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Introduction to

Marx and Engels

Dimensions of Philosophy Series
Norman Daniels and Keith Lehrer, Editors

Introduction to Marx and Engels: A Critical Reconstruction,

Second Edition, Richard Schmitt
Political Philosophy, Jean Hampton
Philosophy of Mind, Jaegwon Kim
Philosophy of Social Science, Second Edition,
Alexander Rosenberg
Philosophy of Education, Ne! Noddings
Philosophy of Biology, Elliott Sober
Metaphysics, Peter van Inwagen
Philosophy of Physics, Lawrence Sklar
Theory of Knowledge, Keith Lehrer
Philosophy of Law; An Introduction to jurisprudence,
Revised Edition, Jeffrie G, Murphy and Jules L. Coleman

Philosophical Ethics, Stephen L. Darwall
Philosophy of Science, Clark Glymour
Philosophy of Language, Stephen Neale
Philosophy of Cognitive Science, edited by Barbara Von Eckardt
Normative Ethics, Shelly Kagan
Second Edition

Introduction to
Marx and Engels
A Critical

Richard Schmitt


A Member of the Perseus Books Group

Dimensions of Philosophy Series

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be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, indud-
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Copyright© 1987,1997 by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group.

Published in 1997 in the United States of America by Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue,
Bowlder, Colorado 80301-2877, and in the United Kingdom by Westview Press, 12 HJd's
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Schmitt, Richard, 1927-
Introduetion to Marx and Engets : a critical reconstruction /
Richard Schmitt.—2nd ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8133-3283-4 (pbk.)
1. Marx, Karl, 1818-1883- 2. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895.
1. Title.
HX39.5.S266 1997
335.4—<tc21 96-39924

The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American. National Stan-
dard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials 239.48-1984.
ON DEMAND 10 9 8 7 6 5

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Abbreviated References xi

Marx and Engels on Human Nature, 13
Species Being, '17
for Further Reading, 21
Notes, 21
Tlie Varieties of Individualism, 24
Marx and Engels' Opposition to Individualism, 25
Marx and Engels' Opposition to Collectivism, 28
What Is the Position of Marx and Engels? 30
For Further Reading, 31
Notes, 31
History as the Transformation of Human Nature, 32
Writing History, 36
For Further Reading, 37
Notes, 37
Hegel's Dialectic, 38
Tlie Marxian Dialectic, 41
Historical Explanation, 42
Dialectical Explanations, 45
For Further Reading, SO
Notes, 50

vi Contents-

Forces and Relations of Production, 55
Why Take Historical Materialism Seriously? 61
For Further Reading, 62
Notes, 62
Base and Superstructure, 64
The Sources of Self-Evidence, 67
For Further Reading, 69
Notes, 69
Wart Is Ideology? 73
Ideology and Science, 76
Fetishism, 78
Marx and Ethics, 80
False Consciousness, 84
For Further Reading, 84
Notes, 84
What Is Modern Capitalism ? 91
Other Characteristics of Capitalism, 93
For Further Reading, 99
Notes, 99
Exploitation, 102
The Classical Marxian Theory of Exploitation, '104
Contemporary Versions of Marx's Theory of Exploitation, 107
For Further Reading, 112
Alienation in Marx's Early Works, 11,4
Worker Alienation, 115
Alienation in the Later Works, 117
Alienation and Freedom, 118
For Further Reading, 124
Notes, 124
Contents vii


Hour Reliable Are the Predictions of Marx and Engels? 128
The End of Marxism? 132
What Is Wrong with Capitalism:
The Unseen Hand Is Inept, 133
What Is Wrong with Capitalism:
The Threat to Freedom and Democracy, 137
For Further Reading, 143
Note, 143
Ttiree Meanings of "Class," 145
Class Consciousness, 151
For Further Reading, 158
Note, 158
What Is Class Struggle? 160
Class Struggle and Political Action, 165
The Primacy of Class Struggle, 167
For Further Reading, 172
Motes, 172
14 THE STATE 174
The State as Manager of the Affairs of the Bourgeoisie, 174
Tlie Executive Committee of the Bourgeoisie, 175
The independent State, 177
The State and Civil Society, 180
Class Struggle in the Democratic State, 183
For Further Reading, 185
Notes, 185
Utopian Socialism, 187
Scientific Socialism, 191
What We Can Learn from the Critique of Utopianism, 195
Motes, 199
The Socialist Gonls, 201
Socialist Institutions, 207
viii Contents-

Revolution, 211
For Further Reading, 216
Notes, 216

Bibliography 218
About the Book and Author 223
Index 224
Preface to the
Second Edition

This new edition differs in several ways from the first edition
of the Introduction to Marx and Engets. Rereading this book over the years,
I marked passages that seemed to me to demand clarification or to re-
quire a better argument. I have now made those changes. I have also
taken account of the steady stream, of new books and articles on Marx and
Engels and have tried to incorporate some of these new and interesting
Other revisions were needed because my own interpretation of Marx
and Engels has changed as I have continued to read and rethink Marx
and as historical conditions have developed. In 1987, when the first edi-
tion appeared, the looming presence of the Soviet Union provided the
background for any reading of Marx and Engels. In the official version of
Marxism current in the communist countries at that time, Marxism was a
science delineating social processes that shaped all our lives. The under-
standing and activities of people played a small role in that science.
Events in the world were the outcome of impersonal social processes. The
social order inspired by that view of Marxist science was bureaucratic
and oppressive: A world regulated by processes unaffected and impervi-
ous to the thought of all but the experts seemed to justify government by
specialists that neglected the wishes of ordinary citizens. In opposition to
that version of Marxism, the previous edition of this book stressed—one-
sidedly, I believe now—the role played by human understanding and
self-understanding in the unfolding of history. In this present edition, al-
though I still hold that human self-understanding is of signal importance
in Marx's theories, I emphasize that this self-understanding often bears
the imprint of complex social processes that are not always transparent to
the observer. As a consequence, this book is very different from the first
edition, even though some passages remain unchanged.
Since 1987 the Soviet Union and other communist countries have mas-
sively repudiated their previous economic and political systems and have
eagerly embraced some form of capitalism. In the process they have also

x Preface to the Second Edition

repudiated Marxism. In a new introduction, I reconsider Marxism in the

light of these historical changes and, thus set out what one can reasonably
expect to learn from Marx and Engels and how reading their works con-
tinues to be important,
My understanding of Marx derives from many sources. Associates in
various political projects taught me a great deal, as did many friends,
both inside and out of the Radical Philosophy Association and the Marx-
ist Activist Philosophers and their successor group, Sofphia. I owe partic-
ular thanks to Bruce Brown, Lisa Feldman, and DaYid Schweickart as
well as an anonymous reader for reading portions of this manuscript.
Justin Schwartz and Karsten Struhl made important suggestions for this
revised edition. I learned much from the members of the faculty discus-
sion group at the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and
from. Dr. Manuel Salgado, director of the Partido Socialists de Ecuador. I
owe a special debt of gratitude to Alex Pienknagura of the Universidad
de San Francisco de Quito, Spencer Carr, past editor for Westview Press,
has been unfailingly supportive.
Lucy Candib has shared in the writing of this book, as she shares most
everything else—particularly the enduring confidence that we can re-
mold this world of oppression and exploitation into one in which mutual
respect and concern animates the relations among free human beings. I
dedicate this book to my children, Addie and Eli, who rather reluctantly
came with, us to Ecuador, where most of this book was written. \ hope
that in later years they will remember what they saw in Ecuador: If capi-
talism may appear to do well at least for some people in the United
States, its inability to provide a good life for all people is painfully evi-
dent outside of the United States. The thoughts of Marx and Engels re-
main essential if one wants to understand this terrible failure of the capi-
talist system.

Richard Schmitt
Quito, Ecuador
Abbreviated References

CI Capital, vol. I (Marx)

CII Capital, vol. II (Marx)
CIII Capital, vol. Ill (Marx)
CGP Critique of the Gotha Program (Marx)
CM Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx and Engels)
CSF Class Struggles in France (Marx)
CW The Civil War in France (Marx)
18th The Eighteenth Bmmaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx)
EPM Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx)
G Crundrisse (Marx)
GI The German Ideology (Marx and Engels)
OF The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Engels)
SUS Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Engels)
T The Marx-Engels Reader (Tucker, editor)
WLC Wage Labor and Capital (Marx)

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FOR 150 WARS, THE ECONOMIC and political theories of Marx

and Engels were closely associated with a number of important political
movements. In the fifty years before World War I, Marxism was the the-
ory that officially guided the policies of the German Social Democratic
Party—for a number of years the largest electoral party in Germany—and
of Socialist parties in other European countries. From 1917 to 1989, Marx-
ism was the official theory of the Soviet Union and the countries in East-
ern Europe. From 1949 to the 1980s, it was the guiding theory in China, It
remains of major importance in Cuba.
Now the Soviet Union is no more. The countries in that once mighty
empire, as well as the Eastern European countries, are all rushing toward
capitalism in one form or another, as is China. One-third of the people
who lived under systems that derived in various ways from the writings
of Marx and Engels have rejected what they knew under the name of "so-
cialism" or "communism" and have opted for capitalism as they under-
stand it.
The collapse of Soviet communism has shown that capitalism is in the
long run more productive, more innovative than were the command
economies of relatively underdeveloped countries in Eastern Europe and
Asia, In the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, after 1917, the Soviet
command economy managed to produce impressive growth rates in the
effort to modernize a backward, mainly agrarian country. This growth
contrasted significantly with the stagnation of capitalist countries during
the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, Similar successes were
recorded, in the reconstruction of the Soviet Union after the devastation of
European Russia by German armies during World War II. But by the
1970s the Russian economy slowed down and became progressively less
efficient. Many observers believe that as the economy recovered from the
ravages of World War II and began to expand the production of a wider
range of consumer goods, the central planning mechanism turned out to

2 Introduction

be inadequate, A fairly simple economy may well be centrally coordi-

nated. But in the Russian case, once the range of goods produced grew in
number and complexity, central coordination failed.
Some take these momentous changes in the formerly communist coun-
tries (specifically, the failures of their command economies) as a complete
refutation of Marxian theories. Others believe that the truth of the theo-
ries of Marx and Engels remain untouched. They maintain that the end of
the Soviet, Chinese, and other communist systems does not invalidate the
Marxian theories. These theorists remind us that Marx and Engels had al-
ways insisted that a socialist revolution could succeed only in countries
where capitalism, was fully developed. Neither in Russia nor in China
was that the case. Their revolutions occurred when those countries were
seriously underdeveloped. Hence those revolutions were not in fact so-
cialist revolutions, even though the revolutionaries appealed to Marxian
theory and imposed their version of Marxism on their populations as the
correct theory to guide political, economic, and social life. In addition, the
socialism Marx and Engels advocated and worked for was definitely a
democratic socialism. It was to be an economic system that required wide-
spread participation in directing the economic life of each nation. The ul-
timate goal of Marx's socialism was the abolition of class differences. A
hierarchical society was to be replaced by a society of cooperation and in-
terdependence in which, as Marx said, "The full development of each is a
necessary condition for the full development of all" (CM, T 491). Social-
ism in the Soviet Union and China, in Poland, Hungary, and Romania
was not democratic. It was totalitarian, bureaucratized, and often terribly
inhumane. It did not move in the direction of abolishing classes in its sev-
enty years of existence.
Many readers of Marx therefore think that the collapse of the Soviet
Union and China's embrace of capitalism leave Marxism unscathed:
Those revolutions were not the revolutions Marx and Engels predicted—
they came too early. In addition, they lacked the democratic features of
the Marxian revolution. Neither of these perspectives is acceptable. It is
not plausible that Marxist theory could emerge unscathed from the
worldwide collapse of regimes that appealed to Marxist theory. Nor does
this collapse refute Marxism, once and for all.
It is true that socialism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, or China
was not the form of socialism Marx and Engels described. Many Marxists
in the United States and. Western Europe had been aware of that for
decades. Ever since the show trials in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s,
it was clear to them that the Soviet Union had become a bloody dictator-
ship. But even Marxists who understood that remained confident that
these early failed attempts at a socialist order would evolve toward dem-
ocratic control of the economy and toward the classless state. The hope
Introduction 3

was that as the originally underdeveloped countries attained a higher

standard of living and improved universal education, workers would de-
mand the democratic rights and participation withheld from them by the
ruling bureaucracies. Bureaucratic socialism would transform itself into
democratic socialism. This democratic socialism would continue to be as
productive as the Soviet Union had been in the period between the two
World Wars and thus eventually would challenge the capitalists on their
home territory. Socialism would spread to Europe, the Americas, and all
around the globe.
This confidence rested on one of the central tenets of traditional Marx-
ist theory, namely, that the advent of socialism, was certain. Long before
the Russian Revolution in 1917, which brought the Russian Communists
to power, Marxists believed that socialism was inevitable. There was no
question that sooner or later capitalism would fail and would be replaced
by socialism. They had no doubt that socialism was a genuine alternative
to capitalism. Only the time at which this change would begin to occur
was uncertain, as was the form it would take. Marx and Engels were quite
sure of that, and so were their followers in the German and other socialist
parties before World War I,
Many capitalists have also believed in part in this inevitability of com-
munism—that socialism, unless resisted vigorously, might well replace
capitalism. The anticommunist agitation of the past 150 years was not al-
ways a cover for resisting advances of the working class or for great
power politics. Some defenders of capitalism did take Nikita Khru-
shchev's threat to bury capitalism literally because they regarded it as a
real possibility. In some way everyone, whether Marxist or anti-Marxist,
believed that socialism could overtake capitalism.
The collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe and the transformations
in China have undermined the belief that socialism threatens existing
capitalist institutions. A range of different socialist schemes have come to
an end—the Soviet command economy. Polish communism with far-
reaching private ownership in agriculture, the Hungarian experiments in
market socialism, and the Yugoslav attempts at worker-controlled enter-
prises, Chinese communism did not collapse, but the Communist Party of
China replaced it with a state-sponsored capitalism. Capitalism has all
the while flourished, at least by comparison with the formerly communist
countries. It is much more difficult to believe that it will inevitably disap-
pear to make way for socialism. As a consequence, it is much less obvious
that a socialist alternative to capitalism is even possible. The idea of so-
cialism is still enormously attractive, but can it be realized? That question
now requires an answer. As long as socialism, was considered inevitable,
its possibility was not in question. If we deny that socialism is inevitable,
we must ask whether it is even possible.
4 Introduction

The belief that socialism is inevitable, that it is a real alternative to capi-

talism, has lost much of its persuasive power. Today any serious reader of
Marx and Engels must take a long and careful look at the arguments for
the inevitability of socialist revolutions. Historical events do not refute
Marx's and Engels' theories. But the actual events of the past half century
are sufficiently different from what they predicted to compel a close reex-
amination of the theories that yielded those predictions. Too many of the
predictions of Marx and Engels do not seem to have quite worked out,
Socialism came, but it was not the socialism Marx and Engels had worked
for and it eventually disappeared. Capitalism, instead of collapsing, ma-
terially transformed itself. Private property in the means of production as
well as economic systems driven by the pursuit of private profit are still
the dominant institutions. When we take another look at the arguments
for the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism as well as of the coming
of socialism, we will find that the Marxian predictions of a capitalist col-
lapse were not as well founded as Marx and Engels believed.
In addition to a theory of historical change, the doctrines of Marx and
Engels provided a political program. The capitalist societies, divided be-
tween the workers and those who live off the fruits of the workers' labor,
would be overthrown when the workers take power for themselves to
run a new kind of society in which all will flourish to the greatest possible
extent. This image of the workers united and taking power for themselves
to build a more just society has been very powerful. It inspired genera-
tions of political activists all over the world to struggle selflessly for a bet-
ter social order. It inspired the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917 and the Chi-
nese Communists in their long war against the Chinese Nationalists and
against the Japanese until the Communist victory in 1949, The same
image sustained the Vietnamese in their decades of fighting first against
the French and then against the United States until victory in 1975. And it
galvanized the Algerians in their war against France in the 1950s and
1960s. The Marxian revolutionary rhetoric was a powerful political force
in the period of decolonization after World War II. But like the Marxian
theory of history, these political ideas have not kept their promise, China
is as authoritarian a country' as ever, and the Vietnamese did not reap the
fruits of their victory in the form of democratic socialism. Neither did the
Algerians gain freedom for all in their liberation struggle. The Marxian
political program that promised free institutions to the common people
who wrested power from the rich, the colonizers, and. the middle class
who sided with the rich or the foreigners—that program has been proven
a failure. It has not kept its promise. All that is left of the socialist political
program is the ideal, of a society in which all citizens share political power
with one another, in which everyone has the chance to develop as fully as
possible, where equal opportunity for all is a reality, not just political
Introduction 5

rhetoric. That ideal remains as attractive as ever. But the road toward its
realization is not so obvious as it seemed to Marx and Engels and. to gen-
erations of their followers.
Marxism as a theory that draws the outline of historical change and
Marxism, as a political program for popular liberation have both been se-
riously compromised by historical events in the past fifty years. If Marx-
ism is to be of any use to us at all, it can no longer be a complete, if very
general, theory of history. Its political program must be rethought and re-
worked in fundamental ways. This requires that we reconsider the theo-
ries of class and of their progressive transformation and that we rethink
the Marxian conception of political change contained in the theory of rev-
olution. We will find that both are much more fragmentary and incom-
plete than many generations of Marxists thought.
But many people believe that it is too late for such reexamination, that
Marxism has been refuted outright. Others think that the events in East-
ern Europe, while not an outright refutation of Marxism, have shown it to
be irrelevant to our world and its problems. Socialism is not on the
agenda in the immediate future, if ever. Capitalism is not facing imminent
collapse. Instead, these theorists add, there are a multitude of problems
that do threaten our world, problems of environmental degradation,
racial and gender inequalities, violence, the resurgence of bitter and
bloody nationalist divisions. But Marx and Engels do not seem to have
addressed these issues at all, or only peripherally. The problems they fo-
cused on are not ours. Their theories, it seems to many belong in a mu-
seum with all those other ideas that were once very influential but have
little bearing on our world and its problems.
But it is too soon to consign Marxism to oblivion. We need Marxism in
order to be able to understand our present institutions, their history, their
strengths and weaknesses. The institutions under which we live face seri-
ous difficulties. The triumph, of capitalism trumpeted by its defenders is
hollow. The capitalist world is stalked by poverty and violence, by injus-
tice and alienation. There is no hope of alleviating these difficulties unless
we subject the basic principles on which our institutions rest to close
scrutiny. Marxism is the most important source available to us for such a
critical self-examination. That is the reason for the continued interest in
Marxism and its influence.
Western democracies are guided by liberal theory. It originated in sev-
enteenth-century England, where it served to protect the interests of a ris-
ing capitalist class against the absolute monarchs of the day. Hence this
theory has two central tenets:

1. Every human being has certain rights that no other person and no
government may infringe on. These rights are of several kinds: civil
6 Introduction

rights, such as the right to free speech and conscience; economic

rights, such as the right to private property; and political rights,
such as the rights to vote and to run for public office, (These last
rights are more recent additions to the original list.)
2, Economic life should be regulated by the government as little as
possible. Uncoerced economic transactions between private parties
in the marketplace are the best method for coordinating the eco-
nomic affairs of a nation.

In this century? liberalism split into two branches. The traditional liber-
als, now called "conservatives," put their main emphasis on the auton-
omy of the marketplace from government regulation. Those who have be-
come known as "liberals" are willing to compromise the freedom of the
marketplace to some extent in favor of extending economic, educational,
and health-care rights to all citizens. Modern liberals come down on the
side of extending the list of rights to include such items as the right to rea-
sonable economic security, rights to education and medical care, and the
rights of children to get a good start in life. Conservatives restrict rights to
the more traditional ones—"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happi-
ness"—for the sake of keeping government small and the economy as lit-
tle regulated as possible.
Marx and Engels always had a complex relationship to liberalism. On
the one hand, they were agitating for a free society where differences in
wealth or talent would not oppress those who had less but where all
would be equally free to develop their capacities to the fullest. The first
task of the working class striving to liberate itself, they say in the Commu-
nist Manifesto, is "to win the battle of democracy" (T 490), They not only
supported demands for the familiar human rights but in addition de-
manded rights that the traditional liberal would not accept, such as the
right to economic decisionmaking and economic security. On the other
hand, Marx and Engels were passionately opposed to the second tenet of
traditional liberalism: the belief that a capitalist marketplace is the prefer-
able economic system for all industrial, nations. Although they were fully
aware and appreciative of the enormous power of capitalism to innovate
and to produce wealth, they were also keenly aware of its shortcomings
and vocal in their criticisms of the free-market system. Foremost among
the problems of capitalism is its inability to distribute its blessings fairly.
The wealthiest countries in the world harbor abject poverty. In the period
since World War II, one of the most astonishingly productive periods in
the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, inequalities in the United
States steadily increased.1 Liberal theory, with its central commitment to
free-market mechanisms, can understand these inequalities only as minor
malfunctions of an inherently optimal system. But from Marx we learn
Introduction 7

that capitalism inevitably produces major inequalities because the wealth

of the few depends on the poverty of the many. Only major modifications
of free-market capitalism can hope to alleviate existing and increasing in-
Some of the new inequalities in the United States are the result of legis-
lation. Since the 1970s, changes in the tax laws have favored the richest 1
percent of the population by cutting their taxes while increasing the taxes
on the poor and the middle classes.2 Facts like these raise serious ques-
tions about the working of democracy in the United States. We can hardly
claim that the wishes of the majority rule our political institutions if the
elected representatives consistently favor the very rich at the expense of
the majority of the population. The elected representatives of the majority
steadfastly further the interests of the wealthy minority to which most of
them belong. Such observations suggest that all is not well with our
democracy, but liberalism, once again, can neither explain these failures
of democracy nor prescribe effective remedies. Neither changes in voter
registration procedures nor attempts to regulate campaign financing have
done much to return power to the majority of the electorate. For answers
to these questions about our democracy, we need to turn to Marx's class
theory and his theory of the state, which suggest how capitalism, and
democracy work at cross-purposes or how capitalism defeats the goals of
democracy. Marx and Engels were certain that capitalism and democracy
are not compatible in the long run, and many of their reasons for that po-
sition are still very important for us to consider.
Other challenges of Marxism to ruling liberal ideas are more abstract
but no less important In the chapters that follow, we shall see Marx's
challenge to the liberal assumptions about human nature, assumptions
about the relations among individuals and their social context in families,
voluntary institutions, and nations. We shall find that liberalism cannot
make sense of important Marxist concepts like alienation and that it de-
nies that capitalism rests on exploitation.
Those who grow up and live in capitalist countries frequently hold be-
liefs that are patently false, such as that every person can become a mil-
lionaire, that all it takes is hard work in order to make a good living and
have a good life, or that competition by and large brings the most compe-
tent players into the top positions. One does not need to be a reader of
Marx to see through these half-truths. For every winner there are many
losers, and the success of some is usually bought at the expense of others
whose lot deteriorates. The statistics about income inequalities show an
increase in the "working poor" families who remain mired in poverty al-
though every family member works, often more than one job. Hard work
will not help everyone under capitalism. Nor does competition always
favor the most able. Sometimes it favors the most ruthless, at other times
8 Introduction

the most opportunistic or well-connected. It may benefit either the con-

formist who does not rock the boat or the charismatic but not necessarily
competent individual.
Unlike liberalism, Marxism explains why, especially in a society like
ours, such patent misconceptions are so widely held. The theory of ideol-
ogy is complex, interesting, and essential for any understanding of how
our society works and maintains itself. Careful reading of Marx and En-
gels, the most perceptive and insightful critics of liberalism, particularly
in economics, gives us a grasp of our own problems. But the Marxism
that will help us here is not the prophetic Marxism that predicted the in-
evitable collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a victorious prole-
tariat. It is not the revolutionary Marxism that inspired a great deal of
heroism in the past. It is, instead, a critical Marxism that consists of the
rich insights, some carefully developed, others mere suggestions, that
shed much light on our existing institutions and still have much to teach
us. The writings of Marx and Engels remain indispensable. Marx and En-
gels are by no means the only critics of the social and economic structures
under which we live. But as voracious readers, they summarized a wide
range of criticisms of capitalism that had been written before their life-
time in the middle of the nineteenth century. Social critics since then write
in their shadow. Critical reflection about our world is not possible with-
out a thorough acquaintance with Marx and Engels.

Karl Marx was bom in Trier, Germany, on May 5, 1818, the descendant
of a long line of rabbis. His uncle was then the chief rabbi of Trier. Marx's
father, Heinrich, had converted to Christianity when new legislation that
excluded Jews from government service threatened his livelihood as a
lawyer. Neither his immediate family nor Marx himself identified them-
selves as Jews. Marx's wife, Jenny, came from a Protestant family in the
Prussian civil service.
Sent to the university, first at Bonn, then in Berlin, to study law, Marx
immersed himself in philosophy and earned a Ph.D. in 1841 in the hope
of obtaining a teaching position at the University in Bonn. But he and his
friends spent a good deal of their energy attacking religion and criticizing
the autocratic political institutions of Prussia—criticisms that were fully
justified. At that time Prussia was ruled by an absolute monarch whose
power was not limited by a constitution, let alone by popularly elected
representatives. The freedoms of speech and religion were not guaran-
teed. The government exercised strict censorship on publications and on
what was taught in the state-run schools. Under those circumstances,
Marx and his friend Bruno Bauer, who attacked religion and argued for
Introduction 9

democratic rights for all citizens, had no chance of getting teaching jobs in
any Prussian university.
Throughout his life, Marx supported himself by his writing. For two
brief periods, in 1844 and again in 1848, he was the editor of a paper; later
he earned some money as correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune
and a number of other publications. For most of his life, he also depended
on financial help from his friends, primarily Friedrich Engels. Even with
this help, he lived in extreme poverty for many years. The biographer of
Marx's daughter Eleanor writes: "Mrs. Marx, who was also often unwell,
spent a good deal of her time running to the pawnbroker to pledge the
linen and plate, her own and her family's personal belongings and attire,
and all such household objects as were not immovable,"3
Marx's poverty was, to be sure, aggravated by his inability to use
wisely the money he did have, as well as by the need to keep up a mini-
mal appearance of being middle class. In the main, however, Marx was
the victim of the illiberal government of his native Prussia, which made it
impossible for him to take up any of the careers for which he was
suited—as teacher, lawyer, or journalist—and instead forced him to leave
Germany. France and Belgium gave him temporary refuge but then ex-
pelled him., at the urging of the Prussian government. Only England,
where he lived after 1850, allowed him and his fellow German political
refugees a place in which to work and scrape together a living as best
they could.
Married in 1841, Marx and his wife, Jenny, had six children. Only three
reached adulthood. The letters that Marx and Jenny wrote to friends re-
porting the death of the other three children remain heartbreaking. Marx
and Jenny were genuinely devoted to each other, even though he had an
illegitimate son. It was also a very unequal relationship. Jenny tran-
scribed her husband's virtually illegible hand into neat copy, went to
meetings and collected articles for him, and supported his political and
scholarly work in other ways—all in addition to bearing six children and
caring for them, often under hard conditions. She died in 1882. Marx fol-
lowed her within the year.
Marx and Engels first met in 1842, when Marx was twenty-four and En-
gels twenty-two. Marx was the editor of a newspaper, Engels a journalist
with an already growing reputation. Born into a fairly well-to-do busi-
ness family of staunch Protestant persuasion, Engels had not gone to uni-
versity but was self-educated. In many respects, Marx and Engels were
very different men; Whereas Marx was mercurial, Engels was even-tem-
pered; whereas Marx was careless with money and his appearance, En-
gels was an astute businessman who was impeccably groomed; whereas
Marx was a family man, Engels, although capable of deep and lasting at-
tachments (for twenty years he had lived with Mary Burns and was
10 Introduction

deeply shaken when she died) never married or had children. Whereas
Engels had the greater facility as a writer, Marx was clearly the deeper
thinker. Both were gifted polemicists, but Marx's prose style at its best is
unmatched by anything that Engels wrote,
Although Marx was very frosty at their first meeting in 1842, by 1844 he
had read a piece by Engels entitled "Outline of a Critique of Political Econ-
omy" that made a deep impression on him. When they met again, they
spent ten days together in conversation, and from that time on they were
allies and close friends until Marx's death in 1883. They wrote two books
together in the next two years. The second of those, the German Ideology, is
of major importance in their thinking. The Communist Manifesto of 1847
was written, by Marx, but its ideas were demonstrably those of both men,
Marx's heavy dependence on Engels' financial support sometimes put
Engels himself in serious straits, but he always came through for his
friend, Marx also owed a good deal to Engels intellectually. As a young
man, Marx was still fighting mainly philosophical battles when Engels,
whose family textile business took him. traveling to England, had begun
to study economics and had gained a firm grasp of the condition of work-
ing people. It was most likely Engels' "Outline of a Critique of Political
Economy" (1843) that gave Marx the impetus to take up the study of eco-
nomics in earnest. Similarly, Engel's Condition of the Working Class in En-
gland (1844) had a significant influence on Marx's thinking. On occasion
Engels provided intellectual and financial support at the same time, Marx
was commissioned to write for the New York Herald Tribune when he was
still somewhat unsure of his English. Engels wrote the first set of articles
published under Marx's name. Their friendship was a source of contin-
ued strength for both men.
By the time Marx died, only the first volume of Capital had been pub-
lished; many versions of the second and. third volumes, none of them
complete, were contained in Marx's notebooks. Engels chose the material
for the second and third volumes of Capital from those notebooks and
edited them, into the form in which we now know them. Engels wrote
about eighty pages of volume 3.
Both Marx and Engels were seriously involved in radical politics. Dur-
ing the 1847-1848 revolutions, both returned to the Continent from, En-
gland, and Engels actually took part in some of the fighting in Germany,
They were active in the Communist League founded in 1847, for which
they wrote the Communist Manifesto, They were members of the First In-
ternational, an international socialist organization founded in 1864, in
which Marx soon came to occupy a position of leadership and to which
he devoted the bulk of his time for the next six or seven, years. In his later
years, Engels, besides working full time in his family business in Man-
chester in order to keep the Marx family and himself going, spent much
Introduction 11

energy publicizing Marx's ideas. He also developed them in directions

probably different from those that Marx would have chosen.
Their thinking diverged, it seems, but as neither gave any indication of
being aware of that divergence, we possess no authoritative account of
their agreements and disagreements. How one interprets the differences
between the two men depends on how one reads those later writings. As
a consequence, the precise relation between Marx and Engels as thinkers
has become a source of controversy among interpreters. Some see one
unified body of doctrine—namely, the thought of Marx-and-Engels; oth-
ers, in an equally untenable position, see Marx as the deep, humanistic
thinker and. Engels as the shallow, positivistic popularizes In fact, the
work of neither thinker is of one piece. Marx had more than one opinion
on a large range of issues, and his opinions are not always consistent. The
views of the later Engels clearly have their roots in some of the positions
Marx held. It is also true, however, that Engels tended to develop only
one side of Marx's very complex thought, and not always the side that
proved in the long run to be the most defensible one. But to ascribe all the
errors in the Marxist tradition to Engels, as some readers have done, is to
exaggerate Marx's genius into infallibility and seriously to underestimate
the contribution of Engels.4 They were different men, their talents were
different, but both of them made major contributions as part of their
many years of close collaboration.

1. Lawrence R. Mishe! and David Frankel, The State of Working America (Wash-
ington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 1,991).
2. Lawrence R. Mishel and jared Bernstein, The State of Working America (Wash-
ington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 1994).
3. Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, vol. \ (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1972), p. 27.
4. One example of that reading is Norman Levine, The Tragic Deception: Marx
Contra Engels (Oxford: Clio Books, 1975). Readers interested in a more detailed
discussion of the relations between Marx and Engels will find a balanced account
in Terrell Carver, Marx and Engels: The Intellectual Relationship (Bloomington: Indi-
ana University Press, 1983).
Human Nature

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF different ways to gain entry into the

theories of Marx and Engels, I will begin with their view of human na-
ture—the question of what differentiates human beings from animals. Al-
though that question is not often discussed, assumptions about human
nature underlie a number of widely held economic and political theories.
Adam Smith was the first great theorist of capitalism and of the institu-
tions we refer to as the "free market." He explained the existence of the
free market by reference to a human "propensity to truck and barter."1
The existence of the free market is the effect of human nature that makes
us always ready to trade and exchange goods ("truck"). This explanation
has interesting consequences: If we live in a market society because we
have certain human traits that we share with, all other human beings, we
can be confident there will be a free market until human nature changes.
We can then reject, with similar confidence, any claims that capitalism can
come to an end. or can be replaced with a different economic system,. Sim-
ilarly, as we look back over history, we see that however different the
economy of hunters and gatherers appears to be from modern capitalism,
they must be the same in important respects because human nature is no
different today from what it was then. We share with hunter-gatherers
our common human nature and thus the "propensity to truck and
barter." Smith asserts that free-market institutions are an essential aspect
of all human societies because they result from universal human traits.
That claim rests on a particular conception of human nature.
Capitalism is often defended as being particularly well suited to
human nature. It is thought to be the preferred economic system because
human beings are acquisitive; they always want more; they are "greedy."
Others claim, that human beings are competitive or that they are usually
only interested in benefiting themselves and those closest to them. These
claims about human nature are not only used to explain why capitalism

Human Nature 13

exists at all but also to argue that capitalism is good or better suited to
human nature than other economic systems.
In more restricted forms, appeals to human nature are used to defend
social stratification: We say that the traditional position of women is Justi-
fied because women have certain unchangeable characteristics: They are
weak; they are emotional; they are better caretakers than men, who are
aggressive and competitive. Similarly sweeping claims are often made
about persons of color to justify their greater rates of poverty, low-wage
jobs, and high rates of incarceration. Here the appeal is not to alleged
facts about the nature of all human beings but only of some important
groups of human beings. But the central structure of all these arguments
is the same. Certain institutions are explained and justified by reference to
a set of traits that some or all human beings are said to possess regardless
of the particular society in which they live: Men cannot help lording it
over women, and women's nature just fits them for their position. White
people, it is claimed, are indeed superior to persons of color because
white human nature is different from the nature of persons of color.
In similar ways the appeal to human nature justifies political institu-
tions: Thomas Jefferson, one of the great theorists in the liberal tradition,
rested important features of the American political system, on the claim
that all human beings have innate rights, (Animals are presumably differ-
ent—they do not have rights,) Other liberal theorists have made similar
claims, saying that human beings possess rights by their very nature.
Those rights in turn determine what a good form of government is:
Democracy respects human rights; dictatorship does not. Hence democ-
racy is good and dictatorship is not. The basis of that claim, is, once again,
a conception of human nature,
In the eighteenth century, in the writings of John Locke, Thomas Jeffer-
son, and Thomas Paine, the appeal to human nature, with its innate
rights, provided an argument for more democratic institutions and for
freeing commerce from government supervision. In the nineteenth cen-
tury many socialists argued, against capitalism by asserting that human
beings are by nature cooperative. In our time portrayals of human nature
tend to justify social and economic conditions as they are. Arguments re-
garding human nature have been used to defend the status quo as well as
to attack it.

Marx and Engels on Human Nature

Marx and Engels had no use for conservative arguments that purport to
show that the world as it is now is as it ought to be because it conforms to
human nature. Nor did they want to press for change by appealing to
claims about universal human nature as did the great eighteenth-century
14 Human Nature

political and economic theorists. They refused to get involved in argu-

ments about whether human beings are by nature cooperative or compet-
itive or whether greed or generosity is the more powerful motive because
they were extremely skeptical about such broad assertions about the es-
sential traits of all human beings, past, present, and future. As evidence,
most people who make such claims point to the people they know. But
that does not suffice to establish generalizations about human beings in
different places and in different periods of history. We need to compare
the behaviors, the values, the socially approved practices of human be-
ings across time in order to form some reliable generalizations about
human nature.
But once we consult history, we see that our predecessors did have very
different traits and lead very different lives from ours, that indeed "all
history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature."2
The claims that particular authors made about all human nature are at
best true only in their own culture. There are very few if any human traits
that belong to all human beings at all times and. places.
But history shows us more. The changes in human life and personality
have been closely connected with the ways in which people produced the
means necessary for their continued existence. As groups, tribes, and na-
tions developed new ways of feeding, housing, and perpetuating them-
selves, their ways of being and their "natures" changed. History not only
documents those changes but also shows that human beings have an im-
portant hand in bringing them about.
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or any-
thing else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from an-
imals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence (GI, T ISO).3

Traditionally, philosophers have taken consciousness or religion to de-

fine the essence of human beings. These are the unchanging characteris-
tics of human nature that supposedly differentiate us from animals. Marx
and Engels, by contrast, chose as essential the fact that humans produce.
But if we read beyond the passage quoted, we begin to see that this choice
has rather unusual implications:
By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their
actual material life. The way in which men produce their means of subsistence
. . . is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definiteform,of express-
ing their life.... As individuals express their life, so they are. (GI, T150)

This paragraph goes through a number of steps:

1. In, producing the particular goods that a group needs, its members
produce the particular ways in which they go about meeting their
Human Nature 15

material needs; they produce "their actual material life," Thus, for
example, people who farm not only create farm products but also
determine their worklife to be that of farmers.
2. But this worklife determines their entire way of life. Farmers are dif-
ferent from urban dwellers not only in that they farm, rather than
working in offices or factories; they are different in all sorts of other
ways. Country life as a whole is different from city life and breeds
different people than does city life. The pace of life in the country is
slower, and the people who live there tend to be relatively conserva-
tive and resist change. The pace in the city is more frenetic; urban
dwellers are likelier to welcome change and are less rooted.
3, People who live differently are different people: "As individuals ex-
press their life, so they are." So it makes no sense to claim that all
human beings are greedy or competitive, for people who live in sit-
uations where people regularly compete with each other will turn
out to be competitive. People living in societies organized around
different customs will turn out to be different

Elsewhere Marx connects kind of personality to kind of technology. In a

famous aphorism he asserts that "the handmill gives you the society with
the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist"
(Marx, 1963, 109). Different technologies demand different sorts of social
organizations. Societies with low productivity where all work is done by
hand tend to be societies where people manage to meet their minimum
needs without producing much of a surplus. Trade and markets are not
central to such societies because there is very little left over to trade after
each family has met its minimum needs. In such societies the people who
live off the work and products of others must resort to force to take from
others what they produce.
In feudal society, for example, the kings, princes, and knights used force
to get products from the peasants and coerced them to work to maintain
the kings and nobles. In a capitalist society, in contrast, the availability of
machinery ("the steam-mill'") raises the level of productivity. Because peo-
ple produce more than a subsistence minimum, there is need for trade and
markets. The powerful in a capitalist society do not use naked force to get
what they want; they use commercial mechanisms. A successful feudal lord
needs to be a particular kind of person, a skilled fighter who values honor
and bravery. Such qualities were important to feudal lords because for
them war was a primary occupation. What is more, war was of a particular
kind, involving hand-to-hand combat with sword and shield—not shoot-
ing missiles at an unseen enemy miles away. Hand-to-hand combat re-
quires a certain kind of courage. Capitalists, too, must be risk takers who
need a certain kind of courage, but this courage is different from the raw
16 Human Nature

physical courage of the feudal lord, "Honor" is a word not much in use
today because it no longer counts for much. Instead we talk about "credi-
bility," Being honorable does not matter in the commercial world as long as
people think they can trust you. The appearance of trustworthiness is more
important than actually being honorable and trustworthy. Thus various
levels of technology are at the root of various kinds of societies and call for
various types of personalities and systems of values.
Without doubt Marx's aphorism oversimplifies the connections be-
tween technology and social orders and their dominant personality types,
but the basic claim is worth taking seriously: In different societies with
different levels of technology and therefore contrasting forms of social or-
ganization, people have diverse values and think very differently about
what sorts of individuals they want to or ought to be.4
Early in his work, in his "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx wrote that
the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In, its
reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. (T145}
This passage is usually understood as denying that there is any such
thing as a universal human nature. Marx is said to have rejected the con-
cept of an overarching human nature. But that, of course, does not make
any sense. In the discussions I have quoted in this chapter, Marx repeat-
edly distinguishes between animals and human beings and makes any
number of claims about human nature. Marx and Engels do not deny that
there are continuities in human development or that if we describe
human traits broadly enough we may find some that belong to all human
beings. They are even willing to say that what distinguishes human be-
ings from animals is their ability to determine what it means to be a
human being. The method of historical comparison that Marx and Engels
advocated for studying the history of human nature does make use of
some generalizations about human beings. Human beings, for instance,
have needs, and their actions are in part driven by these needs. But of
course these needs vary from society to society. Human beings plan and
think, but how they go about doing that depends upon the culture in
which they live. Insisting on the variability of human nature as well as on
human self-creation does not foreclose the possibility that there may be
some universal features of human beings.5 But by comparing human be-
ings in different historical periods, we see that what are usually thought
to be universal traits are specific characteristics that belong only to per-
sons in a limited span of human history.6

Private interest is itself already interest shaped by a society. It can only be at-
tained under conditions laid down by the society and with means the society
provides. (G, 74)
Human Nature 17

The upshot of these observations is that human beings not only produce
things but they produce themselves as well, and as people produce their
livelihoods in different ways, so they make themselves into different peo-
ple. People are endlessly different from one another, although they are all
humans. Their differences are not fortuitous; they result from processes
under human control and are produced by these human beings them-
selves. As a consequence, claims about universal human nature, about
traits possessed by all human beings in all cultures, are not likely to be
true. If there is a universal human essence, it is not at all clear what it con-
sists of. Hence we must be skeptical of political arguments meant to show
that some particular economic, social, or political system, is the best be-
cause it is best suited to universal human nature.
It is far from clear what the process of human self-production looks
like. Several chapters of this book will, be required to explicate this con-
ception. We will need to see that human beings do not make themselves
into who they are individually but only in large groups. We will also need
to see that the process of human self-creation is only rarely a conscious
one. Instead, it results from individual and group actions undertaken for
purposes other than creating a particular form of human society and the
sorts of people that make such a society flourish. Finally, we shall see that
the effect of human beings on their social environment is reciprocal; the
environment also affects human beings in important ways.

Species Being
From these reflections emerges a concept of human nature that Marx
summarizes by saying that humans are "species beings";
Human beings are species beings, not only because in practice and in theory
they adopt the species as their object.., but also because they treat them-
selves as the actual, living species.... The animal is immediately identical
with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life-activity.
Human beings make their life-activity itself the object of their will and of
their consciousness. (EPM, T 7-5-76)

Marx here distinguishes human beings from animals. Animals belong to a

species, but human beings are "species beings." Human beings do not
merely belong to the human species; they also make the species "the ob-
ject" of thinking and action. That means, to begin with, that human be-
ings (sometimes) act only after deliberating. An animal simply is what it
does; human beings act with forethought:

Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings,

like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it itnmedi-
18 Human Nature

ately needs for itself or its young.... It produces only under the dominion of
immediate physical need, whilst human beings produce even when they are
free from physical need. (EPM, T 76)
Animals build their dwellings and do whatever else they do compelled
by need; human beings act even when they are not compelled by need
but because they first thought about the action and then chose to perform
it. Later, in the first volume of Capital, Marx makes that point much more
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts
to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells, But what distin-
guishes the worst architect .from the best of bees is this, that the architect
raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. (CI, T 344)

One can read these passages to say that Marx distinguishes animals from
human beings by the fact that human beings plan their actions before
they perform them, whereas animals act from instinct.7 That is no doubt
what the passage says. But is that all that it says? This interpretation does
not tell us what Marx means by "species being." It is incomplete.
Other commentators add, that, according to Marx, human beings create
their own needs: "The satisfaction of the first need . . . leads to new needs;
and this production of new needs is the first historical act" (GI, T 156).
Human beings are species beings because they are able to change them-
selves—for instance, by creating new needs.8
The passage does not explain further what is meant by "the production
of new needs," but elsewhere Marx speaks of it in very modern terms:
Under private property their significance [viz. of human needs] is reversed:
every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to... place
him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of gratification
and therefore economic ruin, (EPM, T 93)

Long ago, new needs may have arisen as a consequence of climactic

change: When a series of droughts occurred in a region, its inhabitants
needed either to move or to develop a system of wells and cisterns to col-
lect the scarce rainwater. At other times new inventions, such as the in-
vention of the printing press, created in more people the need to read and
write. But in a society such as ours, new needs do not arise haphazardly
as the consequence of other changes but are deliberately created by man-
ufacturers who want to sell their commodities. Advertising is a deliberate
form of creating new needs. Thus "creating needs" involves very differ-
ent goals and activities in different historical periods, but it is always a
feature of human existence.
Human Nature 19

Acting with foresight, human beings not only plan their lives and ac-
tions but also change human nature, for example, by creating new needs,
But we also change human nature in other ways, for instance, by accus-
toming people to work by the clock rather than by the sun and the sea-
sons. Marx quotes Dr. Ure, an economist contemporary with Marx, dis-
cussing the invention and introduction of mechanical spinning machines:
The main difficulty did not, to my apprehension, lie so much in the invention
of a proper self-acting mechanism [viz. an industrial machine]... as in train-
ing human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify
themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton,'

Medieval peasants worked from sunup to sundown during harvest time

and worked much less in the winters. Their work habits were "desul-
tory."10 Modern industrial workers punch in by the clock and punch out
by the clock, and their supervisors make sure that they work when they
are supposed to. They do this year-round, regardless of weather or the
seasons. Their different rhythm of work, determined by the "unvarying
regularity of the automaton," changes their habits, heightens the impor-
tance of clocks and clock time as opposed to the time kept by seasons and
the sun.
There is a further aspect to this talk about species beings; Human be-
ings decide—differently at different times—what it means to be an ade-
quate or a good human being as well as what is a life fit for human be-
ings. Certain actions are abhorred as "inhuman"; certain persons are said
to be "dehumanized" by suffering; certain conditions of life are said to be
unfit for human beings. These standards in turn affect how people live,
how they rear their children, and what standards they set for their own
behavior in their moral codes, their laws, and customs. Human beings "in
theory as well as in practi.ce adopt the species as their object" because
questions concerning what makes us human, what sort of life is appropri-
ate for human beings, are of theoretical concern for us—we think and dis-
agree about them. But they are also a practical concern when we praise
someone as a fine human being, a particularly admirable example of our
species, or condemn certain practices as "inhuman." We regard certain
persons as models for all of us and. urge our children to imitate them. We
regard others as bad, immoral, or evil and proscribe certain behaviors as
illegal and punish them. In these ways our beliefs about what it means to
be human are translated into actual behaviors, and we make ourselves
into certain sorts of human beings different from the human beings that
flourish in other societies.
The question, What is peculiarly human? is answered differently by
different groups of people because they live different lives. But they
20 Human Nature

themselves made their way of life what it is in a variety of ways: They

adapted to their physical surroundings by producing what they needed
in specific ways. They organized their societies, developing structures of
government and social relations, and created systems of beliefs about the
universe, setting up moral beliefs and practices. As a consequence, we
may well say that human beings determine what it means to be human—
that is, what it is that makes their lives human lives. This self-creation is
done as a consequence of thinking and planning rather than being driven
by instinct. Humans therefore also determine what it means to be human
by virtue of their intentional actions.
It is important, however, to be clear on this point: Although Marx be-
lieved that humans, unlike animals, act with a purpose and for reasons,
he also recognized that not everything their actions bring about is in-
tended. Depending upon the situation, humans develop various ways of
meeting their needs, which requires thought and inventiveness. Such
changes in ways of life are intended. But not all the effects on human na-
ture that often result from these deliberately instituted changes are in-
tended. Human beings do not set out deliberately to change human na-
ture itself. They do sometimes consider what is properly human as they
set about solving their day-to-day problems. Some solutions to problems
are not acceptable because they are not fitting for human beings; others
are preferred because they are particularly humane. But some changes in
human nature are the unintended consequences of other changes made
deliberately. The definition of "human being" is the result of intentional
actions and their unintended consequences. As we shall see in Chapter
16, Marx and Engels also believed that in the future it will be possible for
human beings to define human being deliberately.
Human nature has changed along with ways of producing what
human beings need to maintain themselves and as new technologies have
come into existence. But what are the causes of historical change? Marx
and Engels have two apparently very different answers to that question.
On the one hand they tell us that "human beings make their own history,
but they do not make it just as they please" (18th, T 595). Here historical
change appears as the product of human actions, if not always of explicit
human choices.
But on the other hand Marx also tells us elsewhere that "the mode of
production of material life conditions the general process of social, politi-
cal and intellectual life" (T, 4). In the second quotation, we do not hear
about human beings' shaping history but only about complex economic
processes' affecting social conditions and human thinking. Marx holds
both views and. believed that they are not inconsistent—as they appear to
be on the surface. We will explain the complex interactions among human
Human Nature 21

beings, their societies, and their sodoeconomic systems in the chapters

that follow.
What we have seen so far is only one side of the complex theory of
Marx and Engels. That theory rests on historical comparisons of human
beings and their societies at different times. It raises a strong challenge to
ordinary assumptions about human nature—such as that all human be-
ings are greedy and competitive or such generalized claims as that all
human beings are born with inalienable rights. These generalizations are
not supported by detailed examinations of human life in different histori-
cal periods. The other side of Marx's theory of history stresses the impor-
tant role the environment plays in shaping human beings and producing
and maintaining a particular kind of human being. We shall discuss those
ideas much more in subsequent chapters.

For Further Reading

Vemon Venable, Human Nature: The Marxian View (New York; Meridian Books,
1966), chapters 2, 5, and 6.

1. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
(New York: Modem, Library, 1985), p. 17.
2. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York International Publishers, 1963), p. 147,
3. All quotations from. Marx and Engels, unless otherwise stated, have been
taken from Robert C. Tucker, ed,, The Marx-Engels Rtader, 2nd ed. (New York: W.
W, Norton, 1978). References to this book, abbreviated "T," appear in parentheses
along with the appropriate page numbers; preceding each such reference is an ab-
breviation indicating the name of the work by Marx and/or Engels in which the
quotation was originally found. For a list of these abbreviations, see the front of
this volume,
4. There is a further premise implicit in this claim that Marx does not argue for:
Human beings—their very nature—are shaped, by their beliefs about what it means
to be a human being. That belief is discussed in more detail in the subsequent sec-
tion in connection with Marx's assertion that humans are "species beings."
5. Peter W. Archibald, Marx and the Missing Link: "Human Nature" (Atlantic
Highlands, N.JL: Humanities Press, 1989).
6. Thus the pursuit of private interest is said to animate economic activities in a
capitalist society, Marx does not deny that. In a capitalist society, interests are usu-
ally the interests of separate persons. But Marx also points out that this feature of
capitalist society is itself a social fact—a fact about how our society is organized,
What is more, the pursuit of private interest is possible only in a social system
where there is a market, with exchanges and prices set by supply and demand.
7. John McMurtry, Tfx Structure of'Marx's World-View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1978), chapter 1.
22 Human Nature

8. Allen E. Buchanan, Marx and Justice (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allenheld,
1982), pp. 27-28.
9. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 141.
10. Missionaries in the Amazon rainforest report that the indigenous people get
up at 3 A.M. and then sit and talk until about 9 before they go to work in their gar-
dens. Often they interrupt their work to sit down for long conversations. Jose Ar-
naJot ("Chuint"), Lo Que los Achuar me han Ensefiado (What the Achuar have taught
me) (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1992).
Against Individualism

HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS adapted to change by devising

new ways of meeting their needs. As a consequence of these adaptations,
human nature has changed. It is tempting to think that these changes are
due entirely to the actions of individual persons and to read the Marxian
claim that human beings produce themselves as meaning that human be-
ings produce alterations in human nature individually. "Human beings
create themselves" is often, read as, "Men and women, individually make
themselves what they are." This is taken to mean that persons who are
successful may rightfully take pride in their success because they them-
selves made that success happen. Conversely, persons who suffer are
thought to have brought that suffering on themselves. In the United
States this thesis is often expressed as, "Everyone can advance him- or
herself." Whether someone is doing well or not depends only
on his or her own enterprise, hard work, and, perhaps, luck. The social
conditions under which we strive have no effect on the outcomes of our
The idea that individual human beings make themselves who they are
is often, referred to as "individualism.." Marx and Engels were quite criti-
cal of individualism. They devoted a good deal of energy to arguing that
in a capitalist economy working people, the poor, and the unemployed
suffer even though, they are as intelligent and work as hard as people who
are much better off. Unemployment, according to Marx and Engels, is cre-
ated by employers (as a class) to hold down wages. A certain level of
poverty is encouraged for the same purposes. Hence they do not want the
claim about human self-creation to be read as applying to individual
human beings separately, making each person responsible for his or her
existence as either a pauper or a captain, of industry.
But their views, like those of many other theorists, are easily misunder-
stood because they use "individualism" in several senses. It is best to list

24 Against Individualism

those different senses before summarizing Marx's and Engels' reasons for
rejecting individualism.

The Varieties of Individualism

The term "individualism" is used in at least three quite different senses. It
is often a label for value judgments about the rights and the importance
of individual persons. I will call this normative individualism. It makes
one of three assertions:

1. Every human being is valuable, has certain rights, and deserves re-
spect from other human beings merely by virtue of being human. As
such, each individual has the right to develop his or her abilities to
the fullest That society is best which furthers individual self-devel-
opment the most.
2. Individual persons are important in their own right and need not
yield to the demands of the group—whatever the group may be in
any given case. The idea that, on the contrary, the needs and inter-
ests of groups must take precedence over those of individuals is
often referred to as "collectivism.."
3. Human beings, however dependent on family and social groups
they were in their youth, are able to and therefore ought to emanci-
pate themselves from the tutelage of their society. Each person
should think for him- or herself, form his or her own life-plan and
moral values and live by those. Individualism here asserts that
human beings should be autonomous.

