The Social Theories of Karl Marx in the Twenty-First Century

This essay was inspired, on the one hand, by the growing interest in Marxism along with the proportional ignorance of the real nature of the movement; and on the other by the scarcity of accurate, relatively approachable, and contemporary introductions to the subject. It is written with the intended audience of any intelligent and curious reader, and I have attempted to avoid technical language and jargon as much as possible. The piece is meant to present not only the essential content of Historical Materialism, but indicate to what extent the theory is still useful to us today, as a resource for anyone seeking to understand Marx’s contribution to science and the revolutionary movement.

Society and Civilisation

To the extent that most of us take the time to try to make sense of the society we live in, we are generally at a loss to account for both the continual change and the particulars we see before us, typically finding ourselves limited to guessing at the good or evil intentions of those in power or the vagaries of human nature. Academics’ attempts to do the same either suffer from the same defects clothed in academic language, or become bogged down in schematic simplifications. The only alternative to comprehending the development of society seems to be to regard history--and therefore its present outcomes--as simply a long list of accidents. There is, nevertheless, a way to avoid throwing up our hands in exasperation. Science, though we should not succumb to believing that its ‘laws’ equate to unchanging eternal truths, offers us a tool to replace our confusion. It is easy enough to imagine the ‘law of gravity’ animating the movement of the planets, but it takes little thought to see the patent ridiculousness of believing that human beings are silently commanded in their intercourse with nature and each other by any such metaphysical laws standing outside themselves. When academics propose theories which they hope will explain the nature of our society and the causes of its perpetual self-transformation, they have succumbed to a method which is at once inconceivable. Propositions that ‘economics,’ culture, geography, or the ‘genius’ of great leaders are the governing laws of our social being are rightfully unsatisfying; they make humanity the object rather than the subject of its own development.

The determination not to be bewildered by ourselves does not mean that we should abandon the application of science to our society and history, since resorting to intuition would only fare worse. A science which could be useful to us would have to realise it is people--the whole multitude of individuals--and not abstract constructions or the will of acknowledged leaders that make history. It could only attempt a coherent explanation of human society’s tortuous course since its birth by drawing out the tendencies and patterns of development, arising from the mutual interactions of the collection of individuals. The struggle for their well-being--personal, communal, familial--in the circumstances that fate put them in, is the way in which the collective of individuals makes history.

Despite it being we ourselves who make our history--apart from guidance of laws or supernatural prodding--we inevitably face limitations; and it is not only because we are material beings in a material world, able only to build on the foundations we encounter ready-made, that we are restricted in the scope of our action and thought. The previously narrow range of science can also not be fully credited, since the advance of scientific inquiry itself must be explained. Social relations are intimately connected with our need to survive and beyond that to prosper; yet also impart to us the elements of our understanding of the social reality in which we live, and delimit the range of possible actions we can entertain. Our relative positions within this society at present give us unequal means to pursue our human objectives, and it is by the sum of our attempts to use our means for this end that we simultaneously develop instruments for the progressive removal of these constraints.

The first person to attempt an analysis of human society as a phenomenon of the innate social character of human activity, and to derive its laws of development from this, was Karl Marx, and like the theories of Charles Darwin, his ideas in their essentials remain as useful today as during the Victorian Age of their origin. While Marx’s conceptions evolved over time, their fundamentals were developed just in time for the pan-European revolutionary upsurge of 1848; with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. The words ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ have since then been frequently quoted, but less often understood.

We may define our species as separate from the animal kingdom by anything we choose--language, art, capacity for abstract thought, and so on--but humanity has set itself apart by creating our own conditions of life. We are not the only social and communicative creatures, nor the only ones to use tools, but unlike bees and wolves we have made ourselves unique by creating a social existence for ourselves which is not determined purely by the selective pressures of the natural world and which takes on its own existence apart from nature.

