Why Does Marx Believe That Capitalism Will Inevitably Give Way to Socialism?
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Why did Karl Marx remain steadfast in his opinion regarding capitalism? He believed that socialism would be an inescapable consequence of the structure he was so critical of. What were the reasons for this belief? This essay sets out to answer this question. The topics of capitalism and socialism will be looked at in detail, as well as the explanation of why Marx is so influential in these areas. This essay will also discuss whether Marx’s utopian vision has come to fruit as he envisaged, or has it remained to be just a theory.
Karl Marx (1818- 83), a German economic critic, political activist and philosopher, is viewed as one of the founding fathers of sociology. His writings and theories have influenced many and he remains to be a much talked about figure in academia, sociological circles and beyond. A theoretical school of sociology has its roots in Marx’s philosophies. It is believed that until recently, one -third of the world’s population lived under governmental regimes inspired by Marx’s ideas (Marshall, 1998, p393), the Soviet Union being an example. The essence of Marx’s work was on the formation and the nature of modern society, and how capitalism and the class struggle played its part in this. His most famous work, Das Kapital (1867 – 95) contained his hope for the social revolution, which would eventually overthrow capitalism, as the essay question refers to.
Marx began his theories by drawing from the basic knowledge, that in order to survive, humans have to produce the food and material objects, which will aid their subsistence. How this subsistence is achieved and the system, which is adopted to do it, affects the entire structure and organisation of society. He outlined 5 chronological consequential systems which society passed through to accomplish the production essential for its subsistence: Primitive Communist, Ancient, Feudal, Capitalist and Communist modes. ‘Each of these constitutes a distinctive socio-economic system with its own laws of motion’ (Callinicos, 2000, p84). Society (19th Century Europe) was experiencing the capitalist mode at the time of Marx’s theorising, this coloured his writings.
He argued that there were two essential components in these aforementioned societies: the substructure and the superstructure. The substructure is the economic base, which provides the material needs of life while the superstructure makes up the remainder of society (political, legal, educational institutions and belief and value systems), it also acts as a reflection of the base structure by supporting the values of the economic structure. Without the economic basis, the superstructure would not be possible, as it is shaped and determined by the substructure. It is at this point, at which the terms of forces of production and relations of production enter the theory. The forces of production are a part of the substructure and include the factories, machinery, technology and raw materials, which are used in the production process. The relations of production refer to the social relationships, which occur in the process of production i.e. the relations between owners/employers and their staff (Marsh et. al. 1996, pp51-53). These explanations are important as they provide a necessary background to the points I will make, in regard to Marx’s critique of capitalism.
Conflict and contradiction arises according to Marx, in all but two of the historical societies he outlined, and it is these conflicts and contradictions, which sees the movement from one mode of production to the next i.e. from ancient to feudal, as no society can remain static in the presence of such problems. The contradictions involve the divide between two social groups in the various epochs – the exploiters and the exploited or the propertied and the labouring classes. As Callinicos states, the conflict, which arises between the classes, only occurs when a minority (propertied) controls the productive forces (Callinicos, 2000, p86).
This also links to the exploitation argument, class conflict ‘occurs wherever a group has consolidated a sufficient degree of control over the productive forces to compel the direct producers to labour not simply to meet their own needs, and those of their dependants, but also to support this dominant group’ (Callinicos, 2000, p86). The exploited social group provides surplus labour, which benefits the minority controlling the productive forces that are also acting in its own interests. It is this conflict, which sees the formation of class division. Marx saw history as being littered with conflicts between classes. The Communist Manifesto (1848) states: ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in contrast opposition to each’ (Seidman, 1998, pp38-39). The struggle between the two led to the moving to the sequential economic system – capitalism.