But often individualism does not involve value judgments, It is instead

a thesis about the basic building blocks of the social world. Individualism
in such a case asserts that the social world is made up of individual per-
sons and that all social groups and institutions are nothing but aggregates
of such individual persons. Groups, nations, ethnic groups, corporations,
states, bureaucracies, and so on are all composites of separate individuals.
The characteristics of these different groups are simply the characteristics
of the individuals that compose these groups. Strictly speaking, social en-
tities such as governments, corporations, and universities have no charac-
teristics of their own but only those of the individual persons that make
up those institutions. The actions and vicissitudes of states, or of nations,
are thus the acts or experiences of individuals. Histories of groups are no
more than the llistories of its individual members. I will call this social in-
dividualism, because it asserts that social groups are nothing but aggre-
gates of individuals. The opposing view is social collectivism, which
holds that groups have identities and characteristics separate and distinct
Against Individualism 25

from those of the individuals that make up any group. The greatness of a
nation depends not only on its leaders but also on the excellence of its in-
stitutions. The history of a nation is not only the history of its citizens and
their leaders but the history of the exploits of an entire people, the accom-
plishments of its governments, the splendors of its culture. History
records the deeds not only of individuals but also of collectives, such as
states, cultures, and peoples.
A third kind of individualism is methodological. That means that we do
not worry about the building blocks of social life but only ask what a
complete explanation of any historical event would look like. The method-
ological individualist believes that "all social phenomena . . . are in prin-
ciple explicable in ways that involve only individuals."1 The opposite
view, methodological collectivism, maintains that when we explain social
events our explanations need to refer not only to the characteristics, ac-
tions, and beliefs of individuals but also to the social structures in which
alone the actions of individuals are possible or make sense,

Marx and Engels' Opposition to Individualism

In a very famous passage, Marx tells us
The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ri-
cardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the 18th
century,.,. The human being is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon [so-
da! animal], not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can indi-
viduate itself only in the midst of society. (G, T 222-223)

This passage is often, read as Marx's rejection of individualism on the

grounds that individuals always exist in social contexts. They are born
into societies, nurtured and raised, in them, and, learn how to live as
adults from other adults in their society. Individuals are always social;
they always depend on their social context for their identity. The isolated
individual is a pure fiction. But if that is Marx's intention here, he is at-
tacking a view that no sane person would ever hold. Of course human be-
ings can exist only in society. Of course children need the nurturing of
family or other social groupings. (And so, of course, do many animals.)
Of course humans raised in isolation or by animals turn out very strange.
We all know that. On the most common interpretation of this passage,
Marx offers a set of familiar platitudes as an argument against individual-
ism. But no one, including Adam Smith and David Ricardo (the two great
English economists on whose work Marx builds his own economics),
would defend individualism as Marx characterizes it here. On, such a,
reading of this passage, Marx would refute a view that no thoughtful per-
son holds.
26 Against Individualism

At issue is not whether individuals exist "outside" of society—very few

do, and those who do will not flourish. The issue is either whether groups
have characteristics distinct from the characteristics of individuals or
whether once individuals are born, nurtured, and educated in a particu-
lar society they can transcend the opinions, prejudices, and limited per-
spectives of their society of origin and become adults who think for them-
selves and see the world clearly, undistorted by the preconceptions of
their native environment.
Marx and Engels do not believe that humans are able to emancipate
themselves fully from the ideas and practices of their native environment.
They follow G. W. R HegeJ in their view that cultures are fully conscious
of their particular characteristics only in retrospect, once they have ceased
to innovate and flourish and look back on their earlier glory. Most of the
time, the people in a particular culture cannot fully articulate their spe-
cific assumptions and outlooks, their particular ways of going about daily
life or confronting the great events in human existence. And one cannot
transcend ideas, customs, and values of which, one is not even aware.
Marx and Engels, as much as anyone else, insisted that one should try to
think for oneself, which means, in part, trying to be critical of the ideas
that one grows up with and takes to be self-evident until one subjects
them to critical examination. But they do not believe that one can emanci-
pate oneself completely from the preconceptions of one's time and cul-
ture. They understand the complex ways in which the ideas or actions of
any group of human beings are conditioned by the social practices and in-
stitutions of their society. Those connections between what one thinks
and the social world in which one lives are often so complicated that they
are intelligible only to the historian who studies that society later. Accord-
ingly, in the preceding chapter we saw how Marx objected to theories that
explain economic behavior and the functioning of capitalist economies ex-
clusively in terms of the interests of private economic agents:
Private interest is itself already interest shaped by a society. It can only be at-
tained under conditions laid down by the society and with means the society
provides. (G, 74)

The desires and interests of human beings cannot be taken at face value
but are themselves shaped by the prevailing social structures. Here the
debate is not over whether only individuals exist but over the correct ex-
planation of economic behavior and, economic systems. The debate
moves from normative or social to methodological individualism. Taking
a historical view, Marx finds methodological individualism indefensible.
Much social theory, then and now, explains what happens in a given soci-
ety exclusively by the actions, beliefs, interests, and desires of individual
persons. But Marx and Engels believe that in one's explanations of eco-
Against Individualism 27

nomic systems one cannot stop with the interests of individuals because
those interests themselves have a history. This history is not just a history
of individual persons but a history of institutions or large groups and
their practices. One can understand why individuals have certain inter-
ests only if one studies the history of the social institutions in which those
individuals live.
The modern tendency to explain social processes in terms of individual
interests and desires has its own history. Methodological individualism is
a fairly recent development. It became popular only with the rise of capi-
talist society because that society attenuated the connections between the
individual and, the social whole. Society is now organized differently
from how it was organized in feudal times; individuals are more or less
independent of the social context. The individual who is what he or she
is, largely independent of his or her social setting, is a modern phenome-
non. Human beings have not always thought of themselves as "individu-
als" and have therefore not always been individuals in the sense in which
we who live in a capitalist society are individuals.
The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and
hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a
greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family, and in the family ex-
panded into the clan; then later in various forms of communal society arising
out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans. Only in the 18th century, in
"civil society/' do the various forms of social connectedness confront the in-
dividual as mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity.
(G, T 222-223)

The term "civil society" refers to the capitalist economy, the sphere of
private economic activity, competition, and pursuit of profit and wealth.
In this particular social setting, individuals are indeed distinct from one
another because each is in competition with the other. Family ties, social
connections, and traditions are for the individual so many "means to-
wards his private purposes" to be used and manipulated. They are no
longer of the essence of what that person is.
In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the
natural bonds, etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory
of a definite and limited human conglomerate. (G, T 222)
In earlier times the very identity of a person was constituted by social
connections. Property ownership consisted of membership in a commu-
nity. In those times methodological individualism—the belief that indi-
viduals, their characteristics, actions, and beliefs can yield complete ex-
planations of social phenomena—would have made no sense whatsoever.
We encounter here one example of the thesis that all of human history
28 Against Individualism

consists of a change in human nature or that human beings, in the course

of their history, create themselves. Human nature changes with respect to
the relative independence of persons from others, with respect to the ex-
tent to which any person is separate from other persons. In the past there
was little social mobility, but today we can move from one social, group to
another more or less at will. We form our own identity independently of
family or social group. We are motivated by self-interest instead of by the
demands of the group to which we belong. Individualism, in its various
forms, is intelligible only against the background of our social system.
The plausibility of methodological individualism is the product of our
particular social order. It is not a universal truth but, on the contrary, one
of the misconceptions that arises in a society like ours. Marx was quite ex-
plicit: Methodological individualism is false.

Marx and Engels' Opposition to Collectivism

Many theorists believe that if you reject individualism., you must endorse
collectivism. They have therefore accused Marx of being a collectivist. We
need to consider what that accusation amounts to.
The Hegelians against whom Marx and Engels were arguing in the late
1840s tended to treat society as if it were a superperson. They were un-
abashed social collectivists. Following Hegel himself, they talked about
the state as if it were a superperson that acted, decided, and so on. Since
then others have talked about "the people" or "the nation" as if thev were
such superpersonal subjects, and many politicians in the United States
today talk about "the American people" in the same way. They say that
"the American people" believe this, will not accept that, or will never
agree to something else.
By itself, social collectivism is probably no more interesting than social
individualism. But it gains in importance because it seems to validate the
corresponding normative view, namely, normative collectivism, the view
that the whole—the social group, the nation, the army, the party, or even
the family—counts for more than the individual who belongs to any such
grouping. The political rhetoric that ascribes the characteristics of persons
to social entities has, from the days of Hegel to the present, served
regimes that suppress individuals and their freedoms. It is easy to see
how that happens: If the "nation" asks me to go to war, what value can
my pacifism, have or the need of my family for me in the face of the de-
mand of the whole people? If the "state" demands something from me,
how can I, a single individual, resist? To the extent that the political
rhetoric that elevates social groups or institutions to the role of superper-
sons is accepted, the needs, beliefs, and moral stances of individuals pale
by comparison to those of the state, the people, and humanity. Social col-
Against Individualism 29

lectivism often provides the political rhetoric for oppressive regimes that
violate individual integrity.
But Marx emphatically rejected collectivism in its normative sense; He
believed normative individualism to be all-important. His persistent criti-
cism of capitalism, was that it cripples people: The division of labor pro-
duces persons who can do only one thing (CI, T 409) rather than being
fully developed in as many respects as possible. In an ideal society, the in-
dividual would be fully developed (G, T 287, 290; GI, T 160). Proletarians
in a capitalist society lack freedom because their work is under the control
of the owners of the workplace and because political power is in the
hands of the owners of the means of production. (For a further discussion
of that point, see Chapters 11 and 14.) In the good society, work will be
under the control of everyone together. The workers will be free because
they control the means of production and therefore their worklife (GI, T
191). They will have political freedom because they will run their lives
democratically. The goal of the revolution that Marx and Engels work for
and advocate is full individual human freedom (CIII, T 441). The well-
being of individual persons, their full and all-sided development, their
freedom are the highest values for Marx and Engels,
Accordingly, they were also hostile to social collectivism because it fre-
quently gives support to normative collectivism.
Just as society itself produces human beings as human beings, so is society pro-
duced by them,.,. What is to be avoided above all is the reestablishing of
"Society" as an abstraction vis a vis the individual. (EPM, T 86)
Unfortunately, Marx was not always sufficiently cautious in his expres-
sion. We already cited the following sentence in the preceding chapter;
But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.
In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. (T 145}
Thus states the "Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach," one of a set of notes in which
Marx first articulated his disagreements with Ludwig Feuerbach.2 The
passage seems to tell us that a person is nothing but the product of social
relations, and it has often been interpreted in that way. The individual
vanishes as insignificant; social relations appear to be what matters. This
is certainly an example of social collectivism. But most likely Marx over-
stated his position in these aphorisms, which received a more moderate
formulation in the German Ideology;
We do not mean it to be understood... that, for example, the rentier, the cap-
italist, etc. cease to be persons; but their personality is conditioned and deter-
mined by quite definite class relations. (GI, T 199}
Marx's more carefully considered position seems to be the following:
Every person is unique, and so, of course, is the capitalist. But in order to
30 Against Individualism

be a successful capitalist, one needs to be competitive, aggressive, and

dedicated to the work of making money. Anyone without those personal-
ity traits will fail. Hence the particular personality traits found most often
among capitalists are determined by the work they do, by the social set-
ting in which they spend their lives. Methodological individualism ig-
nores the fact that what it means to be an individual is essentially deter-
mined by the social setting in which persons live and that, for the same
reason, being an individual person has had significantly different mean-
ings throughout history. But it is nevertheless true that different individu-
als fill their social roles in different ways. Not all capitalists are indistin-
guishable from one another; in fact they vary enormously because they
are such different persons with different histories and thus exemplify the
general traits of capitalists in quite different ways,

What Is the Position of Marx and Engels?

But are Marx and Engels contradicting themselves here? Sometimes they
reject individualism; that seems to commit them to collectivism. But at
other times they reject collectivism just as vigorously. In order to under-
stand what seems to be a glaring contradiction we need to return to the
distinctions between the kinds of individualism and collectivism: Marx
and Engels do reject social collectivism because they reject the Hegelian
normative collectivism,. They do not believe that the social or political
whole is more important than its individual members. They agree that so-
cial groups do not literally speak because they do not have bodies to
speak with and, for the same reason, do not literally act in other ways. So-
cieties and other groups are not superpersons; they do not have values or
beliefs. They do not produce anything. To that extent Marx and Engels re-
ject social collectivism..
But when we come to methodological individualism and collectivism—
to the question of what explains the actions of individual persons—they
side with the collectivists. They reject methodological individualism. The
rejection of social collectivism (the idea that societies and groups are su-
perpersons) does not imply that we cannot and, indeed, must not refer to
groups to which individuals belong when we want to understand and. ex-
plain the actions of individuals. The actions of individuals are shaped by
the society to which those individuals belong. If capitalists are particular
kinds of persons because they are capitalists, then their typical patterns of
action are shaped in part by the society in which they live, in which it is
possible to be a capitalist. Thus, although it remains true that only indi-
vidual persons can act in a literal sense, it is equally true and important
that when it comes to explaining those actions we need to talk not only
about individuals but also about the social settings that shape them.
Against Individualism 31

When Marx and Engels say, therefore, that we human beings create our-
selves, the "we" does not refer to you and. me as distinct and separate indi-
viduals. Marx and Engels insisted that "individuals . . . do not make
themselves" (GI, T 164). But neither are Marx and Engels treating social
systems as superpersons. They are saying something much more modest:
People's beliefs and actions are molded in significant ways by the prac-
tices characteristic of their societies. For instance, persons living in com-
petitive societies that value individual initiative are likely to think of
themselves in much more individualistic terms than persons living in a
society where collective action and responsibility shape daily practices.
But individuals are not Just the passive recipients of social influence. To a
significant extent we can be aware of and consider critically the influences
of society on each of us. The practices and institutions of any given soci-
ety that shape its members are themselves maintained and altered in the
day-to-day activities of these members. Often they do this without being
aware of these consequences of their actions. At other times they set
about deliberately to change institutions or practices. These actions are, of
course, the actions of individuals, but they affect practices or institutions
only if they are done by many individuals over long periods of time.
In Chapters 4 and 5 we will discuss in much greater detail how social
settings influence the actions and thoughts of individual persons. We will
see that nothing said so far implies that human choices are necessitated
by social contexts or that human beings are not free agents. Then, in
Chapter 16, we will explore the conception of socialism in Marx and En-
gels, which gives an important place to the development of the individu-
ality of all persons. Marx and Engels never reject normative individual-
ism—the ethical appreciation of individual worth. They affirm without
reservation that all individual persons are valuable in their own right.
But first we need to say more about history, in the course of which
human beings determine what a human life is.

For Further Reading

Shlomo Avineri, Tfc? Social and Political Thought of Karl Man (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1970), chapter 3.

1. Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press,
1985), p. 5.
2. Feuerbach was a contemporary of Marx whose critiques of Hegel made a
major impression on Marx in the early 1840s.

THE WORD "HISTORY" REFERS both to past events and to our

reconstruction of past events. In this chapter I discuss history in both

History as the Transformation of Human Nature

Our conception of human nature affects our view of what the past was
like. For the individualist, who hopes to explain human history by refer-
ence to the actions of individual persons, the history of groups becomes
the history of its members and, more likely than not, that of its illustrious
members. The individualist, therefore, finds in history primarily the acts
of monarchs and conquerors, tyrants and individual saviors. History, as
the reconstruction of the past, reports on the acts of individuals.
If we adopt Marx's position that human beings jointly define what
"human being" is, history begins to look quite different. History now
comes to be, as Marx puts it, the process of human self-transformation. In
the discussion of individualism in Chapter 2, we saw some examples of
that process of self-transformation. Here are others:
In the change from a feudal society to capitalism, people acquire an en-
tirely different relation to their work.
The limited commerce and the scant communications between the individ-
ual towns, the lack of population and the narrow needs did not allow of a
higher division of labor, and therefore every man who wished to become a
master [of some craft] had to become proficient in the whole of his craft.
Thus there is found with medieval craftsmen an interest in their special work
and in proficiency in it, which was capable of rising to a narrow arfisttc sense
. . . Every medieval craftsman was completely absorbed in Ms work . . . to
which he was subjected to a far greater extent than the modern worker
whose work is a matter of indifference to him. (GI, T 178}

History 33

The medieval craftsman "was completely absorbed in his work"; to the

modern worker, work is "a matter of indifference." Today work is what
you get paid for; if, in order to make a living, you need to do different
work from what you have been doing, that really matters very little, as
long as the pay is better at your new Job. The role that work plays in
defining a person's identity is different under capitalism from what it was
in a feudal society. Under capitalism, what one does is not a defining
characteristic of a person as it had been under feudalism; the nature of
being a person changed with the rise of capitalism. For medieval crafts-
men to adopt the name of their occupation as their own name—smith,
carpenter, wright, shoemaker, and so on—made sense because what they
did—and most likely what their fathers did and their sons were going to
do—was of central importance to them. What we do is not of comparable
importance to us today.
With capitalism, competition, and social mobility arises a new concep-
tion of the person as a separate individual, relatively independent of her
or his social setting. In a feudal society,
a nobleman always remains a nobleman, a commoner always a com-
moner. ... The accidental nature of the conditions of life for the individual
appears only with the emergence of the class, which is itself a product of the
bourgeoisie. This accidental character is only engendered and developed by
competition and the struggle of individuals among themselves, (GI, T199)

In a feudal society, personal identity consists to a significant extent of one's

social station. Social mobility is thereby restricted, for a person could not
change his or her social condition and still be the same person. Many gen-
erations have remained in the same circumstances because those condi-
tions have defined who they were. In capitalist society, by contrast, the
person becomes quite separate from his or her social or class position. If a
tycoon goes bankrupt, he is still the same person. He may find the transi-
tion to working difficult, but his personal identity is unchanged.
But what, then, is a person's identity? In past societies one's family,
place of origin, trade were important determinants of personal identity. In
a capitalist society, relations to family, tribe, and trade have been loos-
ened. One can leave one's family, change one's residence and occupation,
without being a different person. External facts about oneself no longer
determine identity; identity has become "personal." It is no longer social
to the extent that it once was. As a consequence, what one thinks about
one's identity comes to be much more important, and identities can now
be manufactured. Since they are no longer constrained by external, social
facts that are not easily changed, such as who your father was or where
you were born, identities tend to become commodities, made to order.
Identities to that extent can be purchased, and money becomes important
34 History

in determining who someone is. Under capitalism, money figures exten-

sively in the production of identities:
That which is for me through the medium of money—that for which I can pay
(i.e., which money can buy)—that am f, the possessor of money.... I am stupid,
but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be
stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has
power over the talented not more talented than the talented? (EPM, T103-104}

In a capitalist society, where anything you might want you can buy, the
identity of a person is determined by money. You can go to the plastic sur-
geon, the hairdresser, the public relations expert to turn you into a differ-
ent person. New clothes, new interests, new fads, new ideas can easily be
adopted and make you over into a person quite different from what you
were only a short while ago. This process of identity formation is totally
different from what persons in feudal societies experienced.
The nature of moral codes has also changed:
During the time that the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loy-
alty, etc., were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie, the con-
cepts freedom, equality, etc. [played the central role]. (GI, T173)

In a feudal society, war, fought with swords and shields, was the business
of the upper classes. Political relations between king and nobles, between
landowners and peasants were based on personal relations, rooted in re-
lations between families. For the warlike, honor was a supreme value. In
the relations between persons that rested in the relations between fami-
lies, loyalty and steadfastness counted for a great deal In a highly mobile
society like ours, where many of the relations are exchange relations be-
tween people who do not know each other at all, neither honor nor loy-
alty has an important place. But the transactions in the marketplace pre-
suppose certain kinds of freedom and equality. Those conditions are
therefore much more important than honor and loyalty.
Needs are similarly subject to historical change: Hunger is hunger,
but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a dif-
ferent hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand,
nail and tooth. (G, T 230)
Discussions about basic human needs tend to be very abstract. In actual-
ity, the need for food is always embedded in the concrete practices con-
cerned with providing, preparing, and eating food. In any given setting,
people are not simply hungry; they are hungry for particular foods pre-
pared and served in specific ways. Travelers in foreign countries will go
for a considerable time with little food rather than eat strange food under
conditions that seem unappetizing to them. They are "not hungry." In
similar ways needs for shelter or for love and companionship change sig-
History 35

nificantly as shelter changes from caves to big-city apartments or as ro-

mantic love replaces the companionship in marriages arranged by fami-
lies for dynastic reasons.
The idea that human beings define themselves goes hand in hand with
the idea that human beings are historical beings. This is not to say merely
that human beings live under changing conditions but, as Marx said in
The Poverty of Philosophy, that "all history is nothing but a continuous
transformation of human nature."1
Human beings are historical in that being human itself has a history and
changes throughout history. That is, the concept of humanity changes.
History consists of more than the deeds of individual persons, particu-
larly of the high and mighty, of princes and of popes, or of the more com-
plex process in which the circumstances surrounding the lives of men and
women have changed. It is now the process in which human beings re-
peatedly define and redefine what human beings are.
But as we saw before, this process of redefinition is not always deliber-
ate. Human beings do not gather together periodically to consider what it
has recently meant to be human and to change that definition, in the way
in which fashion designers get together annually to redefine what it
means to be well dressed, The redefinitions of human nature often flow
indirectly from the changed ways in which people solve their concrete
material problems and from the needs that arise as a consequence of the
development of new techniques and the attendant changes in social orga-
nization. That is, human beings resolve the problems they find in their
day-to-day activities and try to keep their ways of living unchanged. The
consequences of these attempts to solve problems are rarely understood
at the time; attempts to preserve existing conditions often have the oppo-
site effect of bringing about changes in prevailing institutions. But at the
same time, of course, as human beings think about particular ways of
solving their problems, relevant considerations are, for instance, that cer-
tain measures would be "inhuman" or that certain solutions proposed are
more "humane" than others. We do not consider solving the problem of
poverty by executing or exiling all poor people because that is not in
keeping with our idea of what it means to be a human being. (That is not
to say that all the ways in which we actually deal with problems such as
poverty are always humane.)
The ends are intended, but the results which actually follow from these ac-
tions are not intended, or ... they ultimately have consequences quite other
than those intended,2
Human beings transform what "human being" is not simply by engag-
ing in philosophical discourse about the meaning of being human but
more frequently in the course of solving their day-to-day problems. But
as we think about daily problems, we also think about what solutions our
36 History

humanity demands or forbids. The concrete problems are solved inten-

tionally; the attendant redefinitions or transformations of human nature
are often unintended.

Writing History
Implicit in the disagreement between Marx and the proponents of individ-
ualism is a disagreement about the study and writing of history. The
methodological individualist insists that we must always try to explain
events by providing accounts of individual persons and their behavior
and thought. The Allied victory over Adolf Hitler in World War II is essen-
tially the history of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph
Stalin; the history of capitalism is the history of, say, Andrew Carnegie,
John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. Events that cannot be accounted for
by the actions of singular individuals are explained by natural conditions
or disasters: geography and climate, droughts or typhoons, Marx counters
that we cannot understand the contributions of individuals unless we also
understand the effects of the socioeconomic system on them. History must
study the acts of individuals as well as the effects of the social settings on
these acts. It must also study the transformation of entire social systems.
Marx and Engels do not think that the methodological individualist's
history is false but that it is incomplete. Of course individual action ac-
counts for a great deal in history. Individuals go about solving their
everyday problems. They also make plans for the future and try to learn
from their past. These lessons affect their plans, and all of that accounts
for what human beings do. Often the problems to be solved result from
geography and climate and natural disasters. All of this individual effort
accounts for a great deal of what happens in history. We cannot write his-
tory without writing the history of the actions of individual persons. So
far Marx and Engels' approach to historical explanation is no different
from those offered by individualism. But the individualist stops here,
whereas Marx and Engels want to raise additional questions.
Speaking very generally, human beings have similar problems in differ-
ent historical periods: They need to provide food and shelter for them-
selves and. their families. But in different periods they go about solving
those problems in very different ways. In order to provide food for my
children, I need money. If I need money today, I may try to find a job or to
borrow money or to go and hold up a bank. For a feudal serf the options
were quite different: There were no banks and hence borrowing from a
bank or stealing from it were not options. Neither was hiring yourself out
for work because the society did not have the institution of working for
pay. Money did not play as important a role in economic life as it does
today, so that the serf who needed more food probably did not primarily
think, "I need more money." He might have tried to steal food or to work
History 37

harder on his plot of land and spend less time working for the feudal lord
that owned the land—if he could get away with that. In different histori-
cal settings the problem of getting more food looks different. Because
people live under different social systems, their problems take different
forms and so, therefore, do their attempted solutions. Hence if we want to
understand history, we need not only understand what individual per-
sons do but how the social system in which they live defines their prob-
lems and provides a limited range of options to solve those problems.
Historical explanations are incomplete if they refer only to the forces of
nature and to the actions of individuals.
But that disagreement with an individualist approach to history brings
with it further questions. Explanations of historical events require that we
take account of different historical systems. But how do we identify social
systems? Marx differentiates historical systems by the methods and. orga-
nization of production; Capitalism differs from feudalism because it uses
other technology and the process of production is organized in other
ways. But historians identify historical periods according to various crite-
ria: They talk about the pagan and Christian eras if they think that peo-
ple's actions at those times are best understood as an outgrowth of their
religious beliefs and. practices. Others identify historical periods by the
peoples who dominated them: Antiquity was dominated by the Greeks
and then the Romans, feudalism by the Holy Roman Empire, the nine-
teenth century by Britain, and our present century by the United States.
In each of these periods, historical explanation refers us to the dominant
peoples and to the peculiar characteristics of their civilization. We will see
in Chapter 5 how Marx divides history into periods,
Other questions have to do with how we explain the rise and fall of
these different civilizations or historical periods. There are two questions
here: The first is a general question about the way in which we should
frame explanations of historical events. Marx touches on that in his scat-
tered remarks about the "dialectic." The second is about the specific
causes that account for the rise and decay of civilizations. Marx's answer
to that is contained in his doctrine that is usually referred to as historical
materialism. I discuss the dialectic in the next chapter and historical mate-
rialism in the chapter after that.
For Further Reading
Vernon Venable, Human Nature: Tin* Marxian View (New York: Meridian Books,
1966), chapter 7,

1. Marx, TIte Poverty of Pkilosojjln/ (New York International Publishers, 1963), p. 147.
2. Frederick Engels, Lmiwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philos-
ophy (New York; International Publishers, 1941), p. 48.
The Dialectic

THE DIALECTIC IS THE MOST obscure aspect of Marx's and En-

gels' wri.ti.ngs. Many commentators either ignore it or reject it outright as
an unfortunate hangO¥er from Marx's interest, when he was a very young
man, in Hegel's philosophy. They read Marx as if he had never employed
the dialectic. But Marx himself tells us that he did use a dialectical
method, and, what is more, he is proud of it: "I openly avowed myself the
pupil of this mighty thinker [Hegel]" (T 301). To be sure his dialectic is
different from Hegel's in important ways. But Marx's thinking about his-
tory and historical explanation owes a great deal to Hegel. In order to un-
derstand Marx's dialectic, we need to look first at Hegel's.

Hegel's Dialectic
Hegel's dialectic served a specific philosophical purpose—namely, to rec-
oncile religion, specifically Christianity, with science as it was rapidly de-
veloping. In the past basic questions about nature had been given reli-
gious answers: What is the origin of the universe? Answer: God created
the heavens and the earth in six days. What keeps the planets in their pre-
cise orbits? Answer: God maintains the universe from moment to mo-
ment. What accounts for the different kinds of plants and animals? An-
swer: God created each kind. And so on. But the work of Johannes Kepler,
Galileo, and Isaac Newton provided an alternative answer to the question
about the planets. This answer was based on observation and did not pre-
suppose the existence of a deity. The origins of the earth and the multi-
tude of species of plants and animals were soon to be accounted for in
similarly secular terms. It was clear to Hegel that the harmony between
the knowledge of nature and religion, which had lasted for a long time,
was about to collapse. Science and Christianity were coming into conflict.

The Dialectic 39

Hegel's philosophy is dedicated to restoring this harmony between sci-

entific knowledge and religion in addition to preserving the supremacy of
the di¥ine in the universe. Science is incompatible with, the conception of
a transcendent God who creates the world. In the scientific worldview,
there is no room, for a God who created the universe. Natural science of-
fers alternative explanations for the development of the moon and the
stars, of plants and animals to those offered by various religions. In order
to effect the reconciliation of science and religion, Hegel denies that God
is the creator in a literal sense or is a God beyond this world. Instead, he
considers all of creation a manifestation of God. The transcendent deities
of traditional Christianity and Judaism are replaced by a sophisticated
form of pantheism. God and the world are one. This God of Hegel's is not
from eternity to eternity all-knowing and all-powerful but is in the
process of becoming. The different sides of the infinitely complex divine
nature are realized, one after the other, in the long history of the universe,
Both nature and human history are stages in God's development, Hegel's
God, instead of being an uncreated, creator, creates the world and, himself
at the same time. God is coming into existence, and the different episodes
in natural and human history are episodes in God's development,
The process of God's development follows a complex pattern:

1. The world is not completely identical with God, but it is divine inso-
far as it is a manifestation of the divine. Thus any particular phase in
the history of nature or of human beings is not simply God but a
particular aspect of the divine nature,
2. The world changes, and, in its changes God develops,
3. The development proceeds through a complex set of stages.
4. Each stage represents one aspect of the divine nature, but insofar as
it represents only one aspect, it is incomplete and hence defective.
5. Each stage is therefore replaced by a new stage that develops what
was lacking in the preceding stage,
6. The stages, as they follow one another, are in opposition to each,
other, for each provides what was lacking in the preceding one.
7. Successive stages are therefore at the same time opposed to one an-
other and are not just similar but identical. This claim, more than
any other, gives readers of Hegel trouble, as we shall see shortly.
8. Oppositions between two stages are resolved in a new stage that
preserves what is worth preserving in the two preceding ones and
surrenders what should be surrendered.

This pattern of historical development is one of the chief characteristics

of Hegel's dialectic. But the reconciliation between religion, and science,
as Hegel proposes, still must deal with some major problems: To begin
40 The Dialectic

with, God is infinite; the world in which we live is finite, God is perfect;
much in our world is defective. God is good, but there is a great deal of
pain and evil and ugliness in our world. What is more, the explanations
science offers are just as incompatible with a religion that tells us of a God
indwelling in the world whose history is world history as they are with
the more familiar religion, with its transcendent God. Any explanation of,
say, the origin of the solar system or the evolution of Homo sapiens that
explains those as acts of God are incompatible with science. Hegel's move
from a transcendent, forever complete God to an indwelling God that is
developing does not suffice to smoothe over the contradictions between
science and religion.
Here a second characteristic of the dialectic comes in. For Hegel, the di-
alectic is a kind of logic that is superior to the more familiar, formal logic.
In formal logic statements such as "God created man in his own image"
and "'Human beings evolved from monkeys" are contradictory because
one asserts that God is the creator and the other asserts implicitly that
God is not the creator. According to the rules of ordinary, formal logic
only one of these statements can be true. But if Hegel is going to reconcile
science and religion, he has to make room for acceptance of both of these
Hegel attempts to do that by regarding the scientific view of the world as
one more perspective, one more stage in the history of God. It is important
to understand the term "perspective" properly, Hegel does not merely as-
sert that science has its point of view as does religion. (That is the sort of
thing some so-called Creationists say today—that people have their differ-
ent points of view and it is inappropriate to ask which one is true.) No,
Hegel claims that these perspectives are both true though logically incom-
patible. Implicit in such a claim is a purely logical claim, namely, that con-
tradictory statements-—"God created humans" and "God did not create hu-
mans"—can both be true under some conditions because they represent
different perspectives on the same matter. The first statement comes out the
religious perspective; the second out of the perspective of science. Hegel
refers to this logical doctrine as "the identity of opposites."
Such an explanation of the compatibility of religion and science is ac-
ceptable from the dialectical point of view (in Hegel's sense of dialectic)
but not from the point of view of natural science. Looked at from the sci-
entific point of view, the story of the creation is not an earlier scientific hy-
pothesis, later replaced by the theory of evolution in biology and the big
bang theory in cosmology. The story of creation is not science at all; it is a
religious myth. Even less acceptable to the scientist would be the view
that natural science is itself a limited view of the world that from, a differ-
ent perspective, could be seen as one very partial manifestation of the di-
vine history—for on that account science would be an imperfect version
of Hegel's religious view of the universe.
The Dialectic 41

It still appears that natural science cannot be fitted into the dialectic be-
cause the explanations it gives are not dialectical. Science sticks strictly to
formal logic where statements are either true or false. It does not accept the
claim that contradictory statements may be reconciled once they are under-
stood to be different perspectives on one and the same subject. Hegel recog-
nized that difficulty and distinguished between the formal logical thinking
of science and the dialectical thinking of speculative philosophy.
In the interest of his reconciliation of the divine and science, Hegel
claims that formal logic is, to be sure, the logic of science; but from the
point of view of the whole—that is, from the divine point of view—we see
that what science regards as distinct and irreconcilably contradictory per-
spectives are in fact only dialectical contradictions, imperfect views that in
the future will be reconciled. The concept of contradiction is being rede-
fined here. In formal logic a contradiction consists of two sentences that
cannot both be true or both be false (at the same time, in the same respect)
because one is the denial of the other. In the Hegelian dialectic, two contra-
dictories may both be true because each, being only a one-sided view of
divine reality, is only partially true anyway. Thus dialectic is, indeed, a
logic different from formal logic and one that is, according to Hegel, supe-
rior to formal logic. In this way science is assigned its place in the grand
philosophical view of the universe as a partial view of that universe.

The Marxian Dialectic

Marx rejects Hegel's claim that the world is no more than a manifestation
of divine thought. In fact, he is hostile to religion. "Religion is the opium
of the people" is one of his most famous statements.1 So whatever we
might make of Marx's dialectic, we can be sure that it is not a religious
one. Accordingly, most readers of Marx have described Hegel's dialectic
as "idealist" and Marx's as "materialist" In this common understanding
of Marx's views about dialectic, Hegel's dialectic is idealist because Hegel
believes that the world is ultimately spiritual. Because it is divine, it can-
not be anything else. But Marx, rejecting religion, is a "materialist"; he be-
lieves that ultimately reality is made of matter, inanimate and animate.
Such interpretations rest on Marx's saying that Hegel's dialectic "is stand-
ing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would dis-
cover the rational kernel within the mystical shell" (CI, T 302). This inter-
pretation assumes that M,arx's dialectic is like the dialectic of Hegel in
being a logic that is in competition with and superior to formal logic.2 But
that is a mistake. Marx's dialectic is not a logic,
The claim that dialectic is a logic superior to formal logic is not compat-
ible with another claim that Marx often makes, namely, that he is a scien-
tist and that his work does for the study of society what Newton's did for
the study of physical nature. He explains in the preface to the first edition
42 The Dialectic

of Capital that like a physicist he is trying to discover "the natural laws of

capitalist production . . . working with iron necessity" (T, 296). Unlike
Hegel, Marx is not doing philosophy; his work is meant to be science.
Even Hegel did not believe that one could tolerate contradictions in sci-
ence. It is clear that Marx did not believe that either.
If Marx is a scientist, he cannot use dialectic as a logic that supplants for-
mal logic. But if we adhere to the common view of dialectic that it is, for
Marx as well as for Hegel, a logic superior to formal logic, and if Marx as a
scientist cannot use such a logic, however superior it may be outside of sci-
ence, then Marx's use of dialectical turns of phrase would be of no signifi-
cance. Hence it is often said that Marx sounds like a dialectician at times,
but that this form of expression represents only his fondness for a certain
kind of language that he acquired as a young man and was never quite
willing to give up. In this view his use of dialectical turns of phrase has no
substantive significance. One can ignore them and therefore also ignore
Marx's assertion that he adopted some form of dialectic from Hegel.
A number of interpreters of Marx take this position. They think that the
less one takes Marx's apparently dialectical forms of expression seriously,
the closer one comes to grasping what is of real value in his work. Such
writers are likely to use the word "dialectical," if they use it at all, as a
pretentious term to refer to reciprocal relations.3 They claim that things or
institutions are "dialectically" related if each has some effect on the other.
That, however, is not Marx's use of the term.
Marx himself is reasonably explicit about what dialectic meant for him.
It was for him not a logic that replaced the formal logic one uses in sci-
ence, but it provided patterns of explanation for social science. Social sci-
ence, like physics, is looking for laws of development But the laws of so-
cial science are different from those in physics. "The old economists
misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to
the laws of physics and chemistry" (T, 301). Instead, social systems are
more like natural organisms. Marx's social science "regards every histori-
cally developed social form, as in fluid movement, and. therefore takes
into account its transient nature no less than its momentary existence" (T,
302). Marx thought that Hegel was the first to understand the complexi-
ties of explanations in social science. One needs both to provide explana-
tions for the institutions of the society as they are today ("in its momen-
tary existence") and to understand that they are transformations of earlier
forms of these institutions ("as in fluid movement").

Historical Explanation
In the voluminous notebooks for Capital that were published in the 1930s
under the name of Grundrtsse ("basic plan"), Marx entered some sketchy
The Dialectic 43

comments about his method. Science, he believed, must construct models

that explain observed phenomena. Model building involves extracting
the most general features of a set of observed phenomena and showing
how those general features account for the phenomena in the world
around us. That is a familiar understanding of scientific procedure that
few would quarrel with. In Capital Marx dearly tried to build such a
model by beginning with very few concepts and assumptions and slowly
adding more complications to the primitive model of a commodity-pro-
ducing society until he had a model sufficiently complex to account for
actually observed economic phenomena and for the behaviors of eco-
nomic agents.
If you build a model to explain your observations, Marx argues, your
concepts will be drawn from what you have observed and what appears
to you most suitable for describing and explaining the world you are ob-
serving. Constructing models is a slow and laborious process because it
takes a long time to discover the crucial characteristics that must be repre-
sented in your model. At the beginning you take the most obvious fea-
tures of the observed world and incorporate them in your model. But
after a while you discover that what is observable is often not coherent: In
order to explain the world as you observe it, your model must incorpo-
rate less obvious features of the world and sometimes even objects or
events that you do not observe at all.
The light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of
the optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye it-
self. , . . After the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the at-
mosphere itself remained unaltered. (Cl, T 321, 323}

We do not observe directly the changing electrical potential along the

optic nerve as it transmits visual stimuli from, the eye to the brain. But we
need to include that electrical potential in our model in order to under-
stand how we see objects. A complete explanation of what we perceive
often includes objects and processes not observed directly. Only a consid-
erable effort yields models that contain not only concepts of what is ob-
servable but also of what we cannot observe—the functioning of the optic
nerve, the composition of the air we breathe, the movement of the earth
around the sun even though the sun still appears to us to rise in the east
and set in the west.4
When we come to building models in social science, we encounter the
same difficulty. Again we need to explain what is observed by what is not
at all observable or is much less obvious than what strikes the observer
initially. For example, Marx points out that in ordinary commercial trans-
actions, the value of a commodity appears as an intrinsic characteristic of
the commodity. Of course its price will fluctuate with fluctuations in sup-
44 The Dialectic

ply and demand, but these fluctuations will be limited to a particular

range—new cars will not sell for a dollar or candy bars for a million (ex-
cept under extraordinary circumstances, such as hyperinflation). The
prices will fluctuate in relation to the cost of producing a certain com-
modity, its value. But this value is not, as it ordinarily appears, an intrin-
sic characteristic of the commodity but depends on "the social character
of men's labor" (CI, T 320).5 Commodities have value only under the spe-
cific conditions of a capitalist society, in which goods are produced for ex-
change and have value only if they are in fact exchanged. (We will return
to this in Chapter 7.) The model we need to construct in order to under-
stand prices and values must not only make use of such concepts as price
and value but must in addition introduce the concepts of economic sys-
tems in general and of the capitalist system in particular.
But building models in social science is more complex than building
models in natural science. The capitalist system is intelligible only if we
study it historically. We can appreciate the specific characteristics of capi-
talism only if we compare it with the system out of which it developed
and that it replaced—feudalism. But that means that we need a model of
feudalism as well and a description of the process of development in
which capitalism developed out of and in opposition to feudalism. In our
world it makes sense to think of capital as means of production—ma-
chines, factory buildings, tools. Since human production has always em-
ployed some sorts of instruments (even some animals use sticks to dig up
grubs and ants, for instance) one might conclude that capital exists in all
forms of society. But tools, sheds, and wagons are not capital under any
circumstances. They become capital only in a certain social system in
which some people own all the tools and productive resources and others
own only their ability to work.6
A cotton jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in
certain relations. Torn from these relationships it is no more capital than gold
itself is money or sugar the price of sugar. (WLC, T 207)

We can see how objects become capital under certain social conditions
only if we undertake some historical comparisons. We need to observe,
for instance, that in different periods people solve apparently similar
problems in different ways. Capitalists trying to increase their income
have a number of options, such as introducing a new product, introduc-
ing new technologies, or lowering their production costs by cutting
wages or moving their production to an area of the world that has lower
wage costs. But all of these will require investing some new capital. In
order to make more money in a capitalist society, you need more capital.
Not so in a feudal society. In feudal societies the powerful, extracted
wealth from the peasants who farmed their land. To get more income, the
The Dialectic 45

feudal lord needed more land. But he could not buy that land because
land was not for sale. He could only conquer it by going to war. Hence
feudal kings, princes, and knights tried to increase their resources by em-
ploying military power. More capital would not have been of much use
because there was no land that new capital could have paid for, nor were
there additional wage laborers waiting to be hired with this new capital.7
If we are to understand the reasons for the capitalists' strategies, we need,
Marx believes, to understand the reasons for the very different strategies
used by kings, popes, and princes in feudal systems. A complete under-
standing of capitalism requires not only a model of fully developed capi-
talist economies but an understanding of the history of the transforma-
tion of feudal into capitalist economic and social institutions.

Dialectical Explanations
In order to gain such a historical understanding of the antecedents of cap-
italism, we need some general ideas about the ways in which institutions
change over the course of many years as well as how they maintain them-
selves in the midst of change or why they do not change faster. Here Marx
leans heavily on some of Hegel's insights about the gradual transforma-
tions of institutions that are not brought about deliberately but are the
consequences of the actions of individual persons or small groups in the
process of trying to solve everyday problems'—hence Marx's open
avowal of his use of the dialectic.
The preceding chapters have provided the basic ideas of this dialectical
understanding of the maintenance and /or change of institutions. On the
one hand, we saw that Marx and Engels insist that human beings make
their own history. The history of human beings is not made by institu-
tions or God or some superindividual entities like economic systems,
providence, destiny, or national character. It is made by human beings. I
discussed at some length what Marx and Engels meant by that claim. On
the other hand, we also saw that what human beings can do, at any par-
ticular moment, is limited by the institutions that emerged as a conse-
quence of the choices and actions of previous generations and that struc-
ture the lives of the persons living. We have seen many examples of that:
The choices of individual actors are limited by the tools and techniques of
production available to them. We have seen in the preceding chapter how
changes in the modes of production tend to bring about changes in the re-
lation to one's work, changes in values, and changes not only in the iden-
tities of people but even of what personal identity consists.
How do institutions come to be and change? The explanation must al-
ways consist of telling stories of what particular people did. How did
early cities arise? Some people found a convenient harbor and built their
46 The Dialectic

houses there because they traded up and down the coast. Other cities grew
up at convenient fords over a major river or in places where runaway serfs
found relative security and work. In all of these different ways, because
particular persons did particular things, cities came to be, and the people
who lived in cities developed, their city ways and urban institutions.
These new institutions were not set up deliberately. Serfs did not run
away from their lord's manor in order to found cities or make them grow.
That was an unintended consequence of their choice.
For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and
what emerges is something that no one intended.8
But why did their actions have these particular consequences rather
than very different ones? After all, the movement front the countryside to
the city continues into our time. In many developing countries, the mech-
anization of agriculture and the introduction of new seeds, fertilizers, and
techniques reduces the need for agricultural laborers and therefore brings
with it massive movements of the population from the countryside to the
big cities. But these developments today do not give rise to flourishing
cities but to large shantytowns that breed misery and disease. Contempo-
rary urban migration does not make cities more splendid but less man-
ageable, more dangerous, and unhealthful. Thus urbanization takes di-
verse forms and has diverse consequences according to social and
economic context.
A complete explanation of historical events thus must not stop with ex-
planations of the actions of individuals and their consequences but must
also include references to the institutional framework necessary for un-
derstanding why these individual actions have these particular conse-
quences. Urbanization in late-twentieth-century Central or South Amer-
ica looks nothing like apparently similar movements in twelfth- or
thirteenth-century Europe. In order to understand the differences be-
tween them we must understand the actions of individuals in their insti-
tutional contexts.
Why do institutions have these particular effects on individuals and
their actions? Institutions are not causes. They do not determine the ac-
tions of individuals in the ways in which the laws of nature determine the
movements of planets, the behavior of chemical compounds, or the func-
tioning of the human body. Our explanations of the ways in which insti-
tutions shape human actions and their outcomes cannot be causal expla-
nations. That is an important implication of the claim, that "human beings
make their own history." If institutions caused human actions, then
human beings would not make their own history; institutions would
make that history instead. Thus the claim that human beings make their
own history commits Marx and Engels to explaining the impress of insti-
tutions on human action noncausally.9 They do this by applying a dialecti-
cal analysis to those relationships.
The Dialectic 47

We can consider institutions—cities, communities, feudalism or capi-

talism, schools, colleges, and so on—from two aspects. Institutions have a
certain structure. Those are their most general and abstract characteris-
tics. But such characteristics are always embodied in specific, concrete in-
stitutions—in this bank or this college. Concrete institutions, in their turn,
consist of a lot of people doing particular sorts of jobs. An empty building
with "Bank" inscribed over the entrance is not a bank. For that you need
tellers, executives, owners, stockholders, depositors, government regula-
tors, and a host of other people who all do their particular jobs in the
complex institution we call "banks." A particular bank incorporates the
abstract characteristic of banks by virtue of the ways in which the particu-
lar members of the institution do their Jobs. The structures of institutions
affect the actions of individual people insofar as those people act out the
roles that the structures define. Bankers make money by lending and bor-
rowing money, by keeping careful track of money and putting it to work
in a number of specified ways. They cannot, for instance, take the money
of their depositors to the racetrack, but they can gamble on the future be-
havior of stocks and bonds.
Banks do change, of course. Bankers today do what their predecessors
would not have dreamed of doing. Over time institutions change because
the individuals in them fulfill their roles in new ways and thus embody
the abstract structure in new ways. Changes in institutions are also due to
the actions of individuals as they do their jobs in new and different ways.
Consider how baseball or football has changed in the past fifty years be-
cause players, coaches, owners, spectators all have changed their behav-
ior in relation to one another and in relation to their sport. Big league
football is very different from what it was, but it is still football. Modern
multinational banks are very different institutions from the small-town
bank of a century ago, but they are still banks. An institutional structure
may be embodied in different concrete institutions.
The historian must clarify how the actions of concrete individuals, as
they go about solving their day-to-day problems, affect the structures of
the institutions under which they live. These institutions shape the sorts
of problems people have, limit the options available for solving any given
problem,, and provide the vocabulary used to think about problems and
their possible solutions. But there is a complex interrelation between in-
stitutions and individual actions: The institutions shape and limit what
individuals can do, whereas the individual actions, in their turn, serve to
maintain or alter these institutions.
Consider an example: The beginnings of capitalist society are accompa-
nied by the claim, made on behalf of the newly developing capitalist class
that all human beings are free and equal. Thus John Locke, and after him
Thomas Jefferson, begin their political theory with the assumption that
"all men are created equal." But clearly that was not a truth about all
48 The Dialectic

human beings, since Greek slaves or feudal serfs were not in any intelligi-
ble sense "created equal," Instead, Marx sees this freedom, and equality as
one aspect of the institutions peculiar to capitalism—a system of produc-
ing and exchanging commodities. The exchange of commodities in the
capitalist marketplace takes place under the presupposition of equality
and freedom. What is more,
Equality and freedom are not only respected in exchange of exchange values,
but the exchange of exchange values is the productive, the real basis of all
equality and freedom.1"

Equality and freedom exist because we live in a commodity-producing

and exchanging society. Capitalism is the precondition for equality and
But only in a very simple and early stage of capitalism were all members
of the society, all participants in the market, free and equal. This was a cap-
italism where the majority of the producers were economically indepen-
dent of one another. They worked their own farms; their livelihood was
under their control and did not depend on the actions of others. The main
threat to their freedom and equality came from the king or the church:
government. If they were protected against government infringements on
their liberty, they were indeed free. For the independent producers, that
was all the freedom they needed. For later generations of wageworkers,
this freedom from, government interference was, often, important, but it
was not sufficient to enable them to be free men and women.
But capitalism developed. Its development was not haphazard but de-
pended on the "latent contradictions" of the market institutions that are
typical of capitalism (CI, 86-87). Among the original individual capitalist
farmers, some accumulated considerable wealth. They managed to ac-
quire more land. In order to use that land, they needed to hire agricultural
workers. Others invested their new wealth in early pottery or textile fac-
tories. In order for those to produce, their owners hired factory workers.
All of these workers were economically dependent for their jobs, and thus
their livelihoods, on their employers. Now, on the one hand, the worker
and the capitalist as they struck their bargains in the labor market were
still both free and equal. Their bargain, was not constrained by govern-
ment interference; they were not forced to hire or to get hired. They were
also equal because the market sets the same prices for everyone. The king
of England or the president of the United States does not get a better price
than the lowest of the low. The market is no respecter of persons.
But on the other hand we must recognize that the worker's economic
situation places him under constraints unknown to the capitalist. Unlike
the capitalist, the worker is not economically independent of others. He is
not self-sufficient but needs the capitalist to give him a job before he can
The Dialectic 49

make any money to stay alive. The worker needs work in order to buy
food and pay rent. He is thus under considerable economic pressure to
accept the bargain the employer offers. Once employed, he needs to hold
onto the job and thus has little recourse if the employer wants him to
work faster and longer hours or even wants to cut his pay. In this perspec-
tive it certainly looks as if employer and worker are not equal. The
worker's freedom is severely limited by his economic condition. The con-
flict—Marx would say (somewhat incautiously, it turns out) "contradic-
tion"—between the freedom and equality, on the one hand, and the un-
freedom and inequality, on the other, are different developments of the
same set of institutions: Capitalism begins with participants in the market
being free and equal—but in a very restricted sense of "freedom" and
"equality." "Freedom" refers to absence of government restraint, "equal-
ity" to the fact that social privilege does not serve to secure better prices
in the market As capitalist institutions develop, there come into existence
different classes of people, those who have a great deal of economic
power and. those who have very little. In that situation, it is implausible to
claim that workers and employers are equal or that workers are as free as
their employers. Capitalism now takes on a new form, but it is still capi-
talism,. What is more, the changes are, in an intelligible sense, conse-
quences of the structure of capitalism.
Institutions, we see, develop by taking on different forms (analogous to
the way in which frogs begin their life as eggs, then tarn into tadpoles
and then into frogs), and these different forms may well be at odds with
each other. In earlier forms of capitalism, where exchanges are mostly be-
tween persons who are economically independent of each other, there are
genuine freedom and equality. Under a more developed capitalism, dif-
ferent classes of people come into existence. Transactions are still free and
equal in the limited sense indicated, but since workers are economically
dependent on the members of the employing class, freedom and equality
in a more generous sense no longer exist. Capitalist economies now expe-
rience conflicts unknown before, not only conflicts between employers
and workers but also conflicts between the independent producers of the
earlier capitalist era and the much larger productive units of more devel-
oped capitalism. These earlier producers form a new class
fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie and ever renewing itself as a
supplementary part of the bourgeoisie. . . . [They] are being constantly
hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition. (CM, T 493)
Those conflicts, Marx thinks, are productive. They are intellectually
productive because they show us, for instance, that the original under-
standing of freedom and equality in our example is excessively narrow
and that what we want is freedom and equality in a much broader sense.
50 The Dialectic

But they are also historically productive because they give rise to the
struggle for a larger freedom and equality in the form, for instance, of a
demand for universal suffrage (a struggle that is not yet completed in the
United States because the rules laid down by the Voting Rights Acts of
1964 are still being evaded by local jurisdictions). As a consequence of
such struggles, capitalism continues to develop.
Only individuals act, but their actions are constrained by the institu-
tions under which they live. These institutions are not the causes of indi-
vidual actions, but they do set certain limits on what most people will do
most of the time. But these institutions also change. We have seen many
instances of that. What makes those institutions change? Marx is commit-
ted to answering that question again by referring us to the actions of indi-
viduals. At the same time, though, he denies that institutional change is
the intended effect of human actions. On the contrary, many institutional
changes result without anyone's intending those changes or even liking
them when they come about. People may pursue fairly concrete goals and
only afterward, often quite a bit later, do they realize that those particular
actions had further consequences that they did not originally intend and
that they do not welcome. What those further, unintended consequences
are can only be understood when we look to the structure of the ruling in-
stitution of any given historical period.
This interplay between individual actions and the institutions that
form the framework for individual acti.cn is what Marx means by dialec-
tic. In this dialectic the unintended consequences of individual actions
produce changes in the institutional framework as circumscribed by that
framework itself. Thus historical institutions change. The scattered com-
ments Marx makes about the method of the social sciences are too frag-
mentary to constitute a complete theory of social science. But given the
fairly chaotic state of theory in social science, Marx's observations de-
serve to be taken more seriously than they usually are.11 We will be able to
develop in the next chapter what we have learned in this one when we
consider Marx's main theory of history, historical materialism..

For Further Reading

Tony Smith, Dialectical Social Theory and Us Critics (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1993) and Daniel Little, Tfw Scientific Marx (Minneapolis: Univer-
sity of Minnesota Press, 1986),

1. But rarely does anyone cite the entire passage, which is much more sympa-
thetic to religion and to religious persons than is its final sentence quoted in isola-
tion. The entire passage reads as follows:
The Dialectic 51

Religion is indeed man's self-consciousness and self-awareness as long as he has not

found himself or lost himself again,,,. Religion is the general theory of the world, its
encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form.... Religious suffering is at the
same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is
the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of
soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (T 54)
2. Most recently Bertell Oilman, Dialectical Investigations (New York: Routledge,
3. John McMurtry, T!« Structure of Marx's, World-View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1978), p. 66,
4. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967)/ p. 316,
5. It is not the specific value of a particular commodity that depends on the "so-
cial character of men's labor" but the very existence of value itself. Commodities
have value—that is, a range within which their prices fluctuate—only where there
are prices established by a market Only in a society where markets are in con-
stant use and where labor is itself a commodity can labor itself have value. Value
of labor exists only under very specific social conditions,
6. Marx, Grundrisse (Frankfurt; Europaeische Verlagsanstalt, n.d.}, p. 169,
7. Robert Brenner, "The Social Basis of Economic Development," in John Roemer,
ed,. Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 22-53.
8. Mttfx-Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow; Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 395.
9. This may well appear to be a controversial, claim because many philosophers
believe that all explanations are causal. For a different view of explanations, see
Milton Fisk, The State and Ju&tice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
10. Marx, Grundrisse, p, 156,
11. Much of the responsibility for this neglect of Marxian dialectic falls on the
philosophers who are excessively anxious to conform to the current, practices of
actually existing social science. They would do a more' adequate job of discharg-
ing their responsibility as philosophers if they managed to be more critical of the
practices of social science.
Historical Materialism

AS REVOLUTIONARIES, MARX and Engels wanted to bring

about historical change. That motivated their scholarly interest in under-
standing the ways in which social change comes about But change can-
not be understood unless one also understands what forces maintain ex-
isting conditions and what forces resist change. Why, one may ask, is
there not more change than occurs already?
One can give a number of different kinds of answers to that question;
One can talk about human nature or about universal laws of history or
economics. But Marx had learned from Hegel to use the concept of what
we would call "social structures." These are social systems that have the
capacity to maintain themselves by adjusting when external forces
threaten to disrupt them. Such systems are complex wholes that are able
to maintain a certain normal state, A simple example of a mechanical self-
maintaining system is a ball attached to a post by a rubber band. Kick the
ball and it will return to its original place but not without a number of os-
cillations, back and forth. Other examples of mechanical self-regulating
systems are heating systems with thermostats that maintain a certain set
temperature. The human body is another, more complex self-regulating
system. In similar ways social systems are thought to maintain them-
selves by adjusting to changes brought about by war, natural disaster,
fluctuations in populations or the weather, new inventions, and so on. At
times Marx refers to such social systems as "organic systems" in clear
analogy to human bodies.1
Many historians look at history as the history of these social structures.
But there are serious disagreements about what sorts of structures are
fundamental in history. Some regard structures as merely self-adjusting
systems that exist indefinitely unless destroyed by some major external
catastrophe. Others, and Marx and Engels are among those, believe that
the capacity of historical systems to adjust to changes is limited, and

Historical Mafa-ialistn 53

therefore so are their life spans. Social structures may last for long peri-
ods, but sooner or later they are replaced by other structures. The dialecti-
cal explanations examined in the preceding chapter are examples of the
process of development and replacement of historical systems. In re-
sponse to changing conditions, human beings change their ways of solv-
ing everyday problems. Those small changes eventually produce changes
in the social system. But each system has limited capacity for change. At a
certain point, changes transform a given social system into a new and
quite different one. Human history is thus a sequence of different social
But that view of history as displaying a series of different structures
only raises new questions; What are the decisive characteristics of differ-
ent structures? How do they maintain themselves? And how do they
change? In addition we want to know to what extent forces for change are
generated by the structures themselves and to what extent their change or
their maintenance is due to forces and events outside the structure. As po-
litical actors, Marx and Engels also want to know, of course, to what ex-
tent changes in structures are the result of deliberate human effort or
whether they are all the effect of forces not under human control. If we
think that human action has a significant effect, we want to know to what
extent historical changes are the effect of deliberate action that aims at
change or whether historical changes in structures are mainly the unex-
pected consequences of actions that had different and/or more specific
Marx and Engels had definite answers to most of these questions. It is
not clear from their writings to what extent they believed that change re-
sults from intentional actions and to what extent they thought that it was
an unintended consequence of actions. Marx summarized their views in
the following passage:
In. the social production of their life, human beings enter into definite rela-
tions that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of pro-
duction which correspond to a definite stage of development of their mater-
ial productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production
constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which
rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite
forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life condi-
tions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the
consciousness of human beings that determines their being, but, on the con-
trary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain
stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in
conflict with the existing relations of production..,. Then begins an epoch of
social revolution. (T 4—5)
Elsewhere Marx summarizes this paragraph less forbiddingly:
54 Historical Materialism.