At all times and places in which human beings have come together in a social organism, we can see this society as being analyzable with two related concepts. There are, on the one hand, the man-made implements and natural resources which society requires to maintain its existence; every society of course having its own necessities, those of ancient Egypt and modern America only as closely related as machinery is to stone tools. What Marx termed the ‘means of production’ cannot, of course, be separated from the role played by different classes of people in their use for the maintenance and expansion of the society in existence. These social relations of production determine the general prerequisites of our lives, as personal survival depends on engaging in the actions which reproduce our social existence.

The superposition of these evolving social relations on the means of production, that in turn are improved by human effort, has produced a variety of social formations during the course of history; but each, through its efforts for self-preservation, has ultimately undermined itself. In any given period of social transformation, as distinct groups coalesced on the basis of shared interests within the social structure, these classes inevitably found themselves in conflict as long as one benefited to the detriment of the others. The attempt to maintain and advance class interests has been the impetus of human progress since civilisation’s inception--and so it is not only material means, but also organised human action, which is a productive force. A dominant class will expand the means of production for its own benefit and in order to prosecute the class struggle, as even exploited classes are part of the social system which dominates them, and its healthy expansion will mitigate their discontent. But each structure of social production relations that becomes ossified in place finds its inevitable end--the means of production it developed having undercut its own social institutions. The steady multiplying of the paltry abilities of the unaided human hand that once necessitated slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude makes such squandering of human effort at some point impossible to continue.

Despite what seems to us the ubiquitousness of this dynamic of internal conflict, the example of peoples who still live in their own unwritten prehistory suggests the original state of human culture. Our species emerged from the animal kingdom bearing the marks of its origin. Discounting superficial variations, we were in general communal and egalitarian creatures in nearly every aspect of life. Living in small, nomadic bands with practically no inventions of our own with which we might regulate our intercourse with nature, we lived on the land in the most absolute sense. This existence was, depending on the climate and geography, a largely peaceful and easy one, which allowed time to enjoy our lives if not to expand them beyond our personal, immediate experience and action. It was to change this, to mark out finally the clear distinction between man and animal--by taking greater control of our surroundings and subsequently ourselves--that civilisation was initiated. The adoption of agriculture by peoples situated in the most suitable geographic regions brought with civilisation the first instance of unequal social relations of production. So that some might deduce from the stars the pattern of the seasons, the rest cultivated the crops whose successful harvest rested on this knowledge. Class society--which, until now, has been synonymous with civilisation--has been through many thousands of years of progress, regress, and struggle. It has seen many evolutions and revolutions in both the physical and human material needed for the reproduction of our society, and the social relations which determine their utilisation. The monumentality of Imperial Rome and the iron grip of medieval feudalism must have seemed to observers of the time to be eternal--at the very least because those with the leisure time and learning to create the mode of thought, which even the slaves must unavoidably accept, could not have entertained the demise of their mastery over the masses. Yet every form of society found its end when its social relations prevented furthering the goal begun at the start of civilisation: to increase the control of man over the world which shapes him, natural and social. This process, millennia long, has brought us to the age in which we live now, which has swept away the old society--both its barbarisms and its vestiges of communal relations--almost without a trace; a development which began the expansion of the means of production far beyond anything conceivable by previous generations.

While the social relations of past epochs were often convoluted and complex, consisting of various strictly defined classes and strata, our society is remarkably simplified. The fundamental rights which modern society guarantees to its citizens, ‘life, liberty, property,’ are the ones essential for its functioning. Our laws guarantee no special privileges for any nobility or caste, on the contrary all are equal before the law, and liberated from thralldom they are compelled to buy and sell as free individuals as the basis of their life. Whereas in ‘simpler’ times a farmer may have owned his land and an artisan his tools, it is today the rule that the two halves of human productive work are separated. No longer enslaved or held in peonage, we now own ourselves. The plow and the hammer have been replaced by a productive apparatus of enormous magnitude and cost, requiring ownership by those with wealth and operation by workers not for their use but for the market--its product at the disposal of the whole society. This modern form of property--capital--and the basic social relation of wage labour divorced from the means of production define what has admiringly and hatefully been called capitalism.