Capitalism emerged from feudalism partly due to the conflict discussed above. Feudal society consisted mainly of peasants tilling small plots of land in order to provide for themselves and to make a livelihood. The relations of production between the peasants and the feudal lords/masters were hierarchical and reciprocal. Hierarchical, as the peasants owed their allegiance to the lords in order to stay on the land, showing their allegiance meant handing over their surplus produce. Reciprocal, as the lords were obliged to look after the peasants’ interests in return for adherence. Marx argued that the capitalistic economic enterprise, which would follow feudalism, required two elements; firstly the presence of capital was needed. The accumulation of capital had already begun in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Capital is taken to mean ‘any assets that can be invested so as to secure further assets’ (Giddens, 1986, p34) such as money, workshops tools, factories and machines i.e. the means of production. Secondly, wage-labour had to be involved for capitalism to evolve. This is the mental and physical ability to labour. Wage labour also involves workers being ‘expropriated from their means of production’ (Giddens, 1986, p35) thus losing ownership of their means of their livelihood and having to seek employment by the owners of capital. This began to take place as the industrial revolution began to garner steam. Coercion and inducement forced peasants to move from their land into the newly developed towns and cities.
The economic character of capitalism is an added source to the class struggles, which Marx sees as part and parcel of capitalism. The capitalist system of production is based on the pursuit of profit. To pursue this profit, it is a necessary evil to exploit the worker. The fundamental element in the relationship between the two groups is that of surplus value, this is the source of profit, as surplus value involves: ‘buying so as to sell again for profit. The increase in the value of the money employed which results from the transaction are known as the surplus value’ (Rius, 1994, p103). In a capitalist system, the worker is paid a wage in return for their labour. Yet, the product, which is made, has a value over and above the cost of these wages. This product earns the worker his livelihood i.e. he produces his salary. There is a portion of the working day left though; in this time he produces another commodity/surplus product for which he receives no remuneration. This surplus product gives the owner extra profit, therefore acting as surplus value.
Marx argued that this surplus value originated from the exploitation of the labourer by the capitalist, an argument that can now be expanded. As has been explained: under the capitalist system a labourer produces a value for the capitalist that is in excess of the value of their wage. This quite clearly, is an exploitative relationship. The labourer fails to see this however due to the hourly wage system put in place. The capitalist ideology also masks the exploitative nature of this system. It is sold to society as a social order based on individual freedom, equality and justice when it is clearly not, as the labourer has little control over their labour while the capitalist appropriates the product of the workers labour (Giddens, 2001, p12). Citizenship is also a supposed right in this free and equal state, yet the majority were denied voting rights due to the property qualifications issue. (Giddens, 1986, p37).
This particular situation sees a society ripe for conflict as Marx theorised. Class conflict was already in place, due to the owners of capital exploiting the workers who were forced to sell their labour power. Marx referred to these new workers as the proletariat. This was a new class, which had risen alongside the Industrial Revolution and could be said to be the working class of the Nineteenth Century. Alongside the formation of the proletariat was the development of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie took over from the feudal lords and installed themselves into the new epoch as capitalists. This minority owned the means of production/capital and used the proletariat’s labour to support their extravagant lifestyle. Marx saw even greater class conflicts with the formation of these two new classes. Writing in The Communist Manifesto, he spoke of these conflicts: ‘The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society, has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat’. (Tignor et.al. 2002, p256).
Marx gave further definition to the proletariat by describing their place in a capitalist society. Being stripped from their means of production, having to adapt to an urban lifestyle and seeing their skills, which had once earned them a livelihood, become defunct due to the rise of the machines meant a whole plethora of problems for the new class of proletariat. They owned neither the means of production nor the end products like the artisans of the previous epoch. The only thing they had to sell to those who owned the means of production was their labour power, as this was the only thing they possessed. Labour itself became a commodity due to this situation as its ‘exchange value, as reflected in the wage, is less than the value it produces for the capitalist’ (Marshall, 1998, p53). This set of affairs: losing control over their labour and having to be subordinate to the capitalist, meant alienation for the proletariat. Marx illustrated his theory of alienation in the following quote: ‘The alienation of the worker is expressed thus: the more he produces, the less he can consume; the more value he creates, the less value he has…labour produces fabulous things for the rich, but misery for the poor.