In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production;

and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning
their living, they change all their social relations.2

History, Marx tells us, consists of different modes of production, the dif-
ferent structures that dominate different periods of human history. Modes
of production differ from each other by having different "forces of pro-
duction" as well as different "relations of production." By forces of pro-
duction he means, at least, land, raw materials, tools, buildings. In agri-
culture forces of production are land and cattle, tools like plows, farm
buildings, and so on. In factory production they would be factories, ma-
chines, trucks, and railroads for transportation. But clearly nothing gets
produced unless someone is doing the producing. Someone plows and
reaps, milks and slaughters cattle. Someone tends machines and. builds
them in the first place. Thus work performed by human beings is an im-
portant force of production. Whether or not Marx includes the organiza-
tion of work, for example, the particular kind, of division of labor in use
among the forces of production, is a matter of controversy,3
"Relations of production" refer to the ownership of land and machines,
the control, of work, and who profits. Sometimes Marx, puts the emphasis
most clearly on the question of who profits, as when he writes that what re-
ally matters about relations of production is "how surplus is pumped out
of the producers."4 At other times relations of ownership of tools, land, ma-
chines, and so on seem to be central. The connection between relations of
ownership and "pumping out of surplus" is discussed in Chapters 7 and 8.
Marx and Engels believe that the study of history allows us to frame
some general hypotheses about what makes for the stability of these
structures over long periods of time and what, at other times, makes for
their collapse and replacement by other structures. Both when accounting
for stability and when looking to explain the replacement of one structure
by another, the passage cited tells us that we must pay attention to the re-
lations among forces and relations of prod.ucti.on. Social structures remain
stable and can maintain themselves in the face of serious opposition as
long as the relations of production are in some sort of harmony with the
forces of production-—"correspond" is the term, used in the passage
quoted—so that the forces of production can continue to develop. Here
Marx and Engels lean on an obvious observation that in the past few
thousand years of human history productivity has tended to increase:
Agriculture has gradually improved techniques for growing food; we
have learned to make human efforts more productive so that far less
work produces far more goods. As long as the relations of production—-
who owns what and who has power over what goods and or persons,
and who gets a large share of the social product and who gets very little—
Historical Mafa-ialistn 55

do not get in the way of the improvement of the forces of production, a

social structure will tend to be stable. But once it appears that the rela-
tions of production inhibit improYements in the forces of production, con-
flict ensues, and eventually revolutions occur that replace what have be-
come obsolete social structures or modes of production by newer and
more suitable ones.

Forces and Relations of Production

Relations of production "correspond" to the forces of production. The
general claim being made here is clear: The way in which the production
process is organized changes in response to the means by which produc-
tion is carried on. New technologies, for instance, require new work orga-
These social relations into which the producers enter with one another ...
will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production.
With the invention of a new instrument of warfare, firearms, the whole inter-
nal organization of the army necessarily changed; the relationships within
which individuals can constitute an army and act as an army were trans-
formed and the relations of different armies to one another also changed.
Thus the social relations within which individuals produce, the social rela-
tions of production, change... with the change and development of the ma-
terial means of production. (WLC, T 207)

Medieval armies fought hand to hand with sword and halberd, requir-
ing a close formation in which soldier stood, close to soldier and all
moved in one body. Such a military formation is the worst possible once
people start shooting at each other from a distance. Firearms lead to
trench warfare, a form that would have been impossible when wars were
fought with swords. This seems to be a clear example of the way in which
changing tools (weapons in this case) changed the organization of an ac-
tivity. In analogous fashion, Marx and Engels claim, the transformation of
the tools in the production process bring about different organizations of
that process.
There is a significant difference, though, between the way in which
work or military organizations are organized and the relations of produc-
tion, namely the rights of ownership and control. The above example
shows how the forces of production affect what Marx often calls "the
technical relations of production," that is, the way the work process is or-
ganized. But those technical relations of production must be distin-
guished from, the relations of ownership and thus from the rules deter-
mining who gets to keep what of the total product of this work process.
Capitalist relations of production have remained the same, whereas the
56 Historical Materialism.

technical relations of production have changed very significantly since

the 1700s. The changes in military tactics and. the organization of military
formations in response to innovations in weapons do not show that the
development of the forces of production, of technology and the organiza-
tion of work, will bring about change in property relations. The evidence
for that claim is much less specific: It is often argued that the more com-
plex and highly developed technology of industrial capitalism was not
compatible with slave labor because slaves, being always coerced, were
unwilling workers and because education was deliberately withheld
from them.5 Hence the improvement of productive technology led to a re-
placement of slavery. But there is historical, evidence that slaves per-
formed quite well as industrial workers,6 What is more, the observation
that industrial technology requires a free work force does not account for
the transition from, the slavery of ancient Rome to medieval feudalism.. It
is simply implausible that the rise of feudalism was the result of a rise in
productivity. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels are quite explicit that
change in the forces determines change in the relations of production. The
beginning of changes in relations of production always comes with the
development of the productive forces. This thesis is often referred to as
the "primacy of the forces over the relations of production." Conversely,
relations of production promote the development of forces at some times,
while at others they retard the further development of forces of produc-
tion. When, that begins to happen, Marx and Engels believe, the relations
of production are due for replacement
That much is clear. But this thesis of the primacy of forces of production
is not only poorly supported by evidence, its more precise interpretation
is also controversial. The dominant interpretation is, and has been for a
long time, that historical materialism enunciates a number of causal laws
that account for social change by establishing necessary conn.ecti.ons be-
tween changes in forces of production and the relations of production.
That interpretation is plausible; there are many passages in the writings
of Marx and. Engels that seem to support it.
Most readers of Marx and Engels, moreover, take the generalizations
enunciated by historical materialism as universal laws that govern histor-
ical development everywhere. But later in life M,arx and Engels were
quite emphatic that
the "historical inevitability" of this process is expressly limited to the countries
of Western Europe..,. Thus the analysis given, in Capital does not provide any
arguments for or against the viability of the village community [in Russia].7
In the '1870s Marx and Engels began to think that a direct transition to so-
cialism from the traditional Russian village communities might be possi-
ble. Marx was sufficiently interested in these Russian institutions, so very
different from, what existed in Western Europe, that he learned Russian in
Historical Materialism 57

order to be able to read the relevant source material. He seemed quite cer-
tain that the "laws" of development of historical materialism applied
only to countries in Western Europe that were similar in their history to
England, which provided the empirical material on which Marx based
these generalizations.8
But there are a number serious difficulties in that understanding of his-
torical materialism, even in this very restricted form. The most notorious
of them is that this causal account of historical change seems determinist:
It makes it seem that the changes in history, such as the change from feu-
dalism to capitalism, are produced by impersonal forces, namely the de-
velopment of human productive capacity without any significant contri-
bution by the efforts of individual persons or groups. Historical
materialism seems to slight the contribution of human beings to social
change. But if that is what Marx and Engels believed, why does the Com-
munist Manifesto begin with the line, "The history of all hitherto known
societies is the history of class struggle" (T, 473)? Whatever happened
there to the development of the forces of production? Marx and Engels
seem to have two different views of the course of historical change: One
stresses the actions of human beings in struggling against their exploiters;
the other talks about impersonal processes such as the effect that develop-
ing productivity has on social relations.
The apparently determinist character of historical materialism is a real
embarrassment also insofar as Mara and Engels, as revolutionaries, ex-
hort their readers to political action. There is no point in telling the
"workers of the world" to unite if their uniting has no effect on historical
change. If human action, organized human action, does not contribute to
historical change, why did Marx and Engels tell their readers again and
again that they must organize, and why did they themselves spend a sig-
nificant amount of time building actual organizations?
A third difficulty arises once we look closely at the more specific histor-
ical sketches that occur throughout Marx's writings. We find any number
of different explanations, for instance, of the transition from feudalism to
capitalism that either mention causes not included in historical material-
ism or reverse the order of forces and relations of production asserted by
historical materialism,
The theory of historical materialism ascribes social change primarily to
the development of productive resources. But in his actual accounts of
historical change from feudalism to capitalism, Marx sometimes insists
that much of social change is brought about by brute force. The diver-
gence of forces and relations of production does not figure in this story:
They all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force
of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the
feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode,... Force is the midwife
of every old society pregnant with, a new one. (Q, T 436)
58 Historical Materialism.

In this passage political power is an important lever of change in the rela-

tions of production. Tt is not clear from the context whether Marx offers
that as an alternative to the explanation of historical change involving
forces and relations of production or whether Marx thinks that political
force is used when the relations of forces and relations of production have
reached an impasse. But at any rate there are other causal factors besides
the development of forces of production. The passage seems to suggest
that the forces/ relations of production explanation of historical change is
at least incomplete, if not entirely mistaken.
While historical materialism asserts the primacy of the forces of pro-
duction, Marx's actual explanatory sketches often reverse that order and
suggest that what changes first are the relations of production, and only
afterward is there a change in the forces themselves. The transition to cap-
italism from feudalism, for instance, was complex and had many compo-
nent processes; the transformation of agricultural rents from labor rent—
where peasants worked for the landlord for free in exchange for using Ms
land—to money rent; the introduction of large-scale sheep farming to re-
place small farms; the expansion of trade within the country and between
countries; the expanded role played by money; the plunder of the New
World after 1492 and the wealth that it brought into Europe; and so on. It
is not at all clear that all of these are instances of improving the forces of
An important component in the transition to capitalism, was the re-
placement of the craft guilds and their workshops that produced tools,
clothing, and such for medieval consumers by what Marx and his con-
temporaries called "manufacture." These were the precursors of today's
factories where many persons worked under one roof. In this earliest
form of the factory, the workers still did the same work they had done be-
fore in their own workshops. But once these previously independent
workers were assembled together, after a while a new division of labor
was introduced where each person did only one of the many jobs he had
done before in order to produce a finished product. This new division of
labor significantly improved the productivity of these early manufactur-
ing establishments. Marx comments
The handicraft period bequeathed us the great inventions of the compass, of
gun-powder, of type printing and, of the automatic clock. But on the whole
machinery played that subordinate part which Adam Smith assigns to it in
comparison with the division of labor. (T, 391)

The passage explains the increase in productivity achieved in the period

of manufacture not by the introduction of new machinery, new forces of
production, but by the introduction of two factors; a new relation be-
tween employer and employee and the division of labor.
Historical Mafa-ialistn 59

The medieval artisan in his workshop was controlled by the guild, but
he was independent and owned his tools and raw materials. The worker
in the early factory was neither independent nor the owner of the means
of production—he had become a very early version of the capitalist
worker. His productivity was greater than it was when he was still in his
workshop, but that was because of the new division of labor, not because
of different tools, and that new division of labor was brought about by
changed relations of production (new relations of ownership). The pri-
macy of forces of production asserted by historical materialism is here
clearly contradicted in Marx's own analysis of actual historical processes.
There are a range of similar examples.9 We must conclude that (1) the
historical evidence for the primacy of the forces of production and hence
for historical materialism is scanty; (2) even Marx and Engels limited its
range of applicability in their later years; and (3) Marx himself realized
that a good deal of historical change was due not to the improvement in
the forces of production but to changes in the relations of production. The
conclusion is inescapable: The primacy of forces over relations of produc-
tion of historical materialism is plausible only under restricted historical
conditions. Even under those conditions there are many exceptions and
counterexamples. But such a limited generalization to which there are
many exceptions is a very poor candidate for a causal hypothesis. What-
ever explanatory power historical materialism may have, it cannot give
causal explanations. Historical materialism, is not determinist
That is fully consistent with the preceding chapters. We saw in Chapter 2
that Marx insists that only human beings act.
What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men's reciprocal ac-
tion. Are men free to choose this or that form of society? By no means. (T, 136}
The social systems we spoke of earlier, we must always remember, are the
creations of human beings who forge relations to one another. Those rela-
tions are not freely chosen but are determined largely by the social struc-
tures that any of us are born into. We are not free to choose our forces of
production because "every productive force is an acquired force, the
product of former activity" (T, 137). We cannot help but to produce with
the tools and technology that our forebears left us and that we find when
we first start producing ourselves. Similarly, the relations of production
under which we work are inherited—they are the "product of the preced-
ing generation" (T, 137). But that does not take away that the "social his-
tory of men is never anything but the history of their individual develop-
ment" (T, 137). It is human beings who make their history, as we recall
Marx said elsewhere.
As we saw in the preceding chapter, however, the actions of individuals
are constrained by the institutions that dominate their lives, and those insti-
60 Historical Materialism.

tutions themselves change because individuals change the ways in which

they perform their roles. The relation, between individuals and the institu-
tions is not causal but dialectical. Individual actions, the individual's per-
formance of her or his role, are particular instances of the structure of the
dominant institutions. The banker exemplifi.es the structure of banking, as
do the other employees and patrons and owners of the bank. As they per-
form their roles in different ways, the structures they exemplify change.
Sometimes the actions of individuals consist of innovating tools and other
forces of production; sometimes they consist of changing ownership or
control relations, as happened in the case of manufacture. If we see the
complex transformations of human institutions as the result of the choices
of individuals and small groups, we cannot seriously claim that all histori-
cal change is the result of changes in the forces of production.
But if we do not refer to forces or relations of production to explain why
certain changes took place, what is the role of historical materialism in the
study of history? Historical materialism provides a general overview of
the ways in which institutions change. Historical change is complex, and
each particular historical change may well require that its own story be
told in great detail. Most of these stories are a bit different from all the oth-
ers. But there are some general patterns, and historical materialism gives a
broad outline of these different stories. It tells us: Persons do their particu-
lar job the way they learned to do it. They use the tools and follow the
rules that they inherited from their elders. But then someone comes up
with a way of doing the job differently and, they think, better. A tool is
modified so that it works better; a new technique is invented; work is reor-
ganized to make better use of the available time and energy. If the changes
prove indeed to be improvements, everyone will adopt them. Thus the in-
stitution that defines their activities is altered,
In the early years of feudalism, productivity was very low. If some peo-
ple, the knights and their retainers, were going to eat without themselves
farming, they needed to keep tight control over the people who did farm.
They compelled their farmers to stay on their land. Farmers became serfs.
But that system developed in the slow ways already described. Produc-
tivity rose, even if not spectacularly. After a while some farmers retained
a surplus, even after paying rent to their landowners. Some farmers may
have hired others to farm for them. Others put their modest surpluses
into trade. All of these are still feudal enterprises, but the new ways of
producing strained at the limits of the feudal order. The farmers who
hired agricultural laborers and the city merchants who traded interna-
tionally or bankrolled the military exploits of princes and kings were
looking for less regulation of their economic activity. They were moving
in the direction of very different relations of production; They were mov-
ing toward capitalist relations of production. Here relations of production
Historical Mafa-ialistn 61

often change as a result of innovation in the forces of production. But

sometimes also, as we saw Marx recognize, the order is reversed, and
change begins with a change in the relations of production.
This is the story historical materialism tells if we do not read it as a
causal theory. Historical materialism, as a causal theory, has been central
to the version of Marxism that has dominated much of the tradition for
the past hundred years. It seemed to give solid support to the predictions
for which Marxism was famous, that capitalism was going to collapse
and be replaced by socialism. Once we reject that reading, historical mate-
rialism is not nearly as important a theory. If we accept this more limited
role for historical materialism, will we also need to give up all the predic-
tions that have inspired Marxists with hopes and their enemies with, fear
and rage? I discuss that in Chapter 11.

Why Take Historical Materialism Seriously?

Once stripped of its causal, pretensions, historical materialism remains
important, Marx understands historical change as processes in which
structures are transformed. Whatever interests us in history—the Cru-
sades, the renewal of ancient learning, the age of discoveries, the new sci-
ence, wars, or the nation-state—we must always remember that these oc-
currences take place against the background of a complex system of
interrelated events, practices, and conflicts. What identifies structures and
what maintains or changes them is a matter of considerable controversy,
Historical materialism is interesting because it stresses the importance of
the economic concerns of individuals both in the identifications of struc-
ture (or different "modes of production") and in understanding why and
how they change. Of central importance are the level of productivity, on
the one hand, and the prevailing property relations—the ways in which
the powerful live off the efforts of those who are less powerful—on the
other. Unless one understands the ways in which changes in productivity,
changes in the ways in which the social surplus is distributed, stand in
the background of, say, the great cathedrals or the new science of the six-
teenth and seventeenth centuries, one does not have a complete under-
standing of these phenomena.
Historical materialism does not claim that economic concerns are the
causes of individual actions. Often actions are caused by religious beliefs,
by attachment to social or political tradition, and so on. But as we shall see
in more detail in the next chapter, Marx and Engels believe firmly that if
we want to understand why people hold certain beliefs or remain attached
to certain traditions, we need to understand the ways in which they go
about meeting their daily needs and what sorts of problems they perceive
in meeting those needs and in what ways they try to ameliorate their daily
62 Historical Materialism.

economic conditions. Historical materialism does not assert the causal pri-
macy of economics, but it insists that the causal role of religion or other be-
liefs can best be explained by reference to peoples' economic lives, that is,
by reference to the ways in which they meet their daily needs and the
changes to which those economic conditions are subject.
But the term "economic" needs some clarification. We commonly use it
to refer to the sorts of issues discussed in economics: markets, supply and
demand, firms and their internal organization, money, finance, banks, and
the like. But historical materialism uses the term "economic" in a much
more generous form: to refer to whatever is involved when people at a
particular time and place meet their ordinary needs for food, shelter, com-
panionship, and whatever else they consider to be essential for a good life,
"In changing their way of earning their living,... [human beings] change
all their social relations," Marx wrote, as we saw at the beginning of this
chapter. In different cultures these "economic" concerns will be quite dif-
ferent; only in ours do they involve, for instance, banks and international
finance. The management of slaves or propitiating the deities of fertility
and rain or the internal workings of a village community were essential to
economics at different times. It is economics in this very flexible sense,
with different meanings in different historical periods, that Marx and En-
gels regard as basic to an understanding of human actions.

For Further Reading

Richard W. Miller, Analyzing Marx (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
1984), chapters 5 and 6.

1. Marx, Grundrisse (Frankfurt: Europaeische Verlagsanstalt, n.d.}, p. 189,
2. Marx, Ttie Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 109.
3. See Richard W. Miller, Analyzing Marx (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1984).
4. Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 791.
5. G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univer-
sity Press, 1976), p. 91.
6. R, W. Fogel and S, L. Engerman, Time on the Cross; The Economics of American
Negro Slavery (Boston: Little Brown, 1974).
7. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 320.
8. See also ibid., pp. 292 and 293; Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road:
Marx and the "Peripheries of Capitalism" (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).
9. See Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1985),
Materialism and Idealism
WE HAVE SEEN WHAT MARX thought about the most general
patterns of historical change. We now need to take up the second part of
this passage, cited at the beginning of the previous chapter, where Marx
talks about the role of ideas in historical change. Marx was a revolution-
ary, but he was also a social scientist, a philosopher, a polemicist, and
pamphleteer. He spent most of his life reading and writing. For him, the
question of what role ideas play in historical change was of considerable
importance. His answer in this passage is that
the economic structure of society, [is] the real foundation, on which rises a
legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of
social consciousness.... It is not the consciousness of human beings that de-
termines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines
their consciousness. (T, 5)

The interpretation of this and parallel passages has occasioned much con-
troversy. The doctrine that Marx and Engels enunciate here is called "ma-
terialism," but what, precisely, that materialism asserts has often been
In the writings of Marx and Engels, the doctrine of materialism rejects
idealism. But the term "idealism" refers to several claims. The first tells us
that the universe is spiritual. It believes that the universe, including the
physical universe, is merely the manifestation of God, whose essence is
spiritual. In a second sense, idealism asserts that only minds are real and
that therefore material objects—the plains, mountains, and rivers on the
surface of the earth, for instance—are only appearances of a different, ex-
clusively mental reality. In its third sense, idealism asserts that ideas alone
can move people to action and determine what they will do. A corollary
of that sense of idealism, is that we can frequently explain what people do
exclusively by reference to their beliefs. An example of idealism in this
last sense is a book whose title proclaims that "underdevelopment is a

64 Materialism and Idealism

state of mind," that the pervasive poverty, poor health, and education
that characterize developing countries can be changed merely by chang-
ing the attitudes of people in those countries.1
Marx and Engels reject idealism in these three senses. They deny that
reality is spiritual because they are essentially atheists. They deny that re-
ality is exclusively mental. But they also deny that reality is exclusively
material. Engels rejects that view explicitly as a "shallow and vulgarized
form" of materialism.2 They deny, finally, that we only need to change
people's ideas in order to make this a better world. They argue this at
great length in the German Ideology (GI, T 149ff.). We saw the reasons for
this in the preceding chapter: Human beings find themselves at any mo-
ment subject to prevailing institutional structures. These institutions pre-
sent specific problems and allow a limited range of options for their solu-
tion. Institutional, structures limit the problems we encounter as well as
the available solutions. Changing people's ideas—education—will have
an effect if the ideas have to do with the sorts of actions possible in the
current situation. But since the dominant institutions in any given situa-
tion allow only certain options, the effect of education on social change is
also limited. For any social or political change beyond those options, the
prevailing institutions themselves need to be changed. Education alone
will be ineffective.
Examples are contemporary campaigns to save the environment. Edu-
cational campaigns to save the rain forest assume that the rain forest is
being cut down, bit by bit, by people who do not understand the damage
they are doing. Once they have been educated, it is thought, they will de-
sist. But this strategy ignores the fact that economic pressures due to com-
plex economic institutions move people to cut down the trees either for
profit or to make new land available for agriculture. These pressures are
not going to abate once people know that cutting down the rain forest
causes considerable damage. The woodcutters may not have any choice.
Education is not sufficient to make sure that they stop; they need a differ-
ent way of making a living. Similarly, educational campaigns to urge peo-
ple to recycle cans or paper are useless unless there are factories that
transform recycled paper or cans into new products. Without such facto-
ries there will be no use for the recycled material. It will eventually end
up in the garbage dump. But of course once the machinery is available for
recycling, educational campaigns are not only useful but essential to en-
courage people to make use of the facilities for recycling.

Base and Superstructure

The materialism of Marx and Engels is usually interpreted as making an
additional claim about the causes of human thinking. The passage at the
Materialism and Idealism 65

beginning of this chapter appears to assert that human thinking is shaped

by material conditions; the base determines the superstructure. While it
is, of course, true that people act on their beliefs, values, hopes, and ex-
pectations and that they act in the light of lessons learned from past expe-
rience, the passage cited seems to tell us that all these beliefs and values
are only the effects of "material conditions," (By that, Marx and Engels
mean, roughly, the conditions under which a given group of people earns
its livelihood and produces whatever goods they need.) Values change
with changed economic practices; In a contpetitiYe society, one approves
of competition among people. Members of other societies do not. Notice
that interpreters ascribe a much stronger claim, to Marx and Engels than
that material circumstances and ideas interact in complex ways, such that
ideas sometimes produce changes in material conditions and that those
conditions sometimes give rise to ideas. Many people would agree to
that. But according to the passage cited above, what we think always
arises from the way we produce and reproduce. Material conditions are
the causes of beliefs.
But whether that is what Marx and Engels intended to say is not at all
clear. They use various terms to describe the relation between production
and thought, between "base" and "superstructure," such as "determine,"
"condition," and "cause." These terms are by no means synonymous.
Which of them conveys most accurately what Marx and Engels had in
Usually the term "base" is interpreted as the economic realm, whereas
"superstructure" is taken as the sphere of law, politics, and ideology. By
the "economic realm.," moreover, is meant impersonal economic
processes that unfold independently of human wishes and desires and in-
dependently of human thinking and understanding. Base differs from su-
perstructure in that the former is material and. distinct from human con-
sciousness, whereas the latter is the product of human consciousness.
It is clear that Engels often thinks about base and superstructure in
those terms, for he also describes the problem addressed by materialism
as the "relation of thinking to being." His is the most common interpreta-
tion of historical materialism, which asserts that all ideas are the effects of
the processes of material production. Material production is said to be the
cause of mental events. Engels summarized this causal view of the rela-
tion between social relations of production and ideas as follows:
The final causes of all social changes are to be sought, not in men's brains,
not in man's better insight into eternal truth and justice but in changes in the
modes of production and exchange. (T, 701)
This view is often called "economic determinism." It maintains that the
economy (the base) determines or is the cause of the superstructure.
66 Materialism and Idealism

This economic determinism has invited a great deal of criticism. Reader

after reader has pointed out that the base and superstructure, as Marx
and Engels define them, cannot be causally related. "A is the cause of B"
is usually read as "A is necessary and/or sufficient for B under condition
C." If the powder is dry and you hold a lit match to it, it will explode.
Given the requisite antecedent conditions—the powder is dry—a lit
match is the sufficient condition for the explosion. But there are lit
matches without explosions and explosions without lit matches; the cause
is independent of the effect. If the base is the cause of the superstructure,
it must be separate and independent from it. The base must be capable of
existing independently of the superstructure. But, the critics point out,
the base is not independent of the superstructure: Economic processes
like the production, transport, and sale of goods require clear ownership
of all the goods involved in these processes. Those who own the factories
and raw materials, the final products of production, the trucks and the
stores, must be generally known so that the right people can get paid the
right amount and everybody receives what they are entitled to. The oper-
ation of capitalism presupposes a functioning legal system that deter-
mines property rights. The legal system, a part of the superstructure, is
indispensable for the functioning of the process of production, the base.
The process of production cannot proceed without these superstructural
elements.3 But given the usual understanding of the word "cause," the
base cannot be the cause of the superstructure as long as the two are not
clearly separable.
Besides, as many readers have pointed out, if ideas are caused by mate-
rial circumstances, so are the ideas of Marx and Engels. Hence they do not
have those ideas because they have good reasons for believing them to be
true but simply because they lived in their particular society. If we have dif-
ferent ideas, that is not surprising because our society is very different Eco-
nomic determinism makes nonsense of the entire intellectual enterprise of
Marx and Engels. Their enormous intellectual effort to discover the truth
about capitalism is undercut by the doctrine that we hold ideas not because
they are true but because economic conditions make us hold them.
What is more, economic determinism makes the efforts of Marx and
Engels pointless. If ideas are the effects of material conditions, then what
people believe and act on is not affected by persuasion, however elo-
quent, or by documents such as the Communist Manifesto, The ideas that
material conditions produce will hold sway until material conditions
change, and no amount of stirring rhetoric or ingenious economic analy-
sis will make any difference. Ideas are at best intermediate causes in the
process of political action because political events and movements are, in
the end, the effects of material conditions; ideas alone are ineffectual in
bringing about social change. Hence there is no point in writing docu-
Materialism and Idealism 67

ments like the Communist Manifesto to induce the working class to orga-
nize and make a socialist revolution. If material conditions produce the
same ideas in workers' minds, the Manifesto is superfluous. If material
conditions produce different ideas, the Manifesto will be ineffective.
These criticisms are valid. They suggest that the materialism of Marx
and Engels is different from economic determinism. This suggestion
gains plausibility from the fact that economic determinism—the view that
the base is independent of the superstructure and is its cause—is clearly
inconsistent with the views described in the preceding chapters. For if the
changes in economic processes are independent of human thought, and if
the transformation of human nature is a consequence of changes in the
processes of production, then human nature changes independently of
human thought. But then it is false to assert, as Marx does, that human
history is the history of human self-definition, because human history
turns out instead to be the process in which production, unaffected by
human thinking, defines what "human being" is.
Simply put, economic determinism, just doesn't make any sense. There
are no impersonal economic processes: Production, exchange, and distri-
bution are undertaken by human beings who think about what they are
doing and act in the light of that thought. The picture of an economic
process that unfolds unaffected by human thinking is unintelligible.4
We saw in Chapter 5 that a causal interpretation of historical material-
ism, however common, is implausible. We now see that a causal under-
standing of materialism, of the relation between base and superstructure,
is equally unacceptable. What, then, are Marx and Engels trying to tell us
about the relations between economic conditions and the thinking of the
people who live under those conditions? What question is their material-
ism trying to answer?

The Sources of Self-Evidence

Materialism is traditionally thought to ask and answer a question about
the contents of what people at any particular period believe. The question
is thought to be, Why do people believe just what they believe? Why were
the Greeks pantheists, or why did they believe in a geocentric theory of
the universe? But as a matter of fact, people get their beliefs in all sorts of
different ways: They take them over from other persons; they examine the
ideas themselves and find, them persuasive; they adopt beliefs because
they will be punished if they do not. (Think of the custom of burning
witches or putting communists in prison.) For different people, there are
very different explanations for why they have just the beliefs they have.
Instead, Marx and Engels ask a question about the plausibility of be-
liefs: Why are some ideas very popular at some periods, whereas at other
68 Materialism and Idealism

times they are regarded as odd and utterly implausible? Even in the an-
cient world, there were some individuals who argued for monotheism or
for a heliocentric theory of the solar system, but very few people took
them seriously. Similarly, the idea that governments originate in a social
contract is first introduced in Plato's Republic but did. not really become an
important idea until the seventeenth century—2,000 years later. The belief
in human equality, that each person deserves respect by virtue of being
human and that all human beings deserve to be free, had been familiar to
philosophers and religious thinkers for many centuries. But only in the
eighteenth century did they grip the imagination of the majority of peo-
ple. The really interesting question is why those remained the odd and
implausible ideas of particular individuals, whereas almost everyone,
whether learned or not, accepted polytheism, geocentric theory, the idea
of the divine origin of government, and human, social, political, and eco-
nomic inequality.
Why do ideas that have been around for centuries suddenly come to be
"self-evident truths" after having so long been the quaint thoughts of pe-
culiar people like philosophers or priests? The idea of the social contract
is not significantly different in the eighteenth century from what it was in
Plato's Republic. But the world in which those ideas now play an impor-
tant role is certainly different from ancient Athens, Wltat changes in the
world provoke those radical shifts in human thinking? That is the question that
Marx and Engels try to answer with their generalization about base and
superstructure. What explains this shift in human thinking in the eigh-
teenth century, in the Western world, is the rise of capitalism.
Thus Marx writes, in a passage cited in Chapter 4,
Equality and freedom are not only respected in exchange of exchange values, values,
but the exchange of exchange values is the productive, the real basis of all
equality and freedom.5

Only as capitalist institutions develop do the ideas of freedom and equal-

ity begin to dominate Western thinking. For capitalism involves the free
and equal exchange of goods in marketplaces. Capitalism is not possible
unless buyer and seller confront each other as free and equal persons in
the market. Capitalism requires certain limited freedoms and limited
equality. In a limited way, buyer and seller are, in fact, free and equal in
the marketplace. The ideas of freedom and equality become important as
actual institutions arise that require specific freedoms and specific forms
of equality. As market relations gain in importance in the economy, so,
too, do freedom and equality, and as a consequence the ideas of freedom
and equality gain in importance in political and ethical thinking. Capital-
ism does not produce ideas; capitalism gives currency to certain ideas be-
cause they are already implicit in capitalist practices. The validity, clarity.
Materialism and Idealism 69

and applicability of these ideas are, as before, open to serious scrutiny.

But once certain institutions come into being, corresponding ideas take on
"self-eYidenee" that they did not have before.
Although they may take on the solidity of "self-evident truths," these
beliefs are often inaccurate, incomplete, or seriously misleading. The rul-
ing institutions make certain beliefs common and give them the appear-
ance of being "self-evident." That is true of beliefs in religion, politics,
much of economic theory, and most of philosophy. Marx and Engels call
those unreliable beliefs "ideology." One role of human thinking is to dis-
criminate between current beliefs that are in fact reliable and those that
are incomplete, misleading, or downright deceptive. I will discuss the
distinction between ideology and reliable ideas in Chapter 7.
The importance of Marx's and Engels' doctrine of materialism is this: It
provides us with some reasons for being particularly critical of ideas that
are commonly taken to be self-evident. Ideas that fit altogether too
smoothly into current institutional contexts are, above all, suspect. Thus
the beliefs that governments rest on the consent of the people, that
democracy prevails where people periodically participate in elections,
and that truth is best pursued in a "marketplace of ideas"—all these
dovetail too comfortably with prevailing economic institutions not to in-
vite the most careful scrutiny. Of course, that they are the sorts of ideas
one would expect to be popular in a capitalist society does not show that
they are incorrect. They might turn, out to be true. But the important les-
son to be learned from the materialism of Marx and Engels is that we
must be suspicious of those ideas that seem self-evident to most people
and that seem to fit most readily into the practices of a capitalist society.
Everyone knows that what appears self-evident to many people is not al-
ways true. The contribution of materialism is to provide some insight into
why some ideas are so self-evident at some times yet seem equally im-
plausible at other times. It thereby suggests that the ideas that appear
most plausible and seem to fit particularly well with prevailing institu-
tions are particularly suspect. That provides us with some suggestions
concerning which ideas we need to examine with particular care.6

For Further Reading

Melvin Rader, Marx's Interpretation of History {New York: Oxford University Press,
1979), chapter L

1. Lawrence E, Harrison, £1 Subdesarollo Estti en la Matte (Underdevelopment is
in the mind) (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Limusa, 1989).
70 Materialism and Idealism

2. Frederick Engels, Luditrig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philos-
ophy (New York: International Publishers, 1941), p. 25.
3. John Ptamenatz, German Marxism and Russian Communism (London; Long-
mans, 1954), p. 25,
4. These problems had been raised in Marx's and Engels' lifetime. After Marx
died, Engels felt the need to protest that neither he nor Marx had intended to de-
fend economic determinism. They had always understood that much as the base
determines the superstructure, the superstructure in turn determines the base. All
they had ever wanted to say was that the base was the "ultimately decisive" fac-
tor (T 760), Hence the doctrine is attributed to' Engels that the base determines the
superstructure "in the last instance," But that qualification does not resolve the
central problem of economic determinism—that it presupposes a distinction be-
tween "base" and "superstructure" that does not, in fact, make any sense. If there
is a problem with claiming that the material base causes the superstructure, be-
cause base and superstructure cannot be distinguished in the ways required by a
causal analysis, men that problem exists just as much if we banish this causal
process to "the last instance,"
5. Marx, Gmndrisse (Frankfurt; Europaeische Verlagsanstalt, n.d.)» p. 156.
6. Contemporary English-speaking philosophers often rest their philosophies
on their "intuitions," what seems self-evident to them. If they take the material-
ism of Marx and Bngels to heart, they fulfill more successfully the traditional task
of philosophy of examining critically the common wisdom of their day.


change and the influence they have on the dominant ideas in different
epochs, Marx develops his materialism in more detail in the form of his
theory of ideology. In current English "ideology" is a near synonym of
"propaganda" (particularly of a political sort). "Ideology" usually refers
to beliefs that no one would adopt on rational grounds, beliefs that have
been instilled in people by force or deception. Alternatively, we character-
ize political views as "ideological" when we want to say that they are
governed by abstract principles, often with total disregard for actual fact
A policy is ideological if it is defended on principle even, if the facts sug-
gests strongly that its results would be quite destructive. In political
rhetoric the beliefs of our opponents are therefore often characterized as
"ideologies" when they are assumed to be false—because they are im-
posed from above or because they are not supported by actual facts. The
term, has a very different meaning in the writings of Marx and. Engels.
In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made
between, the material, transformation of the economic conditions of produc-
tion, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the
legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic-—in short, ideological
forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as
our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so
can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own conscious-
ness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the
contradictions of material life, from, the existing conflict between material
productive forces and the relations of production. (T, 5}

An ominous passage on first reading, it seems to suggest that the out-

side, scientific observer is in a position to understand the true moving
forces in major social and historical upheavals, while the account given
72 Ideology

by people actually participating in those upheavals is no more trustwor-

thy than the account a person gives of Ms or her own motives and aspira-
tions. What people say about themselves in their legal, religious, aes-
thetic, and philosophical doctrines is not to be taken seriously because it
is ideology. It does not provide an explanation of what people are doing
but instead itself cries out for explanation. This is another passage that, if
interpreted carelessly, supports the interpretation that Marx and Engels
were economic determinists. Many interpreters of Marx and Engels un-
derstand it in that way. The theory of ideology, they say, holds that peo-
ple's beliefs are determined by their social or economic circumstances,1
But we have already seen in Chapter 6 that Marx and Engels were saying
something quite different.
We can see more precisely what this passage asserts if we put it side by
side with another observation of Marx's in Capital. In a long footnote in
Capital, Marx takes the opportunity to answer an objection to the 1859 Cri-
tique. A reviewer had written that Marx's claim that the mode of produc-
tion determined social, political, and intellectual. life would seem accurate
for our time but not for the Middle Ages, "in which Catholicism, nor for
Athens and Rome, where politics reigned supreme. "2 Marx replies to this
This much, however, is dear, that the middle ages could not live on Catholi-
cism, nor the ancient world on politics.... For the rest, it requires but a slight
acquaintance with the history of the Roman Republic, for example, to be
aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other
hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that
knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.3

The Greeks and Romans, as well as the people in the Middle Ages, were
not preoccupied with politics or religion to the exclusion of all other con-
cerns. They needed food and shelter like everyone else, and they had
their specific ways of solving their material economic problems. With
these different ways of providing for their material needs go different val-
ues, religious beliefs, political institutions, and customs. All of these are
examples of ideology. Ideologies are connected with economic institu-
tions. When those change, so do the ideological beliefs and practices. For
example, the knight errantry that flourished in the early Middle Ages be-
came pointless or even ridiculous after feudalism had been replaced by
early capitalism. But it is clear that the economic structure is not the cause
of the way of life—the phenomenon of Don Quixote demonstrates that. If
economic structures were the causes of certain outlooks, then it would
not have been possible for Don Quixote to believe himself to be a knight
errant after the end of the Middle Ages. That is shown also by the earlier
examples I cited in Chapter 6, regarding ideas of freedom and equality
and the social contract that were entertained by the Greeks and Romans
Ideology 73

but never became popular or widespread. Instead, different outlooks are

the "forms in which men [and women] become conscious" of the eco-
nomic conditions under which they live. The theory of ideology is an
elaboration of the insights of Marx's and Engels' materialism: The ideas
that are dominant in any given historical period appear self-evident be-
cause they fit snugly with the dominant economic institutions—in the
generous sense in which Marx and Engels use the word "economic," But
because ideas are self-evident to many people does not mean that they
are true. The claims to self-evidence must be received with caution. The
theory of ideology gives some more concrete content to this insight,

What Is Ideology?
At issue here are beliefs, values, ways of life. But not all beliefs are ideo-
logical. Some beliefs are true. Others are not only false but are known to
be false. Marx recognizes the difference between ideology and plain false-
People hold on to beliefs that are false and known to be false. Sexist and
racist beliefs are prime examples of that. People hold beliefs even though
all existing reliable evidence contradicts them,. Even though biologists
and anthropologists have found the concept of "race" indefensible,
claims about superiority and inferiority of certain "races" continue un-
abated.4 Racism is not an ideology because it is irrational, to believe in the
reality of race in spite of all the available evidence. In the same manner, it
is irrational for men to depend on their wives to run their families and
keep their children safe and healthy and at the same time to believe that
men are rational and in charge and women are not.5
But then there are beliefs that are neither true and known to be so nor
false and known to be false. We hold, many beliefs, and so have men and
women, at other times, for which we do not have sufficient evidence to
show either that they are true or false. Such more or less unsupported be-
liefs, however, are the best that can be achieved given a certain level of
technological development and scientific knowledge. These beliefs are
ideologies. Certain ideological beliefs, such as the geocentric theory of the
universe, can at some future time be refuted by science. Others, like reli-
gious, social, political, or ethical beliefs, lie outside the domain of science
and therefore will always remain ideological.
One difference between beliefs known to be false and what Marx and
Engels call "ideology" is that it makes sense that persons should have these
ideological beliefs under their specific material conditions.
The religious world is but a reflex of the real world. And for a society based
upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter
into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodi-
ties and values whereby they reduce the individual labor to the standard of
74 Ideology

homogeneous human labor—for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of

abstract man, Protestantism,... is the most fitting form of religion. (Q, T 326)

Religious beliefs are not known to be true, nor are they known to be false,
even though both supporters and enemies of religion claim proof for their
positions. What is more, we can understand why a certain kind of society
in which the uniqueness of individuals is ignored in favor of the com-
modity value of each one's contribution should adopt a religion such as
Protestantism that concerns itself primarily with the rights and obliga-
tions of "man" in the abstract. In a capitalist society, human beings are
treated as abstractions in that they become more or less exchangeable. In
any given workplace, jobs are filled by a series of persons. When, business
is bad, people are fired or laid off. When business improves, someone else
is hired to do the job. What makes each of these persons unique is, in the
economic sphere, not important. Similarly, Marx suggests, Protestantism
focuses on the abstract humanity and human rights of all and puts less
emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual. What matters in this ex-
ample is not whether Marx does justice to Protestantism but rather the
connection he draws between the capitalist system and certain ideologies.
Some ideologies may turn out to be mistaken, given the evidence avail-
able to us at a later date, but it is not irrational to hold ideological beliefs.
Given the prevailing conceptions of human beings as "abstract," that is,
as interchangeable in the job market, Protestant thought about human
rights makes sense,
The Greeks believed that the earth was at the center of the universe.
Given their astronomical observations, that was a defensible scientific the-
ory. Aristarchos, a Greek astronomer in the third century B.C., however, did
propose a heliocentric theory. So the available evidence did seem to sup-
port rival, theories. Why did the Greeks and, the Romans and the medievals
support the geocentric rather than the heliocentric theory? The explanation
uncovers the function of these beliefs that are not supported or refuted by
adequate evidence. In this passage Marx calls them, "mythology":
All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in
the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the ad-
vent of real mastery O¥er them. (G, T 246)6

The existence of mythology is understandable in cultures that have little

control over nature. Thus the existence of Greek mythology is explicable
by the low level of economic productivity of the Greeks. Because the
Greeks and Romans lacked the scientific knowledge to control nature,
they developed a mythology that could dominate nature "in the imagina-
tion." But the mythology of the Romans was not exactly the mythology
the Greeks developed. The Jews developed their Old Testament version
Ideology 75

of monotheism; the ancient Germans developed a different mythology.

But the function of mythology, to stand in for more solidly supported sci-
entific explanations of the world, does not explain why different cul-
tures—the ancient Jews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, the me-
dievals-—provided very different stories about the origin and the
structure of the world in which they lived. We can account for the charac-
teristics of a given ideology only once we look at the social and economic
conditions prevailing where that ideology arises.
Marx explains this idea in more detail in another passage:
It is well known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art
but also its foundation. Is the view of nature and of social relations on which
the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with
the self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical
telegraphs? What chance has Vulkan against Roberts & Co., Jupiter against
the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier? (G, T 245-246)

The passage reiterates the point made before about Don Quixote: The
Greek pantheon is out of place in the modern world, A god, Jupiter,
whose power is exhibited by the use of thunder and lightning is a shabby
god indeed once those natural phenomena have been understood and
once lightning has become less of a menace because of the invention of
lightning rods. Human beings who can set off the atomic blasts of Hi-
roshima and Nagasaki will not be impressed by a little thunder and light-
ning. The same applies to the other personages in the Greek pantheon.
The goddess of reputation, Fama, cuts a poor figure against the newspa-
pers coming out of London's Printing House Square, and Hermes, the
god of commerce, is overshadowed by the enormous power of the world-
wide banking network of the Credit Mobilier in Paris. A people adopts
mythological explanations that make sense in their world. The Greek
pantheon was inhabited by beings whose lives were just the lives writ
large of the dominant groups in Greek society—the landowners who
themselves did not work, who spent their lives in war, amorous intrigue,
or political activity. Mythologies reflect the social structures of the soci-
eties in which they are current.
Ideologies are beliefs not provable as true or false that fit in comfort-
ably with the economic and social practices of a given society. But at the
same time, Marx insists in the passage cited at the beginning of this chap-
ter, ideologies are open to criticism..
Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of him-
self, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own con-
sciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather
from the contradictions of material, life, from the existing conflict between
material productive forces and the relations of production. (T, 5)
76 Ideology

This is puzzling because if we cannot tell whether the ideological beliefs

of our day are true or false, how can we criticize them? But the entire proj-
ect of Marx and Engels is a critical one. Several of Marx's writings contain
the term "Critique" in their titles.7 Hence we need to examine on what
grounds ideological beliefs can be criticized.

Ideology and Science

Many readers of Marx and Engels have found the concept of ideology
problematic. They have assumed that the materialism of Marx and Engels
commits them to the view that all people living under given material con-
ditions must adopt its ideology because "life determines consciousness."
If that is true, Marx and Engels are victims of bourgeois ideology. But
since they also claimed to be doing science, which they distinguished
from and opposed to ideology, they seem to have been caught in a contra-
diction. They appear to have believed that all people in a given culture
are inevitably infected by the reigning ideology and that they themselves
did science and saw through the ideology of the age. But those two views
are inconsistent.8 Commentators have taken different routes in dealing
with this supposed contradiction,
As we saw earlier, ideologies are understood by some commentators as
systems of beliefs developed intentionally in order to mislead people.
Ideology is then not forced on us by material conditions and thus does
not prevent us from doing real science.9 One can also hold that no one in a
given society can resist its ideology but deny that all thinking is ideologi-
cal. Science, in that case, may be nonideological thinking, and thus doing
science and being in the thrall of the reigning ideology need not be incon-
sistent.10 One can also deny that science and ideology are incompatible.11
Finally, it is possible, of course, to deny that the doctrines of Marx and En-
gels deserve to be called science. But in that case one would rescue them
from the accusation of being inconsistent at the price of degrading the
product of their intellectual efforts to "ideology" or "myth."12
A good portion of these controversies appears to be misguided because
they rest on a misunderstanding of the concept of science and the concept
of ideology as they function in the work of Marx and Engels. I showed in
the previous chapter that ideology—the dominant beliefs of an era—can
be criticized and resisted. Material conditions are not causes of beliefs.
From, what I have said in this chapter about ideology, it is clear that ideo-
logical beliefs are not based on reliable scientific work. To that extent ide-
ology and science are distinct. But ideology is subject to scientific criti-
cisms in retrospect. At the time that ideological beliefs develop, there is not
sufficient evidence to show them to be true or false. In fact, they often
function as substitutes for scientific information that is not available at the
Ideology 77

time. But later, when science develops, the earlier ideological beliefs can
be criticized for being false. Thus we can criticize Ptolemaic astronomy
from the point of view of contemporary astronomy. Similarly, in Capitalf
Marx criticizes the views of Adam Smith and David Ricardo with respect
to price and value and profits.
But many ideologies, for instance, beliefs about religion, ethics, politics,
and the law are not open to such criticism in hindsight. Here criticism of
ideologies bases itself on the second characteristic of ideologies—namely,
that they reflect the dominant institutions of the society. The possibility of
a critique of ideology is narrowly connected with the fact that in class so-
cieties rival, ideologies reflect the dominant and oppositional institutions
from the perspectives of different classes.
Ideologies are those beliefs in a given culture that do not find adequate
support or refutation by available knowledge. In a fairly homogeneous
society, such ideologies are likely to be fairly homogeneous. In a class so-
ciety, different classes will see the world differently and develop different
ideologies. Class societies thus give rise to conflicting ideologies. In all
Western societies, beginning at the latest with the Greeks, there are people
whose profession is thinking and writing who are either members of or
are maintained by the ruling classes. Plato was a member of the ruling
elite of Athens, Aristotle the tutor of Alexander the Great. Both lived and
moved among the people of wealth and power. It is no surprise, there-
fore, that their philosophies shared the outlooks of those in power. This
has continued to this day, where the professional intellectuals either par-
ticipate in governing (often as professional experts) or are supported by
the wealthy because they are employed by communications media or uni-
versities or are dependent on wealthy patrons of the arts and their philan-
thropies. As a consequence of this dose association, the ideological beliefs
of the rich and powerful are broadcast by the stratum of professional in-
tellectuals (GI, T 158-159, 173). Hence Marx tells us more than once that
"the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class"
(CM, T 489). In a class society, there is thus a dominant ideology—the
ideas of the ruling class. But the dominated classes have different experi-
ences from the dominant. The reigning institutions do not solve their
problems but rather create them. Hence their perspective on the prevail-
ing social structures is different from the outlook of the rich and power-
ful. They develop an alternative ideology. But they have in their service
fewer theorists, writers, ministers, experts; their ideology tends to be less
elaborate. They also have less control over media; their alternative ideolo-
gies do not spread as easily because they have only word of mouth or al-
ternative media available to them, to disseminate their ideas.13
In class societies ideologies are contested. The oppositional views of the
less powerful classes are attacked by the authors sharing the perspective
78 Ideology

of the dominant class. In earlier ages the attack often took a religious
form. The ideas of the poor and downtrodden were condemned as here-
sies. Since the days of Marx and Engels, "communism" is a favorite label
for ridiculing and depreciating oppositional ideologies. In the 1990s the
oppositional ideologies developed in the 1960s have been diminished and
distorted by calling, them "'politically correct."
The ideology of the ruling class presents itself as the true beliefs for all
members of a society:
Each new class that puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is com-
pelled merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the
common interest of all members of society.... It has to give its ideas the form
of universality. (GI, T 174)

Hence the eighteenth century talks about the universal rights of man, and
only if we read the small print in, for instance, John Locke's Second Treatise
of Government do we see that only property owners have political rights or
that the universal rights of all human beings do not compromise the fa-
ther's patriarchal rights in the family. As oppositional groups develop in
a given society, they can criticize the ruling ideology from their point of
view. They can, for instance, point out the inconsistency between the uni-
versal principles proclaimed by the ruling group and its actual practice.
The universal rights of all human beings are exercised by the powerful
but withheld from the others.

One can criticize ideologies because their proponents do not practice
what they preach. The defenders of universal human rights, for instance,
have rarely been interested in combatting racism, sexism, or the exploita-
tion of workers.14 Another strategy of ideological criticism is illustrated
by Marx's discussion of "fetishism" in Capital. In a passage from the Ger-
man Ideology, Marx and Engels describe ideology as an inverted image.
Ideologies are open to criticism because they make the world appear
turned upside down.
If in all ideology human beings and their circumstances appear upside down
as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their life-
process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-
process. (GI, T 154} 1

This picture of ideology as an inverted image returns in the discussion of

fetishism in Capital. Fetishes are objects of religious worship, made by
human beings, that are endowed by their human creators with supernat-
ural powers. But the human beings forget that the powers they revere in
Ideology 79

their fetish were bestowed by them in the first place. In modern societies
the principal example of "fetishism," the subject of one of the early sec-
tions of Capital, is the treatment of commodities in economics. Fetishism
has, in the modem world, moved from religion to economics.
This section of Capital begins with saying that a commodity is "at first
sight, a trivial thing. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer
thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (CI,
T 319). But what makes commodities so peculiar? Commodities have in-
trinsic characteristics such as size, weight, and color. Prices appear to be
such intrinsic characteristics of things. They are not set by particular peo-
ple but come with the commodity, as one of its characteristics. When a
consumer goes to the store to buy something, the commodity has a price.
The careful consumer soon finds out that not all stores charge the same
price. But these price variations are not the results of arbitrary decisions
by store owners; rather, the prices are set in accordance with economic ne-
cessities, such as the store owners' costs and the need to make a profit.
Prices are determined by market forces. The store owners merely try to
read those market forces as accurately as possible.
Human beings work and produce in a specific social order. They work
always in coordination with one another. In all societies, even the most
primitive ones, there is some sort of division of labor. The goods pro-
duced and their distribution—who gets what and in what quantities—de-
pends on the structure of the particular society in question. But in a com-
modity society (i.e., under capitalism), it seems that what is produced and
by whom and how it is distributed is not the result of the social order as a
whole but depends exclusively on the prices of commodities. In a capital-
ist economy, capital is privately owned and the competent capitalist will
make it grow by making a profit. Capital must therefore be invested
where it will be profitable, and such decisions determine what will be
produced. The profitability of certain goods, compared to that of others,
decides what a society will produce. Profitability, in turn, is connected
with the price at which something can be sold, compared to the cost of
producing it. The decision made in a society as to what will be produced
is closely tied to prices.
So it appears that the general complexion of capitalist society, who is
rich and who is poor, who decides where to invest capital and in what
way the society will grow or decay, is not due to the decisions of individ-
uals or groups but the result of the impersonal movements of commodi-
ties and their prices.

The relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented
to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the
products of their labor. (Cl, T 320)
80 Ideology

The structure of capitalist societies, the division of labor, the distribution of

resources are usually thought to be the results not of human choices but of
the impersonal market forces, Human beings are, for the most part, pow-
erless to alter the existing societies because the mechanisms of the market
are not under their control. Attempts to control market forces, many theo-
rists add today, always end in spectacular failures. But this belief in the im-
mutability of capitalism is another example of the tendency of ruling
classes to claim universality for their view of the world. Capitalists present
the world as if capitalism had always existed and as if it will always exist.
Market forces have been made into fetishes insofar as they appear to peo-
ple to have independent powers that dominate human affairs.
But there is a very different way of viewing markets—namely, as the cre-
ations of human beings. Once we consider our economic institutions in a
historical perspective, we can see that commodity production, for instance,
is not an immutable institution but like all other human institutions is the
result—partly intended, partly unintended—of intentional human actions.
All of this becomes clear as soon as we compare capitalist institutions to
those that went before and those that are still to come (CI, T 324). Here ide-
ological criticism proceeds by proposing a different perspective. The capi-
talist perspective sees the world as permanent because capitalist institu-
tions benefit capitalists; they see their world as good and therefore
permanent. Change, in their view, could not improve the world. It is there-
fore unthinkable. Hence market forces become fetishes to be worshiped be-
cause they are thought not to be under our control but, on the contrary, to
control our lives. But from the point of view of workers, the poor, and peo-
ple in developing countries, capitalist institutions are exploitative and op-
pressive (see Chapters 9 and 11). They consider change desirable, and the
methods and goals of change are a matter of great import. We can see that,
according to this perspective, the impersonal power of commodities, and
with it the impersonal permanence of capitalist institutions, is an "inver-
sion." It misrepresents reality" It conceals the possibility of fundamental so-
cial change.15 The oppositional ideology portrays the capitalist system, from
a different perspective, one oriented toward change and an extension of
rights to all members of the society. The fetish is unmasked.
Neither of these perspectives is supported by sufficient arguments to
show it to be true, although each has something to be said in its favor.
These opposing ideologies are in conflict; ideological struggle is an aspect
of class struggle. Which ideology will prove victorious in the long ran will
depend on the outcome of the class struggle (as I discuss in Chapter 13).