Marx, to whom the preceding explanation is owed, nevertheless had no particular concern with the topic in a pedantic sense. His interest in history was ultimately incidental; by discovering the mechanism of human progress--its procession through various stages of growth, revolution, and transformation--he wished to explain the future revolutionary transformation of his own society.

Even during the emergence of early capitalism from feudalism, there were already critics shocked by the new society coming into its own, propelled by the French and American revolutions. Capital’s rapacious drive to tear apart every pre-capitalist form of existence--family, religion, community--to replace them with the market, the colossal violence unleashed by its wars of a scale unimaginable in previous ages, and its tendency to proudly display an egregious juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, gained it many enemies; not least of them were those who suffered on the wrong side of this juxtaposition. There has been a sense, often somewhat undefined, and especially during the wars, economic crises, and badly-planned imperialist adventures of capitalist countries, that our society is so unharmonious as to preclude the possibility of its eternal existence. The object of those who attempted to see a successor to the strife and contradictions of capitalism was always socialism--the name given to a hoped-for future society which could resolve the antagonisms arising from capitalism's social relations. Marx's contribution was to provide a framework in which the transformation of society could be understood.

Wealth and Value

The greatest strength of any state of affairs which has existed for long, and likewise a precondition for its endurance, is to make its particular customs seem natural. The ubiquitousness in modern life of buying and selling--necessities of life, business goods, people's time--leads us to take these peculiar activities for granted--though money has played a very small role in the lives of most people who have ever lived. The affirmation by economists that money is what we use to pay for things, a tautology applicable to any historical era, does nothing to make the essential nature of money and exchange today any less opaque.

Economists have little to gain from Marx's theory of value and capital, since Marx concerned himself primarily with exposing the historically limited character of capitalist society, while their profession ineluctably gravitates toward any explanations which naturalise and eternalise it. Seeking to reconcile their posited eternal laws with a mutable reality, modern theories find no alternative but to cloak themselves in mathematical convolution. Marx’s theory of value as an explanation of market relations has the advantage, on the contrary, of simplicity and directness.

The exchange of goods between two persons, for example a watch for two shirts, appears to be merely a relation between things, and the given ratios chosen by the traders to be the essence of prices. The transaction, however, in fact conceals what is fundamentally a social relationship. The two commodities which have nothing in common are also the products of labours which are qualitatively distinct. The equation of a watch with two shirts is, in the sense of the social relations that tie society together, the equation of types of work as different as their products. The act of trade reduces all concrete, specific forms of labour to an abstract and simplified form, and this artificial commensurability is expressed in the fact that all commodities may be given prices; money offers a common denominator for things which could otherwise not be compared. The widespread use of money by all people in our everyday lives--heretofore unprecedented--means that any single good or service of value is not that as such, but an aliquot of the social wealth. Money, as a convenient way to separate value from a commodity in-between successive purchases and sales, is a claim on a piece of social wealth, therefore on a portion of the undifferentiated social labour; and while there are many ways to come by money, the only source of the value it embodies is in real work.

There is a tendency, through habit, to associate value with wealth as such. Nevertheless, the fact that more money will enable one to lay claim to more wealth does not give a very good sense of the true relationship between the two. In reality, value and wealth proceed in opposite directions both in aggregate and in particular; for as the goal of work is to produce the most wealth with the minimum of effort, then the value which results from labour is diminished by any diminution of the labour necessary. The greater abilities which improving technologies and methods impart to our labours means that a dollar today can buy far more than it could several decades ago, and if this seems to be untrue it is only because for most American workers wages have stagnated or decreased since that time.

The decline of the American ‘middle class,’ who in fact exchange their working time for money like all workers, is part of the increasing polarisation of society which has generated such wide concern in the past several years. And this phenomenon has found no lack of self-assured pundits, whose explanations typically play variations on several set themes--the culpability of greedy bankers, lazy workers, or the decaying moral fabric of 21st century America. But if these platitudes are unsatisfying, Marx’s theory of value can help us understand this process, and the near-catastrophe of 2008, as the latest stage of a social-historical evolution.

