have corrupted us. Remove those things, and our “true colors” will come shining through. To Marx, those colors are bright and vibrant.
It is not about what Marx was trying to “build” with his philosophy. In fact, Marx writes very little about what a communist utopia actually would look like.
Take a look at the people leading the Marxist movement in America today. From the riots in the streets, to the politicians in office, to the professors in the classroom: do you believe that these people are inherently good? Do you believe that people in general are inherently good? This question about our true nature is critical. To be an advocate of communism, you are required to believe that people are genuinely kind, and we will need no laws in a utopian Marxist world to protect us from one another. As a Christian, I believe in the sinful nature of man. I’m not buying Marx’s idea that we will all just get along.
For over a century, the vast majority of people have either been at best misreading Marx—or not reading him at all. This has led to an underestimation of the threat presented by his ideas. It is not about what Marx was trying to “build” with his philosophy. In fact, Marx writes very little about what a communist utopia actually would look like. The problem lies in his prediction of where history was taking us combined with his assumption regarding the general good-nature of man. While I have stated that the Marxist revolutions of Russia, China, and elsewhere have not been “true” Marxist moments, it is instructive that they were carried out in his name, and that mass slaughter and slavery were the results. This might provide a better insight into the nature of man than does Marx’s assumption that we are inherently decent folks.
It is also important to acknowledge the role of socialism in the historical move toward communism. When people who say they are socialists in one breath tell you they are not communists in the next, they are either mistaken or deceptive. To Marx, socialism is not some sort of slippery slope to communism. It is a necessary transitional step. American socialists know this. If they don’t, other American need to know it on their behalf.
Remember that Marx said communism was inevitable. There is much of what he predicted that has come true. If he was right about inevitability and wrong about our nature, we have much to fear. It is time for people to stop rhetorically referring to Marxism, and start understanding it. It is time to fight back. The historical hour is late.