Marx and Ethics

Marx and Engels consider ethical beliefs also as ideological. But this brings
up a special interpretative problem; Many commentators have read Marx
Ideology 81

and Engels as if they rejected ethics outright. Such an interpretation is

based on a number of passages. One of them, occurs in a late work, the Cri-
tique of the Gotha Program, when Marx criticized the party program of the
German Social Democratic Party, In the course of this discussion, he wrote:
[In the preceding pages] I have dealt more at length with , . . "equal right"
and "fair distribution" ... in order to show what a crime it is to force on our
Party again . . , ideas "which in a certain period had some meaning but have
now become obsolete verbal rubbish. (CGP, T 531)

Marx and Engels hold definite ethical views. They believe, for instance,
that transferring wealth from one group to another is, under some condi-
tions, unjust; that it is wrong to deprive people of the wide range of free-
doms that capitalism does not allow most workers; that in a well-ordered
society, we will not look for reciprocity but for each receiving the condi-
tions needed for full self-development But how can Marx and Engels
hold such ethical views and at the same time claim that ethics is "obsolete
verbal rubbish"? A number of solutions to this dilemma have been of-
fered: Some authors argue that Marx and Engels did not criticize capital-
ism for being unjust16 or more generally did not hold ethical views about
capitalism.17 Others claim that Marx and Engels were mistaken in believ-
ing that ethics is ideological.18
This entire scholarly controversy presupposes that all ideological be-
liefs are in some way defective. These interpreters assume that for any-
thing to be ideological, it must be intellectually inadequate, unreliable, or
not to be trusted. We already saw that that is not what Marx and Engels
meant by ideology. Ideologies are beliefs that, at a given time, are neither
supported nor refuted by adequate evidence. In that sense of the term,
ethical views are also ideological, and as there are different outlooks in
economics and politics that belong to different classes, so there are differ-
ent ethical ideologies. In our culture there is the dominant ethic of the
golden rule, which tells us that we should think about ethics as rules of
reciprocity: Whatever behavior I expect from you I owe you in return. It is
easy to see that in a culture that regards the market, exchange, and con-
tracts as its central institutions, an ethic that puts reciprocity in the center
reflects the prevailing economic institutions. But this is not the only set of
available ethical ideas. Marx certainly had a very different conception of
the good life from that of the golden rule. Instead of demanding that we
treat others as we want to be treated, he looks forward to a society in
which each person is able to develop fully and freely and where each is
necessary for the others so that they, too, can develop fully and freely.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and its class antago-
nisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is
the condition for the free development of all, (CM, T 491)
82 Ideology

Full development means different things to different people. What we

will contribute to each others' lives will not be regulated by some abstract
standard of equality but, on the contrary, by the different needs that each
of us has for support and encouragement and resources from others.
Hence in the classless communist society the principle of distribution is
"From each according to his or her ability; to each according to his or her
need" (CGP, 531).
In their critical remarks about ethics, Marx and Engels were not reject-
ing all appeal to ethical rules; indeed they appeal to such rules through-
out their writings. They were making a rather different point, namely,
that ethics is not a good, basis for criticizing capitalist society and advocat-
ing socialism as its replacement. It is clear from the passage quoted above
that Marx and Engels did not believe that ideological beliefs are defective
under all circumstances, that is, that they never had any use at all. It is
clear from the passage that Marx thought that the ideas of "equal rights"
and "fair distribution" were legitimate parts of a political program in a
certain period but were, when Marx wrote the Critique of the Gotha Pro-
gram, "obsolete rubbish."
The central point here is the distinction between "Utopian" and "scien-
tific" political action, a distinction to which we will return in Chapter 15.
The Utopian socialists were reformers. They were not simply interested in
criticizing capitalism but wanted to replace it with a better social order.
They were critical of the injustices of capitalism and were trying to de-
velop just institutions. But there are many different ways of committing
injustice. What was clearly needed was a precise understanding of the
exact ways in which capitalism is unjust. But when the Utopian socialists
were developing their reform plans, capitalism was sufficiently undevel-
oped that they could not see precisely how capitalism was unjust and
what it was about the capitalist system that produced its particular injus-
tices. They did not have a clear understanding of exploitation and of the
differences in power between workers and capitalists that were the conse-
quence of the private ownership of the means of production. As a result,
their proposals for alternative economic and political systems did not ad-
dress the specific injustices that capitalism produces and thus were not
useful projects to remedy the evils of capitalism. The scientific socialism
of Marx and Engels, in. contrast, allows us to understand clearly what
needs to be changed in order to abolish the injustices of capitalism.
This much seems uncontroversial. But after that we can go in two dif-
ferent directions with our interpretation of the Marxian view of ethics.
The dominant interpretation goes as follows: Once scientific socialism is
developed, we know what the key problems of capitalism are. We also
know that those key problems will sooner or later destroy capitalism
from within and bring about its replacement by socialism. Science does
Ideology 83

not make value judgments; it simply takes reality as it finds it and tries to
explain its development. A "scientific" politics rests its activities on its sci-
entific understanding. It derives from its scientific understanding of capi-
talism and its assessment of the state of capitalism at one particular
time—what sorts of political actions are called for at that moment to has-
ten the inevitable end of capitalist rule. Hence ethical condemnations of
socialism are now "obsolete rubbish." Ethics belongs in the prehistory of
socialist efforts. Scientific socialism replaces an ethical socialism.
Marx and Engels' conception of science is quite undeveloped (see
Chapter 15). Whether they believed that science is "value-free" is not
known. But even if they did hold that view, a different interpretation is
much more plausible: Scientific socialism rests on a careful and detailed
theory about the workings and presumed trajectory of capitalism. Of
course the earlier ethical condemnation of capitalism still holds. It re-
mains true, and important, that capitalism is unjust. But such condemna-
tions are too general to have any place in a party program—which is what
Marx is addressing in the Critique of the Cotha Program quoted above. Such
a party program needs to speak in detail about the specific forms of capi-
talist injustice and the mechanism of its replacement by socialism. To go
back and. talk in very general terms about injustice and equal rights in a
party program is, in that context, "obsolete rubbish," Ethical judgments
are of course important. A scientific socialist, who holds no ethical views
that injustice must be fought and overcome, may well consider the inter-
nal mechanisms of capitalism with great interest but would not join the
struggle. Marxism without ethical views makes no sense.
But do not ethical views require justification? Not all ethical views are
as valuable and reliable as others. The concept of ideology proves to be of
importance in throwing light on that problem. Ethical views are clearly
ideological, according to Marx and. EngeJs, and hence are not capable of
proof or disproof. Ideological beliefs, including ethics, articulate the be-
liefs of a given group of people. The task of moral philosophers is not to
prove that certain actions are right and certain states are good but to put
into words as clearly as possible what their group believes is the good life
and what their obligations are to one another. In the process of putting a
given ethical view into words, we certainly compare different proposals
and reject some as less acceptable, less coherent, less able to guide us in a
variety of real situations. But such discussions do not aim at proving that
an ethical view is true. They try to reflect as adequately as possible the
best thinking about ethics in any given group.
In any society there are different groups, and they have different ide-
ologies. The ruling class has its ideology. Oppositiona) groups have
theirs. The different ideologies, of course, overlap. Everyone condemns
injustice; everyone asserts that all human beings have certain rights. But
84 Ideology

whether the existing distribution of wealth and access to shared resources

is just or whether everyone has the right to a decent living and. full self-
development is a matter of great controversy, Marx and Engels did not
make any effort to develop a proletarian ethics. But such an understand-
ing of injustice and the good, life is certainly implicit in their work. We
will have occasion to discuss their ethical ideas further in Chapter 16.

False Consciousness
Ideology, especially bourgeois ideology when it is adopted by the work-
ing class, is often called "false consciousness," Marx did not, in fact, use
this expression, but many commentators identify ideology with false con-
sciousness nevertheless.19 That conception has often been associated with
views that the working class is systematically deceived by the ruling class
or that its desires are manipulated by the capitalists or that its family
structure is the effect of traditional authoritarianisna or that its under-
standing of the world results from sexual repression.20 All of these sug-
gestions are extremely interesting but go far beyond the theory of ideol-
ogy as we find it in Marx and Engels. All of them are attempts to explain
why workers-—contrary to Marx and Engels' optimistic expectations—-
have frequently been in support of their exploiters and have stood aloof
from their labor unions and from class struggle. Their support for the en-
emies of the working class has been explained as the effect of ruling-class
ideologies that confused workers and thus produced "false conscious-
ness." In fact, though, the reluctance of workers to struggle to improve
their lot does not have to do primarily with ideology but with alienation.
The lack of revolutionary fervor among workers is not just a manifesta-
tion of their erroneous ideas but has much deeper and more complex
causes. What appears to be lacking in most people living in capitalist soci-
eties is the burning desire for freedom that revolutionary activity de-
mands. This lack is better explained by alienation than by the theory of
ideology. We shall see in Chapter 10 that one of the questions left open by
Marx's conception of alienation is the extent to which living in a capitalist
society makes all of us into persons unwilling to change and to change
our social system. We will take up that question once more in Chapter 16.

For Further Reading

Richard Liehtatan, Essays in Critical Social Theory (New York; Peter Lang, 1993).

I. See Nicholas Abercrombie, Problems in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York:
New York University Press, 1980); Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge;
Cambridge University Press, 1985), chapter 8.
Ideology 85

2. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 82n.

3. Ibid.
4. Kwame A. Appiah, In My Father's House (New York: Oxford University Press,
5. The matter is actually more complex. Marty beliefs are partly ideological and
partly not; some motivations for holding certain beliefs are more intelligible than
others. It has often been pointed out that it makes sense for employers to encour-
age racism among their employees. Thus the perpetuation of certain racist beliefs
has partially rational explanations in some cases.
Some have argued that there are certain subterranean reasons for holding, for
example, racist beliefs, such as the guilt of whites over the treatment of African
Americans that easily transforms itself into an irrational, fear of what "they" will
do to "us." Wilhekn Reich argued that one could understand the support of Ger-
man workers for the Nazis if one looked at the extent to which, given prevailing
sexual mores, men and women were forced to repress their sexual needs and de-
sires, See Wilhelm Reich, The Mess Psychology of Fascism (New York; Noonday,
6. lit good nineteenth-century fashion, Marx talks about the relations to nature
as "domination." We tend to think of our relation to nature in different terms.
These differences are themselves instances of ideology.
7. Consider the following titles: "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philos-
ophy of Right"; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; Capital; A Critique
of Political Economy,
8. William Leon McBride, Tin* Philosophy of Marx (New York: St. Martin's Press,
9. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press,
10. Jorge Larrain, The Concept of Ideology (Athens: University of Georgia Press,
1979), chapter 1.
11. John McMurtry, The Structure of Marx's WorM~View (Princeton, N.J.: Prince-
ton University Press, 1978), chapter 5.
12. Robert C. Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1972).
13. These ruling ideologies must be distinguished from propaganda—lies de-
liberately spread to mislead. The intellectuals associated, with the ruling class
often do serious and honest intellectual work, but their outlook happens to be that
of the people who support them. See Capital, vol. 1, p. SOn,
14. This has led some Marxists to attack the belief in universal human rights it-
self. But that is a serious error. Instead, one must criticize the deceptive uses that
prevailing ruling groups make of the beliefs in these universal human rights to
promote their private agendas at home and abroad,
15. It is important to notice, though, that the capitalist perspective is not mis-
taken. It becomes much less persuasive once we take a more historical view or if
we are interested in and engaged in social change. But there is no impartial evi-
dence to show that the proletarian perspective is true and the capitalist perspec-
tive false. The ideological criticism performed here is not retrospective scientific
criticism but opposes one perspective to that of the opposing class,
16. Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).
86 Ideology

17, Richard Miller, Analyzing Marx (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
18, R. G, Peffer, Marxism, Morality and Social Justice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1990), p. 238,
19, Denise Meyerson, False Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991);
George Lichtheim, The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays (New York: Vintage
Books, 1967), pp. 17-22.
20, On the capitalists' deception of the working class, see Theodor Adorno and
Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), Also
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967). On family
structure, see Max Horklieimer, "Authority and the Family," in Critical Theory
(New York: Continuum, 1972), pp. 47-128, See also Reich, The Mass Psychology of

IS CAPITALISM, AS MARX characterizes It, that different from

the ways In which its defenders describe it? There is a good deal of agree-
ment about its central features between Marx, who is fiercely critical of
capitalism, and those who accept capitalism, A capitalist society is a com-
modity-producing society. Commodities are made in the expectation that
someone will have a use for them and therefore buy them. The room that
I add onto my house is not a commodity because I do not build it to sell to
someone else but for my own use. But once 1 manufacture anything for
sale, 1 am producing commodities. That is another way of saying that I
produce for sale in a marketplace. To say that a capitalist society is a com-
modity society is, therefore, to say that products, including the ability to
work, are bought and sold in a marketplace. Markets determine prices by
supply and demand. Calling capitalism a market society says that prices
are determined by supply and demand. This, too, Marx recognized quite
readily. Wages, he wrote for instance, "will rise and fall according to the
relations of supply and demand" (WLC, T 206),
Marx, then, had no objection to calling capitalism, a "market society."
Neither would he have hesitated to describe capitalism as a "free enter-
prise system." This description implies that under capitalism there are
only minimal legal restrictions on going Into business. In feudal society
both farming and the production of consumption goods by artisans were
carefully regulated by law and custom; in a capitalist society, by contrast,
one is legally free to pursue profit in any way one sees fit, short of de-
frauding others or endangering their safety. In such a society, people tend
to be socially mobile: Different generations of the same family may not
have the same social status or wealth, hence it is often said that anybody
can become a capitalist. Again, Marx agrees:

88 Capitalism

The circumstance that a man without fortune but possessing energy, solidity,
ability and business acumen may become a capitalist in this manner ... is
greatly admired by apologists of the capitalist system. In a similar way ...
the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages formed its hierarchy out of the best
brains in the land, regardless of their estate, birth or fortune.l

It is often also said that everybody can become a capitalist. But that is, of
course, false. What is true of each individual separately is not true of all of
them together. In a footrace where the contestants are equally matched, it
might be true that anybody can win. But it is clearly not true that every-
body can win. The very fact that one person wins makes it impossible for
all others to win. Similarly, the fact that some people are capitalists makes
it impossible for others to be capitalists.
Marx is not inclined to reject such characterizations of capitalism, but
he does believe that they are seriously incomplete and to that extent mis-
leading. They are clear instances of ideology insofar as they portray the
capitalist system from the perspective of the capitalists. As always, he
turns to history to demonstrate this: Other societies produced commodi-
ties and traded them in a market, but those societies were not capitalist
Some persons in other societies accumulated great wealth, but that alone
did not make them capitalists. In order to understand capitalism, more
completely, we need to see what differentiates commodity production
today from the commodity production of the feudal artisans or what dif-
ferentiates capital accumulation today from the effort to accumulate
wealth in ancient Rome. We need to understand the systematic contexts
in which commodities are produced or wealth is accumulated.
Medieval artisans produced "commodities." They did not merely pro-
duce, say, shoes for their own use but made their living by making shoes
for anyone who could buy them. But although a capitalist society is com-
modity producing, not all commodity-producing societi.es are capitalist:
With the urban crafts, although they rest essentially on exchange and on the
creation of exchange values, the direct and chief aim of this production is
subsistence as craftsmen, as master-journeyrnenf hence use-value, not wealth, not
exchange value as exchange value. (G, T 275)

In capitalism the goal is to produce profits to be reinvested in more means

of production. The goal is therefore to increase one's capital. The me-
dieval guild journeyman, by contrast, simply wanted to make enough to
live. Wealth,—namely, new capital—was not his goal. The reason for that
was not in more detail, that medieval craftsmen had different values and
therefore set themselves different goals for their lives. Rather, in the very
different feudal economic system there was little point in accumulating
great wealth because there was nothing to invest that wealth in. To be
Capitalism 89

sure, there have always been people who accumulated considerable

wealth. But that is not sufficient for capitalism either:
The mere presence of monetary wealth, and even the achievement of a kind of
supremacy on its part, is in no way sufficient for this dissolution into capital to
happen. Or else ancient Rome, Byzantium, etc. would have ended their his-
tory with free labor and capital.... There too, the dissolution of the old
property relations was bound up with the development of monetary
wealth—of trade, etc. But instead of leading to industry, this dissolution led
in fact to the supremacy of the countryside over the city, (G, T 270}

In Rome as in England in the sixteenth and. seventeenth centuries, some

people accumulated great wealth. What made Roman history different
from that of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when
capitalism developed was the emergence in the latter period, and not in
the former, of a work force of people who had no means of supporting
themselves except by hiring themselves out for wages. This mass of
wageworkers originated when
the great English landowners dismissed their retainers, who had, together
with them, consumed the surplus product of the land; when further their ten-
ants chased off the smaller cottagers, etc., then firstly a mass of living labor
was thereby thrown onto the labor market, a mass which was free in a double
sense, free from the old relations of dientship, bondage and servitude, and
secondly free from all belongings and possessions ..., free of all property de-
pendent on the sale of its labor capacity or on begging, vagabondage and rob-
bery as its only source of income. It is a matter of historic record that they
tried the latter first, but were driven off this road by the gallows, stocks, and
whippings onto the narrow path of the labor market (G, T 271)

Of all the changes mentioned, the rise of "free" labor appeared to Marx
to be the central change in the transition to capitalism. The crucial charac-
teristic of that new economic system, according to Marx, was the presence
of two different classes of people in a capitalist society: first, the owners of
the factories, raw materials, tools and machines, and all the other means
of production and, second, the workers who did not own any means of
production and. thus were dependent on wage labor for their livelihood.
Why did Marx refuse the title of capitalist to the Roman merchant who
accumulated a sizable fortune in money or to the medieval craftsman
who owned tools and raw materials that he and his apprentices and la-
borers transformed into commodities? One can, of course, call anything
"capitalism" if one so chooses, but the decisive difference between Rome
or the medieval economy on the one hand and capitalism on the other
seemed to Marx to be the ready availability of wage laborers in the latter
and their absence in the former setting. His reasons for that are simple. In
90 Capitalism

a society where there is little or no labor for hire, you cannot invest wealth
in new machinery and raw materials because there is no one who will
tend the machines to produce goods. Wealth, in a society without free
labor, can be used for consumption only, either for luxury or for warfare.
Moneylenders in medieval, rimes thus did not lend money to investors or
to prospective industrialists but to kings and princes to support their lux-
urious way of life or to pay for military adventures. Only in the modern
era, where there is labor for hire in a labor market, can wealth be invested,
As a consequence, commodity production among medieval artisans dif-
fered from commodity production today because the setting in which it
took place was quite different. Modern, commodity production aims at
the accumulation of more capital. Before, the goal was more modest to
support the artisan and Ms family and apprentices.
Capital is money that is readily convertible into means of production:
factories, tools, raw materials. But all those means are of use only to the
extent that labor is available to transform the raw materials into finished
products. More important, the acquisition of additional tools or raw ma-
terials is of no interest to an owner unless more labor is available. Thus,
under medieval guild restrictions, an owner could hire only a limited
number of apprentices anyway, and buying more tools or raw materials
would have been a waste because workers would not have been on hand
to do the work of transforming those additional raw materials into fin-
ished products:
The rules of guilds,... by limiting most strictly the number of apprentices
and journeymen that a single master could employ, prevented him from be-
coming a capitalist.... A merchant could buy every kind of commodity, but
labor as a commodity he could not buy. (CI, T 396)

Similarly, in the countryside, acquiring new land was of no advantage un-

less one also acquired more people to work it. But inasmuch as people
were attached to the land under serfdom, there was no reserve force of
agricultural labor to be hired to till additional land. There was no market
in land; land was not bought or sold. New land was acquired by warfare,
which at the same provided a work force from among the conquered peo-
ple to cultivate land newly acquired,2
Modern capitalism is a complex social system. Its individual compo-
nents occur in other historical periods. Thus Marx notes that the Incas of
Peru practiced a complex division of labor before the advent of the
Spaniards. But this division of labor was not in the service of a market be-
cause the goods produced were not exchanged.3 The components of capi-
talism, set in a society where labor is for hire and the ability to work has
itself become a commodity, take on different characteristics from what
they had in previous social systems.
Capitalism 91

What Is Modern Capitalism?

We usually think of capital as money or perhaps as means of production;
buildings, machines, raw materials, tools, means of communication, of-
fice equipment laboratories, and so on; Marx, too, frequently writes as if
that is what he meant by the word "capital." But when he was really care-
ful about his language, he used "capital" to refer to a "social relation of
A spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in
certain relations. Torn from these relationships it is no inore capital than gold
itself is money or sugar the price of sugar..., Capital, also, is a social relation
of production. (WLC, T 207)

Means of production are "capital" only in a very specific setting—namely,

when they are the private property of some members of a society while
all the others own no means of production and, in fact, own little beyond
their own person and their ability to work. Means of production become
capital only when most people do wage labor precisely because they do
not own means of production (CI, T 431ff.). Marx and Engels often sum-
marize that characterization of capitalism by saying that under capitalism
means of production are privately owned. The factories, raw materials,
and capital are owned not by the community as a whole or by the govern-
ment but by private individuals. More important, capital is not owned by
all private individuals. The bulk of productive resources in a capitalist so-
ciety is the individual property of a small minority of the members of the
All the other people do wage labor. Wage labor is "free" in two senses.
Workers are free from the serfdom that tied peasants to their land and
from, the slavery that tied the slave's person to her or his owner. Unlike
the serf or the slave, the modern worker can change employers if one of-
fers better wages or conditions than another; she or he can move to a dif-
ferent town if there is more work there. Serfs and slaves, by contrast, were
not free to make those choices. Hence labor power under feudalism or
slavery was not a commodity traded in a labor market (under slavery the
person, not his or her ability to work, is a commodity). Under capitalism,
however, labor power is a commodity (G, T 270, 271). But workers are
also "free of all property." They do not, for instance, own plots of land
that would support them and their families, even for a while, allowing
them to refuse work if it is badly paid or excessively arduous. Nor do
they own wealth that would support them so that they can turn down
work that for whatever reason they do not like. The forces of labor thus
are "free" also in the sense that they are without any financial reserves
and therefore must work to live. Free labor must. work.
92 Capitalism

Marx notes several background conditions for the existence of "free"

labor. One is the "free exchange relation" (G, T 254). If there is to be a
labor market in which individual employers and workers contract for
work and wages, there must be a legal system that enforces contracts
evenhandedly—that is, a legal, system that does not apply different rules
to the rich and to the poor, to the noble and to the commoner. Whatever
the actual realities in particular places and times may be, capitalism does
establish a legal system for the enforcement of contracts of which the cen-
tral principle is equality before the law,
A population of "free" labor also presupposes a commodity economy
developed to the point where it can supply food, clothing, and housing to
such a working population that cannot supply any of its own needs be-
cause it owns no means of production. Hence the need for rental housing
near the factories as well as stores that sell clothes and food, to house,
clothe, and feed this propertyless population. Marx notes that as more
and more women and children were employed in the English factories in
the first half of the nineteenth century, "Domestic work such as sewing
and mending must be replaced by the purchase of ready-made articles."4
Once labor becomes a commodity also, the function of the means of
production changes drastically: They become capital in the modern sense.
The capitalist now
has two objects in view; in the first place he wants to produce a use-value
that has a value in exchange, that is to say, an article that is destined to be
sold, a commodity; and secondly he desires to produce a commodity whose
value shall be greater than the sum of the values of the commodities used in
its production. (CI, T 351}

The capitalist wants to produce goods that sell; otherwise his effort is use-
less and he squanders his capital. But equally important, he wants to
make a profit. If at the end of a period of work he just breaks even—that is,
he has just enough left to live on after paying for his means of production
and his labor—then his effort is wasted. In that situation,
Property in raw materials and instruments of labor would be merely nominal;
economically they would belong to the worker as much as to the capitalist since
they would create value only insofar as he himself were a worker. (G, T 248)

The purpose of capitalist efforts is to remunerate the worker, to pay for

the raw materials and resources consumed, to pay the capitalist for his
work, and, in addition, to produce a return on capital that can be rein-
vested. That profit goes to the owner of the capital alone; the worker does
not get a share of that. If there were no profits, the owner would be in the
same position as the worker—he would get paid only for the work he
does. But, normally, under capitalism capital also gets a "reward"—addi-
Capitalism 93

tional sums for reinvestment to be added to the capital already in use,

Thus the ownership of capital carries its special reward, for the owner of
the original capital will also be the owner of the new sums of capital real-
ized in any given economic transaction. The capitalist's ownership of the
capital, not only brings him remuneration for his work; it also makes him
the owner of the additional proceeds available for reinvestment. The cap-
italist's motto is
Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets.... Accumulation
for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake: by this formula
classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie,5

Capital is different from means of production or money in a society

without a labor market because it is only in a society with a labor market
that capital can seek to enlarge itself continually. A capitalist society is dif-
ferent from a commodity-producing society in which, there is no free
labor because commodity production cannot yield significant profits for
reinvestment unless there is free labor available to be put to work by this
new capital. It is for this reason that Marx insists that capital is not just
money or machines but a "social relation of production"—a shorthand
way of saying that means of production come to be capital and function
to produce profits and accumulation of capital only where there are very
specific relations of production, namely, those that obtain in a society
with free labor and private ownership of the means of production.

Other Characteristics of Capitalism

Some additional important points must be mentioned to round out
Marx's characterization of capitalism. Once capitalists are oriented to-
ward growth, they will attempt to increase profits. The commodities they
produce are intended for sale in a market, and profits are increased by
selling more commodities. Under ordinary circumstances they can do
that in a variety of different ways—for example, by lowering prices and
thereby capturing a larger share of the total demand for whatever they
produce. In any ordinary period, the demand for toothbrushes, for in-
stance, is fairly constant. Barring a sudden panic over bad breath or bad
teeth or a sizable increase in the population over a very short period, the
number of toothbrushes that sell in any given year does not change sig-
nificantly. If any given manufacturer of toothbrushes wants to make more
money, he or she must capture a larger market share—that is, he or she
must sell a larger proportion of the total number of toothbrushes sold.
Capitalists, in pursuit of greater profits, compete with each other:
Except in the periods of prosperity, there rages between the capitalists the
most furious combat for the share of each in the markets.6
94 Capitalism

They can compete by having price wars but also through advertising
campaigns, by redesigning products, and so on. The capitalist economy is
a competitive one.
Capitalists do not merely compete with one another; they also stick to-
gether and cooperate in certain respects. A prime example of that is their
joint effort to maintain a relatively high level of unemployment. Capital-
ist economies tend to foster a certain level of unemployment, forcing
workers to accept jobs that are intrinsically undesirable and, often, incom-
mensurate with their abilities.
The industrial reserve army, during periods of stagnation or average pros-
perity, weighs down the active labor army; during periods of over-produc-
tion and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. (CI, T 427)

There are several causes of that: As capitalism progresses, individual cap-

italists compete with one another by buying new machinery that raises
productivity, that is, requires less labor per unit of output. That general
trend toward mechanization tends to reduce the demand for labor and
thus produces unemployment (CI, T 422), Still, new capital can be in-
vested only if workers are available to perform the necessary work. Capi-
talists are therefore interested in a work force that is looking for work (CI,
T 423). In addition, wages are determined by supply and demand in a
labor market, and as a consequence capitalists have an interest in keeping
the supply of labor high and the demand for labor low (WLC, T 216). (To
what extent they are able to meet those interests is a matter of con-
But none of that would happen unless people were willing to compete,
unless making profits appeared to them to be of paramount importance.
Marx notes that not all cultures valued profit-makiiig as highly as do cap-
italist ones.
We never find the Ancients investigating which form of land ownership etc. is
the most productive and produces the greatest wealth. Wealth does not appear
to be the goal of production.... The question, is always which form of prop-
erty creates the best citizens.... Wealth as an end in itself appears only with
the few mercantile peoples . . . who live in the interstices of the ancient world,
as did the Jews in medieval society.7

As we would expect on the basis of the discussions in Chapters 1-6 of this

book, with changing social relations of production, human beings change
also: We have here an example not only of a change of values but also of
complex patterns of actions, of choices that people actually make—all of
which we refer to in a shorthand way by saying that in a capitalist society
people are animated by the "profit motive," Making a profit, getting rich,
accumulating capital are important motivations in a capitalist society.
Capitalism 95

They were not so in some other societies; in still others they played only a
subsidiary role.
This is not a point about the motivations of the individual capitalist but
about the role of the capitalist. We return here to a distinction that we saw
Marx draw earlier between the social role of being a capitalist and the pri-
vate motives that may animate any particular person who fills the role of
the capitalist (see Chapter 2), As a capitalist, you need to do certain
things, obey certain norms. A capitalist who refuses to increase his or her
capital will not remain a capitalist for long. Imagine that you are em-
ployed as the manager of a company. Because you pay unusually high
wages or support colleges or orphanages, you do not turn a profit from
one year to the next and therefore have no profits from which to pay divi-
dends to the stockholders. You may well be applauded for your enlight-
ened labor management relations and. your generous contributions, but
you will be fired anyway because you did not do the job you were hired
for, namely, to make your company grow.
None of this implies that all capitalists are greedy or ungenerous per-
sons. Some no doubt are; others no doubt are not. Certain capitalists, as is
often pointed out, are probably motivated not by the desire for more
money but by the desire for power. But in any case the analysis of capital-
ism as a social system does not explain the characteristics of capitalism by
reference to the personal desires of the people who fill the role of the cap-
italists. To explain the nature of capitalism by reference to the psychology
of capitalists would confuse the entire analysis of capitalism because it
would imply that if we could either improve the moral character of exist-
ing capitalists or replace the ones we have with people who are less
greedy or less power-hungry, then capitalism would be very different and
probably be more benign. (This would be another example of idealism,
discussed in Chapter 6.) But this is, of course, not true: Capitalists act as
they do because that is what the social system demands of them.
Yet this social system is easily misunderstood. Capitalism may be de-
scribed as a market society, and the regularities of the market appear, like
regularities in nature, independent of human activity. Prices, for instance,
are not really set by buyers and sellers but are determined by the imper-
sonal forces of supply and demand. Hence capitalism is often thought of
as a quasi-natural system that grows up unplanned and separate from the
intentions of human beings, perhaps just the result, as Adam Smith
thought, of certain basic human inclinations. But to think of the market in
that way is to fall victim to what we earlier saw Marx call "fetishism" (see
Chapter 7), which regards the market as a natural force independent of
human beings, something that is, in fact, a human creation. For the mar-
ket mechanism as a whole is not a natural phenomenon such as gravity
that exists independent of human activity and choice. On the contrary.
96 Capitalism

markets, as we have just seen, exist only under specific historical condi-
tions. What is more, the existence of a market system is, on the one hand,
maintained by human activities and, on the other hand, constantly con-
tested. The existence of a market in labor is challenged in the workplace
in the form of demands for guaranteed employment and in labor's at-
tempts to limit the ravages of a free labor market through legislation (for
instance, through laws limiting the length of the workday). Producers try
to exempt themselves from market forces or to modify the effects of the
market by asking for subsidies (farm subsidies are a notorious example)
or special tax legislation in their favor (such as oil depreciation al-
lowances) or through oligopolistic practices that reduce the corrosive ef-
fects of unrestrained competition. Various groups resist the application of
market forces in other areas of human life. Opponents of prostitution
want to keep sexual love from, being a commodity; proponents of the tra-
ditional family object to turning childcare into something to be bought
and sold in a market. Experiments with rent control try to take housing
out of the marketplace; government subsidies for different groups put a
limitation on other market forces. The market is a highly artificial, care-
fully regulated institution. It is no more natural than governments, the in-
stitution of marriage, or our educational system. Human activities and re-
lations seent to be governed by these market forces. But the commodity
society, which appears to function unregulated, following autonomous
laws, is created and. constantly re-created by the actions of human beings.
Capitalism is frequently identified with industry and industrial develop-
ment. Here again Marx draws on history to clarify the relation between cap-
italtsm. and industrial modes of production. It is clear that machines play an
essential role in modern capitalism. Not only are they in evidence every-
where, but they are also important tools in the competition among capital-
ists. In their attempt to undersell competitors, for instance, capitalists will
frequently install new machines that permit cheaper production and thus
allow the producer to lower prices of products. It Is equally clear from the
history of capitalism., however, that its early phases preceded the develop-
ment of modern technology. I discussed previously (in Chapter 5) the phase
of capitalism—what Marx calls "manufacture"—that came before industri-
alization. In this phase workers, who were formerly artisans, worked under
the direct supervision of the capitalist who, as time went on, also owned the
tools and raw-materials. Industrial machinery was introduced only later
(Cl, T 388-403). It was not an essential and indispensable feature of capital-
ism. The development of technology is the result rather than the cause of
the development of capitalist social relations of production.
Of course in most versions of capitalism machinery does play an im-
portant role in the relations between capitalists and workers. Mechaniza-
tion gives the capitalists new avenues of control over the workers. Ma-
Capitalism 97

chines save labor; by introducing more powerful machinery, the capitalist

can often reduce the number of people working for him or her. A new ma-
chine is introduced, and some workers lose their jobs. That reminds all
the remaining workers that the same thing may happen to them: New
machines may threaten their jobs. Their livelihood depends on the good-
will of the capitalist. That perception serves to make workers more docile.
To the extent that they feel insecure in their jobs, they will be less likely to
be antagonistic at work.
At the same time, machinery often replaces skilled workers with work-
ers who are less highly trained, A good deal of machinery makes great
skill unnecessary. Marx observes that weavers in India develop im-
mensely complicated skills and become proficient in producing materials
of unequaled quality "without capital, machinery, division of labor,"9
whereas workers in a capitalist workshop often need only one skill that
can be acquired quickly by anyone. The introduction of the division of
labor as well as of machinery means that workers need fewer skills. In-
dustrialization enables the capitalist to replace the skilled craftsman with
a more or less unskilled person. But unskilled workers not only earn less
than skilled workers but also are more easily replaced, The workers with
fewer skills have a precarious hold on their jobs; they cannot afford to go
against their employers. Thus the introduction of machinery gives em-
ployers greater power over their employees.
This illustrates one other important aspect of capitalism. Although
workers and employers strike a bargain in the labor market and are to
that extent free and equal, once the bargain has been concluded, their
equality comes to an end and employers are much more powerful. They
control the productive resources and thus can decide whether any given
worker will have a job, will be able to make a living to support him- or
herself and a family. The unequal power in the capitalist system is an es-
sential feature—obscured by such common descriptions of capitalism as
"a market society" or "a free enterprise society." We shall have much
more to say about the issue of the capitalists' power over all other mem-
bers of the society in Chapter 14.
Capitalism is characterized by a money economy, commodity produc-
tion, and private property in means of production. But unlike other social
orders with those characteristics, capitalism has transformed the ability to
do work (labor power) into a commodity as well. There is a large group of
people who have no means of support except wage labor. In such a soci-
ety, the pursuit of profit, the effort to increase one's capital, becomes a
central motivation that pits capitalists against one another. The great con-
tribution of that system is that it gives impetus to a previously undreamt
of productivity as a result of the development of technology and the reor-
ganization of work life.
98 Capitalism

Commodity production has existed in other types of societies. But it is

only in the capitalist society that everything, including labor power, is a
commodity. To be sure, not everyone who works produces commodities.
Women who keep house and raise children are a prime example. But
housework and childcare are also done for money as commodity produc-
tion. Similarly, virtually all occupations that do not produce commodities
have an analogue in commodity production. In most countries (certainly
in less-developed ones) old people live at home and are taken care of by
the family, primarily the women doing housework. If everyone in the
family works, the old people come along to the workplace. In such a situ-
ation, taking care of the elderly has not yet been commodified. In the
United States, old people end up in nursing homes of one sort or another
where paid attendants look after them. Care of the aged has become a
commodity; it is something you can do for money and can buy. As capi-
talism develops, what once were family obligations are transformed into
commodities. Other functions of the family go the same way: We hire
people to do the housecleaning, engage nannies to take care of our chil-
dren, hire buying services to make our purchases. You can observe the
same commodification in politics: Politicians hire someone to write their
speeches, to plan their campaigns, to develop their political platforms. All
politicians need is money to buy all the requisite services to get elected or
fulfill the demands of an office once they have been elected. In the same
way, we no longer amuse ourselves but pay someone to amuse us. We do
not discuss our problems with our friends but pay someone to listen to us
and, if we want, give us advice. We do not buy our own furniture but hire
someone to buy it for us and "decorate" our living space. Examples of
spreading commodification can be multiplied indefinitely. There are no
limits to what activities can become commodity production.
For that reason, Marx begins Capital with an analysis of the concept of a
commodity. The extreme effect of commodification is observable where,
as Marx says,
Objects that in themselves are no commodities, such as conscience, honor,
etc., are' capable of being offered for sale by their holders, and of thus acquir-
ing, through their price, the form of commodities,'

One's good name, one's reputation as an honest person, one's integrity are
not commodities because one has not produced them with a view to sell-
ing them. But once commodification spreads, even those qualities go to the
highest bidder. Lawyers defend clients they know to be guilty; physicians
defend clearly harmful products or dangerous industries; academics de-
fend racist and sexist theories. Some people will always sell their profes-
sional expertise and personal probity if the price is right. There is no limit
to what may be bought and sold in a capitalist market economy.
Capitalism 99

This account of capitalism is still incomplete, however, because I have

said nothing about exploitation. In a capitalist economy, some persons
own all the productive resources, and others do the vast bulk of the work.
Although the capitalists usually work, the returns on their efforts are
much, larger than those of the people that work for them. The reason for
this disparity, Marx tells us, is that workers are exploited, I discuss ex-
ploitation in the next chapter.

For Further Reading

Martin Nicolaus, "The Unknown Marx," in Carl Oglesby, ed., The New Left Reader
(New York: Grove Press, 1969).

1. Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York; International Publishers, 1967), pp. 600-601.
2. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 487.
3. Marx, Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1970),
p. 60,
4. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 385, n. 2,
5. Ibid., p. 595.
6. Ibid., p. 453.
7. Marx, Grundrisse, p. 487.
8. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 340.
9. Ibid., p. 102.
Capitalism and Exploitation

MARX AND ENGELS ACCEPT many of the descriptions of capi-

talism that are given by the defenders of the prevailing economic system.
They acknowledge that capitalism is a market society, that it depends on
the work of entrepreneurs, and that it may well be called a "free enter-
prise" system. But the defenders of capitalism also believe that capitalism
is inherently fair, that under such a system,, by and large, everyone gets
what he or she deserves: The hardworking flourish, as do those who
show unusual enterprise, are willing to take risks, or have interesting new
ideas. The poor, in this account, are those who have limited abilities, are
often unwilling to work or to work hard, or are held back by other per-
sonal faults.
Advocates of this view of capitalism argue for it as follows: A capitalist
society is the stage for a large number of commercial transactions—peo-
ple buying and selling goods, people borrowing and lending money, peo-
ple hiring employees or hiring themselves out to others. These transac-
tions are voluntary; No one forces you to buy your food in this store
rather than that; no one forces you to borrow money or to borrow it from
this lender rather than that one. No one forces you to work for this em-
ployer rather than another. All transactions are the consequences of
choices made by the persons involved. From that fact many people con-
clude that if the outcome of your choices is not satisfactory for you, you
have only yourself to blame because, after all, you could have made dif-
ferent choices, engaged in other transactions, and the outcome might well
have been better for you.
Marx and Engels are not alone in objecting to this line of reasoning,
They believe that we cannot hold everyone responsible for his or her lot
in life merely because people can choose where to buy, borrow, or work.
They point out that work under capitalism is "voluntary" in a very weak
sense of the term. Slaves could not choose whom to work for because

Capitalism and Exploitation 101

their employer was also their owner. Feudal serfs possessed their own
land and tools, but they were tied to the land, they farmed and thus had to
work for the owner of that land—whoever that happened to be, (In fact,
many serfs fled the land, even though that was illegal.) Capitalist workers
are not so constrained. They cannot be coerced to work for a particular
person. Hence they choose their work freely. But often the range of em-
ployment they have to choose from is such that they must pick the least
undesirable job from among several very undesirable ones. Choices
among a range of unattractive alternatives are "voluntary" in only a weak
sense of that term. In many developing countries, mechanization of agri-
culture brings with it high rates of rural unemployment But unemploy-
ment in the cities is not much lower, especially for men (as women can do
domestic service). Thus many rural dwellers must choose between abject
poverty in the countryside or life in shantytowns, where they can hope to
make a miserable living by begging, sending their kids to sell chewing
gum in the streets, or picking food out of garbage bags in middle-class
neighborhoods. The option between staying in the country or moving to a
shantytown at the edge of a metropolitan area is voluntary but does not
make them responsible for their poverty. Their poverty is not the result of
their choices but of an economic system that does not provide opportuni-
ties for them to make an adequate living.
This is surely the central point here: In a capitalist society, people can
choose where to work and for whom. But many have choices only among
low-paying jobs, for instance, as they do not have the requisite education,
either because it was not available where they grew up or because a good
education costs more money than their family could afford. In addition
good jobs are scarce, and it helps to have connections to get one; people
are not free to choose to be well connected. Capitalist society provides
more choices than previous ones, but it does not give everyone the same
choices. Some can choose the best schools and the opportunities to meet
important people. Others start out, through no fault of their own, with a poor
education, few skills, and without knowing anyone who could help them
to get ahead. Only where people all start out with more or less the same
opportunity can we blame those who come in last for their lack of success.
When we choose voluntarily the most desirable of a set of attractive al-
ternatives, we may well have to take responsibility for the outcome. Per-
sons who abhor strenuous effort must not complain if they end up with a
modest income. Those who choose relative leisure as their most desirable
state of life must bear the consequences of that choice.1 But Marx and En-
gels believe that workers under capitalism, when they make their volun-
tary choices, have a restricted set of options and that the options available
to the members of the capitalist class are much more extensive. Marx and
Engels have several reasons for that opinion:
102 Capitalism and Exploitation

1. Capitalists maintain a relatively high level of unemployment when

that is at all possible. This puts pressure on workers to accept any
work they can find or to hold on to the jobs they have even if those
jobs do not pay well or are undesirable for other reasons.
2. Work in a capitalist society is alienating. Hence all jobs are more or
less undesirable. (We shall discuss the concept of alienation in the
chapter that follows.)
3. Workers in a capitalist society are exploited. In this chapter I discuss
what that means and whether it is true,
4. Capitalists have more political power than workers. It is therefore
easier for them to use the resources of the state to their own advan-
tage against the interests of the workers. (I discuss that point in
more detail in Chapter 14.)
5. In a capitalist society, capital is privately owned. Hence capitalists
not only get paid for their work (if they work), but they also retain
the profit that returns to the capital. This enables them to live better
and longer and provide greater opportunities for their children than
is possible for workers.

Exploitation, in a very general sense, refers to taking unfair advantage of
people. Marx and Engels thought of exploitation in more specific terms;
they called "exploitation" any situation where some people work for oth-
ers without suitable compensation. They did not believe that exploitation
was peculiar to capitalism. Capital has not invented what they called
"surplus labor"—unpaid labor. On the contrary, the history of all hitherto
known societies is a history of exploitation.

Capital has not invented surplus-labor. Wherever a part of the society pos-
sesses the monopoly of the meaas of production, the laborer, free or not free,
must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra
working time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owners of
the means of production, whether this proprietor be an Athenian nobleman,
Etruscan theocrat, civis Romanus, Norman baron, American slaveowner,
Wallachian Boyard [a feudal landowner in what is today Romania], modern
landlord or capitalist... The comparison of the greed for surplus-labor in
the Danubian principalities [Romania) with the same greed in the English
factories has a special interest, because surplus-labor in the corvee [the feu-
dal form of surplus labor] has an independent and palpable form,.,. The
necessary labor which the Wallachian peasant does for his own maintenance
is distinctly marked off from his labor on behalf of the Boyard, The one he
does in his own field, the other on the seignorial estate. Both parts of the
Capitalism and Exploitation 103

labor time exist, therefore, independently, side by side. In the corvee the sur-
plus-labor is accurately marked off from the necessary labor. But [under cap-
italism] this [viz, surplus labor] is not obvious on the surface, (CI, T 364-365)

In a wide range of cultures that were in other respects very different

from one another, we find one common component, namely, that some
people worked to support other people who did not work. In Athens
slaves worked to support the free citizens, just as slaves worked for the
American slave owners. Feudal lords (the "Norman baron" and the "Wal-
lachian Boyard") were supported by the unpaid labor of serfs. In the for-
mer case, the slave owner could make the slave work to support him be-
cause the slave was his property. In the latter case, the corvee (i.e.,
unpaid) labor of the serf was, in the final analysis, enforced by the feudal
lord's monopoly on military might: He got the serf to work for him by
threatening physical violence.2 In both cases the crucial fact was that
slaves or serfs were not rewarded for their work. The work they did for
their masters was essentially unpaid, and they did unpaid work simply
because they could not avoid doing so, They did "surplus labor,"
Both slave and serf were, in Marx's terminology, exploited. A person is
exploited when he or she is regularly forced to do work for someone else
without getting paid for that work and when the products of this labor
are forcibly appropriated by someone else. Exploitation thus has three as-
pects: (1) workers produce more than they receive in wages; (2) the sur-
plus is appropriated by someone else; and (3) this arrangement is im-
posed on the workers by force. That force takes a variety of forms in
various economic systems. We shall see that this formulation of "exploita-
tion" is subject to serious difficulties and that exploitation must be under-
stood in slightly different ways.
Under capitalism,, as under feudalism, and. slavery, labor is exploited.
That was the claim of the passage cited previously. But that passage makes
another important claim as well: Under feudalism and slavery exploitation
was very obvious; under slavery because the slave did not get paid at all
and under feudalism because serfs did unpaid labor on distinct days (here
"surplus labor" had "an independent and palpable form" [CI, T 364]) that
was separate from, the work they did on their own land to earn their liveli-
hood. But under capitalism exploitation "is not evident on the surface" (CI,
T 365) because the worker strikes a bargain in the labor market in which
(usually, at least) no one gets cheated. In certain cases employers take ad-
vantage of workers, but Marx is perfectly willing to concede that some-
times workers also take advantage of employers. On the average, he thinks,
the wage bargain between employer and worker is fair in the sense that the
laborer gets paid the full value of his or her commodity (labor power) just
as other commodities are purchased at their full value.
104 Capitalism and Exploitation

The sphere . . . within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor
power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone
rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham [Jeremy Bentham, an. English
philosopher and jurist, 1748-1832]. Freedom because both buyer and seller
of a commodity, say labor power, are constrained only by their own free will.
They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form
in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality because
each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodi-
ties, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property because each dis-
poses only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to
himself. (Cl, T 343; italics added)

The contract between worker and employer is freely entered into, and
they "exchange equivalents," that is, the worker receives full value for
what he or she provides for the employer. Yet at the same time, Marx
maintains that labor is coerced into doing work for which it is not com-
pensated. The employer exploits the workers by extracting unpaid work
from them.
There appears to be a contradiction here. Marx is fully aware of that. I
discuss his proposed solution in the next section.

The Classical Marxian Theory of Exploitation

Marx and EngeJs subscribed to an economic theory known as the "labor
theory of value." When they first began their economic studies, that was
the state-of-the-art theory in economics. Not only had the two great Eng-
lish economists Adam Smith and. David Ricardo developed it, but all
other writers on economic matters, among them Benjamin Franklin, had
held it. Marx quotes Franklin extensively.3
In outline the labor theory of value asserts the following: All commodi-
ties are useful to someone (otherwise they will not sell). They have, in the
classical terminology, "use value." But they also exchange with other
commodities. The ratio in which they exchange with other commodities
is called their "exchange value."
A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y
silk, or z gold, etc.,—in short for other commodities in the most different pro-
portions. Instead, of one exchange value the wheat therefore has a great
many. (Cl, T 304)

The theory further assumes that in most exchanges, equals exchange

for equals. In some way a quarter of wheat is equal to x blacking or y silk
or z gold. But that raises a further question immediately, namely, in re-
spect to what are a quarter of wheat and the specific quantities of other
commodities equal to one another? The classical economic theory an-
Capitalism and Exploitation 105

swered: with respect to the embodied labor. The value of a commodity

was the labor time embodied in it Hence the labor time embodied in any
given commodity determined the proportion in which this commodity
exchanged with others. When people exchange commodities, they deter-
mine the ratios at which they exchange by the amount of time it took to
produce the different commodities. The more work a commodity repre-
sents, the more value it has,4 No one would exchange, say, a house that
took several years to build for a loaf of bread that took two hours to bake.
If equals are to exchange with equals, the loaf of bread exchanges for
something that also took two hours to produce, and the same is true for
the house. Exchanged for bread, the house would be worth a large quan-
tity of loaves.
It took a great deal of intellectual effort to formulate the labor theory of
value in ways that were not obviously mistaken, and many economists,
Marx among them, made some important contributions to its accurate
formulation. One of the central problems that Marx found in the theory
was the problem of explaining the source of capitalist profits. The prob-
lem arises as follows; If in a capitalist marketplace equals exchange for
equals, by and large, then that must also be true in the labor market.
Wages must represent the value of the labor power (the ability to work)
that the worker sells to the employer. If value corresponds to labor time,
then the value of labor power represents the amount of work required to
produce, say, a person's ability to work for a day That much was clear. If
a worker was going to be adequately paid for a day's work, the wages
earned had to cover the food, lodging, and so on required to enable the
worker to return to work for another day. (That, of course, also included
food, lodging, and so on for the worker's family.)
Now let us consider the value of a commodity: The total value of the
commodity must be equal to the values of the commodities that are used
up in order to produce it. Included are the cost of raw materials and so
on, the cost of labor, the labor time of the employer. All of these are val-
ues, that is, they correspond to labor performed. There is the labor of the
worker who produces a given product. But there is also the labor of the
worker who produced the raw materials consumed and the labor that
went into making the machines, buildings, and so on that get used up in
the process of production. But the capitalist also expects to make a profit:
Where does the profit come in? As long as equals exchange for equals, the
value of the commodity is identical to the amount of labor time that is ex-
pended in its production directly—the time the worker spends making it
and the employer doing his or her work—and indirectly—the labor time
used up in producing raw materials and overhead. The return to capital is
equivalent to the cost of replacing the capital goods used up. But there
does not seem to be any explanation, on this theory, of the origin of profit.
106 Capitalism and Exploitation

For profit is a return over and above the replacement value of capital
goods consumed in the process of production. But profit is, of course (as
we saw in the preceding chapter), all-important to the capitalist. If the
capitalist is not making profits in producing and selling commodities, the
whole effort is useless. It is not sufficient for the capitalist to get remuner-
ated for his or her own work. The capital invested must not only be re-
placed; it must in addition bear a return. At the end of a cycle of transac-
tions, the capital invested initially must have grown. But what makes it
grow appears inexplicable if we adopt the labor theory of value,
Marx took great pride in having discovered a solution to this quandary.
His answer was that labor is exploited in the capitalist production
process. It is true, he stresses, that workers get paid the value of their abil-
ity to work. If a worker and his or her family requires a certain amount of
rent, a certain basket of foods, a certain amount for clothing, and so on to
enable the worker to work another day—to reproduce the worker's labor
power, as Marx puts it—then the worker is paid full value if he or she re-
ceives the equivalent of all that. But now suppose that the worker has to
work six hours to produce value equivalent to his or her wage. If the
worker works longer than six hours, he or she does not need more food
and drink and rent to reproduce labor power. Thus even if workers work
twelve hours, as they did in Marx's day, they still get paid full value—the
full cost of reproducing their labor power. But at the same time, the sec-
ond six hours of the working day the worker produces value that does
not belong to the worker but goes to the capitalist. That value Marx calls
"surplus value" and the work that goes into producing it "surplus labor."
That surplus value and surplus labor are unpaid in the sense that the
worker does not get paid any more whether he works six, twelve, or even
sixteen hours. Whatever is produced after the first six hours belongs to
the capitalist, and if employers manage to lengthen the working day, they
can "pump out"—another phrase of Marx's—more surplus value.
This is an extremely ingenious theory with a good deal to recommend it.
For one thing, it resolves a serious problem in the labor theory of value.
More important, it allows us to explain a considerably important aspect of
capitalism: Capitalism quite consistently does a poor job of distributing re-
sources. In capitalist countries inequalities are very great, and in most exist-
ing capitalist countries they would be even greater if it were not for govern-
ment programs that redistribute income to some extent—such as health
care and special bonuses for veterans, support for small businesses, food
distributions and educational assistance for the poorer layers of the popula-
tion, and medical assistance for the elderly. The theory of exploitation gives
one explanation for the enormous income inequalities: The rich who own
means of production and employ wage labor are able to extract some of the
products of their workers and appropriate them for themselves.
Capitalism and Exploitation 107

But Marx's theory also has serious problems. We need not spend much
effort on this, however, because economists no longer accept the labor
theory of value, and thus it is only of antiquarian interest today,5 Marx's
concept of exploitation and the support for the claim that capitalism sys-
tematically exploits workers presupposed the truth of the labor theory of
value. If that theory is no longer an acceptable economic theory, what
happens to the concept of exploitation and the claim that workers under
capitalism are exploited? As we shall see, exploitation is open to redefini-
tion, and it is possible to devise different arguments to support the claim
that capitalism, like feudalism and slavery, exploits working people.

Contemporary Versions of Marx's Theory of Exploitation

If we consider the distribution of wealth in contemporary capitalist soci-
eties, we find many people working very hard for very little money and
some people who are extremely wealthy. Capitalism distributes rewards
unequally. But it does so in two ways. The work of some people brings
with it much greater rewards than the work of most others. Many people
in the United States earn less than $20,000 a year; others earn more than
$1 million. But in addition some people receive large sums of money as a
regular return on their capital investments. The money paid out as inter-
est is not a reward for the work done by the owners of the capital, for they
receive a return on their investment even if they do not work at all.
Having made that observation, we can go two ways: We can go on to
say that since capitalists draw interest on money invested, even if they do
not work at all, it follows that the money returned to capital results not
from the work of the owners of capital but from the work of other people
whose work is incompletely remunerated so that some of what they pro-
duce can be returned to the owner of the capital in the form of interest.
These other persons are therefore exploited. But such an argument still
seems to keep in the background a close relative of the labor theory of
value, namely, the view that people have property rights only to the fruits
of their labor. The claims made about exploitation presuppose that people
are entitled only to what they have worked for. That principle, in turn, de-
rives from, another assumption that was traditionally formulated as
"labor creates all wealth/' another principle widely maintained by nine-
teenth-century economists. It was thought that all goods and all wealth
flow from human labor—implying that machines or the division of labor
does not contribute to the production of value. But once we say that value
may also be created by machines, by efficiently organized workplaces, it
is no longer obvious that just because capitalists did not work for value
they receive, they are not entitled to it. As we shall see shortly, there are
no good reasons for thinking that they are exclusively entitled to interest
108 Capitalism and Exploitation

on capital, but the argument that capitalists are not entitled to profits be-
cause they did not work for those is weak because it rests on doubtful as-
If we accept the idea that we are entitled to own only what we work for,
it follows that a better society would give to workers as much capital, as
they might be shown to be entitled to by Yirtue of their work. In Marx's
day there were many socialists who held a view like that. Under social-
ism, they claimed, workers would receive the full value of what they pro-
duced. But Marx saw clearly that that was an indefensible view:
Surplus labor in general... must always remain.... A definite quantity of
surplus labor is required as insurance against accidents and by the necessary
and progressive expansion of the process of reproduction [of social wealth].
(CHI, T 440)

All societies require surplus labor to store up food and so on for a bad
year, expanding populations, or a rising standard of living. Elsewhere
Marx also points out that the producers cannot get all they produce for
their own use because someone has to pay for common goods and ser-
vices, such as roads, hospitals, and schools (CGP, T 528-529). There is sur-
plus labor that is not exploitative. Only where surplus labor is expropri-
ated whether workers want it or not, where surplus labor is compelled, can
we properly speak of exploitation. The central objection of Marx and En-
gels to capitalist exploitation is that it is undemocratic.6 Workers do not
choose the distribution of capital exclusively to the capitalists. In fact,
they have no say in the matter in a capitalist country, even in a democratic
capitalist country, as we will see in Chapter 14. Exploitation would not be
remedied, however, by giving a set amount of capital to each worker, but
by opening to all members of the society economic decisionmaking with
respect to the use of available capital.
Against that, it is often asserted that capitalism, unlike slavery and feu-
dalism, is not exploitative. Products are made by means of various "fac-
tors of production" such as labor, raw materials, and capital. Economists
offer mathematical proofs, given certain plausible assumptions, that
under certain economic conditions (such as the absence of monopolies),
each of these factors of prod.ucti.on is remunerated in strict correspon-
dence to its contribution to any given product. Hence workers are paid
for their work, employers receive a reward for organizing the process of
production, and capital gets a return on its contribution. Everyone gets
what they deserve; no one is exploited.
It is not difficult to see what is the matter with that argument: Owning
capital is not a contribution to the process of production. If workers did
not work or worked less, there would be many fewer products or none at
all. If capitalists did not organize the work process, there would most
Capitalism and Exploitation 109

likely be less output. (Although Marx and Engels did not believe that.) The
work of both the workers and the capitalists is essential to production and
thus to producing a certain output. So, of course, is capital. Without ma-
chinery, buildings, raw materials, and so on, there would be no output ei-
ther. So when we reward every contributor to the production process for
his or her contribution, a certain reward needs to go to capital. Under cap-
italism, however, the reward does not go to the capital but to the owner of
capital. But why should the owner get all the profits rather than having all
the contributors to the production process share the profits in equal pro-
portions? Marx argues that there is no justification for giving all the re-
turns on capital to the capitalists for owning capital (holding legal title to
the capital) and giving permission for its use is not by any stretch of the
imagination a contribution to the production process. We can easily imag-
ine social systems where capital is owned by no one—as the earth in the
world of the Native Americans was not owned by anyone—or is owned
by the state or owned by the workers who work in any given enterprise. In
all of these cases, capital would play the same role in the production
process that it plays now, when it is owned by the capitalists. Capital is
useful and productive because it is put to work, not because it is owned by
this or that person or institution. The sheer fact of their ownership and giv-
ing permission to use the capital in a particular enterprise does not entitle
them to the return that capital has earned in production.
But is it really true that the owner of capital contributes nothing to the
production process, except to give the permission to use his or her capi-
tal? Contemporary theorists deny that capitalists do no more than give
permission to use the capital they own. Capitalists, they argue, are enti-
tled to interest on capital because they refrain from spending the money
on consumption goods.7 This is an old claim that was well known already
to Marx. He responds to it with this observation:
The more therefore capital increases by means of successive accumulations,
the more does the stun of value increase that is divided into consumption
fund and accumulation, fund, The capitalist can therefore live a more jolly
life mid at the same time show more "abstinence." (CI, T 608)

As capital accumulates, Marx observes, the returns on capital increase.