Machines replace labour, and jobs diminish, while other workers turn into machines’ (Rius, 1994, p79). This quote shows that the proletariat become alienated from their work because others controlled what they produced. He also stated that the private ownership of the means of production was the maximum form of alienation, as the labour of the many transforms itself into the capital of the few. The proletariat have nothing to show for their labour, bar a meagre wage. Marx saw work as an essence of human beings: the work they do is an expression of themselves. Work in the capitalist society is a degrading process and so the proletariat become alienated from the essence of their very beings. A human’s most creative act becomes a possession in the capitalist mode of production – merchandise in the hands of the owners. Work also de-personalises the proletariat as the capitalist imposes the kind of work, the method and the rhythm and the worker merely ends up as ‘a mere appendage of flesh on a machine of iron’ (Rius, 1994, p79) i.e. just another cog in the machine.
So what is to become of this society riddled with contradictions, problems and class conflict? Marx theorised that it would inevitably turn to socialism as the next epoch ‘At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution’ (Callinicos, 2000, p93). What would enable this to occur? He argued that the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to its downfall, and the adversary developing outside of capitalism’s power (the proletariat) would aid this to happen. Marx’s thesis shows that the very nature of capitalism means that it goes through highs and lows.
‘Regular periodic crises express the irrational nature of capitalism’ (Seidman, 1998, p45). The proletariat are further exploited and alienated by the capitalists, in their bid to retain a profit in these times of crises. The class, which is hit the hardest in this situation, is the proletariat and so this leads to a change in their attitude. The working class have to become political agents, in order to survive and preserve their human dignity and a revolution must occur in order for socialism to be installed. Socialism is offered as an alternative to capitalism, and is seen as the only way in which a worker can change their circumstances, as capitalism does not act in the interests of the proletariat. According to Marx, the workers must join together in a union against the bourgeoisie and show their discontent and the unions should unite to create a workers party: ‘In its struggle against the united power of the ruling class, only the working class – as an organised class – can activate a party of its own to oppose all other old, reactionary parties’ (Rius, 1994, p136).
Marx predicted that the means of production would remain collective in a socialist society while the relations of production would change, rather than a private ownership of the means of production, this would now become collective ownership. All of society would share the wealth that their labour produced and not just an elite few. Therefore, socialism would see an end to exploitation, alienation, conflict and all other negative attributes of capitalism, which Marx had outlined. A socialist society would contain no contradiction or conflict due to the absence of exploitation and oppression, and so would be the end of history as there would be no reason to develop into a different society and therefore, would be an end to the class-based revolutions which marked history. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Tignor et.al. 2001, p257) would not take their place in society as the ruling class, like the capitalists before them. They would act in the interests of all humanity. At the time of Marx’s writing the German Social Democratic Party were in power and the number of proletariat were increasing, so it seemed, that this prophecy was feasible.
As history shows, Marx’s ideas had an impact on the world, although only after his death. Socialism did not become a universal epoch as he had predicted although a certain political party would like this not to be the case (Scottish Socialist Party). Many of his expectations about the future course of the revolutionary movement have, so far, failed to materialise, as he did not envisage the divisions, which would occur within the working class. However, his stress on the economic factor in society and his analysis of the class structure in class conflict does have accuracy and truth. The process of contemporary globalisation could be said to be proletarising the entire globe as Marx predicted capitalism would do.
In conclusion, this essay has shown the reasons why Marx believed socialism was an inevitable consequence to capitalism. While Marx’s arguments were compelling and could be applied to certain issues of the 21st Century his vision of socialism did not occur as his theory suggested, particular parts of the world took up his ideas but these were not typical capitalist societies as Marx had described, i.e. the Soviet Union. He still is and will always remain to be an iconic figure to many. Marx and his ideas will not retreat into the background quietly.