Capitalists may therefore spend more money on consumption goods, live
more luxuriously and still save more for future investments. Thus as they
live better and better, they are at the same time more and more "abstinent."
One can agree with Marx that there is something fishy about this claim.
Capital is distinct from money spent on consumption goods. Even the
wealthiest men and women cannot consume all their capital. The fact of the
matter is that those who lead the most luxurious lives have the most capital
to invest. Precisely those who own villas and houses in exclusive places;
110 Capitalism and Exploitation

who employ large staffs of personal servants, lawyers, accountants, cap-

tains and crews for their yachts, gamekeepers for their hunting preserves,
and so on have the most capital to lend out Precisely the people who do
not practice abstinence at all are the ones who receive returns on their capi-
tal. Poor people, in contrast, practice abstinence all the time. They save part
of their weekly pay in order to pay the rent, pay for their transportation, or
cover their medical bills. But their abstinence is rewarded simply by not
getting hounded by bill collectors. The claim to abstinence as a defense for
earning interest on capital is no more valid now than it was 150 years ago.
Capitalists, in receiving interest on their capital, receive monies that are the
reward for the contributions of capital, not of the capitalist.8
A different defense for giving all returns on capital to the capitalists
consists of the claim that capitalists are entrepreneurs. Their ownership
and control of capital is their reward for being successful entrepreneurs,
for without the ingenuity and risk taking of the entrepreneurs a capitalist
economy would not prosper. One can acknowledge the useful role of the
entrepreneur, but one must also acknowledge that most owners of capital
are not entrepreneurs at all but simply collect a return on their investment
that is managed by someone else. What is more, the argument begs the
question at issue: namely, why capitalists are entitled to the exclusive
ownership of control of capital. The claim is that this entitlement flows
from the fact that capitalists take risks with their capital. But of course
workers are also risk takers. The worker who signs on with an entrepre-
neur takes the risk of finding himself without a job if the venture fails.
Only the entrepreneur, of course, risks capital because only the entrepre-
neur has capital to risk. But this exclusive ownership cannot be Justified
by entrepreneurs' risking their capital because the question is precisely
why only the capitalists have capital to risk.
The preceding arguments do not show that the workers are exploited
in the sense of having some of their products wrongfully taken from
them. All we have shown so far is that the capitalists receive something
that they have no right to receive. Capitalists gain by virtue of their own-
ership of capital, and so far there is no legitimate defense of that gain.9
Once we give up the labor theory of value, we will be less likely to think
of exploitation in the specific sense in which Marx and EngeJs use that
term, namely, as expropriating labor from workers. Instead, we can say
more generally that workers are exploited because if they lived in a sys-
tem where they controlled capital, themselves, they would obviously be
better off in concrete monetary terms, as they would have some capital at
their disposal. The upshot is that workers are exploited because (1) the
exclusive ownership of capital by the capitalists leaves the workers worse
off than they might be and (2) the arguments offered to justify the capital-
ists' exclusive ownership and control of capital are defective.10
Capitalism and Exploitation Til

Many theorists believe that these two conditions of exploitation—that

workers do not control capital and. that the capitalists are not entitled to
control it—are sufficient for exploitation to occur.11 But other readers of
Marx believe that this account of exploitation leaves out an important as-
pect of exploitation, specifically, that exploitation involves coercion:
Workers do not have a choice whether or not to participate in the man-
agement of capital; no one questions whether or not all members of soci-
ety might have a right to help manage capital. And why would workers
accept the capitalists' exclusive control of capital? The answer is that their
acceptance is compelled by economic coercion.
But is the labor contract not freely entered into? This apparent contra-
diction in Marx's account of the relations between workers and employ-
ers is resolved by considering different senses of the word "free" that we
examined in Chapter 4. Yes, workers under capitalism enter freely into a
contract with their employers. They are not compelled by law to work or
to work for a particular person or to work under specified conditions.
They are not slave laborers, nor are they serfs. Hence it is perfectly true
that the workers have chosen their jobs—chosen them freely in the sense
that they were not compelled by the threat of violence to accept them. But
they never had a choice between exploitative and nonexploitative work.
No capitalist workplace puts the capital earned under the democratic
control of all the workers. The fact that workers have a choice among dif-
ferent capitalist workplaces is not relevant to their exploitation.
Besides, workers own little or no property and certainly no property
that they can use to produce their means of subsistence—no land, no sub-
stantial savings that they can invest in order to live off the interest, no
capital for starting a business of their own. They need to work in order to
live. The very fact of not owning means of production thus compels them
to work under the best conditions they can get. The worker must take one
of these exploitative jobs, compelled by economic need (i.e., by the threat
of starvation) even if not by the threat of physical violence. But it is clear
that for the workers the threat of starving if they do not work is not so dif-
ferent from the threat of physical harm that the feudal lords used against
the serfs. The final effect in either case is severe physical suffering. Hence,
although free in one sense, the workers are truly coerced in another.
It is an interesting reflection on capitalist ways of thinking that we re-
gard threatening someone with a gun or a baseball bat as illegal acts,
whereas threatening someone with poverty or unemployment is re-
garded as a legitimate move in the marketplace. Yet poverty, malnutri-
tion, poor medical care, and lack of education pose as much threat of
physical harm as does a gun or club.
An objection that is frequently made at this point alleges that perhaps
in Marx's day the worker was compelled to work by the threat of starva-
112 Capitalism and Exploitation

tion, but in the developed capitalist countries governments pay unem-

ployment insurance to address the need of the unemployed. Hence a
worker does not have to work any more. Work is no longer compelled be-
cause workers can always go on the dole. Now it is true that workers
without employment do not face starvation. But it is not true that the
choice to work is a free one. That would be true only if working or collect-
ing unemployment were at least equally desirable. But the levels of un-
employment are always deliberately pegged below the minimum wage
for the precise purpose of making unemployment less attractive than
working. Only those who have never tried to live on unemployment in-
surance can believe that it is as attractive as drawing a wage.
In a capitalist society, workers do not own means of production. There-
fore (1) they need to work in order to live, and (2) someone else, the capi-
talist, controls access to the possibility of work. A condition of working is
that the control of capital and of new capital produced in the workplace by
all who work there—not only by the capitalist or the machines—remains
exclusively in the hands of the capitalist. That is exploitative, and the
worker must accept that exploitation by economic necessity. This arrange-
ment gives the capitalists much greater power than the workers and thus
much greater ability to shape the world to their own advantage and to the
advantage of their children. Hence capitalism, even though it is a system
of voluntary exchanges, is not a fair system. Some aspects, especially the
limitation of control of capital to the capitalists, are not voluntary.
Exploitation deprives workers of freedom in the economic sphere. Inso-
far as the workers have little power in the economic sphere, they have lit-
tle control over what sort of world they live in and their place in it. Capi-
talism curtails the freedom of most human beings to determine
intentionally and with forethought what sort of people they would like to
be. Marx discusses lack of that kind of collective self-determination under
the heading of "alienation."

For Further Reading

David Schweickart, "A Democratic Theory of Exploitation DiaJectically Devel-
oped," in Roger Gottlieb, eel., Radical Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1993),

1. Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to make your choices from
among desirable alternatives, you cannot always take pride in your good fortune
and ascribe, say, your wealth to your hard work or intelligence; The person who
can choose between working in a thriving family business or live off the proceeds
Capitalism and Exploitation 113

of his trust fund is very fortunate. But he has no reason for attributing his good
fortune to his own intelligence or hard work. Nor is he justified in ascribing the
poverty of others to their laziness or stupidity.
2. For an interesting critique of this standard interpretation of Marx's concep-
tion of feudalism, see John E, Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism (Atlantic Highlands,
N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983).
3. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: Interna-
tional Publishers, 1970), p, 56.
4. This formulation leaves out an important qualification: The value of a com-
modity corresponds to the "socially necessary labor time." Commodities are sold
in the market where prices are determined by supply and demand. If a certain
commodity is generally produced with a particular technology, the people who
employ a less efficient technique of production cannot therefore charge more than
the producers operating at the prevailing level of technological or organizational
efficiency. This means, for instance, that small producers who cannot avail them-
selves of "economies of scale" must nevertheless sell at the prices asked by large
producers. The effect is often that small producers are put out of business.
5. Helpful criticisms of Marx's labor theory of value, including Ms theory of ex-
ploitation, may be found in N. Scott Arnold, Marx's Radical Critique of Capitalist So-
ciety (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), chapter 3, and Jon Elster, Making
Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 127-141.
6. David Schweickart, "A Democratic Theory of Exploitation Dialectically De-
veloped," in Roger Gottlieb, ed., Radical Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple Univer-
sity Press, 1993).'
7. Arnold, Marx's Radical Critique, pp. lOlff.
8. This argument is developed in detail in chapter 1 of David Schweickart,
Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
9. A different sort of defense of capitalism and the return of interest to the own-
ers of capital is often given at this point of the argument: Capitalists may not have
contributed anything to merit interest but the capitalist system is, as a whole, the
most productive, most innovative, and hence most desirable economic system
known to humankind. If giving the interest to the owner of capital is part of that
system, so be it. For an elaborate rebuttal of that claim, see Schweickart, Against
10. See John Roemer, "New Directions in the Marxian Theory of Class and Ex-
ploitation," in John Roemer, ed., Analytic Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1986), pp. 81-113.
11. John Roemer, "Second Thoughts on Property Relations and Exploitation,"
in Robert Ware and Kai Nielsen, eds., Analyzing Marxism, supplementary vol. 15,
Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Calgary: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 1989), pp.

ALTHOUGH MARX USES THE concept of alienation in a num-

ber of senses (as we will see), it Is important to notice at the very begin-
ning that "alienation" in the writings of Marx has a different meaning
from what the word means today. In contemporary usage "alienation"
often refers to how persons feel. They are said to be "alienated" when
they feel distant from another person or from an institution. In a some-
what stronger sense, someone is said to be alienated when, the feeling of
estrangement finds expression in action. There is a good deal of talk
about "alienated youth"—young men and women who do not feel that
they are a part of the prevailing institutions and who therefore do not ob-
serve accepted rules of conduct. They express their alienation by dressing
in ways designed to draiv attention to themselves and offend conven-
tional sensibility and by acting in other ways that show their disregard or
contempt for the rules of conduct accepted by most people. These uses of
the word "alienation" are only tenuously connected with the meaning
that Marx gives to the word. In trying to grasp what Marx is trying to say
we must put aside current meanings of the word.

Alienation in Marx's Early Works

Marx's essay "Alienated Labor" (EPM, T 70-81) begins with some of the
aspects of capitalism; the division of labor, exchange value, the tendency
of workers to grow poorer and of capital to become concentrated in fewer
and fewer hands, and, the inevitable division of society into the two
classes: property owners and the propertyless workers (EPM, T 70). These
and other features of capitalism Marx associates with the concept of "pri-
vate property," (Marx means by that term the private ownership of the
means of production, not of consumption goods, such as the house you
live in, the car you drive, or the clothes you wear.)

Alienation 115

How did private ownership of the means of production come about? In

1844 Marx was looking for a philosophical answer to the question, Why
does capitalism exist? He wanted to derive the nature of the existing sys-
tem from a set of concepts,
But on analysis of this concept it becomes clear that though private property
appears to be the source, the cause of alienated labor, it is really its conse-
quence (EPM, T 79; italics added)

The project is to understand capital by providing, much as Hegel had

done, an analysis of the relevant concepts. Marx wanted to demonstrate
"how they [viz, the laws of capitalism] arise from the very nature of pri-
vate property" (EPM, T 70). In his mature work, he replaced this philo-
sophical method of explanation, in which a situation is explained by mak-
ing connections between concepts, with another method of explanation,
in which one explains a social fact (e.g., capitalism) by writing its history.
The method of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts is not the
method of Capital. Marx and Engels rethought their method of explana-
tion in the course of writing German Ideology. They never completed the
philosophical explanation of "private property"; rather, they replaced it
with the historical explanation in Capital.1
The essay "Alienated Labor" remained a fragment Marx replaced his
philosophical by an economic-historical method. In his mature works, it
is also much clearer than in this youthful essay that there are at least two
distinct concepts of alienation. The first of these, the alienation of labor, is
very familiar. The second, the alienation of all persons in a capitalist soci-
ety, has received less attention among commentators, I discuss these two
concepts of alienation separately.

Worker Alienation
What is this condition of alienation? Marx distinguishes four aspects of it:
1. Human beings are alienated from the objects of their work. What
workers produce does not belong to them; it belongs to their employers.
But why is that a problem? Suppose workers in an automobile plant were
not paid in money but were instead paid in kind, that is, they received an
automobile every so often; would they then not be alienated?
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor be-
comes an object ... but that it exists outside him ... and that it becomes a
power of its own confronting him. (EPM, T 72)

The product of the worker at issue here is surplus value. The worker pro-
duces the money needed to pay wages and to reproduce buildings, raw
materials, and so on. But the worker also produces surplus value that be-
116 Alienation

longs to the capitalists. The capitalists reinvest surplus value and thus
strengthen their economic position and with it their position of power in re-
lation to other capitalists and to the workers. The more workers work, the
more surplus value they produce and the more they therefore increase the
power of the capitalist. The alienation of the workers consists in the fact
that in doing their work, they strengthen the power of the opposing class.
2. Why do they do that? We already know the answer to that. Because
they have nothing to offer in the labor market except their ability to work,
they must work in order to live. They must work whether they want to or
not; they must therefore also work to strengthen their enemies whether
they want to or not. Marx presents this point in discussing the second as-
pect of alienation, the worker's alienation front the activity of working;
"His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor" (EPM,
T 74). Work is not something people choose freely, for that implies the
possibility of refusing to work. It is to that extent not something that is
"theirs"; "it is not ftheir] own but someone else's" (EPM, T 74), and hence
it is not something in which the worker affirms him- or herself.
3. But human beings, as we noted repeatedly, define what it means to
be human not directly but by shaping their world to be a certain way. It is
in work that human beings create what it means to be human. To the ex-
tent that that is a deliberate process, human beings are actually free (EPM,
T 75). But what shall we say of people who work whether they want to or
not, who have no control over what they do and how they go about it,
and who therefore have no control over the sort of world that their work
creates? Industry is a major source of pollution, to give just one example
of what is at issue here. Insofar as people must work industrial jobs be-
cause this is all that is available to them, they are forced to produce an en-
vironment they would not choose if they had a better alternative.
The implication is that the activity of working, which is potentially the
source of human self-definition and human freedom, is here degraded to
a necessity for staying alive. Work could be the source of a genuinely
human life, but here it comes to be no more than the prerequisite for
maintaining biological existence. Alienation "makes individual life in its
abstract form" (viz. mere biological survival) "the purpose of the life of
the species" (EPM, T 75). It precludes the question. What should life be
like? The life of human beings comes to be little different from that of ani-
mals. In that sense, alienation is dehumanization.
4. Human beings are, finally, not only forced to work in ways and under
conditions not of their choosing but they are also forced to compete with
one another for work and are thus separated from their fellow humans.
Here we encounter one sense of "alienation" that is often referred to as
"worker alienation"—the situation of most wageworkers. They do dull
and repetitive work that is of no intrinsic interest to them. They have no
Alienation 117

control over what they do and how they do it. Instead, they have to take
orders and often are treated with little respect. But this suggests the be-
ginning of another sense of "alienation" that refers to lives that appear
empty and aimless. This is the sense of alienation portrayed in the works
of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. It is the state of those who work only
to survive. In an affluent, First World culture, this alienation is experi-
enced by those for whom acquiring commodities and working to pay for
them is the sole content of life. Boredom and anxiety are held at bay by an
ever more frantic pace of purchasing new commodities. The shopping
mall is the high temple of that sort of existence. Alienation is its hallmark,

Alienation in the Later Works

Marx rarely uses the word "alienation" in his mature work. But it is not
difficult to see the form in which the aspects of alienation already men-
tioned return as dominant themes in Capital, The doctrine of "relative im-
miseration" (which I discuss in Chapter 11) asserts that as workers keep
producing profits for the capitalist class, the total mass of capital—and
with it the power of capital over the working class—grows faster than the
wealth and power of the working class itself. The worker's alienation
from the product of his or her labor described in the early essay as the sit-
uation of individual workers returns in Capital as the lot of the entire
working class under capitalism; that is, alienation only strengthens the
opponent of the working class, the capitalist class.
What in Marx's early piece lie calls the worker's alienation from the ac-
tivity of production recurs later as the defining characteristic of capital-
ism—namely, that there is a large class of workers who have nothing to
sell in the marketplace besides their ability to work and who therefore
must sell, their ability to work. Machines, raw materials, and buildings be-
come "capital" only when that propertyless class has come into existence
and is ready to be exploited. Once sold, that ability to work is under the
control of the employer, thus opening the way to exploitation. "Forced
labor" becomes the precondition for forcible exploitation,
The theme of "dehumanization" returns in the discussion of exploita-
tion: Workers (as we saw in the preceding chapter) are excluded from
control over capital. They are therefore excluded from thinking about,
planning, and directing the ways in which their society and with it their
lives will develop. For the ways in which capital is invested will deter-
mine what sort of society we live in. If capital is invested in armament
factories, we get a very different society from one that invests its capital in
schools, parks, and sports facilities. The activities of the exploited work-
ers serve merely their survival and that of their families; it is not a means
for building a better, genuinely human society.
118 Alienation

Capital stresses the divisiveness of the capitalist labor market as explic-

itly as does the essay "Alienated Labor": Workers must compete against
one another,
Marx's concept of alienation is often understood to refer to how indi-
viduals feel,2 Such an interpretation accords more nearly with how we
talk today, when the word "alienation" has to do with how people feel,
not about their relations to things, activities, or other persons in the
world. That reading of Marx is, of course, based on the text
In. his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself, he does not feel content
but unhappy. (EPM, T 74)
But this is a very one-sided reading, because it overlooks all the other as-
pects of alienation that cause this feeling of unhappiness. The word "alien-
ation" does not refer just to the feelings of individuals but to their social
condition, which may or may not cause them to be unhappy. It refers to
the fact that workers are forced to accept what they do not want and are as
a result forced to strengthen their enemies, at the same time becoming
weakened by dissension with other workers over the opportunity to work.
Whether or not workers feel unhappy as a consequence, the condition of
alienation remains. It is not at all clear that feeling unhappy is even a nec-
essary condition for being alienated. It certainly is not sufficient.
More plausible but nevertheless inadequate is the frequent reading that
defines alienation as a lack of self-realization. Workers, unable to choose
their work, often cannot find meaningful work, have limited access to
means of education, and, certainly in Marx's day, had no meaningful
leisure. Hence their work and their lives present no challenge, no oppor-
tunity for growth and personal development. This interpretation most
commonly takes alienation to be the failure to fully develop the human
essence. But Marx, once emancipated from, his early philosophical preoc-
cupations, does not appeal to any human essence,3
This interpretation of Marx's concept of alienation takes into account
the value Marx attaches to the full development of each individual per-
son, but it is still incomplete. It does not do full justice to Marx's claim in
"Alienated Labor" that human beings are potentially free because they
are species beings and that, insofar as they are not actually free, they are
alienated. The same claim reappears in somewhat different words in Cap-
ital, in which the term "species being" itself is no longer used though the
conception of human freedom implicit in that term remains important.

Alienation and Freedom

This conception of freedom is a direct consequence of Marx and Engels'
conception of human nature as self-creating, in the fairly complicated
Alienation 119

sense explained in the first few chapters of this book. Human beings "cre-
ate themselves" in the sense that their actions to solve ordinary problems
affect what sorts of institutions govern their lives. Such institutions shape
what sorts of persons human beings are most likely to be. Different insti-
tutions demand different typical character structures, attitudes, values,
and patterns of conduct from, human beings. The sort of person who
flourished in one culture might be a misfit in another. In the medieval
world, one could be a monk and lead a contemplative life of prayer,
scholarship, and service. Monks did not need to be competitive; being ag-
gressive and looking out for one's own interests was in fact discouraged.
The traits that would make a good monk were hardly those that make a
good entrepreneur. For persons with the inclination and abilities to lead
the life of a monk, there are far fewer opportunities today than there were
then. But there is a much greater range of opportunities for those with
personalities that suit them to be entrepreneurs.
In this discussion of alienation and elsewhere, Marx and Engels use a
concept of freedom, that is unfamiliar to us. Freedom in their sense be-
longs not to individuals separately but only to people insofar as they live
under a particular social system. People are free, in this sense, if they can
and do choose deliberately how to organize their social and. economic in-
stitutions with, a view to making themselves and future generations into
the most desirable sorts of persons. A human being is free if he
contemplates himself in a world he has created. (EPM, T 76)
In the past, Marx and Engels believe, the creation of certain personali-
ties and behaviors was mostly incidental to various measures taken, to
solve concrete social and economic problems:
We have seen that the capitalist process of production is a historically deter-
mined form of the social process of production in general. The latter is as
much a production process of material conditions of human life as a process
taking place under specific historical and economic production relations,
producing and reproducing these production relations themselves, and
thereby also the bearers of this process, their material conditions of existence,
and their mutual relations. (Gil, T 439; italics added)

In their time Marx and Engels believed that genuine freedom—the delib-
erate and thoughtful shaping of the social order and consequently of
what it is to be a human being—was within reach. Once only a possibility
because humans lacked the material preconditions for making use of
their capacity to determine what human life could be like, freedom is now
ready to be actualized.
Of course freedom could not be realized in a capitalist society because of
its "anarchy," because careful planning of institutions was impossible. For
120 Alienation

in a capitalist society the decisions about how social wealth will be em-
ployed are made exclusively by capitalists. Without exception, they make
those decisions with a view to increasing profits, not with a view to im-
proving life for all: If greater profits can be made with weapons than with
hula hoops, then that is where they will invest their capital. Capitalists can-
not consult the members of society whose lives will be affected by the cap-
italists' investment decisions. This freedom becomes unavailable under
capitalism because of the very characteristic of capitalism that its defenders
regard as its special virtue—namely, that every individual need only act as
a rational, self-interested agent and the market will automatically take care
of the work of coordination. Under capitalism., persons have to be rational
utility maximizers; they have to use their resources as well as possible,
given their own desires and needs. They must be certain kinds of persons.
The question whether we might want to arrange our institutions differ-
ently, whether, for instance, we would like to live in a world that is less
competitive or a world in which possessions—making money—are less
important than they are in ours—such a question cannot even be asked. If
the question were ever asked, the apostles of capitalism would certainly an-
swer it in the negative. But in giving this answer, one gives up the freedom
to shape oneself in association with one's fellow human beings into the
sorts of persons one would most like to be. That sort of freedom of collec-
tive self-creation is not available under capitalism.4
The concept of freedom, Marx and Engels use here is quite specific: It
means for a group to be free to make its life activity itself the object of the
group's will and consciousness. But today freedom usually has a different
meaning. We are accustomed to calling a person free who, individually,
can do as he or she pleases, If people want to spend their time drinking,
or writing thick historical novels, they are free if no one hinders them
from, doing what they want. Marx and. Engels appreciated the importance
of this freedom of individuals to do as they please but insisted on its limi-
This right to undisturbed enjoyment, within certain conditions, of fortuity
and chance has up till now been called personal freedom. (GI, T198)

In a society, such as ours, where more individuals than in previous cul-

tures have far-reaching personal freedom, everyone, subject to certain
legal restrictions, is allowed to pursue his or her private goals. Individu-
als may choose to drink or to write, but they make those choices and act
according to them in a social framework over which they have next to no
control. The shape of the institutions under which we live is the fortu-
itous outcome of those individual pursuits. The shape of the capitalist
system as a whole is the result not of various collectively taken decisions
but of the choices made by separate individuals in competition with one
Alienation 121

another. The shape of the social system as a whole is therefore the result
of "chance." Where there is only individual freedom and competition but
no collective decisionmaking, individuals have personal freedom but, at
the same time, are at the mercy of forces over which they have no control.
It is possible to have "personal freedom" but to lack the other freedom
that comes only with collective control over society. In this second sense,
human beings are free to the extent that the group to which they belong,
together, shapes its way of life as the group chooses. As people have differ-
ent ideas about how best to fashion their lives, such collective decision-
making inevitably involves discussion and the weighing of different de-
sires and outlooks. People are free, therefore, when they collectively think
about what their lives should be like and try to arrange their society ac-
This collective decisionmaking produces what Marx and Engels called
"human freedom" because the capacity for that sort of shaping of human
lives is what Marx and Engels regard as distinctive in human beings.
Only groups that think and act together can acquire the power to shape
their social settings. Only in that way do they acquire a new kind of free-
dom and enhance their personal freedom. For in a society such as ours,
personal freedom, is everywhere bounded, by institutional restrictions.
Our personal freedom ends where the power of the separate individual
ends. By joining with others for collective control, we enhance the power
and thus the freedom of each of us.5
In a capitalist society, this freedom is not available. Therefore capitalism
alienates both workers and capitalists:
The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human
self-estrangement But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this
self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its awn power and has in it
the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihi-
lated in estrangement."

The collective reflection and choices of how to live and where to put ener-
gies and resources—the precondition for human freedom—are impossi-
ble under capitalism. Since there is no collective, democratic process that
allows the citizens together to decide how to invest and utilize social re-
sources, no one has control over the institutions of the society and what
sort of persons they, together, choose to become. Hence both workers and
capitalists are alienated. But at least the capitalists have the power over
capital and thus can make life good for themselves within the limits of the
prevailing economic system. The workers, because they are exploited and
thus without power over capital and how it will be used, are "annihilated
in estrangement." For the workers, exploitation places narrow limits on
their personal freedom. Their personal freedom is mainly confined to
122 Alienation

their activities as consumers (see Chapter 11), Capitalism grants a wide

degree of personal freedom but does not permit human freedom, because
it does not permit human beings to plan their production processes with
a view to what sort of society these will create and how they will affect
human nature. We will be able to overcome this alienation only once cap-
italism has been abolished.
This life process of society, which is based on the process of material produc-
tion, does not strip off its mystical veil, until it is treated as production of
freely associated human beings and is consciously regulated by them in ac-
cordance with a settled plan, (CI, T 327)

We shall return to this vision of the future below.

All of this is very abstract. But it allows us to make two summary state-
1. Marx and Engels use the term "alienation" in a range of significant

A. "Worker alienation" refers to a whole complex of conditions at work

for most people: having to take orders, being treated disrespectfully
doing work that is repetitive, having no say over the way the job is
done, being dependent on the employer's decisions or the vagaries
of the market for one's livelihood, and so on.
B. We have mentioned commodification under capitalism before and
will discuss it at some length in the chapter that follows. "Alien-
ation" often refers to the consequence of this commodification: For
many people, buying and consuming goods has become the central
goal of their lives. But that is not a sufficiently substantial goal to
carry one through the hard periods in one's life or allow one to
make hard choices. Hence, the sort of cosmic disorientation por-
trayed by Kafka or Camus is frequent in capitalist societies. Follow-
ing Marx, many authors refer to this condition as "alienation."

2. But "alienation" also has a more general meaning. The central insight
is that social conditions structure the sorts of choices we have in life—-
how free we are to work or not to work and. to what extent we are able to
think of work as something we like and that is "fulfilling" or a dire neces-
sity that must be done for as much money as possible. Social conditions
also shape human personalities: Capitalism, tends to produce people who
are competitive; other cultures have produced persons given to contem-
plation and asceticism. In the background of this sense of alienation is the
hope that in some future society we may be able to shape our personali-
ties and those of future generations by creating institutions that favor the
development we have chosen.
Alienation 123

This general insight is never developed to any extent in the work of

Marx and Engels. They never explore in greater detail the effects of capi-
talism on our personalities. With the theory of alienation, Marx indicates
a whole complex and fascinating field of study, but it was not something
that interested him or that, perhaps, he had any particular aptitude for.
Later Marxists have made some interesting contributions to this theory.7
We will see in more detail, in the discussions of class and class struggle
(Chapters 12 and 13), that Marx's theory of class did not attend suffi-
ciently to the question of how capitalism tends to affect the personalities
of those living in such a society. Good nineteenth-century liberal that he
was, Marx simply assumed that people would strive to live free if the nec-
essary economic and social conditions existed and that they would strug-
gle to create those conditions.
For the traditional view of the workings of a market society, this con-
ception of alienation constitutes a serious challenge. Markets benefit all
because they provide to all as much of what they want as possible—so
goes the standard defense. But what if desires can be perverted and thus a
distinction is needed between what some persons want, in particular con-
ditions, and what they would want if freed from those conditions? Before
we praise the market society for fulfilling desires, we need to ask whether
those desires need not be scrutinized first. What if someone is addicted to
drugs and all he desires is another hit? Are we going to praise the market
for meeting that desire? Some people would, no doubt, say that what an
adult person wants should be available to that person. But many persons
clearly believe that there are bad desires that should not be fulfilled. Thus
desires are open to criticism.
The concept of alienation develops that insight by suggesting that we
need to be critical of desires and therefore be critical of the social and cul-
tural forces that promote certain desires in us while suppressing others.
Hence the market is not only open to criticism because it fulfills desires we
should not have—such as desires for alcohol or cigarettes—but also be-
cause the market itself implants in us desires—for greater and greater con-
sumption, for beating the competition—that we would prefer not to have.
But the concept of alienation also creates problems for Marxian theory.
One of the really interesting and pressing questions raised by the preced-
ing discussion of alienation is whether perhaps capitalism itself deprives
us of the burning love for liberty that the revolutionary working class,
portrayed by Marx, would, need. Implicit in what we have said so far is
this worry: If institutions make us into the sorts of persons we are, and if
capitalism makes us into individuals with personal freedom, primarily as
consumers, but deprives us of human freedom—so much so that most of
us do not even suspect the possibility of human freedom—it is extremely
unlikely that many people will be animated by a burning desire for
124 Alienation

human freedom. Their political struggles may well be confined within the
limits of the kinds of goals that we have as members of a capitalist society.
But then whence comes the revolutionary enthusiasm and willingness to
sacrifice that Marx and Engels count on in the working class? The theory
of alienation may well possess the theoretical resources to explain why
revolutionary activity has been much, more intermittent and hesitant than
Marx and Engels expected. This fact is not to be explained by "false con-
sciousness" but by alienation (see Chapter 7). The theory of alienation as
Marx and Engels left it, however, is too undeveloped to allow us to ex-
plain our reluctance to fight for a better world.
I take up that question in Chapter 16.

For Further Reading

Alan W. Wood, Karl Marx, chapters 1-4 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
1981} and Richard Sehmitt, Alienation and Class (Cambridge: Schertkman, 1983),
chapter 5.

1. For an interesting and more complex account of the shifts in Marx's method-
ology see Jean L. Cohen, Class and Civil Society (Amherst: University of Massachu-
setts Press, 1982), chapter 1.
2. Erich Fromnx The Sam Society (New Yorlc Fawcett, 1955), p. Ill,
3. And with good reason. I have argued this in some detail in chapter 5 of
Richard Sehmitt, Alienation and Class (Cambridge: Schenkman, 1983).
4. Such freedom was not available in previous cultures either. But in a capitalist
society, Marx and Engels believe, the material, conditions are, for the first time,
available for human beings to choose from among different ways of life, different
sets of institutions. Capitalism makes this freedom of self-creation impossible by
choice, whereas under previous modes of production, the tow standard of living
made such free choices of institutions and the attendant personalities and behav-
ior impossible,
5. For a more detailed discussion of Marx's concept of freedom, see George
Brenkert, Marx's Ethics of Freedom (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).
6. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family (Moscow: Progress Publish-
ers, 1975), p. 43.
7. Of particular interest is the extended argument of Max Horkheimer that cap-
italism accustoms working people to submit to authority because their limited in-
dividual freedom is balanced by the inescapable power of economic necessity. See
Max Horkheimer, "Authority and the Family;" in Critical Theory (New York: Con-
tinuum, 1972), pp. 47-,1.28. The claim is that living in a capitalist society tends to
encourage personalty types that are not interested in or prepared for living the
lives of truly free persons. Similar issues are raised in a book that Horkheimer
wrote together with Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York:
Alienation 125

Seabury Press, 1972), which (among other things) raises questions about the sorts
of persons who grow up in modem society "where culture and entertainment have
become commodities, where ideas are produced for sale by mass media and most
people "consume" ideas instead of thinking for themselves. The question is once
more how capitalist culture shapes us into certain sorts of persons and makes us
unfit for democracy and self-government. Similar ideas are pursued in Herbert
Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967) and Erich Fromm,
Tlte Satie Society.
The Future of Capitalism
and Its Failures

MARX AND ENGELS ARGUED that In the infancy of capitalism,

when it is not fully understood, it is legitimate for the critics to depend on
ethical considerations (see Chapters 8 and 15). Once social science has
discovered the full trajectory of capitalism and we know that capitalism
will inevitably be replaced by socialism, we need to leave ethical consider-
ations behind and do our political work, based on our scientific under-
standing of the mode of production. The claim that socialism is inevitable
has played a central role in the political movements inspired by the writ-
ings of Marx and Engels. It seems clear today that such a belief was erro-
neous. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, we need to examine
briefly those predictions of Marx on which the belief in the inevitability of
socialism relied. We also need to look at Marx and Engels' criticisms of
capitalism. Even if they were mistaken in believing that capitalism was
inevitably going to disappear, they had very good reasons for trying to
accelerate that process.
Marx's predictions have played an important role in the past 1.25 years.
The political movements that took their inspiration and, to varying ex-
tents, their theories from the writings of Marx and Engels have come to
accept an account of Marx's predictions that runs roughly as follows:
The central drive of capital is for expansion by means of the reinvestment
of profits. Hence every capitalist tries to increase profits. Capitalists can ac-
complish that increase by several means: They can keep wages as low as
possible. Or they can improve their position relative to their competitors by
increasing productivity and decreasing costs through die use of newer and
more powerful machines or by manufacturing on a larger scale. Thus capi-
talists are bound to try to keep their wages as low as possible, to improve
their technological capabilities, and to create larger and larger companies.

The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 127

While all of these strategies work to raise profits/ they also have other,
less desirable consequences. The pressure to keep wages low results in
the progressive impoverishment of workers. That in turn limits the pur-
chasing powers of those workers and thus tends to give rise to crises of
underconsumption when there is not enough demand for consumer
goods. The lack of demand causes the regular occurrence of business fail-
ures, recessions, and depressions. At the same time, the transformation of
the capitalist production process into larger and more mechanized forms
transforms the working class. Workers learn to work together because it
is only together that they have any product—it takes many men and
women to produce one automobile, for instance—and only together will
they be able to exert any power against capital.
The constant drive for increased productivity through mechanization
tends to raise the ratio of capital invested in machinery to capital invested
in wages (organic composition of capital). There is an ever greater sum in-
vested in machines per worker. As a consequence, the amount of profit
produced per unit of capital goes down because, according to the labor
theory of value, only labor creates profits. The decrease in the rate of
profit makes the capitalists reluctant to invest and thus leads to stagna-
tion in the economy.
The lowering of the rate of profit has disastrous effects on businesses
that are marginal already. The number of bankruptcies increases and,
with it, the danger of general economic crisis. With the push for larger
firms, monopolistic price-fixing by large corporations tends to replace the
competition of the marketplace. As a result, less efficient enterprises are
preserved. Capitalism thus loses the advantage of the competitive econ-
omy, which weeds out inefficient producers. More and more of them re-
main in business, contributing further to stagnation and low productivity.
Capitalism becomes unable to fulfill its historical role of increasing
human productivity.
The capitalist marketplace is, in the words of the Marxian tradition,
"anarchical": Every individual seeks to increase his or her profit, but
there is no plan governing the market as a whole. But often the policies
that are advantageous to individual capitalists are, if everyone pursues
them, detrimental to all. It is, for instance, in the interest of the individual
capitalist to cut wages. But if all capitalists cut wages, the aggregate pur-
chasing power of the workers drops and with it demand for the goods the
capitalists are trying to sell.
Thus the individual capitalist's drive for profits has, in the aggregate,
the opposite effect of what was intended: There are more and more severe
economic crises at shorter and shorter intervals. It becomes increasingly
apparent that the capitalist economic system is no longer functioning
properly. The working class gets poorer and poorer, but it also gets better
128 The future of Capitalism and Its Failures

organized. When it becomes clear that the inevitable breakdown of capi-

talism is imminent, a proletarian uprising and socialist revolution ensue.
This reading of Marx seems clearly supported by some of his most elo-
quent statements:
As soon as this process of transformation [viz. from feudalism to early capi-
talism] has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom ...
that which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for
himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is ac-
complished by the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the
centralization of its capital. One capitalist kills many.... Along with the con-
stantly diminishing number of magnates of capital, who usurp and monopo-
lise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of mis-
ery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows
the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and dis-
ciplined, united, organized by the very mechanisms of capitalist production
itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter on the mode of produc-
tion. . . . Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor
at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist in-
tegument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private
property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (CI, T 437-438)

The capitalists' drive for profits has these consequences:

1. The immiseration of the worker,
2. The falling rate of profit.
3. The concentration of capital.
4. More and more severe economic crises.
5. A more united and better-organized proletariat.
6. The final breakdown of capitalism.
7. The proletarian revolution.
The traditional Marxist account of these developments regards all of
them as certain. The immiseration of the proletariat is "necessary," as is the
final breakdown of the entire system. Marxists were certain that all of this
would take place; only the precise date of the occurrence was in question.
In the next section, I show that this traditional account is mistaken. Marx
and Engels did not prove that any of these developments is inevitable.

How Reliable Are the Predictions of Marx and Engels?

Tlte Immiseration of the Proletariat
It is a matter of controversy among interpreters whether Marx and Engels
believed that the working class would grow progressively poorer in ab-
solute terms. There certainly are passages, such as the one cited above
and similar ones, particularly in the Communist Manifesto, in which they
predicted the progressive impoverishment of the proletariat:
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 129

In proportion as the repuisiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.

, . . The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains, (CM, T 479, 500)

Similar passages occur in Wage Labor and Capital (T 215ff.). Marx and En-
gels put forward the immiseration thesis more than once.
It would be a mistake to regard this merely as a rhetorical exaggeration
calculated to stir up the working class, whom they regarded as the agent
of social transformation. Both Marx and Engels had ample empirical in-
formation to show that the workers in England in the first sixty years of
the nineteenth century lived under generally worsening conditions. Marx
documented this fact in grisly detail from government documents in the
middle portions of ¥olume 1 of Capital. Engels had described the same sit-
uation earlier, in his work Ttie Condition of the Working Class in England in
1844.1 The claim about the progressive immiseration of the working class
fully accorded with the facts as they existed then. Significant numbers of
workers earned less than they needed to support themselves and their
families; their lives were destroyed by abject poverty.
But Marx and Engels took pains not only to describe the impoverish-
ment of workers in their own time (that was obvious to anybody who
wanted to look) but also to assert that the same condition would continue
with only minor changes in the future. In order to establish that con-
tention, they argued another thesis—namely, that wages tended toward
subsistence. Employers compete with one another. One way of improving
one's competitive situation is to produce goods more cheaply than the
competition, and one way of doing that is to lower wages. Employers thus
are compelled by competition to drive down wages as far as possible, to a
level at which they barely suffice to keep workers alive and able to work.
It is not clear that Marx and Engels managed to establish that con-
tention. Without entering into the esoteric details of the labor theory of
value, one can see that capitalism brings with it a phenomenal rise in pro-
ductivity: The amount of time needed to produce a given commodity
constantly shrinks, so that fewer and fewer workers produce more and
more goods. Marx was well aware of that:
the development of the productiveness ... of capital sets in motion an ever
increasing quantity of means of production through a constantly decreasing
quantity of labor.... Every single commodity... also contains less material-
ized labor.... This causes the price of the individual commodity to fall.2
But as goods get cheaper, the total volume of goods expands. If produc-
tivity increases faster than wages fall, then growing exploitation may well
go hand in hand with a rising standard of living.
Marx recognizes repeatedly that even if one managed to establish that
wages tend to fall because of exploitation, it does not follow that workers
will, have a progressively lower standard of living or even that their stan-
130 The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures

dard of living, defined by reference to the quantity of goods consumed,

will not rise. Marx and Engels sometimes seemed to assert that workers
will become poorer in absolute terms; at other times they recognized that
their theory did not support such a claim.
But if productivity rises, that not only improves the living standards of
workers but also manages to produce more profits and thus contribute to
further accumulation of capital:
If capital is growing rapidly, wages may rise; the profit of capital rises incom-
parably more rapidly. The material position of the worker has improved, but
at the cost of his social position, The social gulf that divides him from the
capitalist has widened. (WLC, T 211)

While wages go up, the total mass of capital the capitalist class controls
increases even more rapidly. As a consequence, workers may not get
poorer in absolute terms of their consumption of goods because their
standard of living is, in fact, going up. But their "social position"—that is,
their power in relation to their employer—shrinks. Where formerly they
dealt with the owner of their factory, whom they perhaps knew person-
ally, they now work in a much larger company where they deal with
"management," a faceless bureaucracy.
This thesis is often referred as the "relative immiseration thesis."3 That
is a misnomer, Immiseration refers to the suffering of the working class. It
is not clear that the working class, given the improvement in its standard
of living, suffers when the total investment in raw materials, machines,
buildings, and so on increases even more dramatically. Marx's point is not
primarily a prediction that the standard of living of workers would fall
but that they would face a capitalist class whose economic power grew
day by day.
Marx and Engels failed to prove that the entire working class would be
progressively impoverished by wage rates kept as close to bare survival
as possible. But it is true that the efforts of the various working classes
around the world have continued to bolster the power of their employers,
Marx and Engels knew that capitalism was an international phenomenon
("Modern industry has established the world-market" [CM, T 475]), yet
the power of the multinational corporations exceeds anything that they
were familiar with. For workers organized in national unions, the global-
ization of capital means that workers are completely outmatched by
multinational corporations, which are able to move plants and resources
from country to country to escape unions in the workplace and govern-
ment regulations on working conditions.
Tlte Falling Rate of Profit
Marx's "law of the falling tendency of the rate of profit"4 reflected his re-
alization that there were conflicting tendencies with respect to the rate of
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 131

profit. On the one hand, he says, there is a long-term tendency for the rate
of profit to fall. On the other hand, there are counteracting tendencies.
This falling rate of profit is undoubtedly central to Marx's thinking
about the development of capitalist society. We noted earlier that he ex-
pected capitalism to come to an end when the relations of production—-
the private ownership of means of production—became "fetters" on the
productive process.
The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. The means—uncondi-
tional development of the productive forces of society—comes continually
into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of limited capital.5

Capitalists pursue profit, in part, through ever increasing mechanization,

the "unconditional development of the productive forces of society." But
that increases the ratio of capital invested in machinery to capital in-
vested in labor required to produce any given commodity, what Marx
cais the "organic composition of capital." According to the labor theory
of value, change in the organic composition of capital depresses the rate
of profit because it reduces the amount of labor that is capable of generat-
ing surplus value.
Once we surrender the labor theory of value, however, the prediction
that the rate of profit will fall is no longer proven. In the ongoing contro-
versy about this topic, a number of people have investigated the question
whether over the past 150 years the rate of profit has indeed fallen; the re-
sults of those investigations remain controversial and ambiguous.
Marx acknowledges the existence of countervailing tendencies.* He
therefore speaks about a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, though he
still believes that this tendency exists. Many commentators question the
reasons for his belief, however. The conclusion is inescapable that Marx
did not conclusively establish the law of the falling tendency of the rate of
The Concentration of Capital
There is no question that capital has become much more concentrated
since the 1700s. It is clear that Marx was right about that. Less clear is the
extent to which the centralizing trend has contributed to the stagnation of
capitalist economies. Many people believe that this has occurred to a sig-
nificant degree, but Marx has no well worked out theory to prove it.
Increased Frequency and Severity of Economic Crises
There is, similarly, no question but that capitalism is subject to periodic
crises. Marxian theorists have derived these crises from, the falling rate of
profit or from the immiseration of the proletariat. But inasmuch as these
two theses are not fully demonstrated, the claim that crises will be more
frequent and more severe also remains unsupported.
132 The future of Capitalism and Its Failures

The first four of the seven predictions (listed in the previous section)
are thus open to doubt. These claims about the inevitable collapse of cap-
italism are not supported by a fully developed economic model. Marx's
theory of crises remains incomplete, albeit full of fruitful suggestions. The
remaining three predictions are not of a purely economic nature. The in-
creasing unity and organization of the proletariat cannot be predicted on
purely economic grounds but are clearly presupposed by the prediction
that capitalism will collapse and that a proletarian revolution will take
place. I discuss these predictions in the next section.
Marx and Engels set forth another argument for expecting the inevitable
collapse of capitalism that does not depend as narrowly on economic the-
ory. We encountered it earlier in the discussion of historical materialism.
There Marx and Engels tried to show that history can be subdivided into
different epochs, each with its own mode of production. Modes of pro-
duction are characterized by their own level of technology ("forces of pro-
duction") and their social arrangements of ownership and control of tech-
nology ("relations of production")- Modes of production develop as long
as the relations of production serve to encourage the development of the
forces of production. Once the relations of production become a hin-
drance to the development of forces of production, the mode of produc-
tion collapses and is replaced by a new mode of production. Some writers
have taken this abstract scheme as a causal theory: One could predict the
inevitable collapse of capitalism because sooner or later—according to
historical materialism—the relations of production, the private owner-
ship of means of production, would make the further development of the
industrial production apparatus impossible. At that moment, capitalism
would have to make way for socialism.
But as I argued in Chapter 5, historical materialism is not a causal the-
ory. It does not allow us to predict the inevitable collapse of capitalism.
Rather, it summarizes, much too briefly, a historical process that in the
past was enormously complex and that we have every reason to believe
will be equally complex and not predictable in detail in the future.7

The End of Marxism?

In his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, Marx proclaimed that "philosophers
have only interpreted the world . . . ; the point, however, is to change it" (T
145). Accordingly, Marx and Engels were not content only to develop a
theory of capitalist society and of history. They proposed a political pro-
gram: that the working class, with its allies among the intellectuals,
should organize itself toward the goal of taking power in its own behalf.
The prediction that capitalism will fail and be replaced by socialism obvi-
ously adds considerably to the persuasive power of this political program.
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 133

But what if that prediction turns out to be dubious? Interpreters disagree

about the extent of the damage done to Marx's and Engels' socialist project.
In the traditional Marxist view, the socialist program requires that the
economic analysis and predictions be correct. Marxist politics presup-
poses the necessary collapse of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg, the most
gifted leader of the German Social Democratic Party before World War I,
stated this explicitly in her polemic against Eduard Bernstein, the leader
of the moderate wing of that party:
Bernstein began his revision of Social Democracy by abandoning the theory
of capitalist breakdown. The latter, however, is the cornerstone of scientific so-
cialism, and with the removal of that cornerstone, Bernstein must also reject
the whole socialist doctrine.8

Luxemburg makes a strong claim: The Marxian political program for or-
ganizing the working class with a view to replacing the capitalists in
power and installing socialism ("Social Democracy") is valid only if
Marxian economic theory is firmly established. If one gives up the claim
that socialism is inevitable, one gives up the entire socialist project. That
view was not hers alone but, on the contrary, was widely shared. Eco-
nomics was considered the "cornerstone of scientific socialism"; it was in
relation to social policy what mechanics is in relation to engineering: Me-
chanics allows us to build bridges and buildings and machines that stand
up for a long time. In analogous ways, economics was thought to offer a
firm foundation for making social policy, and Marx's economics was
proven sufficiently valid to play that role. The phrase "scientific social-
ism" implies both claims: that social science is capable of the same degree
of certainty as physics and that the Marxian theory of socialism had
reached, or was close to reaching, that degree of certainty.
With the wisdom of hindsight, we can reexamine the Marxian claims and
find that the capitalist collapse is not inevitable and socialism even less so.9
Does that admission also compel us to put away Marx's writings as of
mainly antiquarian value and, even more important, surrender the socialist
political program? Even if the predictions of Marx and Engels are no longer
credible, we must still take their criticisms of capitalism extremely seri-
ously. Marx and Engels pointed to many significant weaknesses of capital-
ism. For that reason, socialism is still a desirable social order.

What Is Wrong with Capitalism:

The Unseen Hand Is Inept
Adam Smith in a famous passage asserted that
as every individual endeavors, therefore, as much as he can both to employ
his capital in the support of domestic industry and so direct that industry
134 The future of Capitalism and Its Failures

that its produce may be of greatest value, every individual necessarily labors
to render the great revenue of the society as great as he can.... He intends
his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible
hand to promote an end that is not part of Ms intention,... By pursuing his
own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than
when he really intends to promote it10
People—more precisely, capitalists—invest their capital so as to bring a
maximum return. They do this not from any concern for society as a
whole, but because of the "unseen hand" of the market, their pursuit of
their "own gain" promotes the interest of society better than if that had
been their intention. This belief of Smith's has become a veritable dogma
in our time. But in a series of criticisms of capitalism, Marx shows that
this unseen hand works very badly. He argues powerfully that the pur-
suit of private economic interest does not produce the greatest advantage
for all economic actions but on the contrary produces poverty and in-
equality is a threat to political and human freedoms, produces commodi-
fication and imperialism.

Poverty and Injustice

Marx and Engels were mistaken in their claim that the entire working
class would inevitably become poorer and poorer because employers
were forced by competition to depress wages as dose to subsistence level
as possible. But they were not at all mistaken in pointing out that capital-
ism breeds poverty in a number of different ways. On, the one hand, the
general standard of living rises, as capitalism performs its miracle of ex-
panding production. On the other hand, in the course of that expansion of
production significant groups find their living standard. lowered. There
are number of different mechanisms at work here.
Toward the end of Capital, Marx summarizes the early history of capi-
talism. One key episode was the transformation of the English peas-
antry—who owned some land where they produced food for themselves
(even if that land consisted of no more than their use of the "common")—
into a landless proletariat:
The great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the
forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the
same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common
lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufacturers, and the corre-
sponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to
these evictions. (CI, T 434)

With the opening of an export market for wool, feudal landowners took
their land from the peasants and transformed former farms into grazing
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 135

lands for sheep. The result was, on the one hand, increased profits for the
landowners, who then proceeded to invest some of that new wealth in
more land or in the newly developing capitalist industries, and, on the
other hand, landless destitution for the farmers and their families.
Comparable processes take place today in the countryside, particularly
in developing countries. The large landowners employ landless agricul-
tural workers who in most countries lead a hard and impoverished life.
Rising food production does these rural workers little good because they
can't pay for more food than they currently consume. One of the bitter
ironies of capitalist agriculture is that in the midst of stepped-up food
production, malnutrition increases in the countryside. Frequently, how-
ever, landowners discover that if they raise an export crop, such as ba-
nanas, coffee, or cocoa in South or Central America, they can make more
money. But then the land formerly devoted to raising food for the indige-
nous population serves to raise export crops. Food tends to become
scarce, and some food must be imported. Food prices tend to rise, and the
poor get poorer. In addition, the landowner, now earning more from the
export crop, can afford to invest in agricultural machinery that will make
production more efficient, make more money for the big farmer, and put
many agricultural laborers out of work. They are definitely impoverished
even, if the gross national product (GNP) of the country rises. Conversion
of agriculture to export crops has deprived these farm laborers and their
families of their ability to make a living in the country; they hope instead
to make some sort of miserable living in the city. Hence the flood of peo-
ple from the countryside who crowd into the shantytowns surrounding
large urban areas in Central and. South America.11
In industry the tendency is to replace expensive labor by cheaper labor.
Marx gives one example of that: The introduction of machinery
dispenses with muscular power [and thus) becomes a means of employing
laborers of slight muscular strength.... The labor of women and children was
therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery. (CI, T
The women and children replaced men who earned a higher wage. Simi-
larly, new machines made formerly skillful work more automatic. The
skilled worker can be laid off and replaced by one less skilled—who earns
less. Work moves from high-wage areas to lower-wage areas, for exam-
ple, from, the United States to Mexico or the Pacific Rim. As a conse-
quence, wages for U.S. workers tend to drop because they are competing
with workers whose standard of living and wages are significantly lower.
Although it is not correct to predict an irresistible trend toward lower
wages, it is also not true, as defenders of capitalism often claim, that the
workers will inevitably be better off.
136 The future of Capitalism and Its Failures

Capitalism, as we saw in Chapter 8, has always tended to leave a signif-

icant portion of the population unemployed, Marx attributes this to two
mechanisms: On the one hand, machines are labor-saving devices; the
more powerful the machines, the lower the demand for workers. On the
other, capitalism, needs to be able to invest the profits from previous pro-
duction. New capital is spent on new productive facilities, but those will
be useless by themselves unless there is a force of unemployed labor
ready to be hired to run the new machines. Capitalism not only produces
unemployment but also is unable to function without what Marx calls a
"reserve army of the unemployed" (CI, T 422ff.). Most contemporary
economists now acknowledge as well that capitalism, has a full-employ-
ment problem. Today economists speak of the "natural" rate of unem-
ployment—defined as that level of unemployment below which inflation
would accelerate.12 In many countries that rate of "natural" unemploy-
ment is 5 percent.
For the individual worker, the permanence of unemployment at a sig-
nificant rate means that her or his hold, on a job is always to some extent
precarious. Workers cannot be sure that the jobs they have today will be
there next week. Their companies may be bought up by another one and
their jobs disappear in the process of consolidation; their companies may
move production off-shore or contract out computer programming to a
company abroad. Business cycles require restructuring of companies,
closing of certain product lines or facilities, and so on. These are just some
of the vicissitudes of business under capitalism. The result is that most
jobs are impermanent, and wageworkers are therefore forever uncertain
about their livelihood.
Capitalism has produced astonishing growth. Marx and Engels never
denied that. But the new wealth produced is not distributed evenly
among all those who contributed to produce it.
Labor produces for the rich wonderful things—but for the worker it pro-
duces privation. It produces palaces—but for the worker, hovels. (EPM, T 73}
We have seen the systematic reasons for that For one, there is a tendency
in capitalism to depress wages or to replace more expensive labor with
cheaper. For another, the wealthy earn interest on their investments: They
have two sources of income where the worker has only one. Thus as the
capitalist succeeds in lowering wages, profits rise, as does the return on
the investment. Here is the beginning of a mechanism to create perma-
nent and increasing inequality.13
While Marx and Engels argued that the working class as a whole
would be progressively impoverished by capitalism., the defenders of
capitalism claim that the system inevitably improves the lot of the work-
ing class as time goes on. This second claim is as erroneous as the first.
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 137

The standard of living of workers today is higher than that of their grand-
parents. But a significant proportion of those grandparents were unem-
ployed during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s and suffered
terribly. The improvement in the general standard of living should not
conceal the fact that on the way to that improvement significant groups
suffered the pO¥erty and deprivation that are endemic to the capitalist
system. Nor is poverty a tiling of the past. The same mechanisms that im-
poverished workers in the past are still at work today.
Environmental Degradation
But defenders of capitalism are hopeful that a further extension of indus-
trial production to those parts of the world that are still developing will
eradicate the poverty that has been the rule in those places, and that it
will do the same in the First World, where, after all, poverty also remains
a permanent condition for many. In that confidence they share the belief
of Marx and Engels that the progress of industrialization can continue in-
definitely (whether with or without capitalism is a question that does not
matter at the moment). In the past fifty years, however, we have learned
that the natural resources required for industrialization are not available
to provide a First World living standard for all inhabitants of the globe.
There is not enough energy, not enough clean air and clean water. There
are not enough trees. Hence there is no basis for the faith that the exten-
sion of First World capitalism to all corners of the globe will finally over-
come the poverty that has always characterized capitalism. Marx and En-
gels are right: Capitalism produces castles for the rich and hovels for
portions of the working class.

What Is Wrong with Capitalism:

The Threat to Freedom and Democracy
The central mechanism in all these economic processes that produces in-
equality, poverty, and economic insecurity is the basic capitalist process of
capital accumulation, with its constant striving for greater profits. The
central mechanism of capital accumulation is exploitation, the appropria-
tion by capitalists of the returns to capital. But as we saw in Chapter 9,
this private appropriation of capital has no justification. Capitalism takes
what belongs to all and gives it to some. Capitalism is unjust.
Capitalism and freedom
Liberalism, which has dominated the political traditions in the West, has
always demanded that each person be allowed to conduct his or her life
according to the plan each chooses. Hence liberalism has supported free-
dom of thought and religion and far-going tolerance for different ways
138 The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures

of conducting one's life, as long as one is willing to allow the same lati-
tude for others. But Marx and Engels point out that the liberal ideals do
not apply to people who work for a living, Economic necessity shapes
their life-plans. They cannot live according to plans they devise freely for
themselves. In a variety of ways, capitalism curtails the freedom, of the
majority of people. We discussed this at some length in Chapters 8 and 9.
Workers are forced to take jobs they do not like, jobs that do not do jus-
tice to their skills and abilities. Many work more than one job in order to
maintain their customary standard of living. What is more, the employer
subjects them to close supervision on the job. They lack autonomy at
work, and they lack autonomy, the ability to run their own lives, outside
of the workplace because workers are exploited. That means, as we saw,
that the capital resources of the society are administered exclusively by a
small class of capitalists, while the workers have no say whatsoever in
investments. But different investment strategies provide very different
kinds of lives for workers (Shall we invest social surplus in education or
in arms production?). As long as capital is privately owned and adminis-
tered, workers are deprived of substantive freedoms to determine their
own lives. Still to come in Chapter 14 is the argument of Marx and En-
gels that capitalism and. democracy are not compatible. Not only does
capitalism curtail the freedom of individuals with respect to their work-
lives and their lives away from work, but it also curtails their freedom as
We examined Marx's various explications of the concept of alienation
in Chapter 10, Alienation, too, consists of a deprivation of freedom—the
freedom for a people to choose what sorts of institutions they will live
under so as to encourage certain types of personalities and discourage
others. Under capitalism there exists no freedom for human beings to
shape deliberately what sorts of people they will be, what they will value
and work for. It is not open to us to be critical of and to replace a system
that encourages self-interest as a central human motive, that demands
that we compete with one another, that we care more for what happens to
us than what happens to those with whom we compete.
Corn modified tion
As we saw in Chapter 7, the market and production for a market are im-
portant characteristics of capitalism. In a capitalist society, as Marx also
often says, production is not for use but for exchange. One produces with
an eye to selling whatever the product may be. This brings with it several
difficulties. A society oriented toward making profits by making and sell-
ing commodities becomes a society in which everyone is pushed to buy
more and more. In order to do that, everyone must make more money in
order to acquire more things.
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 139

Everyman speculates upon creating a new need in another..,. With the in-
creasing mass of objects, therefore, the realm of alien entities to which man is
subjected also increases,... Man becomes increasingly poor as a man; he has
increasing need for money in order to take possession of the hostile being....
The need for money is therefore the real need created by the modern eco-
nomic system. The quantity of money becomes increasingly its only quality,14
In a commodity society, acquiring commodities becomes one of, if not the,
most important value. Money counts for more than human excellence or
powers. Human values are strongly distorted.
But Marx points out that capitalism is expansive; more and more goods
are turned into commodities. As long as that applies only to clothes or
food, we are not troubled. If parental care for children is turned into a
business and parents are replaced by paid nannies or daycare centers,
some people begin to worry. When public officials are prepared to perjure
themselves for money, when scientific and scholarly expertise goes to the
highest bidder, we have entered a time when everything that people had
considered as inalienable becomes an object of exchange.
This is the time when things which till then had been communicated but
never exchanged, given but never sold; acquired but never bought—virtue,
love, conviction, knowledge, conscience etc.—when everything, in short,
passed into commerce. It is the time of great corruption, of universal venal-
ity, or, to speak in terms of political economy, when everything moral or
physical, having become a marketable value, is brought to the market to be
assessed at its truest value.15
You must make everything that is yours saleable, i.e. useful. If I ask the po-
litical economist: Do I obey economic laws by offering my body for sale, by
surrendering it to another's lust? . . , Or am I not acting in keeping with po-
litical economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans?—Then the political
economist replies to me; You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin
Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics
and religion have nothing to reproach you with.... But whom am I now to
believe, political economy or ethics? (EPM, T 96-97)

Commodification comes into conflict with morality—and wins. We can

see examples of this everywhere: corrupt politicians, manufacturers who
conceal the fact that their products are a danger to consumers' health, ad-
vertisers who misrepresent their products, public relations firms that
make superstars out of people with moderate talents and national leaders
out of people without intelligence, academics who lend their scholarly
support to the highest bidder, political operatives who work for the elec-
tion of anyone who pays enough, doctors who refuse to care for poor pa-
tients, universities that will teach only the children of the rich, lawyers
who get acquittals for their rich and guilty clients and watch the innocent
go to jail if they are poor. Commodification does indeed produce "univer-
MO The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures

sal venality." The moral value of certain actions and personal traits is re-
placed by its "true value," that is, what you can get for it in the market-
place. Thus personal integrity loses its value and is replaced by immoral-
ity because integrity does not pay but immorality does. Commodification
corrupts the entire society, and there is no point in calling for a return to
old-fashioned values, as many politicians do, while leaving capitalism
It is important to notice, particularly at a time when the virtues of the
"free market" are proclaimed daily, that most societies are in fact strongly
aware that not all goods should be turned into commodities. Hence we
have any number of legal restrictions on what sorts of things may be sold,
and the volume of these restrictions grows daily. Consider some obvious
items on this list. We are not allowed to buy or sell human beings or
plants and chemicals that the government regards as harmful; many
states prohibit the sale of fireworks and tools for opening locks. Political
influence; access to privileged commercial information; examination
questions; confidential information about someone's medical, or academic
history; official papers such as birth certificates and drivers' licenses; and
other similar items may not be bought or sold.
This suggests two interesting conclusions about commodification.. First,
it suggests that we are not convinced that a free market is a good institu-
tion unless it is carefully restricted to commodities we want to see bought
and sold. In addition, that legislation needs to be passed continually to
stop commercial practices we regard as harmful, unfair, or immoral
shows that the capitalist marketplace has the potential to spawn many ac-
tivities that offend our moral senses or are clearly harmful.
The ultimate outcome of the process of commodification is that per-
sonal identities also become commodities:
What I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.
I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful of women.... The effect of
my ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.... I am stupid . . .
[but the stupid person] can buy talented people for himself and is he who
has power over the talented not more talented than the talented? ... (EPM,
T 103-104)

Personal identities themselves become commodities and persons become

mere facades of human beings. (See Chapter 3.)
In the days of Marx and Engels, the relations between the western Euro-
pean countries and the rest of the world were mostly colonial Western
European nations militarily occupied large parts of Africa and Asia. They
used these colonies for three purposes: to extract raw materials, to sell
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 141

their own merchandise, and to invest the capital generated by their in-
dustries. Marx describes the effect of the British on India: They continued
the "plunder of the interior," they exported British cottons to India, and
they exported British capital to build railroads and telegraphs. While
India was used to being plundered, the major damage was done by the
import of British goods. Life in Indian villages had for centuries revolved
around agriculture and textile production in the home. But those hand-
woven textiles could not compete with the cheaper machine-produced
goods brought in from England, As a result
The British intruder broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spin-
ning wheel,... British steam and science uprooted, over the whole surface of
Hindostan, the union between agriculture and the manufacturing industry.
British colonial rule changed the face of Indian society. Marx is willing
to acknowledge that these changes were not all intrinsically evil: Indian
society had not changed much for many centuries, and change may well
have been necessary. But the import of British goods as well as the invest-
ment of British capital would not, Marx believed, "mend the condition of
the mass of the people" because improvement for the majority required
not only "the development of productive powers, but also ... the appro-
priation by the people" (T 662). As long as benign influences of colonial-
ism (and the same is true of current versions of neocolonialism.) are acci-
dental side effects of the pursuit of profit, the well-being of the majority of
people will not be under the control of the colonized.
Those remarks applied to colonial rule in India. But in the postcolonial
era the relations between developed and underdeveloping countries
show some of the same traits: Capitalist investments bring about changes
in underdeveloping countries, as do goods imported from the First
World. The resulting changes do not generally help the mass of people,
nor do the people in the developing countries have any say in or control
over the kinds of social changes that come about. The widely held belief
that the condition in developing countries will improve if only capital
and goods can be imported from the developed world is false: Relations
of dependency rarely benefit the bulk of the people in developing coun-
tries16 and always leave their sovereignty impaired. In the postcolonial
era, we still have to take Marx's criticisms of colonialism seriously.
Colonial and postcolonial arrangements serve(d) the interests of the
colonial and postcolonial powers. Their wealth is derived in part from the
returns on their investment in the underdeveloped countries (if it does
not derive from the outright theft of colonial resources, as practiced by
the Spaniards in Latin America, the British in India, and the North Amer-
icans with respect to the land of Native Americans). This wealth is one of
142 The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures

the underpinnings of the relatively free institutions of the richer coun-

tries. The elaborate justice system, that extends its protection to many citi-
zens in the United States or Britain requires resources not available in
poorer countries. The liberties of the citizens of the rich countries de-
pends in part on their exactions from colonial or postcolonial peoples.
Hence in a letter to Marx, Engels wrote,
One can already notice here [viz, in Ireland] that the so-called liberty of En-
glish citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies.17

Capitalism and Democracy

In capitalist societies private property of means of production is of the
essence. The economic life of a nation is kept distinct from its political life,
In the economic sphere, each person is an independent economic agent
Each pursues his or her own good as best as he or she can, and these in-
dependent economic actions are coordinated automatically by the mecha-
nisms of the market In this private economic sphere, enlightened self-in-
terest rules. But what sorts of citizens will men and women make if their
worklives are dedicated to improving life for themselves without any
thought to the well-being of others? How can there be a political commu-
nity that attempts to make life good for all if each participant thinks only
of his or her own good?
Where the political state has attained to its full development, man leads not
only in thought, in consciousness but in reality, in life, a double existence....
He lives in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal
being, and in civil society where he acts simply as a private individual, treats
other men as means, degrades himself to the role of mere means, and be-
comes the plaything of alien powers, (On the Jewish Question, T 34)

As citizens, we are expected to think not only about what is good for
ourselves but also about what is good for our country, for all of us. Cer-
tainly we expect public officials not just to make policy and administer it
in order to enrich themselves but to govern on behalf and in the best in-
terest of the people who elected them. A good deal of political rhetoric
identifies some political actors as the tools of "special interests" while
others have the common good at heart. In the background of that accusa-
tion is the assumption that representatives should serve the common
good of all. (Without that assumption, the "special interest" accusation
would make no sense.) But Marx points out that it is difficult for people to
be public-spirited as citizens if as economic actors they care only for their
own good. A capitalist democracy is bound to represent the private inter-
ests of the few as opposed to the interests of the large majority. Anyone
who considers the political processes in developed countries today must
The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures 143

admit that Marx's worries about capitalist democracy are well founded.18
Tn the discussion of the state, in Chapter 14, I discuss other reasons for
being distrustful of capitalist democracy.
The grand predictions of Marx and Engels have not come true because
they were not as well supported as had long been thought. Nevertheless,
Marx and Engels' critique of capitalism still deserves to be taken very se-
riously. Capitalism brings a higher standard of living for some and
poverty and misery for others. In the hope of alleviating the poverty of
some, it is likely to aggravate environmental crises. Capitalism is a threat
to individual liberty—except the liberty to buy and sell. But that liberty
gives rise to widespread corruption. It is not power that corrupts so much
as the power of money. In addition, capitalism is a threat to countries that
are less developed. The assumption that the pursuit of individual interest
will, benefit the whole of society is unfounded.
But perhaps capitalism is the best available system, even, if we accept
all these strictures, Marx and Engels did not think so. We examine their
alternative in Chapter 17.

For Further Reading

Andrew Gamble and Paul Walton, Capitalism in Crisis: Inflation and the State (Lon-
don: Macmillan, 1976), chapter 4; David Schweickart, Against Capitalism (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), chapters 2, 3, and 4.

1, Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844
(Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962).
2, Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 226.
3, Ernest Mandel, Marxist Ectmomic Theory, vol. 1 (New York Monthly Review
Press, 1971), pp. 15011
4, Marx, Capital, vol. 3, part 3,
5, Ibid., p. 250.
6, Ibid., pp. 232 and 236.
7, Even if we do consider historical materialism a causal theory, its claims are
open to serious question. The inevitability of capitalist collapse has not been es-
tablished. See Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine, and Elliott Sober, Reconstructing
Marxism (London; Verso, 1992).
8, Rosa Luxemburg, "Social Reform or Revolution," in Dick Howard, ed,, Se-
lected Political Writings (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), p. 123.
9, In some very general sense, we can be confident that capitalism will not last
forever because no other social systems have survived centuries of change. But
what will replace capitalism? We cannot be at all certain that a new and better so-
ciety will take its place.
10, Adam Smith, An Inquiry into tin Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
(New York Modern Library, 1985), p. 176.
144 The Future of Capitalism and Its Failures

11. See, for instance, Alain Kouquie, America Latins, Introduccion al extremo Occi-
dente (Latin America: Introduction to the Far West) (Mexico, D.F.: Siglo Veintruno,
1989), chapter 3.
12. David Schweickart, Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993), p, 107, "Natural" unemployment is the rate at which, there is enough
unemployment that workers cannot successfully demand higher wages. Once the
unemployment drops below that rate, workers win higher wages and that, in
turn, tends to drive up prices and increase inflationary pressures.
13. For empirical documentation of this tendency toward inequality in the
United States, see the reports by Mishel cited in the Introduction.
14. Karl Marx, Early Writings, ed. T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1963), p, 168.
15. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963),
p. 34.
16. To cite just one example: When capitalist firms from the developed world
build factories in developing countries, they often introduce state-of-the-art tech-
nology that is capital-intensive and thus creates relatively few jobs. But what most
developing countries lack are precisely jobs. As a consequence of high unemploy-
ment and low wages, the internal market is small; there is limited demand for
anything but the most essential consumption goods. Therefore new industries
tend to produce for the luxury market, where there is money to be made. The
mass of people thus is left outside the new industries and the new capitalist mar-
ket. Their lives are not bettered by the relations to the developed countries. See,
for example, Catherine M. Conaghan, Restructuring Domination: Industrialists and
the State in Ecuador (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988).
17. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975),
p. 86.
18. This problem was not original to' Marx. It was first stated very clearly by
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Ms Social Contract, For an interesting discussion of this
whole train of thought in Marx, see Richard N. Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx
and Engels, vol. 1 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974).
What Are Classes?

THE CONCEPT OF CLASS IS centra! to the thought of Marx and

Engels. Unfortunately Marx and Engels never provided a systematic ac-
count of what they meant by "class." The third volume of Marx's Capital
breaks off in the middle of a sentence about a page and a half into the
chapter on classes. All we have, aside from that, is a collection of single
sentences or short paragraphs in their various writings from which their
conception of class has been reconstructed. Little wonder, then, that there
is a wide range of interpretations of their theory of class.

Three Meanings of "Class"

"Class" has a number of distinct meanings. The concept of class, in the
first place, refers to the different roles in the economy of a country and the
people who fill those roles. I will call that economic class. We can use the
concept of class in that sense to classify people without paying any atten-
tion to their experience or their political positions. Only their economic
role is relevant to their economic class position,
Economic class is different from, class as a collection of people whose
life experiences are similar because they live under similar conditions.
People group themselves into different social classes insofar as they live
under very different conditions. Thus workers who need to work,
whether they want to or not, do not think of work as a "career" but as a
"job." Together with that goes an attitude toward work different from the
attitudes of capitalists or middte-class professionals. Similarly, women
form a social class separate from that of men. Women may hesitate to be
out alone after dark because of the threat of rape committed by men. The
two classes have very different experiences. But the experiences and val-
ues of working-class women are again different from those of middle-
class women, insofar as the latter have access to careers and have money

146 What Are Classes ?

to hire maids and nannies, while working-class women have to go to jobs

and attend to housework and childcare.
Similarly, the experiences of people of color are systematically different
from those of white people in the United States; but the middle-class
African American man has a different set of experiences from a poor
African American woman. As a consequence, members of these social
classes often also have different histories and therefore different values,
different patterns of speech, and different traditions with respect to fam-
ily and social life. Thus some social-class distinctions are connected with
economic-class differences—the differences between workers, middle-
class professionals, and. employers-—and some have to do with other
things, such as gender and race. Finally, there are social-class groupings
that have to do both with economic and other differences, such as work-
ing-class women or professional African American men.
In a third sense of class, the term refers to collective political actors. The
associated capitalists, organized into many organizations, have over-
whelming power not only in the economy but also in politics in a capital-
ist society. They form an economic as well as a political class. They are
probably also a social class insofar as their wealth and power allows them
a set of experiences not available to the rest of the population. Workers,
when they organize themselves into labor unions or parties or populist
organizations likewise become political actors. They wield power, and the
capitalists have to reckon with them.
Such classifications help answer questions about the origins and devel-
opment of our social order. Capitalism develops, as we saw in Chapter 7,
when the society divides into owners of means of production and "free"
laborers—workers who are neither slaves nor serfs, who own nothing but
their ability to work.
In themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means
of production and of subsistence. They want transformation into capital. But
this transformation itself can only take place under certain circumstances,
that center in this, viz., that two very different kinds of commodity posses-
sors must come face to face and into contact: on the one hand the owners of
money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to increase
the sum of values they possess, by buying other peoples' labor power; on the
other hand free laborers, the sellers of their own labor power, and therefore
the sellers of labor. (Cl, T 432)

The "control of the capitalist, [viz. over the worker] is in substance

twofold" (CI, T 385). The capitalist functions like the conductor of an or-
chestra by coordinating the different activities-—"A single violin player is
his own conductor: an orchestra requires a separate one" (CI, T 385). And
the capitalist owns the means of production and controls the process of
production. The worker does neither.
What Are Classes? 147

The concept of economic class helps throw some light on the nature of
capitalism and its difference from previous (and subsequent) modes of
production. Capitalism—with its private ownership and control of the
means of production—is possible only where there are several economic
classes that differ with respect to the ownership of capital. The concept of
an economic class helps us understand the general structure of capitalist
societies. Capitalist society here appears to be split into two major classes:
the owners of labor power and the owners of capital.
Passages like the one cited above have yielded the conception of the na-
ture of classes that has dominated traditional Marxism: Classes are
groups of people characterized by their relation to the means of produc-
tion. The capitalists own means of production; the workers do not V. I.
Lenin provided the classical formulation of this conception of class, and it
has since been repeated over and over again:
Classes are large groups of people, differing from each other by the place they
occupy in an historically determined system of social production, by their role
in the social organization of labor and, consequently, by the dimensions of the
share of social wealth of which they can dispose and the mode of acquiring it1

This conception of classes has three distinct aspects. Classes are (1)
groups of individuals (2) who are united by having the same relation to
something, and (3) the relations that serve to define a group of people as a
class are economic relations.
This concept of economic class, if defined by reference to the ownership
of means of production, encounters a number of difficulties: To begin
with there appear to be significant differences among people who own
means of production. Marx and Engels were aware of the important dif-
ference between the capitalists proper and the owners of corner grocery
stores, shoemakers, and other craftspeople who also own their means of
production but do not hire labor at all or in very small numbers. Here
seems to be a third economic class: those who own means of production
but live mainly by their own work and. do not, or only minimally, depend
on exploitation. While the capitalists exploit workers and thus accumu-
late more capital, the third class—the small owners—are not primarily ex-
ploiters. Marx and. Engels recognize this third class (they call it the "petty
bourgeoisie") but predict that it will disappear:
The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, and retired
tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and. peasants—all. these sink grad-
ually into the proletariat. (CM, T 479-480)

This prediction clearly did. not come true. While small enterprises tend, to
be absorbed by larger ones, new small businesses keep cropping up.
More important is that the economic class of all those who do not own
means of production is much more heterogeneous than the traditional
14:8 What Are Classes ?

Marxian classification suggests. On the one side are the middle-class pro-
fessionals, who, although they do not own means of production, have a
markedly different economic role from the workers. They often manage
the means of production for the capitalists or are, as we saw earlier, the
capitalists' soldiers in the ideological, war over the maintenance or re-
placement of capitalism. Nor is it unambiguously clear that they are ex-
ploited rather than being themselves exploiters,2 On the other side of the
scale are the people who are not workers but do not own means of pro-
duction: These are thieves, street merchants, shoe shine boys, the people
who wipe your windshield when you are stopped for a traffic light, beg-
gars, small-time drug dealers. In developing countries often 40 percent
of the population is in this so-called informal sector. The vast majority of
these individuals are desperately poor; but they are not exploited by
their employers, nor do they create surplus value or profits for the capi-
Both of these groupings exemplify ways in which capitalism has
changed since the days of Marx and, Engels. The middle-class profession-
als have become much more important. To the extent that capitalism is
progressively less able to provide jobs for all, the numbers of the unem-
ployed or underemployed grow steadily. What is more, this classification
of economic classes completely ignores the differences among industrial
workers and agricultural laborers and small farmers, even though in the
time of Marx and Engels the majority of all people lived in the country
and worked on farms. The traditional conceptions of economic class are
unclear and full of uncertainty.
Many authors summarily equate economic, social, and political class.
Ignoring the complexities of the concept of economic class, they assume
that all the members of an economic class automatically constitute one
political actor: the proletariat. Marxists have often looked to all the people
who do not own means of production to be, for that very reason, social-
ists. But this equation of economic, social, and political class often creates
confusion and error.3 The members of the same economic class have a
wide range of experiences depending, for instance, on their gender and
race. Small proprietors have very different experiences, values, and ways
of life depending on whether they have a small business in the city or
whether they are small farmers. Religion plays a formative role in the out-
looks of various groups, as does history. Workers of Irish extraction in the
United States have a very different history, say, from Mohawk ironwork-
ers. These backgrounds will most certainly affect their values and out-
looks on the world. When the time comes for these workers with diverse
histories and outlooks to unite—even if they have nothing to lose but
their chains—they find many differences between them that make it
harder to engage in concerted political action.
What Are Classes? 149

Similarly, the equation of economic with political class is mistaken. This

is most obvious when workers back extremely conservative regimes
whose goal is clearly to support the capitalists against the workers; this
happened in 1933 in Nazi Germany and does today in many countries. If
economic class and political class are equated and we expect automatic
opposition to the capitalists from the members of the economic prole-
tariat, this political behavior on the part of workers is inexplicable. At-
tempts to explain the workers' support for such conservative regimes as
the effect of "false consciousness" are self-defeating. If workers are so eas-
ily deceived, how can we expect them to create a better, a socialist world
in which they will wield the power? The changes in working-class poli-
tics are much more easily understood if we differentiate economic from
political class. We can then understand that while workers always form
an economic class, they are not always a political class. The trajectory of
political classes is quite different from that of economic classes.
Any capitalist country has economic classes, almost by definition. But it
sometimes has only one political class—the class that holds economic and
political power. This is true when the working-class opposition is in dis-
array, as happens, for instance in wartime, when workers and their orga-
nizations suspend any oppositional action in order to support the war ef-
fort. There are no strikes. Workers' parties to do not seriously criticize the
government. Workers as a political class also fade into the background
under totalitarian governments when all working-class political activity
is suppressed as "communist," such as in Nazi Germany or Augusto
Pinochet's Chile in the 1970s, Working-class political power is eclipsed
when the ruling capitalists manage to win decisive victories over the
working class, as they did in the United States at the end of World War I
and again in the 1980s and 1990s. Intimidated by rapid economic change
and growing economic insecurity, many workers support conservative
political candidates and forsake their own organizations. Those organiza-
tions become powerless for a while until they can rebuild. Economic and
political classes, then, are not always identical.
At times Marx and Engels were aware of these complexities. They are
often explicit in stating that political classes are different from economic
classes and that the latter have a very different and more difficult history.
Hence they also have different criteria of identity. For political classes,
class struggle, not the relation to the means of production, is decisive. Of
course the two kinds of classes are connected with one another: A, certain
division of economic classes is necessary for the development of a prole-
tariat as a political actor, but it is not sufficient. It is much more likely that
a member of the economic working class supports a political proletariat,
but it is by no means certain. When we consider what Marx and Engels
actually say about classes, we find that it is class struggle, not primarily
150 What Are Classes?

the relation to the means of production, that forms people into a political
The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a
common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms
with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn
achieves independent existence over against the individuals, (GI, T179)

Here Marx cites class struggle as a necessary condition for people to form
a class. Classes thus are not merely groups of people who have the same
relation to the means of production; rather, they are groups of people in a
"common battle" that ebbs and flows.
In addition, the class develops and changes in the course of class strug-
gle. As time goes on, it acquires permanent organizations (e.g., in the
form of business associations in the case of capitalists or labor unions in
the case of workers). Sometimes these organizations are very powerful,
while at others they can barely survive,

The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar
conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another.
Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing
them into mutual intercourse.... In this way, the great mass of the French
nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as
potatoes in a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under eco-
nomic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests
and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposi-
tion to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local intercon-
nection between these small holding peasants, and the identity of their inter-
ests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization
among them, they do not form a class. (18th, T 60S)

A group of people has the preconditions for forming a political class

when they "live under economic conditions of existence that separate . . .
[them] from, . . . other classes," that is, when they already form an eco-
nomic class. But they form a class in a political sense only once their "iden-
tity of interests" generates "community" or a "national bond." People who
are subject to the same economic conditions can form a political class if
they unite into a national organization. Specifically, until they have be-
come a "political organization," they are not a class in the full sense.
The proletariat goes through, various stages of development... At first the
struggle is carried on by individual laborers, then by the workers of a factory,
then by the operatives in one trade, in one locality, against the bourgeois
who directly exploits them.... At this stage the laborers still form an inco-
herent mass scattered over the whole country, broken up by their mutual
competition,... But with the development of industry the proletariat not
What Are Classes? 151

only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in great masses, its

strength grows and it feels that strength more,,., The collisions between in-
dividual workers and individual bourgeois take more and more the charac-
ter of collisions between two classes. Thereupon the workers begin to form
combinations (Trade Unions) against the bourgeois,,.. But every class strug-
gle is a political struggle.,.. This organization of proletarians into a class,
and consequently into a political, party, is continually being upset again by
competition between the workers themselves, (CM, T 480-481; italics added)
Classes develop in the course of class struggle, composed of groups of
people who have similar economic conditions and hence similar interests
and culture, at least in some respects. The full development of classes takes
place in the course of an extended and complex process in which, first,
small groups struggle locally over issues of interest to them. Those strug-
gles give rise to organizations that are initially quite ephemeral and only
gradually manage to last. Between struggles, the unity crumbles and work-
ers compete with each other once again, until a new issue sparks a new
fight. The unity of the class is a hard-won accomplishment that slowly
gives rise to stronger organizations, "The development of the proletariat
proceeds everywhere through internal struggles," Engels wrote in 1882.4
Accordingly, the Communist Manifesto assigns communists the task of
promoting the "formation of the proletariat into a class" (CM, T 484), The
proletariat, earlier described by its economic conditions—working for
wages and owning no property besides the ability to work (CM, T 478,
479)—constitutes an economic but not a political class by virtue of these
common conditions. Only political activity, in which communists are ex-
horted to participate, will bring the proletariat into existence as a political

Class Consciousness
But this account of the transformation of economic into political classes
leaves out important elements in the history of political classes. It leaves
out the development of class consciousness, and that is not intelligible
without the concept of social classes. The political activity that is neces-
sary in order to transform economic into political class requires class con-
sciousness and, in its turn, promotes the growth of class consciousness.
But there are several interpretations of Marx and Engels' ideas about the
emergence of class consciousness in the working class.
All readers of Marx understand the importance of class consciousness
to the development of political classes. But not all of them see that class
consciousness develops only in the course of class struggle. Instead, there
are two major alternative viewpoints: One Marxian tradition regards the
emergence of class consciousness as pretty automatic. That view finds a
152 What Are Classes?

certain amount of support in some of Marx's pronouncements. In the

Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels observe that
with the development of industry the proletariat not only Increases in num-
ber; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it feels
that strength more. (CM, T 480}
This and similar statements have often led to the view that class con-
sciousness—when the developing working class "feels that strength
more"—develops automatically with the advance of industrialization.
When workers become accustomed to working in larger groups and learn
that the product depends on the work of many persons, because of the di-
vision of labor, they also learn that they must depend on one another to
improve their individual lot. With that recognition arises their awareness
of themselves as a class. The development of class consciousness is di-
rectly linked to the development of the proletariat as a political class. But
in spite of passages like the above, that was not the view of Marx and En-
gels. They observe that factory work under capitalism divides workers
because workers compete with one another for jobs (CM, T 481), In addi-
tion, some later readers of Marx and Engels have argued persuasively
that life in a capitalist country where workers are severely limited by the
constraints of their economic situations tends to produce generations of
persons who look to external authority for direction rather than encour-
aging revolutionary consciousness. Life in a capitalist society does not
produce a burning desire for freedom but a willingness to take orders, I
discussed that view in Chapter 10 and return to it in Chapter 15.
Other readers of Marx, instead of regarding the development of class
consciousness as a more or less automatic process that goes hand in hand
with industrialization, believe that it is quite independent of the eco-
nomic developments in a capitalist society. This was the prevailing view
among the social democrats before World War I and among the Bolshevik
leadership. Their position was in part tailored to actual political condi-
tions and in part due to a misinterpretation of capitalist development. On
the one hand, the German social democrats, as well as the Bolsheviks, be-
lieved that by the beginning of the twentieth century capitalism was fully
developed and had started to decline. That meant that the economic con-
ditions were ripe for a socialist revolution. On the other hand, the work-
ing class was not nearly as revolutionary as its leaders, who were often
middle-class intellectuals. In view of these facts, the doctrine arose that
working-class consciousness was brought into the working class "from
the outside" by trained intellectuals. According to this alternative inter-
pretation, class consciousness does not develop throughout the history of
the class. Its development is independent of the economic and social con-
ditions under which the class develops and may therefore fail to develop
What Are Classes? 153

at all. Class consciousness is brought to the proletariat from the outside

by bourgeois intellectuals (such as Marx and Engels themselves).
In this vein, Lenin quotes with approval the views of Karl Kautsky, the
leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party before World
War I:
Socialism and the class struggle arise side by side, and not one out of the
other; each arises out of different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness
can arise only out of profound scientific knowledge..,. The vehicle of sci-
ence is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia.5

These disagreements about the concept of class consciousness divide

sharply on the role of intellectuals in the radical political movement. In
the Leninist view, the intellectual functions as the expert who gives lead-
ership to the organizations of the workers. Certain passages in the writ-
ings of Marx and Engels may be used to support this reading;
Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour,... a portion
of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of
the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of com-
prehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole, (CM, T 481}

But most of the time Marx and Engels believe that the intellectuals' role
is to articulate in theoretical terms the understanding held by the working
class of its own situation. Intellectuals serve as mirrors to the working
class rather than as expert leaders. (This does not take away from the crit-
ical importance of intellectuals.)6 Marx explains that class and class con-
sciousness develop in one and the same process. In Class Struggles in
France, he suggests repeatedly that the program advocated by the work-
ing class was not revolutionary because the class was not ready to act as a
separate class against the bourgeoisie: "The Paris proletariat was still, in-
capable of going beyond the bourgeois republic."7 The Paris proletariat
did have its own class consciousness, one that was sharply opposed to the
outlook of the capitalists. The Paris proletariat also had its own political
program, but it was not a revolutionary one because, according to Marx,
the working class was not sufficiently developed politically and neither,
therefore, was its class consciousness. The class consciousness of the
working class develops apace as the class becomes a political class. It does
not evolve independent of "objective" conditions.
Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeois class,
so the Socialists and the Communists are the theoreticians of the proletarian
class. So long as the proletariat is not yet sufficiently developed to constitute
itself as a class . . . these theoreticians are merely Utopians who, to meet the
wants of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and go in search of a re-
generating science.8
154 What Are Classes ?

Not everyone is a good theoretician. Marx agrees with Kautsky and

Lenin on that. It takes a good deal of training to develop good political
theory, and in a capitalist society that training is a privilege of middle-
class intellectuals. But to be valid a theory requires more than that it be
competently framed and argued. Theories framed in isolation from an ac-
tive, fully developed working class—precisely the sort of theory that
Kautsky and Lenin thought was to be brought to the workers "from the
outside"—are "merely Utopian"; they are mere pipe dreams, too distant
from actual political conditions or the actual experience and outlook of
workers to be of any use to the developing class. The class theory that
Kautsky and Lenin spoke of is not only useless, Marx believed, but posi-
tively harmful.
The notion of class consciousness as the product of middle-class intel-
lectuals ignores the fact that the only theories of use to workers are those
that articulate their life experience. Class consciousness is the common
sense and the common experience of a class before being articulated in a
theory. Out of that life experience and the culture that comes from that life
experience arises a view of the world, a set of common practices and val-
ues. The development of a political class presupposes the existence of a
social class. But social class is quite different from, economic class—the life
experiences and cultures and histories of different groups of workers are
diverse. Hence the development of a class consciousness of workers of
various backgrounds and life experiences is a long, complex process of
building common organizations in which shared ideas and ideas that are
different can be examined and accepted. Class consciousness is both a
precondition and a result of class struggle. It can only be the creation of
the working, class itself.
Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence,
rises an entire superstructure of distinct, and peculiarly formed sentiments,
illusions, modes of" thought and views of life. 'The entire class creates it out of
its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations,*
This class consciousness may very well not be formulated as philo-
sophical theory. The ruling class has its guiding ideology, which provides
the "ruling ideas of the epoch." But from the life experiences of different
social classes arise other, oppositional ideologies. These challenging ide-
ologies may not be as theoretically elaborate as the ideology of the ruling
elites, but they acquire in the course of time from, the experiences of social
groups and from their experience of class struggle a wealth of ethical
ideas, political wisdom, techniques for social organization, and hopes for
the future.
Consider the situation of the workers. They are members of the society
at large and are socialized into it. They thus share the "ruling ideas" of
What Are Classes? 155

the age that "have ever been the ideas of its ruling class" (CM, T 489), The
two classes share the worlds of industrial capitalism, of technology and
science, of ever increasing productivity. In this world individualism, indi-
vidual freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity are treasured
concepts. The outlook and ways of life of the working class—its class con-
sciousness—thus share important elements with bourgeois ideology, both
in its practices and its ideas,
At the same time, because they are not members of the ruling class,
workers go about their lives in ways other than those of the capitalists,
They do not invest capital and hire workers. They hire themselves out
and are exploited. The ideology as well, as many of the practices of the
ruling class sit uneasily with the workers' implicit understanding of their
own world. For instance, the idea of equal opportunity (that everybody
can be a capitalist if only he or she works hard enough) means one thing
to young workers and something else to the sons and daughters of capi-
talists. If they are lucky, workers may become supervisors or even suc-
ceed in starting their own businesses; their chances of becoming top-level
executives, corporate lawyers, or highly paid neurosurgeons are very
slight. Given that political campaigns cost large sums of money and
money talks loudly in politics, the idea of democracy has a different
meaning for working people and for capitalists (witness the low voter
turnouts in elections).
And so it is with the other ideas associated with the bourgeoisie. These
ideas are a starting point for the class consciousness of the working class
that slowly develops in opposition to the bourgeois outlook, as the class
itself develops into a class in the full sense. The class consciousness of the
working class never becomes completely separate from bourgeois ideol-
ogy. Instead, it gives new meanings to the concepts that play an impor-
tant role in bourgeois ideology but are only imperfectly realized in bour-
geois practice. The development of a proletarian class consciousness is
connected in complex ways with the ruling bourgeois ideology. It is,
therefore, not complete until the working class has become the dominant
class and has abolished class distinctions.10
But theories that help people interpret and understand existing institu-
tions are only one of several aspects of class consciousness. The working
class must not only grasp that its condition is the result of the inordinate
power of the capitalists. A class-conscious proletariat also understands
that the prevailing institutions are not immutable. It understands that in-
stitutions can be changed, and—this is essential—it has the confidence
that it can effect change. Without such confidence, no one will undertake
political action. Class consciousness consists not only of a more or less
theoretical understanding but also of hope that change for the better is
possible now and that the efforts of political action are worth the sacri-
156 What Are Classes?

fices they require. Change will occur when people organize themselves to
bring about that change. But that takes hard work and sacrifice. No one
takes on that difficult work of social change without a steady hope that
their efforts will bring results,
This element of class consciousness presents a problem for Marxist the-
ory. We saw in Chapter 11 that Marx and Engels believed that they had
founded a science sufficiently well established to allow them to predict
without fear of being in error that capitalism would collapse and be re-
placed by socialism. The hope that sustained them through forty years of
political effort, they believed, could be justified by their science. But I
show below (in Chapter 15) that their belief is mistaken. The science they
laid claim to did not and does not exist. Even if it did exist, it would not
provide support for political effort and sacrifice. Hence the question how
class consciousness develops remains without answer. Marx and Engels
have nothing to say about how the people who need to change the domi-
nant institutions in order to better their lives can sustain themselves
through bitter conflicts and. many disappointments. Often people who are
struggling are sustained by their religion. They take heart, for instance,
from their understanding that Jesus, too, was a social revolutionary.11 But
with their aversion to religion, Marx and Engels cannot explore that solu-
tion. Their understanding of class consciousness remains incomplete.
The development of class consciousness is promoted and complicated
by class struggle. As the working class consolidates its own identity in
struggle with employers or with opposed political groups, it also learns to
articulate its own view of the world, its needs, and its expectations for a
better future. But at the same time, one of the strategies of the capitalists in
the class struggle consists of trying to impede the development of work-
ing-class class consciousness. The ruling class is always attempting to re-
tard the development of a working-class ideology. Thus ideology is a
weapon in the dass struggle. The small disagreements between workers
and employers are always in danger of growing larger. In a class society,
there always exists the danger that full-fledged class struggle will erupt in
ways that would seriously interfere with production and the perpetuation
of existing social arrangements. One strategy for forestalling such serious
conflict is to mask, as far as possible, the proper ideology or outlook of the
workers and to cover it over with ideas more favorable to the employers.
Marx and Engels were aware of this strategy and hence devoted part 3 of
the Communist Manifesto to unmasking these deceptive forms of socialism.
For example, one target of their criticism were the "bourgeois socialists":

The Socialist bourgeoisie ... requires that the proletariat should remain
within the bounds of the existing society, but should cast away all its hateful
ideas concerning the bourgeoisie. (CM, T 496)
What Are Classes? 157

The bourgeoisie appropriated the language of socialism but turned it into

a defense of the status quo in order to slow the development of the prole-
tarian class and its class consciousness.
The political implications of this class theory are important. Especially
in electoral, democracies, people often think that electing their candidate
will secure their goal—whether that goal be change or maintenance of the
status quo. Now, within fairly narrow limits, different candidates can
help their constituents reach some of their goals. The power of individual
persons opens the way to some, usually minor political change. But the
class theory of Marx and Engels points out that if the goal is significant
change, for example, improving the condition of the poor, ameliorating
the conditions of workers, providing true equality of opportunity to per-
sons of color or to women, then we need to diminish the power of ruling
groups to uphold existing institutions. It is not the power of individuals
but the power of ruling classes that maintains the institutions that in turn
maintain the conditions we want to change. That cannot be done by indi-
vidual elected officials but only by large groups or politically organized
people, that is, by classes.
Political action thus can make small changes by means of electoral vic-
tories—for instance, replace the mayor in Dead Man's Gulch, But to
tackle the big problems that any generation faces, we must understand
the class forces that are at the root of that problem. We need to under-
stand which existing institutions maintain a certain condition we want to
change, and we need to mobilize significant class forces to effect a change
in these institutions. Without an understanding of classes and their pow-
ers, a good deal of political action is misguided and a waste of valuable
Before the early 1930s, union organizing in the United States was illegal
or beset by many legal restrictions. In 1934, as 25 percent of the U.S. work
force was unemployed, the Wagner Act legalized union organizing. In the
years that followed, labor unions in the United States organized at an
amazing rate and became, for a while, very powerful. This important
change for working people in the United States is not to be interpreted as
the achievement of Franklin Roosevelt alone or of the president and some
legislators. Their accomplishment was possible only because there was a
burgeoning radical movement among the working class and the unem-
ployed (that built on fifty years of previous efforts to organize labor
unions), and many members of the government feared that unless conces-
sions were made to that movement, worse was to follow.12
Despite the successes of labor organizing and of popular political
movements in several periods in the past, political change is not always
possible. If the oppositional class forces are in disarray, no important
changes can be made. In periods when the working class is demobilized
158 What Are Classes?

because of war, political repression, or failures of previous programs, op-

position remains dispersed and powerless. Under those conditions
elected officials all seem to represent the interests of the ruling class be-
cause the power of the ruling class is all there is. In such situations elec-
toral politics is a waste of resources. In contrast, in times when the work-
ing class is strong, it may well elect candidates that pay significant
attention to its programs and interests. Then the electoral arena is an im-
portant field of struggle.
Economic classes are usually distinguished by reference to the owner-
ship of means of production. But this characterization of economic class
does not take account of the professionals who are not workers or of the
unemployed and underemployed who are not workers either. Economic
differences, however, are only one aspect of class; there is also social class,
the different histories and experiences that are one source of class con-
sciousness. These backgrounds and the class outlook they give rise to are
important prerequisites for efforts to form a united political force—class
in the political sense. In the course of this struggle that undergoes signifi-
cant ebbs and surges, class consciousness develops further.
And yet this account of classes is still incomplete. Classes, I said, orga-
nize themselves and gain class consciousness in the course of class strug-
gle. In order to understand fully what classes are we must therefore find
out what that struggle is.

For Further Reading

T. B. Bottomore, Classes hi Modem Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), chap-
ter 2.

1. V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970-1971), p.
231. This conception of class has received a powerful defense in recent years by G.
A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1976), chapter 3, section 5.
2. For years, a number of Marxists have tried valiantly to incorporate this layer
of the population into a generally Marxist classification. These efforts have not
been successful. See, for example, Erik Olin Wright, Classes (London: Verso, 1985).
3. For an interesting overview of contemporary interpretations of Marx on
class, see Frank Parkin, Marxism ami Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1979), chapter 2, See also Jon Elster, Making Sense of
Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), chapter 6, section 6J.
4. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975),
p. 334.
5. Lenin, Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 150.
What Are Classes? 159

6. Antonio Gramsci developed this view of the role of the "organic intellectual"
in his Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971).
7. Marx, Class Struggles in France 1848-1850 (New York: International Publish-
ers, 1964), pp. 42-59.
8. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York; International
Publishers, 1968), p, 125.
9. Ibid-, p. 47,
10. The central role of bourgeois ideology in capitalism was emphasized by
Gramsci in Prison Notebooks, pp. 1-14,
11. Elivia Alvarado, Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from Her
Heart (New York; HarperCollins, 1987), chapter 4.
12. For documentary evidence on that point, see Studs Terkel, Hard Times (New
York Pantheon Books, 1970).
Class Struggles

A LOOK AT HUMAN HISTORY shows us conflicts over religion

and territory, national pride and Integrity, wealth and its control, and po-
litical institutions. It appears that the history of human societies is the his-
tory of religious, racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and other struggles. But
Marx and Engels make a much more restricted claim:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
(CM, T 473).
What shall we make of this assertion? At first, the point seems to be that
all struggle in history is class struggle. But surely Marx and Engels cannot
mean that. If their assertion is to make sense at all, we need to read in it a
lesser claim, namely, that class struggles are fundamental in human his-
tory. What gives class struggle such a preeminent position in history? We
cannot hope to answer that question unless we can state clearly what
Marx and, Engels meant by "class struggle."

What Is Class Straggle?

In the course of their writings, Marx and Engels talk about many different
struggles of the working class:
The Communists fight for the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the
momentary interests of the working class. (CM, T 499)
They provide a wide range of examples of fights over "immediate aims":
"with the bourgeoisie ... against the absolute monarchy" (CM, T 500);
against the deskilling of workers (CM, T479); in support of workers abroad,
such as support by British workers for the Union forces during the U.S.
Civil War (T 519); against the destruction of workers' housing by what to-
day would be called "urban renewal";1 for Irish independence;2 and so on.

Class Struggles 161

Are all these conflicts instances of class struggle? To start, we need to

notice that Marx and Engels do not say explicitly that all these different
sorts of struggles are instances of the class struggle. If we assume that
they all are class struggles, then it seems difficult to say what is not an in-
stance of class struggle. That would make the above quote from the Com-
munist Manifesto, which seemed problematic, trivially true. If all struggles
are class struggles, then the history of society is indeed the history of class
struggles. Clearly, Marx and Engels were trying to say something more
significant. We can conclude that not all economic or political struggles
are class struggles.
But what, then, is class struggle? It is tempting to say that class struggle
is struggle between classes. But if we adopt the reading of Marx and En-
gels put forward in the preceding chapter, according to which classes cre-
ate themselves in the course of class struggle, we are committed to the
view that there is class struggle in which some of the participants, at least,
are not classes in a full sense. As we saw in Chapter 13, such a reading
certainly finds support in the writings of Marx and Engels:
Every movement, in which the working class as a class confronts the ruling
classes and tries to constrain them from without, is a political movement. For
instance, the attempt by strikes, etc., in a particular factory or even, a particu-
lar trade to compel individual capitalists to reduce the working day, is a
purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force
through an eight hour, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out
of the separate economic movements of the workers, there grows up every-
where a political movement, that is to say, a class movement.3

Class struggles are of different sorts. Class struggle includes a wide va-
riety of struggles, and not all of them have a fully formed working class as
their protagonist. Groups develop into classes only in class struggle;
when that struggle begins, at least on one side of the struggle is a group
that has not yet organized itself into a political class. It may merely be an
economic class that is transforming itself into a political class by taking on
political struggles—struggles that extend beyond the confines of a partic-
ular workplace. (That does not mean, of course, that political classes can-
not engage in economic struggles.) But if class struggle cannot be defined
by reference to the participants, we may be tempted to define it by refer-
ence to the issue struggled over: Class struggle, we may want to say, is
struggle over exploitation.
It is clear that a central issue between workers and employers is ex-
ploitation. It is the cause of alienation, of the many injustices of capital-
ism. But while it is plausible to suggest that class struggles are struggles
over exploitation, that interpretation needs several modifications: In any
given conflict, whether between individuals or between groups, there is a
162 Cfess Struggles

bone of contention—namely, what the participants, if they are still talk-

ing, talk about. In a wage conflict, the subject is wages. Offers and coun-
teroffers concern wages; wages are the content of the negotiating sessions,
But there is more at stake than what is being talked about: If the employer
gives in to workers' demands, the union will gain in prestige among the
workers and gain more members and more support. That will tend to
make it more powerful and thus enable it to press harder for future de-
mands. What is at issue, in that case, is not just wages (and exploitation)
but power, the power to exploit workers and to maintain exploitative
arrangements. Class struggle takes place where such power is at issue,
whatever the overt subject of discussion may be. Conversely, wage de-
mands and working conditions do not give rise to class struggle if the de-
mands are explicitly framed to leave power relations unaffected, for in-
stance, if workers make greater concessions in the course of bargaining
than the employer,
In some struggles that issue, the power to exploit, is out in the open;
sometimes it is only implicit Throughout history "oppressor and op-
pressed ... carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight"
(CM, T 474). In actual cases the distinction between class struggles and
other struggles will, not always be easy to draw. But in principle the dis-
tinction is clear; Whatever the subject openly discussed between, the pro-
tagonists in a struggle, it is class struggle only if the power to exploit is at
issue. Thus the legislation, mentioned by Marx, to shorten the working
day puts some limits on the employers' ability to get more work out of
people and to appropriate the value that work yields. It thereby limits the
employers' power to exploit.
But if class struggle is a struggle over the power to exploit, who will ac-
tually participate in that struggle? One would think that the answer must
include only those members of the society who are actually engaged in
wage work. But that answer leaves out children and students, older and
retired people, the chronically ill, the unemployed, and everyone who
works, but not for wages, such as women who work in the home. The
class struggle, then, would seem to include only a bare majority or less of
the population on the side of the working class.4
The power to exploit is not an isolated power; it is instead one of the
powers—to be sure, a power of central importance—of the class that pos-
sesses political and economic power in a given society. The capitalist class
has the power to exploit (and other powers) because it owns and. controls
the means of production. It is the ruling class because it is sufficiently
powerful, by virtue of owning and controlling the means of production,
to arrange the society to its own advantage. Members of the ruling class
hold the positions of power and importance in industry, in commerce,
and, in some cases, in the government. They are influential in colleges
Class Struggles 163

and universities because they sit on the boards of trustees or give large
donations to such institutions. They have a similar relation to various
philanthropic foundations. They own and therefore have a good deal of
control over the media. Finally, as large donors to political campaigns,
they have disproportionate influence in the political arena. In those elec-
toral democracies where elections are honest, every man and woman has
only one vote. But the large contributors to political campaigns have in-
fluence that goes far beyond their votes. Not only are their ideas the rul-
ing ideas of any epoch, but those in power are able to decide many things
besides wages and working conditions. The struggle against a ruling
class affects more than just working conditions and thus is carried on not
just by workers. The extensive powers of any given ruling class concern
the lives of everyone in the population in different ways, and thus many
different groups at times participate to challenge the power of the ruling
To give just one example of this: The capitalist class has the power to
frame problems, to determine the terms in which a problem is discussed.
North American society faces a problem of drug addiction. There are a
number of ways of thinking about that. One can think about it as a symp-
tom of the despair engendered by the failure of capitalism to provide a
rich and secure life for all. One can think of it as one more instance of cap-
italist greed for profit. Tobacco and liquor companies are legitimate enter-
prises; by some historical quirk, the Medellm drug cartel is not. But they
surely are similar in all respects except the illegality of cocaine and the le-
gality of scotch and cigarettes. Both are for-profit enterprises; both may be
considered examples of the failures of capitalism. A third perspective
would be to stress that the drug traffic is one of the problems accompany-
ing underdevelopment. The coca farmers in Bolivia do not have an alter-
native crop to grow for the support of their families. The only way for
them to participate in the world market is to grow coca leaves. That crop
is, in addition, a valuable source of scarce foreign exchange for a number
of governments. If we considered the drug problem from one or more of
those perspectives, we would have to find ways of alleviating the despair
in poor neighborhoods of our cities; we would have to reconsider the
value of the private profit motive, or we would have to construct genuine
alternatives for the rural poor in certain parts of Latin America and
Southeast Asia. But that would cost money and would tend to reflect
badly on capitalism,. So the more usual way to frame the problem, of drug
traffic is to blame the drug users. They have a problem; they need individ-
ual help. It is not their life condition but their personal weakness that
makes them into addicts. It is their moral, failure, hence we send them to
prison in significant numbers. The other culprits are foreign governments
who are inefficient in suppressing the drug trade.
164 Cfess Struggles

The central fact in this discussion is that there are many ways to con-
sider the drug problem. The citizens at large are not consulted on how
best to think about these problems. The gO¥ernment, foundation-sup-
ported think tanks, university professors, clergy, professional social
workers, and others develop a perspective on this problem. The power of
the ruling class extends to formulating how problems will be considered.5
To reformulate such issues for public discussion, for instance, would in-
volve struggles not only by workers but by many different groups in the
Even more important, the power of any particular capitalist is not his
or hers by virtue of the means of production he or she owns. The power
of the individual capitalist rests on the support of other capitalists and
even more on the capitalist institutions, such as the state (see Chapter 14).
Hence challenging the power to exploit takes different forms. Workers
may challenge and, for a time, weaken, their particular employer's power
to exploit. But if the power of the capitalist class is unchanged and ai the
competing capitalists can pay wages as low as they always paid, then the
employer who was forced to make concessions will find herself in an un-
favorable competitive situation. She faces two choices: She can try to take
back concessions made earlier, or she can go out of business. In either case
the inroads on one capitalist's power to exploit prove temporary. In the
struggle to maintain control over the means of production or over the so-
ciety as a whole or to maintain a certain rate of profit, each capitalist has
the support of all the others.
The power of the ruling class in any country is not just the aggregated
power of individuals over their workers but, in addition, the collective
power of the entire class. While capitalists are in fierce competition with
one another in the economic arena, they form a class precisely because
their power is not private property but is the power of the class. Individ-
ual capitalists are not powerful by virtue of their personal characteristics
but because they own capital. If they lose their capital, if it passes into dif-
ferent hands, they lose the power to exploit as individuals. But the class
does not lose its power. The capitalists form a class, the ruling class, be-
cause they have been able to create institutions favorable to them and be-
cause they have been able, thus far, to maintain those institutions. Those
institutions, such as the division of the society into economic classes, the
private ownership and control of means of production, the "free" (how-
ever carefully regulated) market. Other relevant institutions are, above
all, the legal system, the governmental institutions that maintain the ex-
isting systems, and the supporting institutions in the realms of religion,
education, and the media,
Class struggle is characterized not by the fact that participants are
classes but by the underlying issue: the power to exploit. At issue, how-
Class Struggles 165

ever, is not just the power to exploit of individual employers, for their
power is limited. At issue is the power of the entire capitalist class to ex-
ploit and that, in turn, requires the power to reproduce capitalist institu-
tions. In class struggle the power of the ruling class in its entirety to ex-
tract surplus labor is being contested, along with the power to create and
maintain the institutions needed for this class to extract surplus value in
just the way it does (e.g., through corvee" labor or the wage contract).
Often the opponents of the ruling class are not themselves classes or are,
at best, only classes in formation. We can consider these opponents to be
classes only to the extent that they have been able to create their own in-
stitutions to maintain their power and their continued existence.

Class Straggle and Political Action

Class struggle, we saw Marx say, is not just economic struggle in one
workplace; it is political struggle. We now know that it is political strug-
gle over the power of the ruling class to exploit. But there are many differ-
ent sorts of political actions, from conflict over a traffic light at a danger-
ous intersection to conflict over the size of the national budget. Which of
these are instances of class struggle?
Not all political action is class struggle. As we noted in Chapter 12,
some political efforts do not affect the distribution of power or the power
of prevailing institutions at all; there follow some other examples below.
Changes are made that improve the situation of some without altering
the prevailing distribution of power or the institutions that maintain that
distribution of power. Such political efforts are distinct from class strug-
gle. At other times, Engels observed, groups deliberately work against the
interest of their class. During the U.S. Civil War, which Marx and Engels
interpreted in part as a conflict between the rising industrial bourgeoisie
of the North and the slave owners of the South, the bourgeoisie in New
Orleans were enthusiastic in their support for the Confederacy—on the
surface a position that seems to contradict the analysis of Marx and En-
gels. According to their reading of contemporary history, the bourgeois
should have supported the Union. Engels comments:
The fanaticism of the New Orleans businessmen for the Confederacy is sim-
ply explained by the fact that the fellows have had to take a huge quantity of
Confederate scrip [lOUs] for hard cash.... A good forced loan is an excellent
means for ... diverting them [the bourgeoisie] from their class interests
through their personal interest.6
At times oppositiona! interests can be accommodated without shifting
existing class power; at other times personal interest will induce groups
to strengthen their enemies. Here political action works at cross-purposes
166 Class Struggles

with the class struggle. Hence it is clear that not all political action is an
instance of class struggle. Not everything the workers do is part of their
struggle against the capitalists. Not every action of the capitalists is in
support of maintaining the interests of their own class,
Political action is concerned with both restricted, local and larger, na-
tional problems. National associations, parties, unions, protest organiza-
tions, and organizations to further the cause of women and African
Americans at times have widespread support. Then such forces become a
threat to existing distributions of power and to the institutions that main-
tain these existing distributions of power:
In. real life... the revolution begins the other way round, by the great major-
ity of the people and also the majority of the official parties rallying against
the government which is thereby isolated, and overthrowing it,7

At other times these organizations are little more than an office with a
small staff. In the former situation, the organizations participate in class
struggle. In the latter they are a source of employment for their staffs.
Marx and Engels repeatedly organized national or even, international po-
litical organizations, and they believed that some of these organizations,
for instance, the International Workingmen's Association, for a time had
influence in several European countries.8 But after a while the popular
movements from which the International Workingmen's Association drew
its strength subsided, and all that remained of the organization were a cen-
tral office and small cliques of political activists in various countries. Class
struggle, whether by a few large organizations or many small ones, always
requires the political activity and opposition of extensive numbers of peo-
ple. In periods of political quiet, there is no class struggle, even though
some of the formerly powerful organizations may still hang on.
With the temporary suspension of class struggle when working-class
organizations lose their power comes a lull in the struggle over ideology,
Previously developed working-class ideologies lose their persuasive
power; the ruling ideologies become more powerful, and have, for a time,
no rivals. The certainty of earlier generations of political opponents of
capitalism that change is possible and is bound to come gives way to the
complacent belief that capitalism is the best system there is or the despair-
ing view that a more just society cannot be achieved until the last trumpet
sounds. Once again the fetishism discussed in Chapter 7 prevails: The
capitalist marketplace is taken to be as inescapable as gravity. But when
class struggle resumes, so does the conflict over ideas and the effort to de-
velop an outlook to rival the ruling ideologies.
In the Marxism, that we have inherited from, the German Social Demo-
crats and, later, the Bolsheviks, political action either contributed to the
class struggle on the side of the proletariat—that was called "revolution-
Class Struggles 167

ary action"—or it served to maintain the power of the existing ruling

class-—that was called "reformist activity." There was no third, alternative.
Hence all political action was either revolutionary or reformist; much po-
litical polemic consisted of accusing the other side of being "reformist,"9
But we can see now that whether an action exemplifies the class strug-
gle at all depends on the state of political movements in the society at the
time. If there is an active opposition by many persons and many organi-
zations, both large and small, the action can be revolutionary or reformist
But often the only viable political efforts address local problems: "Revolu-
tionary" action, that is, action that threatens prevailing distributions of
power, is not on the agenda. Hence the "revolutionary-reformist" distinc-
tion does not even apply in such periods and should not be used. Local
groups, in times of social upheaval, participate in national movements
and are then participating in class struggle. At other times similar organi-
zations work only locally, and groups elsewhere do not take similar
stances on comparable issues. Such small groups are no threat to prevail-
ing distributions of power. The class struggle is in abeyance.

The Primacy of Class Struggle

The role of classes, according to Marx and Engels, is more central, more
fundamental than that of other large groups in any given society. Class
struggle plays a role in history not played by, say, racial struggle or the
struggle between men and women. But what does that mean? Surely his-
tory provides examples of all sorts of struggles: religious wars, tribal con-
flicts, contests for colonies. There are also the continued, divisions along
race lines, as well as the struggles over domination of women by men.
What can be meant by saying that class struggles are "fundamental" to
these? In Northern Ireland, for instance, it would appear that religious di-
visions, paired with different national allegiances, form the fundamental
breach. In some of the civil wars in African nations, the basic irritant ap-
pears to have been tribal rivalries rooted in a long colonial history. The
oppression that whites inflict upon blacks unites whites of different eco-
nomic classes against blacks of all economic classes. In similar ways
women of all economic classes are dominated by men of all economic
classes. It is not at all dear, therefore, what Marx and Engels have in mind
when they claim that class struggles are fundamental in human history.
Here are different interpretations of this claim:

1. Class struggle is fundamental because other struggles are brought

about by class struggle.
2. Class struggle is fundamental in that other struggles cannot be won
unless class struggle is won first.
168 Class Struggles

3. Class struggle is fundamental as the most important of all the strug-

gles being fought out.
4. Class struggle is the most inclusive,
5. Class struggle is the only source of revolutionary change in society.

Let us consider these interpretations in more detail:

1, Class struggle is fundamental because other struggles are brought about by
class struggle. This first version of Marx's thesis asserts that there is, for in-
stance, black oppression and sexism because there is class struggle be-
tween the working and the ruling class of capitalist countries. Racism and
sexism, according to this view, are said, to be caused by capitalism, be-
cause racism and sexism divide the working class and thus make ex-
ploitation easier for the capitalists. Without capitalism they would not
Marx is, of course, aware of the divisive role of ethnic dissension in the
formation of the working class. He notes that
every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working
class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and, Irish proletari-
ans. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who
lowers his standard of life.... He cherishes religious, social and national
prejudices against the Irish, worker.... This antagonism is artificially kept
alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by
all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes,u

This is a complex statement: The Irish workers, working for less than the
English, tend to depress the wages of the latter and compete with, the
English workers for jobs. Hence the English workers hate the Irish. But, in
addition, they hold all kinds of "prejudices" against the Irish having to do
with religion, nationality, and way of life. It is because of those prejudices
that Irish workers can or must work for less than the English workers.12
Capitalism, and the class struggle endemic to capitalism, is by no means
the cause, or "root," of those prejudices. Nevertheless, capitalism, encour-
ages ethnic (and other) prejudices because it pits worker against worker
in competition for jobs and because employers find that racial divisions in
the working class are to their advantage. A work force divided, along
racial lines is more manageable. Racial or gender or ethnic groups ostra-
cized as the result of prejudice have greater difficulty in securing jobs and
are therefore forced to work for lower wages. The Irish worked for less
because it was the only way to get work at all. Class struggle fosters racial
and other conflicts but does not cause them,
Marx's theoretical formulation of class struggle does not imply that
class struggle in capitalism is the cause of racism. In his analyses of con-
crete situations, he clearly recognizes that the causes of racism lie else-
Class Struggles 169

where. Historical evidence is on Marx's side in this instance. The history

of racism reaches far back, long before the beginnings of capitalism.13
2. Class struggle is fundamental in that other struggles cannot be won unless
class struggle is won first. Under this interpretation, oppressed groups have
been admonished to postpone their struggle for equality until the social-
ist revolution abolishes capitalism. Only in a socialist country, according
to this view, can one hope to end oppression. Capitalism must therefore
be toppled first
That was dearly not the understanding of Marx and Engels. In England
in the 1860s, the Irish played a role not unlike that of Puerto Ricans in the
United States today. They had. the worst jobs, they were looked down
upon by bourgeois and working-class English alike, and their country
was nothing less than an English colony. In this context Marx and Engels
say the following:
The English working class will never accomplish anything until it has got rid of
Ireland.... And this must be done, not as a matter of sympathy with Ireland,
but as a demand made in the interest of the English proletariat If not, the
English, people will remain tied to the leading strings of the ruling classes be-
cause if will have to join with them in a common front against Ireland,14

Here Marx and Engels insist that the class struggle between English pro-
letariat and bourgeoisie cannot progress unless the issue of "racism" is
addressed and, settled first. The same is true for the U.S. working class:
In the United States of North America every independent movement of the
workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic.
Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is
Resolving a racist division cannot be postponed until after the socialist
revolution. The development of the working class is impossible unless
the racist division is closed.
3. Class struggle is fundamental as the most important of all the struggles
being fought out Is class struggle the most important struggle? As we have
just seen, the answer to that question has varied at different times. In the
late 1860s, when Marx and Engels wrote the letters just quoted, they obvi-
ously thought that the struggle against the oppression of the Irish was the
most important struggle because without it the English proletariat could
"never accomplish anything." In a letter to Marx written in the same pe-
riod, Engels expresses regret that the Irish had failed to understand that
their "sole allies in Europe" were "the socialist workers,"16 but he does
not insist that the Irish join the class struggle of the socialist workers, let
alone postpone their own struggle for the sake of that of the socialist
workers of Europe. It is clear that he did not believe that the class struggle
I/O Cfess Struggles

was, at any time, fundamental in the sense of being the most important
4. Class struggle is the most inclusive. Class struggle is fundamental to all
societies because there is always class struggle of some sort, whereas the
other conflicts that color and shape class struggle differ widely from, one
society to the next:
The history of all past society has consisted of the development of class an-
tagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs,
But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages,
viz, the exploitation of one part of society by the other, (CM, T 489)

The many different kinds of conflicts in any given society can be better
understood if they are seen against the background of and in connection
with the struggle between classes. The converse is, of course, also true:
Class struggle is affected by the existence of, for instance, racial or gender
struggles. But these other struggles are not as frequent or as sustained or
as ubiquitous as class struggles. Class struggle is therefore fundamental
inasmuch as all divisions in societies are played out against the back-
ground of class struggle, which itself is colored by those other divisions.
Class struggle is the most inclusive struggle.
Women have responded to this claim by pointing out that more soci-
eties are known to us in which women were oppressed than societies that
exploited labor.17 Marx's and Engels' answer to this objection is contained
in Engels' later work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
(T 734f£), which essentially argues that the oppression of women in the
family is a consequence of the development of the institution of private
property—that is, of some form of exploitation. Engels maintains that
class struggle is indeed the most inclusive struggle.
It is not clear whether he was right about that. The anthropological evi-
dence is scanty and open to interpretation. Fortunately, we can leave this
question unresolved because this is not the only sense in which Marx and
Engels regard the class struggle as fundamental.
5. Class struggle is the only source of revolutionary change in society. The
flourishing and decay of different cultures is due to class struggle. Marx
and Engels classify historical, periods by their mode of production and,
specifically, by the way in which, in the societies known to us, the product
of the many has been taken and used by the few. The "glory that was
Rome" flowed from the hard work of slaves who did not share in that
glory. In feudal society the work of the serfs supported a class of largely
idle landowners and soldiers. The surplus produced by the serfs allowed
the medieval Church to erect monumental cathedrals. The productive
wealth of capitalist countries is produced by workers who do not own or
control the wealth they have produced.
Class Struggles 171

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and
journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposi-
tion to each other, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight,
a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionaryre-constitutionof soci-
ety at large, or in the common ruin of contending classes, (CM, T 474)

The great transitions in human history occur when one mode of pro-
duction replaces another—transitions that are a long time in coming and
leave their effect for long times afterward. But these transitions, as well as
the processes leading up to them, are the effects of class struggles. The
very essence of these transitions is the replacement of one ruling class,
with its characteristic mode of production, by another ruling class with its
different mode of production. To date that has also meant the replace-
ment of one form of oppression and exploitation by another.
All societies known so far have been exploitatiYe. By virtue of their su-
perior political, military, or economic powers, members of one class have
forced the members of another to hand over part of what they produced.
This exploitation has been a constant source of friction. There have obvi-
ously been other sources of conflict, such as religious or cultural differ-
ences. But only class struggle finally puts an end to the ability of a given
ruling class to exploit and thereby ends the rule of that class.. Class, strug-
gle, of all the struggles in history, is the one that overturns modes of pro-
duction and classes and puts different classes with different modes of
production in their place. It is for that reason more fundamental than
other struggles.
Class struggle is the only source of revolutionary change. This is one of
the most central claims in the thought of Marx and Engels. It follows di-
rectly from the conception of class and class consciousness developed in
Chapter 12. Political classes hold power in society by virtue of an ex-
tended range of institutions and organizations supporting the prevailing
mode of production. This mode of production cannot be replaced by a
different one without unseating the current class in power. Hence major
political, social, and economic change is impossible without class strug-
gle. In that sense class struggle is fundamental.
The revolution, when it comes, will bring an extended democracy,
which in turn requires full equality for all members of the society. Can
class struggle, struggle over the power to exploit, give rise to a more
equal society unless, at the same time, it is a struggle against all oppres-
sions—such as oppression by gender and race—within the respective
classes? This question has stirred up an enormous amount of controversy
most of it due to misunderstandings of the concept of class. If we define
classes as centers of power resting in a set of institutions, then every chal-
lenge to the institutional power of a ruling class is class struggle.
172 Cfess Struggles

That interpretation has two implications: (1) Struggle over wages and
working conditions that does not challenge the power of the employers is
not class struggle because it does not pose a threat to that power (unless it
strengthens the organizations that will challenge the employers' power in
the future). (2) Struggles for equality on the part of women, the disabled,
or people of color is a part of the class struggle it" they challenge the ruling
institutions. For the prevailing capitalist institutions—corporations, phil-
anthropies, universities, mass media—all support existing institutions
even if they are sexist, racist, and so on. Although they may pay lip service
to greater equality, these institutions are above all capitalist institutions in-
terested, in maintaining the power of capitalism. The condition of a major-
ity of African Americans is the joint result of racism and of the inability of
capitalism to produce full employment. The effort to maintain capitalism
commits the corporations, philanthropies, and universities to a set of in-
stitutions that cannot maintain full employment. It commits them, as a
consequence, to support racial and gender divisions that are useful for re-
tarding the development of a working-class challenge to the ruling insti-
tutions. Racial, gender, and other kinds of equality take second place to
the maintenance of ruling institutions. Advances made by some individu-
als obscure that the posture of the ruling institutions is unchanged.
Greater equality for all remains as empty a hope as always. Existing capi-
talist institutions cannot and will not bring equality for all. A strong push
for greater equality needs to transform, capitalist institutions that main-
tain the subordination of white women and people of color,
This chapter has, I hope, clarified what Marx and Engels mean by class,
class consciousness, and class struggle, but the discussion has been rather
abstract insofar as I have made no mention of the state. We cannot fully
understand the relations of classes, their development, and their conflicts
without considering the role played by the state. I discuss the state in the
chapter that follows.

For Further Reading

Zillah Eisenstein, ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1979),

1. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), p. 659,
2. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975),
pp. 221ft
3. Ibid., pp. 254,255.
Class Struggles 173

4. According to Adam Przeworski, there never were any working-class majori-

ties in any of the European countries, and in recent years, with increased industri-
alization, the proportion of the population that is working class has declined sig-
nificantly. See Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985), p, 23.
5. Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Barantz, "Decisions and Non-Decisions—An
Analytical Framework," in Roderick Bell, David V. Edwards, and R. Harrison
Wagner, eds., Political Power: A Reader in Tlwory and Research (New York: Free
Press, 1969).
6. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence, p. 119.
7. Ibid., p. 333,
8. Ibid., p. 168.
9. Rosa Luxemburg, one of the great theorists of the pre-World War I German
Social Democratic Party even wrote a book entitled Revolution or Reform. See Rosa
Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, ed. Dick. Howard (New York: Monthly Re-
view Press, 1971).
10. Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Re-volution, vol. 2 (New York* Monthly Re-
view Press, 1978), pp. 66ff. Draper argues that capitalism is a necessary condition
for racism, sexism, and so on. John McMurtry, in The Structure of Marx's World-
View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 87, n. 19, claims that
capitalism is a sufficient condition for racism and sexism,,
11. Marx-Engels Correspondence, p. 222.
12. In corresponding ways, women mid people of color are forced to accept
lower wages than white workers: Because of prevailing prejudices, it is more diffi-
cult for them to get work; they can get work only if they work for less,
13. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism (London: Zed Press, 1983), part 1. The
matter is complicated in that racism changes over history. Contemporary racists
make heavy use of the concept of "race." "Race" as a quasi-biological concept
arose at the same time as capitalism. Hence a modified version of the first inter-
pretation says mat modem racism, which utilizes a quasi-biological concept of
race, is caused by capitalism. But even that is not established. We can show only
that the two—modem racism and capitalism—arise at about the same time.
14. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence, pp. 216, 218,
15. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 301.
16. Marx-Engels: Selected Correspondence, p. 218.
17. See Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds,, Women, Culture
and Society (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974).
The State

CLASS STRUGGLE 15 THE MOTOR of history. Dominant classes

exploit the subject classes and maintain their power, as well as their mode
of production, by means of maintaining their institutions. Exploited
classes in turn challenge the power of the dominant class to exploit them.
Once they succeed, the institutions of the former ruling class lose their
preeminence and are replaced by the very different institutions of a new
ruling class. A new mode of production takes the place of the previous
one. The major upheavals in history are therefore brought about by class
struggle over the power to exploit
Class struggle takes many forms. It often begins in the workplace as a
conflict between workers and employers over wages, hours of work, or
working speed. But when workers begin to organize themselves, employ-
ers often appeal to the law to suppress their efforts to establish trade
unions. The class struggle then moves into the political arena, where it be-
comes a conflict over the legal right to form trade unions. The class strug-
gle moves from the workplace into the domain of the state. Similarly,
many other concerns of workers, such as housing, health, education, and
political rights, are going to be fought out in the political arena. The state
enters into all of these conflicts. Class struggle cannot be fully understood
unless one understands the role of the state in capitalist society.

The Slate as Manager of the Affairs of the Bourgeoisie

By the "state" Marx and Engels mean the bureaucracy, the police, the
courts, the tax office, and so on. It is
the centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, po-
lice, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature ... [and] parliamentary control...
the national power of capital over labor, a public force organized for social
enslavement. (CW, T 629-630)

The State 175

The state here refers to the legislature—"parliamentary control"—and the

familiar organs of the executive and judiciary branch—the courts, the
army, and the police, the range of administrative agencies that collect and
keep track of information about citizens, issue licenses, regulate transac-
tions in the society, and. enforce their regulations. The "clergy" is added to
take into account those countries, such as England or France, in which
there was an established church. Marx and Engels wrote before the ad-
vent of public education. Today we need to add education to the other
functions of the state. That is of some importance because the educational
system is, surely, one of the means of spreading the "ideas of the ruling
class" and thus interfering in the process of forming oppositional ideolo-
gies. We also need to add the many state organs that control the economy;
the national banks, the bodies that set economic policy, and superYise the
ups and downs of the capitalist economy. All of these different functions
and branches of the government have a common task; to keep order, to
coerce people into following the rules prescribed. The state is first and
foremost a coercive institution.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the French state was
"under parliamentary control," but that did not make it the organ of all
the people; rather, it placed the state "under the direct control, of the prop-
ertied classes" (CW, T 630). This particular case exemplifies a more gen-
eral conception of the state that Marx and Engels repeat often, namely
that the state is "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the
whole bourgeoisie" (CM, T 475). This view of the state has dominated
Marxist theory: The state is on the side of the capitalist ruling class. It uses
its coercive power to protect and maintain capitalist institutions. But
Marx and Engels also describe the state as independent of the separate
classes. Some interpreters therefore believe that Marx and Engels have
several incompatible concepts of the state. 1 shall argue that these differ-
ent claims about the independence of the state are perfectly consistent.

The Executive Committee of the Bourgeoisie

Different interpreters give rather different reasons for regarding the state
to be clearly on the side of the capitalists. One common interpretation as-
serts that the government is separate but nevertheless closely identified
with the capitalists. The reason is that the capitalists and the upper eche-
lons of the politicians, the military, and the bureaucrats are closely linked.
They are graduates of the same schools and members of the same clubs;
they live in the same suburbs and intermarry. The ruling class controls the
state insofar as it forms a tightly knit social class. Working people, by con-
trast, are excluded from the government because they are excluded from
that social circuit of suburb, school, and country club. They belong to a
176 The State

different social class. There is a good deal of empirical research to show

that even in our day this connection between government and the top
layer of the capitalists is, in fact, often a very close one.1 Membership in
the ruling class is a matter of personal relations among the members of a
specific group of people. Members of this class always control the upper
layers of the gO¥ernment. This view is often called the "instrumentalist"
version of the Marxist theory of the state.
Marx agreed that the decisionmaking personnel of the government
were all members of the capitalist class. He discusses this connection in his
pamphlet on the Paris Commune of 1870, the first (albeit short-lived)
workers' government in human history. Before the establishment of the
Commune, elections had served the sole purpose of "deciding once in
every three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepre-
sent the people in Parliament" (CW, T 633). The Paris Commune did away
with the existing government and substituted one in which workers,
rather than members of the bourgeoisie, did government work at workers'
wages. In addition, the Commune abolished, not only the privileges of the
bureaucrats but also the bureaucracy as a separate social class. An impor-
tant achievement of the Paris Commune was precisely that it broke the
hold of the ruling class over the government by ending the practice of
staffing the government mostly with members of the ruling class.
But many interpreters point out that the capitalist state is on the side of
the capitalists not only because the members of the bourgeoisie in effect
run the government and thus can use the state in their own behalf, but
also because the very structure of the capitalist state favors the ruling
class.2 Capitalism, is perpetuated in part through the day to day exercises
of state power on behalf of the capitalists; in addition, it continues to exist
because the structure of the state supports the reproduction of the capital-
ist system. The concept of the "structure" of the capitalist state may be ex-
plained as follows:
Capital thrives on the reinvestment of profits, but profits are the prod-
ucts of surplus labor that workers are compelled to perform, without pay.
Exploitation is at the very heart of the maintenance of the capitalist sys-
tem. But suppose the workers want to organize to resist the demands of
employers, or suppose that they threaten to burn down the factory if their
working conditions do not improve. It is dear that the individual em-
ployer needs the backing of all the other employers, in the form of the
state, the police, the army, and. the courts, to resist those threats. Exploita-
tion in the individual workplace is possible only within a complex social
and legal order, which includes a state apparatus that formulates laws
and then enforces that legislation, through the coercive power of the court
system, the police, and the military. The relevant laws protect private
property. But in most capitalist countries they also regulate the relations
between employers and, employees: They determine whether unions are
The State 177

legal. If they are legal, the law determines whether they are legal in all
workplaces. In many places public employees, for instance, may not
unionize. The law determines next what forms conflict between employ-
ers and employees may take, whether they may strike, and, if so, under
what conditions. The state, according to Marx's and EngeJs' materialism
(see Chapter 6), belongs to the superstructure that corresponds to the
prevailing mode of production. The state corresponds to that mode of
production in that the institutions of the capitalist state, for instance, the
legal system and the police, support capitalism by ensuring, as far as pos-
sible, its continued existence. One example of that is the set of institu-
tions—legal and. regulatory-—that deal, with the relations between work-
ers and employers. These institutions that support capitalism are what in
this view are called the structure of the state,
Other state structures, too, uphold capitalism: The worker and the em-
ployer meet in the marketplace and strike a bargain. For that contract
even to be possible, a law of contract is needed; also necessary is a social
order in which people who are socially and economically very unequal
are nevertheless equals before the law. Employers are not entitled to
break contracts or to cheat employees simply because they have greater
status and wealth. Underlying capitalist exploitation is a legal system that
treats all people equally, whatever their other differences may be,3 This
legal system is backed by the coercive power of the state.
Marx gives other examples of the complex legal and political order re-
quired as the background condition for exploitation:
For example, the fact that surplus labor is posited as surplus value of capital
means that the worker does not appropriate the product of his own labor;
. . . This... law of bourgeois property,.,. through the law of inheritance etc.,
attains art existence independent of the accidental transitoriiiess of individ-
ual capitalists. (CI, T 260)
In order for the reproduction of capital to occur, the law needs to guaran-
tee that what the worker produces, including surplus value, belongs to
the employer. But since employers are mortal, the continuity of capital
must also be guaranteed by laws of inheritance. Exploitation, under capi-
talism, presupposes a complex legal order that enforces contracts and the
rights of private property, including the rights of inheritance.
In these and other ways, it appears that the state, by virtue of its per-
sonnel, its legal structures, and such institutions as private property, is on
the side of the employers and thus is the "executive committee of the

The Independent State

But this is dearly a one-sided view. Marx and Engels are aware of that be-
cause they often describe the state as independent. If we look closely, we
178 The State

can distinguish five different senses in which the capitalist state is inde-
1. In ancient society, particularly in the East (in Egypt) but also in Latin
America (Mexico and Peru), production in what Marx called the "Asiatic
mode of production" was dominated by one person who claimed divin-
ity, ownership of all property, and state power. That supreme ruler com-
bined in his person the leadership of the ruling class and the leadership of
the state.4 In capitalist society; by contrast, the ruling class and the state
are distinct. Capitalists do not have political office simply by virtue of
being capitalists.
2. The state is independent from the capitalist class also insofar as the
interests of one are not identical with the interests of the other. The capi-
talist class represents its private interests. The state is supposed to repre-
sent the public interest. There is, for instance, a clear difference between
public and private parks, schools, and art collections. The owners of the
private institutions are, within legal limits, free to use these institutions
according to their own interests. By contrast, public resources are sup-
posed to be run by the government to benefit all; the government is the
guardian of the public good. With the progressive elaboration of the gov-
ernment bureaucracy in France,
every common interest was straight-away severed from society, counterposed
to it as a higher, general interest, snatched from the activities of society's
members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a
bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of a village community to
the railways, the national wealth, and the national university of France,
(18th, T 607)

The state represents the common, general interest of the nation, in opposi-
tion to the private interests of individual entrepreneurs. The publicly
owned institutions are there for the benefit of all. The independence of
the state consists in its being devoted to the "general interest."
3. The government does not always act in the interest of the ruling
class. On the contrary, it often enforces laws that benefit working people
against the interest and objections of the capitalists. Marx was perfectly
well aware of that. He relates, in some detail, the struggles of employers
against factory legislation and their various attempts to sabotage the en-
forcement of those acts once they were passed:
As soon as the working class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the
new system of production, fviz. the factory system], recovered, in some mea-
sure, its senses, its resistance began.... For 30 years, however, the conces-
sions conquered by the workers were purely nominal. Parliament passed
five Labor Laws between 1802 and 1833, but it was shrewd enough not to
vote a penny for their carrying out, for the requisite officials, etc. They re-
The State 179

mained a dead letter..,. The normal working day for modern industry dates
only from the Factory Act of 1833.5

Concessions were difficult for the working class to get, but they did get
them. Employers cannot always have it their way; the government works
for both parties in the class struggle. It does appear to do more than just
the bidding of the capitalists.
4 In general, the extent to which the state will be dominated by the rul-
ing class depends on the relative strength of the contending classes in the
class struggle. Marx notes in The Eighteenth Bmmaire of LOTUS Bonaparte
that during the regime of Napoleon 111 in France, between 1852 and 1871,
the proletariat and the bourgeoisie were equally unable to take power, so
that the state of Napoleon III was fairly independent of all class pressures
and, could use the peasantry as its base,
France, therefore, seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall,
beneath the despotism of an individual..., The struggle seems to be settled
in such a way that all classes, equally impotent and equally mute, fall on
their knees before the rifle butt*

In this passage we encounter a fourth sense in which the state may be in-
dependent—namely, if it is relatively free to operate without bowing to
class pressures because the classes are equally matched and the influence
of each neutralizes that of the other. This often happens in underdevel-
oped countries, especially in the early years after the end of colonialism,
when national industry is weak and so are the classes connected with it.
In that situation the state often takes over the role of developing the econ-
omy, of attracting external capital or transferring capital from the export
sector to the newly developing local industries.7
5. France under Napoleon III illustrates another sense in which, the
state is independent. The state acquires a state bureaucracy; it consists of
different ministries, offices, departments. Often the state also acquires
certain industries: railroads, communications, production of weapons, or
the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, copper, or bauxite. In ad-
dition, the state builds up an army and a police force. All of these institu-
tions have their own institutional interests: primarily to maintain them-
selves in existence, then to maintain or to extend their power, receive
more public resources in order to fulfill their mission, and have their mis-
sion defined (by the executive or the legislature) in the way they see it.
Thus the state, in the form of the state bureaucracy, has its own interests
and goals, which may well differ from those of the different classes in the
society. In that sense, too, the state is independent8
The state is therefore said to be independent if state institutions are dis-
tinct from class institutions and/or if the interests of the state are not au-
WO The State

tomatically identical with class interests and/or if class pressures are

evenly matched so that the state can make policy independent of those
class pressures. The state is also independent insofar as its constituent in-
stitutions have their own specific interests in maintaining or extending or
changing their assigned functions.

The State and Civil Society

The state is sometimes on the side of the ruling class and sometimes inde-
pendent. Many readers of Marx have thought that these two views are in-
consistent. It seems more reasonable, however, to point out that all these
remarks present very partial views and observations about the state. No
general theory of the state is here being presented. It is a mistake to infer
from the particular observations of occasions when the state is on the side
of the ruling class that the state is nothing but the representative of the
capitalists.9 On the other side, it is an error to believe that the state, be-
cause it is sometimes on the side of the workers, is always independent of
the ruling class. The truth is that Marx had planned to write a separate
volume about the state in which he would presumably have developed a
theory of the state. But he never managed to do that. There is no Marxian
theory of the state; there are only a series of different observations, such
as that the state is at times completely on the side of the capitalists but is
at other times independent
In addition, neither view—that the state is on the side of the capitalists
or that it is independent—does full justice to Marx's deepest insights into
the nature of the capitalist state. That insight is roughly that it is not the
personnel, or the structure, but the very nature of the capitalist state that
supports capitalism. Even a state that supports the workers in their
claims against capitalism and that therefore appears to be a threat to the
perpetuation of capitalism still supports the prevailing economic and po-
litical order by virtue of its very nature. In order to understand this con-
cept, we need to compare the capitalist state with earlier states.
Exploitation is possible in a feudal or slave society because the property
owners are also in control of the state and its power of organized violence.
In feudal times, for instance, the large landowners were at the same time
the political leaders, and the king or emperor owed his position, in part, to
the ownership of more land than anyone else. The situation was similar in
earlier times: In the case of the ancient peoples, since several tribes
lived together in one town, the tribal property appears as state property, and
the right of the individual to it as mere "possession." (GI, T 186}
Here land was owned by the community as a whole; individuals merely
"possessed" their land, that is, they could use it to farm but could not sell
The State 181

it or give it away. The political power and the economic power of the
community were embodied jointly in the state. As in the feudal society
political power and ownership of land in the tribal society were one and
the same thing. Under capitalism, however, there develops a sharp dis-
tinction between private and public concerns. Under capitalism property
is privately owned and each owner is supposed to consider only private
interests. Private property becomes "private" not only in the sense that it
belongs to particular individuals but also in the sense that public inter-
vention in the conduct of private economic affairs is minimized. The pub-
lic is denied an interest and a voice in the sphere of private property. The
state becomes quite separate from, the economy because the economy has
become the realm of the purely private. The public aspects of that social
order become distinct in the form of the state:
out of this very contradiction between the interests of the individual and that
of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State. ... Just
because individuals seek only their particular interest, which for them does
not coincide with their communal interest... the latter will be imposed on
them as an interest "alien" to them, and "independent" of them. (GI, T

This is a pretty sketchy suggestion, but it contains a number of ex-

tremely interesting ideas. Under capitalism society has two more or less
distinct parts: the private sphere—which Marx, following Hegel, often
calls "civil society"—and the state. In civil society every person is sup-
posed to be a rational economic agent who does as well for him- or her-
self as possible. In civil society rational and enlightened self-interest is the
primary motivation of human beings.10 But no society can meet all its
needs if every individual looks after only his or her own good. There are
public goods, such as security of property, the existence of a fair and func-
tioning legal system, the possibility of entering contracts without coer-
cion. There are public parks and recreation facilities, roads, museums,
and schools or hospitals that are supposed to belong to all and should
therefore be accessible to all. In a democracy we can add that fair and
clean elections are another public good, as is a military that stays out of
electoral politics. These public functions are fulfilled by the state and pub-
lic services provided by it.
The state makes the existence and functioning of this private sphere
possible, but its role is, in addition, to protect the integrity of the private
sphere. Through its legal system, the state protects private property,
whether of consumption of goods or productive resources. In electoral
democracies the political system is based on the assumption that all other
things being equal, the private economic (and other) transactions of pri-
vate individuals are not fitting subjects for legislation. Any regulation of
182 The State

economic transactions needs to be justified. The burden of proof is always

on those who want to regulate economic affairs. The scope of electoral
politics is limited by the rights to private property. Extending state regu-
lation to the economy must always be justified.
The common good is the task of a specialized agency of the society. Not
all persons are expected to be mindful of or concerned for the common
good at all times. On the contrary, in their daily lives all are private eco-
nomic agents, attempting to do as well as they can for themselves with
the resources available to them. It is not their role to serve the common
good. Hence concern for the common good is "imposed on them as an in-
terest 'alien' to them, and 'independent' of them." They do not support
and further the common good as a matter of course. As a consequence,
the role of the state in maintaining the common good and in providing
public goods is coercive. In order to protect order and property, the state
must use police forces, courts, and prisons. In order to provide for public
goods, the state must collect taxes forcibly, backing its actions with the
threat of fines and more serious punishment for those who do not make
their required contribution to the treasury of the state. The individual
freedom of the private sphere gives rise to the state's monopoly of legiti-
mate violence in the public domain. As private persons, we pursue our
own good. As citizens, we are supposedly trying to support what is good
for all, but since we are at the same time pursuing what is good for our-
selves, we do not freely fill our role as citizens but only under the threat of
coercion. The capitalist state must be a coercive institution.1'1
This theory of the state contains a clear distinction between the power of
the state, as manifested in legislation and in the selective enforcement of
legislation (e.g., the early English factory acts mentioned just above) and
the specific nature of the state. The power of the state is more or less in the
hands of one class, depending on the balance of class forces in a society.
But the nature of the capitalist state—its separation from the private
realm of the economy—will always favor the capitalist class, even when
the power of the state favors the enemies of the capitalist class. It will
favor the capitalist class because the very limitation of the state as a spe-
cialized and coercive institution favors the maintenance of capitalism—
the private pursuit of private profit and the private appropriation of that
profit. The capitalist disposes of capital and its profits, the worker of labor
power. The owner of capital retains all the profits because capital is, after
all, private property. Investment decisions, which are also decisions over
the direction in which a given, society will develop, remain in the sphere
of private property. Workers therefore are and remain exploited because
they remain excluded from the control of capital. As long as that separa-
tion between the private and the public sphere is maintained—by the
very nature of the capitalist state—capitalism and exploitation will con-
The State 183

tinue to exist, even if workers have managed to gain sufficient political

power to limit the actions of the capitalists,
This is only a very rough beginning of a theory of the capitalist state.
Marx and Engels did not work out the mechanisms by which capitalism
shaped that state. But they were aware that the connections between a
mode of production and the state are much more complex than indicated
so far. There clearly is no one-to-one correspondence between a mode of
production and a particular structure of the state. For instance,
the really difficult point to discuss here is how relations of production de-
velop unevenly as legal relations. Thus, e.g., the relation of Roman private
law (this less the case with criminal and public law) to modem production.
(G, T 245)
Roman law developed in a mode of production very different from that of
capitalism, but the revival of the Roman law of property was, as a matter of
historical fact, an essential step in the development of capitalism. Similar
legal systems operate effectively in very different modes of production.12
When we look at the measures taken by the state, we can find evidence
for its being on the side of the employers, but there is also evidence that it
is independent or sometimes even on the side of the workers. Whatever
states do, however, in capitalist societies they are the anchors and limits
of the private sphere without which capitalist exploitation would be im-
possible. Thus the state supports exploitation by its very nature.

Class Struggle in the Democratic State

Here we must raise an objection. In Marx's day working people did not
have the vote. But since that day the control of the state has passed into
the hands of all the voters, and the vote of the owner of property counts
for no more than that of the person who barely makes a living. It would
appear that the suggestions Marx and Engels made about the state had
some applicability 150 years ago but are irrelevant today.
This is an important observation, but it does not contradict the claims
of Marx and Engels, For they distinguished two ways in which the state
supports capitalism, and the capitalist class. Depending on the balance of
power in the class struggle, the exercise of state power will favor one class
or another. By winning the vote (which they accomplished only after long
drawn out struggles), the working people clearly came closer to the con-
trol of state power. As a result, the capitalists cannot pass laws or enforce
them completely as suits their own interests; legislators must now answer
to working-class constituents.
But all of this day-to-day political activity takes place within the limits
and structures of the capitalist system, in which the state is independent
184 The State

in the senses explained earlier. The economy is still under private control;
private profit is still a powerful and legitimate moving force of economic
activity. Exploitation is still the source of the capitalists' profits. The na-
ture of the capitalist state has not changed, nor has the support that this
structure provides for the continuation of the capitalist system. In the cap-
italist state, the economy and with it exploitation are outside the realm of
politics and thus not affected by the extension of suffrage and the devel-
opment of democratic political institutions. Hence the capitalist state, by
its very structure, maintains capitalism. A working class that wants to put
an end to exploitation must therefore put an end to the capitalist state.
Not only must the existing bureaucracy be discharged and the existing
structures dismantled, but the capitalist state, in the broad sense, must be
abolished as well. The entire system of laws and the underlying princi-
ples must be challenged, reexamined, and, where necessary, replaced.
Above all, the distinction between democracy in the political realm and
exclusive control by owners in the economic realm must end.
But is the economy today not in effect under democratic control? After
all, the nineteenth-century notion that economic matters are not to be sub-
jected to state control has long been abandoned. As everyone knows, you
cannot be in business, you cannot enter any commercial transaction, even
one as simple as buying or selling a car, without having to consult rules
made by the government, without paying taxes and getting the required
pieces of paper from the government to complete the transaction. It does
not appear true any more that economic matters are private and un-
touched by government regulations.
This is undoubtedly so. But the principle of privacy and private owner-
ship remains central in this very important way: Property, whether con-
sumption goods or productive resources, is owned by private individuals.
Private ownership implies private control. The people who work in offices
or factories, in schools or on farms have nothing to say about the running
of their workplaces. The only way they can participate in making public
policy in the economic sphere is through the extremely roundabout mech-
anism of electoral democracy. The individual worker has no say about
how the workplace is run except by instructing the elected representative
in Washington (or London or Paris or Quito or New Delhi). But that mech-
anism still leaves the workers without any real say where they work. It
leaves them without any real say in investment of a company's profits and
the direction in which a given business might develop or what the priori-
ties of a society should be in. the use of its social capital. The worker is still
exploited. In spite of all government regulation of economic affairs, the
principle of private property and private control has not been breached
substantially. The abolition of the capitalist state amounts to the extension
of democracy to the economy. Marx customarily refers to this as "a com-
The State 185

munity of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of pro-
duction in common" (CI, T 326). This is the central idea in Marx's concep-
tion of communism, which we discuss in Chapter 16.

For Further Reading

Martin, Carney, Ti« State and Political Theory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1984), chapter 2.

1. G, William Domhoff, Who Rules America? (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-
Hall, 1%7).
2. Martin Carnoy, Tfe State and Political Theory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Uni-
versity Press, 1984), chapter 4.
3. To be sure, the law does not in fact treat all persons equally. There are too
many examples where the law is manipulated in their own favor by persons with
greater resources,
4. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 473ff.
5. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), pp. 278-279.
6. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International
Publishers, 1963), p, 121.
7. See F. H. Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Depetuienda y Desarollo en America Latitta
(Dependence and development in Latin America) (Mexico, D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno,
8. It is often said that the government and its bureaucracy are on the side of the
capitalists because they are the big taxpayers. Bureaucracies need money and
therefore tend to treat the wealthy, the large contributors to the state treasury,
with more care. That supposes, of course, that the wealthy pay most of the taxes.
But in many countries half the taxpayers never pay any taxes at all, and among
those who do not pay the wealthy are represented disproportionately.
9. Even though there are, obviously, passages in Marx and Engels that support
ascribing that view to them.
10. This does not mean that persons in civil society are particularly "selfish" or
unkind. All it means is that each person may choose or not to support public wel-
fare depending on his or her private goals. Support of the common good always is
a means to some private end,
11. See Richard N. Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, vol. 1 (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974), p. 83. But whatever happened to the unseen
hand of Adam Smith? Was it not his belief that if all people pursued their self-in-
terest rationally, the common good would be served better than if they set out to
do what is best for all? I discussed this in Chapter 11 and summarized there some
of the considerations that moved Marx and Engels to be very skeptical, of the ef-
fectiveness of that unseen hand. Experience gives us many reasons for rejecting
the claim that if only everyone is able freely to pursue his or her own self-interest,
the public good, will be best served. Perhaps the most striking piece of evidence is
186 The State

the explosive growth of the coercive state itself in the capitalist twentieth century.
The development of capitalism, of the private sphere of free individual pursuit of
one's own interest, has been made possible and has required an astonishing ex-
tension of state power into all aspects of our lives. These suggestions of Marx and
Engels are extremely controversial in our day. But only blind dogmatism will
refuse to see that these suggestions are challenges to prevailing beliefs that re-
quire careful examination.
12. This difficulty is developed in interesting ways in Goran Therborn, What
Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? (London: New Left Books, 1978), part 2,
chapter 2.
Utopian and
Scientific Socialism

MARX AND ENGELS DID NOT coin the term "socialism." It was
in vogue before they began writing, used by people with political out-
looks quite different from theirs. In the third section of the Communist
Manifesto, they differentiate their view of socialism from a variety of other
contemporary or earlier versions. They admired some of these a great
deal, particularly those of Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier,
and Robert Owen, but were nevertheless critical of these thinkers for
being "Utopian":
the economic situation as they [viz. Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen] find it,
does not, as yet, offer them the material conditions for the emancipation of
the proletariat. They therefore search after a new social science, after new so-
cial laws, that are to create these conditions. Historical action is to yield to
their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipa-
tion to fantastic ones, and the gradual, spontaneous class-organization of the
proletariat to the organization of society specially contrived by these inven-
tors. (CM, T 497-498)

Marx and Engels called these three thinkers and, reformers "Critical-
Utopian Socialists"—"critical" because they attacked "every principle of
existing society" (CM, T 498), "Utopian" for more complex reasons,

Utopian Socialism
In current English usage, proposals are called "Utopian" if they appear
unattainable. Any serious suggestion that people travel to the moon was
Utopian before the invention of rockets because there was no known

188 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

means of propulsion for such a distance beyond the earth's gravitational

field. Similarly, thinking is called Utopian if it proposes unrealistic goals.
If we look at the passage quoted above, we see that Marx and Engels use
the term in a rather different way. They do not criticize the Utopians for
their choice of goals—the destruction of capitalist society-—but on the con-
trary praise them for attacking every principle of existing society, Hence
their writings are full of the most valuable materials to help enlighten the
working class (CM, T 498). The problem concerns the means to transform
society. The Utopians neglect "historical action" and substitute "personal"
action; for "historically created conditions of emancipation," they substi-
tute "fantastic" (i.e., purely imaginary) ones; and they substitute them-
selves, the inventors of these new schemes for a more humane society, for
the "class-organization of the proletariat." In addition, the proposals of the
Utopians are offered as "absolute truth . . . independent of time, space and
the historical development of human beings" (SUS, T 693).
In general terms, Marx and Engels criticize their great socialist prede-
cessors for failing to see that societies are historical creations and that
changes in societies must therefore take account of the history and the
stage of development of the society. Historical change can be successful
only when the requisite conditions prevail.
More specifically, Marx and Engels raise five criticisms;

1. Since capitalism was hardly developed around 1800, when Fourier

and Saint-Simon wrote, and in the 1830s, when Owen worked, the
Utopians did not understand capitalism.
2. As a consequence, they did not understand class struggle.
3. They therefore substituted the actions of a great leader—usually
themselves—for the concerted action of the proletariat.
4. The Utopians did not understand the connection between what peo-
ple think and the material conditions under which they do their
5. The Utopians failed to see that social and political change is possible
only when the conditions are right. They did not know that the de-
sire for social change of many people is necessary? but not sufficient
to make change possible. Before there can be major social and politi-
cal change, the economic and political systems must be ready for

Let us examine these criticisms one by one:

1. The Utopians were critical of the inequality, exploitation, and poverty
characteristic of the bourgeois society that was just taking shape before
their eyes, but because they did not understand capitalism, they could
not understand how these evils were connected with capitalist society.
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 189

The socialism of earlier days certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of
production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore,
could not get mastery of them. It simply could reject them as bad. (SUS, T 700)
The Utopians thus also did not understand that the solution to the socio-
economic problems before them required the abolition of the capitalist
system; they did not see the problems as elements in a highly complex
system that needed to be abolished as a whole.
Here is an important insight for political action; If some conditions re-
quire changing, you need to find out first the causes of those conditions
and then the existing forces that maintain those conditions. If poverty
concerns you, you need to disco¥er why there are poor people, why just
these people are poor, and, most important what aspects of your society
keep them in poverty. If there are poor people because there are not
enough jobs that pay well, you need to find out what prevents the econ-
omy from providing enough jobs. You will discover that there are no
doubt very different causes of poverty for different persons and, that
therefore you must do different things to help the very old or the disabled
from what you must do to help those who cannot find jobs because they
are illiterate. But in the course of all this inquiry you will also find, as we
noted earlier, that capitalism tends to depress wages and that capitalism
consistently has trouble providing jobs for all. At that point you under-
stand that in order to abolish all poverty you need to abolish capitalism.
The Utopians did not understand that
2. Since the Utopians did not understand capitalism, they did not un-
derstand that the evils they were trying to remedy-—exploitation, inequal-
ity, poverty—were the inevitable accompaniments of the rule of the bour-
geoisie. Social systems, like capitalism, include particular distributions of
power. Capitalism, maintains itself because capitalists have most of the
power; that enables them to sustain capitalist institutions, such, as private
property in the means of production or the capitalist state (see Chapter
12). Thus the Utopians further could not know that a revolution was nec-
essary in which one class, the proletariat, would take power from another,
the capitalists. But this change could be brought about only by the prole-
tariat as a class. The Utopians did, not understand that major transforma-
tions of capitalist society can be effected only by large numbers of people.
Hence they [viz. the Utopians] reject Jill political, and especially all revolu-
tionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and en-
deavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the
force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel. (CM, T 498)
The Utopians favored small, experimental communities run by their
charismatic leaders. But these communities were not adequate to the task
of transforming an entire society (as we will see in item 5 below).
190 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

3. The Utopians misunderstood the role of the farsighted individual re-

former. They believed that one such person could be the leader to build a
new world. Instead, such individuals can do no more than to "fight for
the immediate aims of the working class" (CM, T 499), They may try to be
helpful to the working class in the work that it alone can do, but they can-
not hope to do that work for the working class. The Utopians did not un-
derstand who was to be the agent of social change. Marx and Engels in-
sisted, by contrast, that "the emancipation of the working class must be
the work of the working class itself" (T 555).
4. The Utopians thought that our understanding about the world de-
pends exclusively on how well we use our minds.
If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been.
the case only because human beings have not rightly understood them.
What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen
and who understands the truth. (SUS, T 685)

If previous generations had not developed the proposals of Saint-Simon

or Fourier or Owen, that failure must be attributed to their failure to think
as clearly about the world as these three reformers did. But such a view
ignores the insight of materialism, that our understanding of the world
depends to a considerable extent on the world in which we live. It is im-
possible to understand capitalism before it has developed sufficiently to
be observable. It is impossible to understand the historical role of class
struggle before classes are sufficiently developed to become active politi-
cally, and so on. Lack of effort or lack of mental ability are not the only
limits on human knowledge; social conditions and forces cannot be un-
derstood unless they are fully developed. In its very earliest phases, capi-
talism is too undeveloped to be intelligible. Of course one must think
well. Marx and Engels did not underestimate the contribution they them-
selves made by virtue of their own scholarly efforts and exceptional abili-
ties. But they also believed that socialist theory can be adequate only if its
originators not only think well but also think under the requisite condi-
tions—namely, when capitalism is ripe and socialism around the corner,
(See the discussion of class consciousness in Chapter 12.)
5. There have been many proposals for social change that assumed that
if a group of well-intentioned people would only try hard enough, they
could develop alternative institutions. Examples of that are the inten-
tional communities that have been founded in the United States ever
since the early days of the Republic. But such communities, even if they
lasted for extended periods (and very few managed that) remained small
communities. They had little or no effect on the society at large. It was
much more frequently the case that the prevailing capitalist institutions
transformed the intentional communities into standard capitalist institu-
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 191

tions. Some examples are the Amana community In Iowa and many of the
kibbutzim, in Israel,
Capitalism, like all other social systems, has a natural life span. You
cannot abolish it just whenever you decide to do so. It needs to mature
before it is abolished. Capitalism cannot be replaced as soon as people un-
derstand that it is the source of their suffering; rather, it has to run its
course and develop fully before a socialist revolution is possible. The
Utopians had an inadequate understanding of the process of social
change because they did not see that social conditions had their roots in
social systems that can only be removed at specific times, namely, when
they are ready to be removed.
The Utopians ignored history. They failed to see that as history changes,
so do the concrete problems of human beings. They did not study their
immediate environment to see what precisely the problems were, what
social systems and social forces served to maintain these problems. They
also did not understand what measures were needed to solve these prob-
lems or who would be in a position to do so. Hence they misdiagnosed
problems; they did not understand what was possible to do in their time
and what needed to be deferred; and, most important, they did not un-
derstand who was going to bring about all these transformations.

Scientific Socialism
According to Marx and Engels, the proper form of socialism is not
Utopian but scientific, It is unfortunate that they thought the concept of
science did. not present any problems and therefore never made any sus-
tained effort to clarify what they meant by science. In all the plentiful
writings of Marx and Engels, science is rarely mentioned and if so only in
passing. As a consequence, there are very different conceptions of what
they meant by science. Each can be supported by certain comments of
Marx and Engels,
In a few places Marx compares his work in economics to natural sci-
ence and talks about his discovery of the "laws of motion" of economies
and, more generally, of entire societies. In the afterword to the second
German edition of Capital, volume 1, Marx cites with approval the review
written by a Russian author.
The one thing that is of moment to Marx is to find the law of the phenomena
with whose investigation he is concerned,... Consequently Marx troubles
himself about only one thing . . . to establish as impartially as possible the
facts. (CI, T 330)

The conception of science implicit in this passage is simple. Science has

two tasks: It collects facts "as impartially as possible" and on the basis of
192 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

those facts sets down laws. In the preface to the first German edition,
Marx himself formulated this view of his project by drawing an explicit
parallel between his work and physics; he claims to ha¥e discovered laws
or "tendencies that work with iron necessity towards inevitable results"
(Cl, T 296). In these passages Marx presents himself as the Isaac Newton
of social science, as the man who developed laws of social change compa-
rable to the laws of mechanics Newton formulated. Many commentators
take utterances like these as representative of the conception of science
that Marx and Engels held.1
But Marx and Engels also hold another view of science. In the same ex-
cerpt from the afterword to the second. German edition, the reviewer in-
sists that "the old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws
when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry" (CI, T
Ml)—societies are more like biological organisms than inanimate bodies.
Here the analogy between economics and natural science that Marx
seems to draw in the passage quoted earlier is explicitly rejected. The
laws of mechanics apply everywhere and at all times, while laws applica-
ble to social organisms change from one historical period to another. So-
cial science
regards every historically developed form as in fluid movement and there-
fore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary exis-
tence. (CI, T 302)

Social science employs conceptual schemes that apply only under limited
historical conditions. Thus the theories that help us to understand capital-
ist institutions are not applicable to different modes of production. For in-
stance, the economic models that throw light on the commercial transac-
tions under capitalism and on the development (and underdevelopment)
of capitalist countries do not help us understand a feudal society or a so-
ciety that rests on slavery. This social science dedicated to tracing the
changes in social organisms, Marx insists, is none other than the dialectic
(see Chapter 4). However difficult it may be to interpret the details of that
conception of science, it is clear that it is much more complex than the
earlier view that likened Marx's economics to Newtonian physics. Dialec-
tic is needed, Marx suggests, because the same laws and the same con-
cepts do not apply in all historical periods. Before we can even begin to
investigate the facts about any given society, we require a theory that de-
fines and links together the key concepts we need in order to describe
those facts.
Marx and Engels then seem to hold quite different theories of science.
The first derives "laws of iron necessity" from carefully observed, facts.
The second has two distinct parts, one proceeding toward the formula-
tion of theoretical frameworks and the other investigating facts and their
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 193

connections, all the while making use of the theoretical framework devel-
oped at some distance from the particular facts. What is more, there are
different interpretations of this second Marxian conception of science.
Some writers ignore Marx's comments about "dialectic" and his descrip-
tion of his science as "dialectical" and insist that Marx proceeds as do
most scientists today, namely, by formulating models and then testing
those models in relation to observation.2 Others take Marx's comments
about dialectic more seriously and see in the dialectical formulation of
theoretical frameworks a procedure that develops and justifies concepts
independently of factual observations, by the use of philosophical argu-
mentation alone.3 Others stress that the dialectic is not a purely theoreti-
cal method for the development of concepts but rather studies the ways
in which existing structures shape and set limits to existing institutions.4
This is the view of dialectic that I developed in Chapter 4.
These two different conceptions of science have at least one thing in
common: Both claim, to establish "necessary" laws. Marx and Engels
more than once refer to the "iron necessity" of the laws of social science.
Their social science does not just deal in probabilities; it does not merely
discover possible trends, the ways in which a society might develop. Nor
does it merely uncover sets of alternative trajectories that a society or a set
of institutions might follow in their development, without being able to
predict which of those trajectories a society will actually follow.5 The so-
cial science of Marx and Engels formulates laws of necessary develop-
ment. In the passage cited earlier from the afterword to the second Ger-
man edition of Capital, we read that
Marx... [tries) to show the necessity of successive determinate orders of so-
cial conditions.... For this it is quite enough if he proves at the same time,
both the necessity of the present order of things and the necessity of another
order into which the first must inevitably pass over. (CI, T 300)

That science, however one may understand it in detail, allows one to

predict that certain changes will take place once the necessary and suffi-
cient initial conditions have emerged. Now the ability to predict future
events is indeed an important ingredient in scientific knowledge. One
may well agree with Marx and. Engels that knowledge that does not yield
predictions is not scientific or is scientific in a less demanding sense than
knowledge that does allow us to make accurate and testable predictions.
But it is not clear that social science in this strong sense exists; it is certain
that what Marx and Engels developed was not science in that sense.
Marx and Engels and their followers believed that they were in posses-
sion of a significant beginning of such a social science. They believed that
they had discovered the "laws of motion of capitalist society" and had
therewith founded a secure and reliable body of knowledge about the his-
194 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

tory and development of capitalism. Many empirical details, everyone

was ready to admit, needed further study and elaboration, but the laws
themselves were securely established. Hence one could know what was
going to happen inevitably, at least in large outline. One could, for instance,
predict with confidence that socialism would replace capitalism, even
though the precise date of that event was unknown. One could predict
that capitalist industry would become more and more concentrated, that
the working class would grow in number and in political organization,
and that capitalism would finally fail to function effectively and would
then be ripe to be replaced by socialism through the agency of the orga-
nized working class.
We saw earlier, in Chapter 11, that many of the predictions of Marx and
Engels are mistaken. Marx and Engels did not in fact possess the scientific
knowledge to which they laid claim. There is no such thing as "scientific
socialism" because the science on which it supposedly rests either does
not exist at all or is developed much less fully than has long been thought.
Followers of Marx and Engels are not in a position to make firm claims
about the laws governing the development of capitalism.6 In addition,
portions of this supposed science are, we saw, unfinished. There is neither
a complete theory of the state nor a theory of alienation. The theory of ex-
ploitation presupposes economic models most contemporary economists
reject. Those who are still willing to defend the labor theory of value
admit that it is not developed in sufficient mathematical detail. Predic-
tions about the eventual decay of capitalism are radically incomplete;
Marx and Engels do not have clear criteria for deciding when capitalism
is fully developed or when it is going to stop being productive and when
it will be ready for replacement. Hence they radically misjudged the ex-
tent to which capitalism in their own day was already fully developed."
This Marxian conception of science has played an important role in, the
Marxist tradition. It prevailed throughout the social democratic parties
before World War I and in the many communist parties until the recent
collapse of the Soviet Union. The belief was widespread that Marx and
Engels had established a science that allowed left-wing militants to ex-
pect with complete confidence that the socialist revolution was going to
take place sooner or later. Many generations of socialists and communists
dedicated their lives to the political work of the day completely certain
that socialism would arrive inevitably because the Marxian science had
established the necessary replacement of capitalism, by socialism.
This confidence, however admirable, was misplaced. There is no scien-
tific socialism. It is not even clear that the project pursued so widely today
of establishing a social science is possible. But that does not deter many in-
telligent and knowledgeable investigators from pursuing that goal. The
same is true of the goal of establishing a just society. Marx and Engels and
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 195

their followers are not the only ones to have done battle on behalf of such a
society. It is an ancient dream, to build a society where justice prevails over
power, community over enmity. But no one besides the Marxists have be-
lieved that science justified their pursuit and that they could be sure of
success. All those other visionaries, however, were no less dedicated to
their goal and no less willing to make great sacrifices for their cause. With
the realization that there is no scientific socialism, we lose the comforting
certainty that our cause will be victorious. But that has never been a reason
for giving up hope that a more just society is possible, nor has it been a
reason for not making every effort to attain such a just society,

What We Can Learn from the Critique of Utopian!§m

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the mistaken belief that Marx
and Engels had provided their followers with a scientific account of capi-
talism and its inevitable development is that they and the generations of
socialists that followed believed that they did not have to worry too much
what socialism would be like. For if socialism were to follow inevitably,
then people would, at the time, figure out what had to be done.
As soon as it has risen up, a class in which the revolutionary interests of soci-
ety are concentrated finds the content and the material for its revolutionary
activity directly in its situation: foes to be laid low, measures dictated by the
needs of the struggle to be taken; the consequences of its own deeds drive it
on. It makes no theoretical inquiries into its own task (CS, T 588)

When the time for revolution has come, everyone will know what needs
to be done. What is more, raising questions about the nature of socialism
smacked of utopianism; such questions were for that reason also suspect.
When the Bolsheviks, for instance, came to power in Russia, in 1917, they
had only the vaguest idea of the socialism they set out to construct They
were certain that a socialist society would be one where the state owned
all means of production. But for the rest they improvised. They were not
equipped to build an alternative economic and social order; they believed
that they did not need to prepare themselves for that because the changes
were necessary and hence would be obvious to all when the time came. It
is quite clear that they were mistaken about that. When, the time came to
rebuild the economy ravaged by World War I and by the civil war follow-
ing the Bolshevik revolution, the Bolshevik leaders did not have a very
clear idea of what needed to be done.
In addition, the false belief in a Marxian social science obscured the
deeper meaning of the distinction between Utopian and, scientific social-
ism. I discussed this earlier in connection with the ethical views of Marx
and Engels at the end of Chapter 7. Once we distance ourselves from the
196 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

prevailing view that scientific socialism replaces ethical views about the
in.justi.ces of capitalism, we are ready to understand that political action,
at its best, has two sides. On the one hand, political action that works for
an amelioration ol social conditions must be guided by a set of ideals of a
good society-—an oppositional ideology. All great political leaders are
moved and inspired by definite ideals of a good society. Socialism is in
that sense an ideal also. It sets out some of the aspects of a good society.
On the other hand, there are practical questions about how that ideal is
going to be realized.
Marx insisted in his discussion of Utopian socialism that actual, concrete
political actions cannot realize the ethical ideal of socialism immediately
and directly. The ideal of socialism is not a blueprint; it sketches a vague
outline of the world we seek to build. It does not tell us how to go about
building it Actual societies are enormously complex, their different parts
connected in complicated ways to form social systems. Political action
must always be understood in its context of social, economic, and political
institutions. These particular institutions present us with problems and
limited ranges of options for their resolution. Particular actions sometimes
serve to maintain these institutions; at other times they change them. But
at the same time the insti.tuti.onal contexts shape the consequences of these
actions in ways we cannot always predict (see Chapter 4).
These facts about political action have several consequences: Human
political action always proceeds on the basis of incomplete information be-
cause human beings are not omniscient. We do not fully understand the
institutional context in which we operate and how it will affect the out-
comes of our actions. Hence the political actions we undertake are bound
to have consequences that are not foreseen or foreseeable. Sometimes
these unforeseen consequences go in the right direction; often our actions,
no matter how carefully considered, have consequences that are quite un-
desirable. The process of building socialism must be frankly experimental.
In addition, societies and their institutional structures change. Actions
that might be effective and useful at one time will not make sense or have
the desired results at another time. Building a socialist society is a long
process. What we do at any given time depends very much on current
conditions and the problems those conditions present us with, as well as
the options available for resolving those problems. For instance, once we
give up the certainty that socialism will come, we need to ask whether so-
cialism, is even, possible. We can no longer ignore that question. But what
is possible does, of course, vary in different historical periods. Hence the
question, Is socialism possible? will not be answered once and for all but
will transform itself into a very different and more complicated question:
We have formulated a general ideal of a just society. Now we need to de-
cide what steps in that direction are needed and, more important, which
of those are possible today and which will be in order after that Whether
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 197

those more remote measures will actually be appropriate and/ or possible

depends on the outcomes of our present activiti.es. But the question about
the possibility of socialism is transformed into many different questions,
asked at different times, about whether the moves in the direction of so-
cialism are feasible.
Our actions can affect institutions, but we cannot abolish entire social
systems whenever we happen to decide to do so. We can abolish, say, pri-
vate o\vnership of means of production by legislative means or by de-
cree.8 But the institution of private property brings with it a particular
class structure. The class structure of any particular mode of production,
moreover, involves economic, social, and political, class distinctions and
class struggle. Different classes have different ideologies. We can make it
illegal to own means of production, but it is going to be much harder to
eliminate the corresponding class stratifications or change the different
ideologies that go with the institution of private property. The ability to
abolish private ownership of the means of production by decree is neces-
sary but not sufficient. Also necessary is a fully developed working class
that knows that it wants socialism, that has some definite ideas of what
socialism will be like and what needs to be done to bring it about, and
that has the requisite skills to do what it needs to do. There must be a
working class that is ready to take power in its own right and to partici-
pate actively in running its workplaces and the political system.
An uprising can, if it succeeds, take over the state offices. The working
class can occupy the police station and city hall; it can surround and then
take over the television and radio stations and begin to broadcast news of
the uprising. Taking over the power of the state officials that occupy the of-
fices in the police station and in city hall or the power of previous owners
of the TV and radio stations is, however, much more difficult. There is a
great deal, of difference between being in physical possession of govern-
ment offices and being able to govern.
To give a simple example of that, in 1918, at the end of World War I, the
imperial German government that had lost the war collapsed and was re-
placed by "soldiers, sailors, and workers councils" in different cities in
Germany. The workers, many of them still in uniform, took over the gov-
ernment offices. In the port city of Hamburg, Just four days after such, a
council was set up, it received a group of distinguished visitors in city
hall. Led by Max Warburg, director of one of Germany's most powerful
banking and financial empires, these men represented the leading bank-
ing and commercial firms of Hamburg, Their business was unequivocal.
It was clear, they pointed out,

that the government of a city state of over one-and-a-half million souls could
not be conducted without funds.... They generously offered to provide
such necessary funds. Since, however, they were to take such large personal
198 Utopian and Scientific Socialism

risks in the interests of Hamburg, it seemed only fair that they should have a
certain voice in deciding how the funds were to be spent9
The upshot of that negotiation was that the previous ruling elites came
back into the city government and soon were running the city again, gradu-
ally squeezing out the workers. The uprising had succeeded in giving the
workers control of the government offices but not the power to run it.
The various proletarian uprisings that Marx chronicled support the
same conclusion; Taking over city hall physically does not guarantee the
ability to govern the city. Here is what happened in Paris in 1848;
When it came to the actual conflict, however, when the people mounted the
barricades ... the republic appeared to be a matter of course,... Having
been won by the proletariat by force of arms, the proletariat impressed its
stamp on it.... While the Paris proletariat still reveled in the vision of the
wide prospects that had opened before i t . . . the old powers of society had
grouped themselves, assembled, reflected, and found an unexpected support
in the mass of the nation. (18th, T 600)
The revolution began with workers fighting in the streets. Their victory
made them believe that they were in power. While they were deliberating
on how to reshape French society, the previous ruling groups gathered to-
gether again. The outcome was a dear defeat of the proletariat. It did not
win state power.
Marx and Engels repeatedly insisted that the revolutionary class could
not simply take over the existing state but had to transform it. A revolu-
tion requires not only a transfer of state power from one class to another
but a transformation of state power, A new class will have a state of a new
form. Marx was aware of that: "But the working class cannot simply lay
hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose"
(CW, T 629). That means that the existing power cannot simply be taken
over. The masses of people cannot simply take power but have to construct
new kinds of power,10 But new power requires new institutions. New in-
stitutions require new ideologies, new organizations, and, to some extent,
different sorts of people.
This is the central insight embodied in the distinction between Utopian
and scientific socialism. Politics—if it is not only self-interested, get-me-
elected politics—is guided by some general ideals. But the realization of
these ideals requires much, more concrete actions that often do not turn
out as expected because we are not omniscient; they are distorted by the
complex social systems in which we act. Those social systems may be re-
placed, but only when they are ready, that is, when classes that are capa-
ble of replacing them have developed and are sufficiently numerous and
powerful to usher in a new historical era.11 There is an important differ-
ence between the conception of a socialist society and the means that
Utopian and Scientific Socialism 199

need to be employed at different times to move toward this society. We

discuss that difference in more detail in the next chapter.

1. Thus G. A. Cohen ascribes to Marx a "Victorian" conception of science, by
which he presumably means a conception like that of John Stuart Mill that under-
stands science as consisting of laws derived from carefully gathered and verified
facts. See G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1978), p. 329, n, 1.
2. Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York; Monthly Re-
view Press, 1942),
3. See, for example, Tony Smith, The Logic of Marx's Capital: Replies to Hegelian
Criticisms (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990),
4. Daniel. Little, The Scientific Marx (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1986).
5. For a detailed discussion of such alternative conceptions of the task of social
science, see Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Levine, and Elliott Sober, Reconstructing
Marxism (London: Verso, 1992), chapters 4 and 5.
6. This has been argued in considerable detail in ibid,
7. See, for example, Marx-Engels; Selected Correspondence (Moscow; Progress
Publishers, 1975), p, 223.
8. Notice that a selective nationalization of some industries is very different
from abolishing the institution of private property altogether.
9. Richard A. Comfort, Revolutionary Hamburg; Labor Politics in the Early Weimar
Republic (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 47.
10. Coordinacidn Socialista Latinoamericana, Docutnentos Basicos (Basic docu-
ments) (Quito; Coordination Socialista Latinoamericana, 1992), p. 14.
11. For very similar views, see Stephen Bronner, Socialism Unbound (New York:
Rou Hedge, 1990).

THE REVOLUTION THAT PUTS an end to capitalism will usher

in a society that Marx and Engels called "communist," Today, in popular
usage, the word "communism" is identified with the economic and polit-
ical system of the former Soviet Union and is frequently used as a virtual
synonym for "dictatorship," whereas any kind of government interven-
tion in the economy is liable to be called "socialistic," Marx and Engels
used those terms in exactly the opposite sense: By "socialist" and "com-
munist" societies, they meant genuinely free societies.
In his 1888 preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels
explained the terms "communism" and "socialism" as follows:
By Socialists, in 1847 [the year in which Marx and Engels wrote the Commu-
nist Manifesto] were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the vari-
ous Utopian systems,... on the other hand, the most multifarious social
quacks, who, by all manners of tinkering, professed to redress, without any
danger to capital and profits, all sorts of social grievances,.., Whatever por-
tion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere
political revolutions,., then called itself Communist1

Socialists were concerned with the "social" question—the stark misery of

the new industrial working class—but they were not critical of capitalism
as a whole. They tended to be middle-class reformers. Communism
found its main adherents among working people. Communists agreed
with one another that private property needed to be abolished, but be-
cause of their rather diverse conceptions of private property, they had dif-
ferent conceptions of communism. Hence Marx, in his essay "Private
Property and Communism" (EPM, T 81 ff.), classified different versions of
communism according to the different understandings its advocates had
of private property,

Socialism 201

Both within and outside the Marxist tradition, the meanings of these
two words have changed frequently since then. Marx and Engels them-
selves vacillated in their usage, calling themselves communists at some
times and (as we saw in Chapter 15) "scientific" socialists at other times,
in order to differentiate themselves from the Utopian socialists (SUS, T
683ff,). Given the current disrepute of the word "communism," I use the
term "socialism" to refer to the better society that Marx and Engels were
working for.
While Marx and Engels never laid out a systematic account of a social-
ist society, they made many observations in passing that one can put to-
gether to get a picture of their good society. But in so doing one must be
clearly aware of the distinction drawn in the preceding chapter between
the ethical and political goals and the concrete means for their implemen-
tation. Most writers—including Marx himself when he was a young
man—lose sight of this important distinction; their discussions of social-
ism resemble just the sort of blueprint of the perfect society that Marx and
Engels condemned in their criticisms of Utopian socialism.

The Socialist Goals

The socialist goals are sometimes summarized as community and equal-
ity, "The socialist aspiration was to extend community to the whole of our
economic life."2 Equality was an essential ingredient of community Other
writers mention as goals the end of domination,3 the abolition of exploita-
tion, or the abolition of alienation.4 Jon Elster introduces a different theme
in the list of socialist goals: "Self-realization through creative work is the
essence of Marx's communism."5 Others regard as "the basic dynamic of
a socialist economy its tendency to develop its forces of production not in
order to produce surplus value, but in order to reduce the amount of nec-
essary social labor performed by its members."6
The goal of socialism is to increase the leisure of all persons so that they
can enjoy their efforts at "self-realization through creative work." Free-
dom, finally, is often posed as the central value in socialism: A socialist so-
ciety provides freedoms unknown in a capitalist society.7
This list of socialist goals may seem chaotic, but it is not difficult to
show that these different goals—the end of exploitation, economic and
political domination, and alienation; the full development of each human
being; community; equality; and freedom—are all closely connected and
are all aspects of one and the same composite ideal.
The exploitation of workers is the central evil of capitalism. Workers
are exploited under capitalism because all the returns to capital are ap-
propriated by the capitalists, even though there are no plausible justifica-
tions for excluding workers from the ownership and control of capital.
202 Socialism.

This exclusive ownership of capital by the capitalists gives them inordi-

nate power over workers insofar as the employers control the jobs and
can thus make stringent conditions for allowing people to work. One of
the conditions for working is that workers accept their exclusion from the
control of capital. Another condition for working is that the employer has
exclusive control over the work process; work is rarely run cooperatively.
The private ownership of capital allows the capitalists to perpetuate their
po\ver and with it the exploitation of labor.
The central socialist goal is the abolition of exploitation, of the employ-
ers' control over the work process, and the disproportionate economic
and political power that employers possess by virtue of their private
ownership and control of the capital of the entire society. This goal has di-
rect implications for the structure of the society and for politics. A capital-
ist society is divided into separate classes, as were all preceding societies.
In a socialist society, classes disappear, as does exploitation. Power is be
shared by all, and no one lives in comfort, or even in luxury, at the ex-
pense of the hard work and the poverty of others. This does not mean
that there are not differences among groups of people, that there are not
disagreements or differences of interest or ways of life or even different
access to resources. The absence of classes means just what it says: the ab-
sence of exploitation, the absence of an unjustified shift of resources from
one group to another made possible by an unjustified inequality in the
distribution of economic and political power.
The unequal distribution of economic power brings with it unequal po-
litical power (see Chapter 14). The end of exploitation, conversely, creates
the preconditions for a new and more extensive democracy. Socialist
democracy is very different from capitalist democracy. Once power over
work and investments is generally shared, democratic procedures must
be extended to the economy, which becom.es subject to popular control
through democratic procedures.
But socialist democracy is very different from capitalist democracy in
other ways. Capitalist democracy, we saw, allows the capitalists a great
deal of power, whereas others in the society can do no more than vote. In
addition, in a capitalist society politics becomes a business. Running elec-
toral, campaigns is a business. Lawmaking involves a great deal of bar-
gaining, as legislatures are large markets where different projects are ex-
changed, one for the other. Legislators are entrepreneurs who try to
benefit themselves by trading their influence for goods they desire. Vot-
ing, finally, is largely an economic activity; Voters elect those who
promise to put money into the voters' pockets. With the abolition of pri-
vate ownership of capital, political power is more equal. With the aboli-
tion of capitalism, democratic procedures cease to be an occasion to make
money. Democratic deliberation and decisionmaking take the place of
Socialism 203

"selling" ideas and policies or making bargains to benefit the few at the
expense of the many. Democracy becomes what it was intended to be: the
process in which groups reflect on and decide the important issues in
their collective lives. One precondition for such a democracy is, of course,
civil and political liberties for all.
Thus three central socialist goals are ending the domination of capital-
ists over workers in the workplace, in the labor market, and in the politi-
cal realm. All three forms of domination flow directly from the private
ownership of the means of production that gives employers much more
power than the workers within the workplace, in the labor market, and in
the political arena. We can clarify the concepts of socialist democracy and
socialist freedom by considering another socialist goal: the abolition of
Alienation has different meanings for Marx and. Engels, as we saw in
Chapter 10. Of central importance is the idea that under capitalism we
may have personal freedom—a range of choices to consume or to arrange
our lives as we, individually, please.8 But we do not have collective free-
dom to arrange our society together in order to provide the conditions for
the development of ourselves and future generations in directions of our
own choosing. Marx and Engels insist again and again that the prevailing
character structures of human beings are shaped by the dominant institu-
tions (see Chapters 1-4). As a consequence, human beings can create their
own nature, to some extent by changing their institutions in ways that
will make it easier to be the sorts of persons they choose to be. Groups
have collective freedom when they are able to shape their institutions
with an eye to making themselves and their children the kind of people
they want to be.
Such questions are not unknown in our society. Witness, for instance,
the extended debate about changes in the structure of the family and the
evils that supposedly follow from these changes, (Marx himself refers to
the "disgusting dissolution, under capitalism, of the old family ties"; CI, T
415.) This debate centers on what we want ourselves and our children to
be and what sorts of institutions will be needed to make us into what we
desire. The defenders of the traditional family believe that it fosters virtues
of honesty, moderate consumption, hard work. Children who come from
broken families, by contrast, are thought to lack self-discipline, integrity,
and the desire to work. The debate over the family shares with Marx and
Engels the belief that there are only limited features that belong to all
human beings across different historical periods and that we change in im-
portant ways depending on the dominant institutions of our society.9
But while many people ask these sorts of questions, they cannot answer
them adequately unless they are willing to be critical of capitalism. (Most
defenders of the traditional family are unwilling to do that.) Capitalism
204 Socialism.

directly affects the structure of the family and destroys the traditional
family through a number of mechanisms, such as greater social and geo-
graphical mobility and a rising standard of living that allows nuclear
families to live separately from their extended families. Capitalism pro-
motes urbanization and for a variety of complex reasons induces both
parents in nuclear families to go off to work, often leaving children with-
out proper care. But even if these questions were raised more often than
they are, collective control over our institutions is impossible in this soci-
ety. We cannot change our institutions in order to change human nature
for the better. Capitalists, who are committed to preserving our society in
its present shape, have all the economic and most of the political power.
Hence we cannot consider the central problems of how we will shape our
institutions with an eye to the development of the human personality be-
cause we have no way of affecting the relevant decisions. We suffer from
what Marx and Engels call "alienation."
Freedom—the opposite of alienation—means that we can see ourselves
in a world of our own making (EPM, T 76), This is not a world each of us
makes individually for ourselves, apart front others, but a world that we
make together by thinking about the best use of our collective resources
to make the world a better one and us into better people. We are alienated
under capitalism because this freedom is not available to us. We could
have this freedom only if we could decide collectively how the society's
resources are to be used to the best effect.
Connected with that goal of full collective freedom is another goal that
I mentioned earlier (Chapters 1 and 10), the goal of having far-reaching
control, over our social institutions. Marx and. Engels speak more than
once of the life of a society as "production of freely associated human be-
ings ... consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan"
(CI, T 327). Once capitalism has been replaced by socialism, groups will
be able to shape their social relations and their institutions according to "a
settled plan." They will no longer be at the mercy of impersonal, un-
planned economic processes as we are under capitalism, because of the
fumbling of the "unseen hand." But what precisely Marx and Engels
mean here is not altogether clear. Some commentators think that in a so-
cialist society "technology has developed to a plane where practically
everything is possible."10 But in the light of what we saw earlier (for in-
stance, in Chapter 4), such a view is excessively optimistic. Human beings
will never be omniscient; the world will always be more complex than
our understanding of it, and our actions will always have unexpected
consequences. What will be different, however, is that the shape of social
institutions and their effects on the character of members of the society
will be matters of deep concern and explicit reflection and planning. It
will not be left to the vagaries of the capitalist marketplace.
Socialism 205

Marx and Engels had a general notion of what sorts of persons we

should strive to be. Marx talks frequently about the "full development" of
persons. Human beings should be as competent as possible in as many
different ways as they can. (But presumably they should not be compe-
tent liars, thieves, and murderers.) One of his complaints about capitalist
society with its division of labor is that people become excessively spe-
For as soon as the division of labor conies into being each man has an exclu-
sive, particular sphere of activity which is forced upon him and from which
he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a social critic,
and must remain so if he does not want to lose his livelihood; while in com-
munist society, where no one has one exclusive sphere of activity but each
can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the
general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today,
and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cat-
tle in the everting, criticize after dinner. (GI, T 160)

Especially in his early work, Marx seems to have thought that all peo-
ple should, as far as possible, be creative and should do a minimum of
productive work in order to be free to paint or write or play music. "For
Marx, then, Man the Producer is Man the Artist."11 But that is too narrow
an understanding of the ideal of full self-development for all. Human be-
ings have many different capacities. Some can paint or write music. Oth-
ers tell good stories or invent good games for children. Some can make
any plant grow, and others are attuned to animals. But there are also very
ordinary capacities that, in most of us, remain undeveloped. Most people
are not very observant. Their eyes miss much of what there is to see
around them. Blind people often hear much better than sighted ones be-
cause their ears are better trained. We live in a society devoted to the pro-
duction and consumption of commodities. What matters about the com-
modities is primarily their monetary value. We see, hear, smell, or touch
only what has some bearing on economic value. Out senses have become
For the starving man, it is not the human form of food, that exists.... It could
just as well be there in its crudest form.... The dealer in minerals sees only
the mercantile value not the beauty. (EPM, T 89}

Socialism restores our capacity for a much wider range of perceptual rela-
tionships to other persons as well as to things. It "produces man in the entire
richness of his being... profoundly endowed with all the senses" (EPM, T 89)
The goal, moreover, is not Just for each of us separately to develop our
capacities to hear, to see, to enjoy. Instead, the goal is a society "in which
the free development of each is the condition for the free development of
206 Socialism.

all" (CM, T 491). The development of each presupposes and is presup-

posed by the development of all others. This is in sharp contrast to the
capitalist society that assigns resources by means of competition. In a com-
petition there are one winner and many losers. The well-being of one per-
son comes at the expense of many others. The success of one is not depen-
dent on the success of the other competitors but, on the contrary on their
failure,12 Under capitalism, the wealth is distributed very unevenly; the
owners of capital can provide good educations for themselves and their
children that are not accessible to many others. They can be art connois-
seurs and collectors and develop themselves in countless other ways. But
that ability is gained at the expense of many other people. They can be
highly developed because others do not have access to the same resources.
In a capitalist society, the well-being of one depends on the failure of
another. In a socialist society, competition is not destructive; it does not
reward some at the expense of others. There is to be no exploitation, and
hence no (economic) classes. In such a society, people develop by learning
from, others. They are induced to acquire new skills or to develop the ones
they have because people are interested in their skills. In the United States
today, very few people read poetry and even fewer read with any kind of
understanding. It is not a society that encourages poets. A socialist society
will allow all people to develop fully only if others share their goals and
thus one another's accomplishments. In a socialist society, people spur
each other on to greater effort not through competition but because they
take an informed interest in the activities of others.
Marx and Engels frequently also refer to the abolition of the distinction
between "manual" and "mental" labor. In a society where all are able to
develop as fully as possible, there will not be a distinct class of intellectu-
als or of people manipulating information while the rest do manual labor.
That is a central form, of specialization in a capitalist society that socialism
expects to remedy (GI, T 159). In all these ways, socialist society aims at
constituting itself a genuine community by overcoming exploitation and
destructive competition, by substituting a richer kind of democracy for
the capitalist democracy that allows the vote to all but genuine power
only to the few. In a real community, the well-being of each depends on
the well-being of all the others, and thus the ancient conflict between self-
interest and interest of others tends to diminish.
But are these goals attainable? For many years, Marxists did not raise
this question because they took socialism to be inevitable, and what is in-
evitable is certainly possible. In recent years, questions about what sort of
socialism is possible have begun to be raised, marking progress in think-
ing about socialism,. But at the same time, the distinction between social-
ist goals and the means to attain them has not always been drawn clearly
enough: Goals are much too vague to be shown to be either feasible or
Socialism 207

not It is not at all clear, in detail, what a socialist democracy will be like.
Will elections play the central role they play now? What mechanisms for
sharing power among all the people will be developed? The notion of
community is hazy. Socialist goals are not specific. But that problem is not
peculiar to socialism but is common among all general goals, such as the
Christian goal of a society permeated by brotherly and sisterly love, a
world of peace where the lion will lie down by the lamb, or the goal of a
just society'—the goal of philosophers since the days of Plato. We do not
know whether those goals can be reached—they are much too general for
us to decide that—but they are good guides for our attempts to amelio-
rate conditions as they are.13
Such general goals, because they are extremely vague, cannot be insti-
tuted immediately. That Insight was one of the important contributions of
Marx and Engels in their polemic against Utopian socialism. Actual
changes in economic or political institutions are very specific. Socialist
goals are anything but specific. The actual institutional changes thus must
be distinct from, the goals that those changes aim at You cannot institute
community directly because you do not know what precisely you mean
by that. What is more, for us to live in that very different society, human
beings must change. But such changes are not for us to make at any mo-
ment by merely choosing to be different or by a sudden, conversion to a
new political belief or religious faith. The changes in our characters are
slow, depending on changing institutions and our adaptation to those
new institutions. The practical question about how we should change our
institutions and ourselves is quite distinct from the question about what
socialist goals are.

Socialist Institutions
What sorts of institutions will allow us to reach these goals? In the tradi-
tion that begins with Marx and Engels, one thinks of socialism as "the so-
cialization of the means of production" or "the taking over of all produc-
tive forces by the society itself" (SUS, T 711 n.)- Here private ownership of
the means of production is abolished and with it the relatively unplanned
nature of the capitalist marketplace, characterized "by absence of plan, by
accident, by anarchy" (SUS, T 706). Central to communism, as Marx and
Engels understood it, is therefore the replacement of the individual pur-
suit of profit and the anarchy of the marketplace with collective control of
the economy. Democracy is extended to the economy. What disappears is the
distinction, so sharp under capitalism, between the political realm, where
decisions are made democratically (at least in theory), and the economy,
where decisions are made autocratically by private individuals or are not
made by anybody because they are left to the market.
208 Socialism.

In place of the self-regulating capitalist marketplace socialism puts the

public ownership of the means of production and an economy that is
planned. Marx and Engels are quite explicit about that: The "anarchy" of
the capitalist marketplace must be replaced by a centrally planned econ-
The social anarchy of production gives place to a social regulation of produc-
tion upon a definite plan, according to the needs of the community and of
each individual (SUS, T 712)

The unplanned coordination of the capitalist marketplace is replaced by a

central economic plan, arrived at by democratic processes. Any economy
must assign resources to different aetiYities. In a capitalist society, such an
assignment is the result of market forces that express the capitalists' ex-
pectation of profitability. In a socialist society, resources would be as-
in accordance with a definite social, plan that maintains the proper propor-
tions between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants
of the community. (CI, T 326)

This belief in a planned economy was Marxist orthodoxy until about the
early 1970s. It is still being defended by a number of able theorists.14 But
the experience with centrally planned economies, particularly in the So-
viet Union, as well as theoretical arguments against the technical possibil-
ity of running an efficient planned economy,15 have persuaded many theo-
rists that the market must play some sort of role in a socialist society. Thus
arose a project called "market socialism.": to design an economy that is
not capitalist but still avails itself of the informational advantages of the
There are different conceptions of what a market socialist economy
might be like. All have a market in commodities, both consumption
goods and goods needed for the production of other goods. Not all have a
market in labor because some theorists fear that with a labor market will
also come exploitation and hence traditional capitalist class divisions.
Nor do all market socialist schemes have a market in capital because that,
too, would encourage traditional capitalist modes of operation. But some
market socialist schemes do make provisions for both labor and capital
There exist plausible theoretical arguments that market socialism, is fea-
sible in the sense that it will not be less efficient and productive than cur-
rent versions of capitalism.16 It is, in addition, very likely these versions of
market socialism will give more power over the economy and thus over
the development of the society to all people and will thereby diminish the
difference in power and resources between different classes of the popu-
Socialism 209

lation. Market socialism stands a fair chance to extend and strengthen

democracy. But the debate between the advocates of market socialism
and democratic planning is not yet complete. We need to answer at least
two outstanding questions before we can choose the economic structure
of socialism,
In the first place, we need to understand more fully the causes of the
failure of the Soviet economy. Advocates of market socialism tend to
point to theoretical economic problems of incentives, efficiency, and con-
trol in planned economies. Defenders of planned economies point to the
impressive successes of planned economies in wartime Germany and the
United States in the two world wars. Perhaps the failure of the Soviet
economy was due to conditions peculiar to Russia in 1917. Perhaps the
technical economic problems can be solved. Advocates of a planned econ-
omy, for instance, always insist that planning must be thoroughly demo-
cratic. Planning in the Soviet Union (and China) was always bureaucratic
and authoritarian. Whether these defenses of a democratically planned
autonomy are adequate will not be clear until we have had more discus-
sion of the alternative schemes and developed a more elaborate explana-
tion of the failure of the Soviet economy.
The second problem about market socialism, which will require much
more debate, is whether market socialism is not altogether too close to ex-
isting capitalist institutions to support the sorts of changes in institutions
and people's character that are part of the socialist goal. In a socialist soci-
ety, there is far-going equality of access to resources, power is genuinely
shared among all people, and decisions are made in the best interest of all.
That socialist ideal looks to significant changes in the common character of
its citizens: They are more interested in developing their different abilities
and those of others than they are in consumption; more interested in com-
munity than in winning competitions; more interested in a well-arranged
society than their private interests or the advancement of their families.
Gender, racial, and other differences are sources for enrichment of the
community, not for hatred and oppression. Participation in political
processes is a way for citizens in a socialist society to be fully human to-
gether. It is not a means for appropriating public resources for private
ends or shifting burdens from one group on to the back of other groups.
Marx and Engels were aware of the need for changing human beings to
ready them for the very different life offered by a socialist society. That is
a clear consequence of the long discussion in the early chapters of this
book (Chapters 1-3) of the ways in which human character changes in re-
sponse to changing institutions. In addition, the theory of alienation ex-
plains that capitalist institutions produce values and outlooks that sup-
port existing institutions, potentially making us unable and unwilling to
brave the challenges of building freer institutions (as I discussed in Chap-
210 Socialism.

ter 10). Capitalism may "well sap the love of freedom that the struggle for
socialism, requires. How, then, will change take place? Tf we, as the per-
sons we are today, institute market socialism, will it change us or subse-
quent generations? Will we, as we are today, be able to build and main-
tain these very different economic and. political institutions? Or must we
fear that unless we change first, we will not be able to be good citizens of
a market socialist society? These are questions to which there are, at pres-
ent, no answers. Marx and Engeis are aware of the problem, but their an-
swer is patently inadequate.
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness,
and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men. on a mass scale is
necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a
revolution', this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling
class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class over-
throwing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of
the ages and become fitted to found a new society. (GI, 193}

Their answer to our questions seems to be that people will change while
they change their institutions. But that is too vague to reassure us that
when the opportunity for socialism comes around, we will be ready to take
advantage of that opportunity and to build new and better institutions.
What is more, the account of dialectic in Chapter 4 made it very clear
that the process of historical change is enormously complex. People find
themselves in a situation where their problems and the options they have
for solving them are shaped by the ruling institutions. In these concrete
situations, people will try out the solution that appears best. These re-
sponses to prevailing problems bear the stamp of the dominant institu-
tions but also serve to change those institutions. But these changes are
often unintended and frequently not foreseeable. No doubt the attempts
to move in the direction of market socialist institutions will have all kinds
of unforeseen consequences both with respect to the actual economic and
political institutions and with respect to the ways in which these institu-
tional changes will be reflected in changes in human beings and their
character. The obvious conclusion is that we need to approach the trans-
formation of economic and political, institutions, and the transformation
of human character that goes with those changed institutions, in an ex-
perimental spirit. Marx and Engeis were rightly critical of the Utopian so-
cialists because they lacked that experimental spirit They laid down their
plan once and for all and expected to follow it. They were not prepared
for the complexity of actual change and the degree of caution and flexibil-
ity demanded by attempts to improve our societies. It is clear that the
process of human and institutional transformation will be full of sur-
prises and disappointments, as well as unexpected triumphs. It is equally
sure that it will take a long time.
Socialism 211

Ideologies and their formations further complicate and delay the

process of change (see Chapter 7). Not only do ruling institutions shape
the character of the people whose lives these institutions structure, but
they color how those people think about their lives and their society. Peo-
ple whose lives are completely dominated by capitalism tend, to share the
ideas of the classes that rule and profit from capitalism, (An example is
the discussion about the family that appeared earlier in this chapter,
Many people are aware of the problems of the family. Few are prepared to
look at the ways in which capitalism contributes to these problems.) Only
with the growth of a pervasive oppositional movement will alternative
ideologies arise. But such oppositional movements also disappear again
for a time. Accordingly, we cannot take for granted the understanding of
current problems and the willingness to envisage and work for radical so-
cial change. These will, wax and wane with, the growth, and decline of op-
positional classes organized as political classes,
Will market socialism produce these changes in human character and
thereby move us closer to the ideal of socialism,? We must say frankly that
we do not know the answer to this question. Today, close to the end of the
twentieth century, we do not know whether a democratically planned
economy is possible if attempted under conditions different from those
that prevailed in Eastern Europe and China when they set up their cen-
trally planned economies. We also do not know whether market socialism
will be a useful step on the road to the goal of socialism, or whether it will
block the changes in human nature that socialism requires. Doubts about
the market socialist project are still justified.
In the light of the Marxian understanding of the immense complexities
of social change, it seems quite clear that the realization of socialist goals
involves a long and unpredictable process. But the political program that
Marx and Engels developed in order to move toward socialism, as they
described it, displays none of that complexity; it was relatively simple,
and they expected it to be completed long before now. We can see that
this political program, was quite inadequate according to Marx, and En-
gels' own thinking on how historical change takes place.
In his 1895 introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France, Engels wrote:
All revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of
one definite class rule by another, (T 560)
Indeed, a revolution occurs when the power over the society passes from
one class to another: "The first step in the revolution by the working class
is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class" (CM, T 490). As
long as the members of a new government belong to the same class as the
members of the previous one, a coup d'etat has occurred, not a revolution.
212 Socialism.

How does this transfer of power take place? Marx and Engels give vari-
ous answers to that question, but often they describe this transfer of power
as a "revolution," meaning by that word an "uprising" or a "victorious in-
surrection" (T 559), Note the two different senses in which the word "revo-
lution" is used here. In the first instance, a revolution is the transfer of
power from one class to another; in the second the word refers to a partic-
ular political tactic, namely, "uprisings" or "insurrections," It is interesting
to notice that Marx and Engels switch from one meaning to the other
within the same page. Thus in The Eighteenth Bntmaire, Marx writes: "The
social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the
past" (18th, T 597), Here Marx refers to the corning proletarian revolution
in which the proletariat will take power from the capitalists. The next
paragraph begins with the words "the February Revolution," Here the ref-
erence is to an uprising in Paris that brought an end to the reign of Louis
Philippe in 1848 but did not, in the end, transfer power to a new class.
Marx and Engels use the word "revolution" in these two senses be-
cause they believed that the proletariat would, take power by means of an
uprising in which it would take state power. The proletarian revolution in
the first sense, the transfer of power from capitalists to proletarians,
would have to employ the tactic of revolution in the second sense—an
uprising—that would take political power away from the capitalists.
They believed this because they thought the proletariat could not use the
same means to come to power as those did the early capitalists,
All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their al-
ready acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of ap-
propriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive
forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropri-
ation, and thereby also every previous mode of appropriation. They have
nothing of their own to secure and to fortify, (CM, T 482)

The rising bourgeoisie built its own alternative institutions in the inter-
stices of feudalism. First it built its new economic institutions and thereby
transformed significant sectors of the economy from feudal to capitalist
ones; only then, after it had acquired substantial economic power, did it
also take political power and. become the ruling class of modern society. It
is true that Marx and Engels interpreted the English Civil War in the mid-
dle of the seventeenth century as a bourgeois revolution. But that was, at
best, just one episode in a long process that reached its conclusion only
when the bourgeoisie took full political power over English society in the
middle of the nineteenth century.
But the proletariat does not own anything, and thus it cannot develop a
new mode of production and a new way of running the economy while
the old way—the way of the capitalists—is still in force. Some attempts at
Socialism 213

doing just that (that is, developing cooperative enterprises) were instruc-
tive, Marx thought, but
the experience of the period from 1848 to 1864 has proved beyond doubt that,
however excellent in principle, and however useful in practice, cooperative
labor, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private work-
men, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of mo-
nopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their
miseries,... To save the industrious masses, cooperative labor ought to be
developed to national dimensions. Yet the lords of land and the lords of capi-
tal will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation
of economical monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay
every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor, (T 518)

The proletariat cannot build socialist or protosocialist institutions in a

capitalist society and gradually overwhelm that society with its more ef-
fective proletarian institutions, because the capitalists have the economic
and political power to stop these alternative institutions from becoming
any kind of significant threat to capitalist enterprise. The proletarian ma-
jority needs to gain political power to protect its movement. The prole-
tariat must take political power first and then use state power to abolish
private property in the means of production by nationalizing all property
in land, abolishing the right of inheritance, and instituting a steeply grad-
uated income tax (CM, T 490).
The conception of revolution, the revolutionary uprising, seemed to
presage violence. But was violence inevitably an ingredient of revolution?
During the earlier years of Marx and Engels, working men often did not
have the vote (working women did not gain the vote until much later),
and where they did, elections were clearly fraudulent (T 566). In such sit-
uations a class that owned nothing and therefore had neither economic
leverage nor access to political power through the vote was reduced to
street fighting in order to make its voice heard. Thus violence seemed an
inevitable component of revolution.
But later in their careers, Marx and Engels envisaged that with the pro-
gressive concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands, the
small number of owners would realize that a civil war would be futile
and extremely costly. They would therefore surrender power without a
shot being fired.17 In this case the transition might well be peaceful espe-
cially if it was voted on by an enfranchised proletariat.
You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries
must be taken into consideration and we do not deny that there are coun-
tries—such as [the United States),.., England, and if I were more familiar
with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland—where the work-
ers can attain their goals by peaceful means. (T 523)m
214 Socialism.

In countries with electoral institutions with universal male suffrage, as in

the United States and Great Britain of his day, Marx thought the transition
to socialism would take place via the ballot box. The transition would be
entirely peaceful if the defeated capitalists adhered to the rules of demo-
cratic decisionmaking.
Marx and Engels had very specific ideas about the transition to social-
ism. The first government after the revolution was to be a "dictatorship of
the proletariat." This phrase has occasioned an extended debate that is
largely misdirected. Marx and Engels called bourgeois democracy a "dic-
tatorship of the bourgeoisie" because even where universal suffrage ex-
isted, the capitalists had a great deal more economic and. political power
than the workers. A dictatorship exists—as they use the term "dictator-
ship"—where one class of people can have things their way much of the
time. As we have seen, there are dictatorships in that sense even in demo-
cratic countries. Calling a newly established socialist government a dicta-
torship of the proletariat thus indicated that it would, in its early stages,
be no more democratic than a capitalist democracy. Such a new socialist
government would equalize political power only after a while and then
become much more democratic than a capitalist democracy could ever be.
From, their observation of the short-lived worker's government in Paris
in 1870 (the "Commune"), Marx and Engels derived some other ideas
about the socialist democracy to come: Representatives in the Commune
were elected with very specific instructions that they could not ignore;
they were subject to immediate recall if their constituents were not satis-
fied with their performance. The Commune
filled all posts—administrative, judicial and educational—by election on the
basis of universal suffrage of al concerned, subject to the right of recall at
any time by the same electors. And in the second place, all officials, high or
low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. (CW, T 628)

In addition, the Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary

body: an executive and legislative branch at the same time (CW, T 632).
All officials were elected and subject to recall. AH policymakers were to be
responsible for executing the policies they themselves made. That meant,
in practice, that bureaucrats were also subject to elections and thus re-
sponsible to their constituents. According to Marx, the Commune failed
because it did not extend democracy to economic institutions. He saw in
it "the political form in which to work out the economic emancipation of
labor" (CW, T 635).
There are severe difficulties with this conception of the working class
"taking power": I discussed in the preceding chapter the limited effects of
concrete political action. It is easy to take over buildings. It is much
harder to take over the power of the persons and institutions that occupy
Socialism 215

those buildings. What is more, a genuine revolution, when power passes

to a new class cannot take over power but must construct new forms of
power. We saw in the first section of this chapter that this process of con-
structing new institutions and new forms of power is much more com-
plex and less predictable than Marx's and Engels' scenarios for proletar-
ian revolution.19
Marx and Engels developed their concrete political program 150 years
ago, under different conditions with much less information about the
workings of planned and market economies, popular electoral democ-
racy, and so on. Although many socialists, communists, and other leftists
took that Marxian political program very seriously for many years, one
must now see it for what it is; a political program for socialists in the last
century. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels laid out immediate
measures such as progressive income tax, the establishment of a central
state bank, and universal education. Significant portions of that program
have long been adopted in the major industrial nations and are accepted
by all parts of the political spectrum. We must look at the political pro-
gram of Marx and Engels in the same light: A hundred years later we
must develop our own programs to move in the direction of socialism.
What remains important in the political program of Marx and Engels is
this: Socialism demands a revolution in the first sense in which Marx and
Engels use the term; the power of the capitalists must be replaced by the
power of all the people. Full democracy is not possible under the current
class structure. The political program Marx and Engels developed for this
purpose was appropriate to political conditions in their lifetimes, although
experience has shown, as they themselves taught us to expect, that the po-
litical process is more complicated than they thought. We cannot adopt
their program as ours because we live under very different conditions.
It remains important to speak truth to power as they did all their lives,
to insist over and over again that capitalism is unjust because it exploits,
that it is bad for people because it alienates, curtails freedom, and disfig-
ures democracy. It is even more important to build organizations that pre-
serve and develop the critique of capitalism and agitate for changes. Marx
and Engels thought that two kinds of organizations were of central im-
portance, labor unions and political parties. We now know that both of
these are sometimes forces for change and sometimes not.20 Organiza-
tions of women and of people of color have stood much more dearly in
opposition to the dominant institutions and have tried in the past and are
trying today to develop alternative visions of a good society and of the
means to construct it. We have learned to be less dogmatic about the orga-
nizations that will move us toward socialism.
The central aim of these efforts at organizing is, as we saw in Chapter
13, to continue the class struggle. In the face of repeated reverses, we
216 Socialism.

must continue to build large coalitions of groups that are firmly opposed
to capitalism, with a clear sense of the alternatives they seek and using
those methods of social change that, at any particular moment, seem most
promising. We know today that that effort is more difficult, more com-
plex, and much more extended than Marx and EngeJs expected. But their
critique of capitalism is as powerful as ever; the goal of socialism was
never more inviting. The struggle continues.

For Further Reading

Shlorno Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1970), chapters 6, 7, and 8; Bertell Oilman, Sexual and So-
cial Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1979), chapter 3,

1. Quoted and explained in Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, vol. 1
(New York Monthly Review Press, 1976), p. 97.
2. G. A. Cohen, "Back to Socialist Basics," New Left Review 2Q7(1994):3-16.
3. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993).
4. David Miller, "In What Sense Must Socialism Be Communitarian?" Social
Philosophy and Policy 6(1989):51-73.
5. Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press,
1985), p. 521.
6. David McNally, Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and tfie
Marxist Critique (London: Verso, 1993), p. 185.
7. George Brenkert, Marx's Ethics of Freedom (Boston: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1983).
8. A freedom reserved, however, only to a minority of the world's population.
For the majority, who live in poverty, even personal freedom is very limited.
9. It differs from Marx and Engels in opposing the equality and liberation of
women, which Marx regarded as a criterion for judging the extent to which soci-
eties have become genuinely human (EPM, T 83).
10. Bertell Oilman, Social and Sexual Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1979),
p. 66.
11. John McMurtry, The Structure of Marx's WorU-Vieu> (Princeton, N.J.: Prince-
ton University Press^ 1978), p. 26.
12. The question of competition is complex. Marx and Engels were right to be
very critical, of it. But there certainly appear to be certain kinds of competition that
seem useful insofar as they spur everyone to higher accomplishments. See Valerie
Miner and Helen Longino, eds., Competition: A Feminist Taboo (New York: Feminist
Press of the City University of New York, 1987),
13. A. different approach is possible: We can set a much more modest goat that
seems reasonable—equal opportunities—and then ask what that requires. This is
Socialism 217

the procedure John Roemer employs in A Future for Socialism (Cambridge: Har-
vard University Press, 1994).
14. See, for instance, McNally, Against the. Market,
15. David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to Mises (La Salle, 111.; Open Court, 1992).
16. David Schweiekart, Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993).
17. While it is true that economic power has become much more concentrated,
it is not true as Marx and Engels expected that the ruling class would significantly
shrink in numbers. I mentioned this problem in Chapter 12: The ruling class con-
sists not only of the owners of the means of production—who may well decline in
numbers—but also of its ever growing hordes of professional managers, accoun-
tants, lawyers, investment specialists, and so on.
18. See also Engels, preface to the English edition of Marx's Capital, vol. 1 (New
Yorlc ln.ternatio.nal Publishers, 1967).
19. One other complication must be mentioned briefly, I discussed imperialism
in Chapter 11, In our world the great capitalist powers have enormous political in-
fluence outside their own boundaries. If a socialist revolution were to take place
in one country outside the developed world, the United States and others would
be sure to try to squash it. Witness the cases of Nicaragua and Cuba in our hemi-
sphere. Must the socialist revolution, then, occur in all countries at the same time?
Is that feasible? These questions have been discussed a great deal, but a satisfac-
tory answer lias not been found.
20. In the United States, for instance, the leadership of the AFL-CIO has done
its part in the past fifty years to strengthen the ruling capitalist institutions to
which it belonged. Sometimes the more powerful, critique of capitalism, comes
from groups that are politically conservative. Some opponents of abortion oppose
what they perceive as the commodiftcation of childbirth and thus of human be-
ings. See Faye Ginsburg, Contested Lives— The Abortion Debate in an American Com-
munity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

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ed. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New Yorfc W. W. Norton, 1978).
Venable, Vernon. Human Nature: The Marxian View (New Yorfc Meridian Books, 1966).
222 Bibliography

Wood, Allen W, Karl Marx (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).
Woolf, Robert Paul. Understanding Marx (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1984).
Wright, ErikOlin. Classes (London: Verso, 1985).
Wright, Erik Olin; Levine, Andrew; and Sober, Elliott, Reconstructing Marxism (Lon-
don: Verso, 1992).
About the Book
and Author

This book steers a middle path between those who argue that the the-
ories of Marx and Engels have been rendered obsolete by historical events and
those who reply that these theories emerge untouched from the political changes
of the last ten years.
Marxism has been a theory of historical change that claimed to be able to pre-
dict with considerable accuracy how existing institutions were going to change.
Marxism has also been a political program designed to show how these inevitable
changes could be hastened. Richard Schmitt argues that Marxian predictions are
ambiguous and unreliable, adding that the political program is vitiated by serious
ambiguities in the conceptions of class and of political and social transformations.
Marxism remains of importance, however, because it is the major source of criti-
cisms of capitalism and its associated social and political institutions. We must
understand such criticisms if we are to understand our own world and live in it
effectively. While very critical of the failures of Marx and Engels, this book offers a
sympathetic account of their criticism of capitalism and, their visions of a better
world, mentions some interpretive controversies, and connects the questions
raised by Marx and Engels to contemporary disputes to show continuity between
social thought in the middle of the last century and today.
Addressed to undergraduate students, the book is easily accessible. It will be
important in introductory or middle level courses in sociology, political theory,
critical theory of literature or law. It will also be useful in graduate courses in po-
litical theory, sociology, and economics.

Richard Schmitt is professor of philosophy at Brown University and the author of

Beyond Separateness (Westview Press, 1995).


Action, political, 165-167,189,196 and feudalism, 15,19, 33, 57-58, 72,

"Alienated Labor," 11,4 87, 88,101
Alienation, 114-124, 203, 209-210 and freedom, 48, 69, 137-143
of workers, 115-117 and inequality, 107,172
Avineri, Shlomo, 216 and injustice, 134-137
and poverty, 134-137, 189
Base, 64-67 and racism, 168-169,172
Bauer, Bruno, 8 and slavery, 56
Bernstein, Eduard, 133 and state, 176-177
Bolsheviks, 1,195 Capitalists, 146
Bottoroore, Torn, 158 and the government, 176
Bourgeoisie, 155 Carnoy, Martin, 185
Civil society, 27,180-183
"petty," 147
Class, 77,145-158,162
socialist, 156
consciousness, 15,1-156, 162
See also Class, ruling
primacy of struggle, 167-172
Burns, Mary, 9
race, and gender 167 -170
and revolutions, 171
Camus, Albert, 117
ruling, 77-78,117
Capital, 90, 91-93,108-109
struggle, 80,149-151,154-156,
and abstinence, 109 160-172,174. See also Class,
centralization, 131 primacy of struggle
organic composition of, 131 traitors, 165
and risk taking, 110 working, 80, 117,127-128. See also
Capital, 10, 42-45, 56, 72, 77, 78, 115, Proletariat
117-118, 129, 134, 145 Classless society, 82
Capitalism, 12, 74, 79, 87-99,188 Class Struggles, in France, 153
and the creation of needs, 18 Coercion, 104, 111, 117,175
and democracy, 108 Collectivism, 24, 28-30
and desires, 123 Colonialism. See Imperialism,
and fairness, 100-101,112 Commodity, 79-80, 87-88, 92, 98,117,
and family, 204 138-140

Index 225

Communism, 1, 82,151,153,160, and the state, 176

200-201. See also Socialism Family, 27, 203
Communist Manifesto, 6,10, 57, 66-67, Fetishism, 78-80, 95,166
151,152,161, 215 Feudalism, 60,102-103
Competition, 93-94, J16 contrasted with capitalism, 15,19,
Condition of the English Working Class, 33, 57-58, 72, 87, 88,101
10,129 Feuerbach, Ludwig, 29
Consciousness, 53, 65 Fourier, Charles, 187
false, 84, 124,149 Franklin, Benjamin, 104
Cooperatives, 213 Freedom, 48, 68,100-101, 111, 118-122,
Crisis, 127-132 142,182, 204
Critique of the Gotha Program., Free enterprise, 87, 97
Gamble, Andrew, 143
Democracy, 112, 142-143,157,171 German Ideology, 10, 64, 78,115
and the capitalist state, 183-185 Goods, public and private, 181-182
economic, 184,207 Greece, 74-75, 77,103
socialist, 202 Growth, 93
Dehumanization, 117 Grundrisse, 42
Determinism, 57 Guilds, 90
economic, 65, 70{n4), 72
'Dialectic, 38-50,192, 210 Hegel, G.W.F., 26, 28, 38-41,115
"Dictatorship of the proletariat," 214 Historical explanation, 45-50,115
Don Quixote, 72, 75 History, 32-37
Drug problems, 163-164 and change, 188
and class struggles, 160
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, as sequence of social structures, 53
115, 200 the transformation of human
Economics, 62 nature, 14, 28, 32, 35
Eighteenth Brumain of Louis 'Bonaparte, Human nature, 12-21,118-119, 209
The, 179, 212 history of, 27
Eisenstein, Zillah, 172 and material production, 14, 30,
Engels, Friedrich, 9 94-95,116, 123
Marx and, 9-11 unintended consequence of actions,
Environment, 137 35
Equality, 48, 68,112
struggles for, 172 Idealism, 63-72, 95
Ethics, 16, 34, 80-84,139, 195. See also Ideology, 69, 71-84, 88, 111, 154, 166,
Morality 175, 211
Evolution, 39-40 Immiseration. See Proletariat
Exchange, 104 Imperialism, 140-142
Exploitation, 100-112, 161, 201 Individualism, 23-31, 33, 36, 71-84
and class struggle, 170 varieties of, 24-25
226 Index

Industry, See Machines political program of, 4,132-133

Inheritance, 177 varieties of, 8
Intellectuals, 77,153-154 Materialism, 14, 63-69, 71,190
Interests, private and public, 178 historical, 52-62, 67
International Woridngmari's Association, vulgar, 64
10,166 Methodological individualism, 25-30, 36
Investment, 89-90 Miller, Richard, 62
Money, 36
Jefferson, Thomas, 13 Monopolies, 127
Morality, 16, 34, 80-84,139,195
Kafka, Franz, 117 the golden rule, 81
Kautsky, Karl, 153-154 Mythology. See Ideology

Labor, 97 Necessary laws, 193

division of, 58, 79, 90, 97 Needs, 18, 34,139
free, 89, 91-92 Nicolaus, Martin, 99
laws, 178
"manual and mental," 206 Origin of the Family, Private Property
power, 91,106 and the State, The, 170
surplus, 106, 108 Owen, Robert, 187
theory of value, 104-107,131
time, 105 Paris Commune of 1870,176, 214
unpaid, 106 Personal identity, 33, 140
for wages, 89 Philosophy, 51(nll), 70(n6)
Law, 66, 92 Planning, 204, 208
"Laws of motion," 191 Plato, 68, 77
Leaders, role of, 188-190 Power, 162
Lenin, V. L, 147,153-154 of classes, 164
Liberalism, 5-6, 13, 137-138 to exploit, 162-162, 164-165
Lichtman, Richard, 84 transformation of, 198
Locke, John, 10, 78 Predictions, 126-143,193
Luxemburg, Rosa, 133, 173(n9) Price, 79
Private property, 114
Machines, 94, 96-97,107,126-128 abolition of, 207
Manufacture, 58, 96 "Private Properly and Communism,"
Market, 80, 87, 96,140 200
"anarchy" of, 120-121,127, 208 Production, 119
labor, 177 Asiatic mode of, 178
Marx, Karl, 8-11 forces of, 53-61
Engels and, 9 and human nature, 14
and method, 115 means of, 207
predictions of, 126-143 mode of, 53-61, See also Social
Marxism, 61,151-152 structure
and the collapse of the USSR, 2 primacy of forces, 56-59
Index 227

relations of, 53-61, 91-93 democratic, 3

technical relations of, 55 as ethical ideal, 196
Productivity, 97,129 inevitability of, 2,126-133,156
Professionals, 148 market, 208-211
Profit, 79, 92, 94,104-106, 126-127 scientific, 83,133,191-199
falling rate of, 130-131 Utopian, 83,153,187-199, 207
Proletariat, 128-130,135-136,148,153 Socialists, 153
lumpen, 148 bourgeois, 156
See also "TDictatorship of the Socialist theory, 180
proletariat" "Socially necessary labor time,"
Propaganda, 71, 85{nl.3). See also 113(n4)
Ideology Social structures, 52, 64, 79, 95, See also
Property ownership, 180-181,184 See Production, mode of
also Private property Soviet Union, 1, 194, 209
Protestantism, 74 "Species being," 17-21,118
State, 174-185
Eace, 70(n5), 73, 146 bureaucracy, 179
Rader, Melvin, 69
and civil society, 180-183
Religion, 41, 5G(nl), 73-74, 77,148,
manager for the bourgeoisie,
156, 164
Reproduction, 165,177
Superstructure, 64-66,177
"Reserve Army of the Unemployed,"
94, 136
Theses on feuerbach, 16,132
Revolution, 29, 55,123-124, 211-214
and reform, 166-167
Unemployment, 94, 102,136
socialist, 2,128, 152, 200
taking power, 197, 212-215 Utopianism, 187-199
and violence, 213 and history, 191
Ricardo, David, 25, 77,104
Romans, 74 Value
exchange, 104
Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri, 187 surplus, 106,115-116
Schmitt, Richard, 124 use, 104
Schweickart, David, 112 Voluntary work. See Freedom
Science, 38-41, 73, 76-78, 82-83
social, 42-45,191-195 Wage Labor and Capital, 129
Self-interest, 181 Wages, 105,126-126, 129
Self-realization, 205 Walton, Paul, 143
Sexism, 73 Wealth, 88-90
Smith, Adam, 12, 25, 77,104,133 Wood, Alan, 124
Social democracy, 1,153, 166, 169,194 Work, 33. See also Labor
Socialism, 82,187,195, 200-216 Workers, 115-117, 154-155
bureaucratic, 3 English and Irish, 168-169
and community, 206 skilled, 97