When the small craftspeople and farmers of the middle ages ran up against their inability to improve the meager conditions of social life, and lost their homes and tools to those who could, their ability to work--all they had left--became a commodity like any other; its price determined in the same way. This situation was unprecedented--for the commodity that walked flesh and blood into the marketplace was unique, as human labour was the creator of the very value with which a worker’s time can be bought.

Employment of workers necessitates that more value be created by the employee than is spent on his wage, which requires work to be carried on for longer than would merely cover that cost. Business as we know it today operates unavoidably on this principle, as its only ambition is the amassing of profit, a pursuit which has nothing to do with individual greed per se, but is an immanent feature of capital ownership--in the competitive marketplace, the businessman who doesn’t strive for total victory over his rivals risks losing everything. The appropriation of the working population’s surplus labour in its manifestation as wealth and value by a privileged social class deserves, in both a technical and humanistic sense, nothing less than the term which Marx gave to this social relation: exploitation. But exploitation, appearing as nothing but an economic calculation aimed at the multiplication of money invested, is just a synonym for capital.

While trade has in the past been primarily a means for elites to acquire luxury items, in the modern age the pursuit of money, as the ultimate expression of abstract social wealth, substitutes for the drive for any particular form of wealth. Every ruling class suffers from the misfortune that it can only use so many of the things it has stolen, extorted, or bought from the population--there are physical barriers to the amassing of limitless wealth. Money, on the other hand, is in essence an infinitely expandable possession, and capital, as the force which wrings this money from wage labourers, is value in its expansion. The progress of the society to which it gives its name has been driven by the ceaseless reinvestment of profits back into the expanding productive apparatus--every instrument with which business is carried on--and by accumulating capital, the profits of tomorrow will be even greater. But rushing blindly upward, capitalism inevitably falters in its goal to accumulate exponentially and forever. As a result of this incessant capital accumulation, the value which forms the costs of business--buildings, machinery, computers, software, offices, components and materials--dwarf the value that can be created anew by the workforce, diminished as it is by the resultant increased productivity of labour. In the highly developed world of America and Western Europe, the crisis has exposed that there simply does not exist the money necessary to undertake the enormous investments needed to prevent stagnation and decline.

Though in the lens of capitalism value is the embodiment of wealth, it is rapidly becoming the latter’s chains.

Notwithstanding that there is a minimum level of wealth beyond which hunger begins to wipe out the population, and that threshold has been crossed many times in our long history, wealth is by and large relative. The feudal nobility of several centuries ago knew nothing of cotton clothing and refrigerators--or any of our most basic amenities--and would pay for black peppercorns with their weight in gold. Capitalism has dragged humanity by force into a singular age of profound material wealth. But its increasing difficulty in continuing this progress, its cataclysmic wars of the past century, its inability to raise the standard of life for most, point to its ultimate constraints. It would be the height of hubris to believe that our society is exempt from forces which bound the pyramid-builders of Egypt, the slave-owners of ancient Rome, and the nobility that held the western world’s population in serfdom. Each one suffered from the consequences of the material and social forces they had brought into being, and in their hour of crisis one of these more capable classes would continue their work. Exploitation has shifted progressively in favor of the exploiters as against the exploited, but only because the accumulation of capital drove forward the increase in the productivity of labour even faster, so that in the United States, for a long time many could be confident that their children would have a better life than they. In conditions where the expansion of the productive powers of human labour have stagnated under the inadequacy of the value expansion which binds them, this intensification of exploitation could only mean the reversal of the trend toward greater wealth which the working class had briefly enjoyed.

The social reality confronting us today--in which the majority must sell their lives piecemeal so that the fetishistic self-expansion of capital may continue--cannot persist indefinitely; it cannot resolve the inherent conflicts of exploitation or overcome the limits of money-value as the regulator of social life. But the breaking down of those social relations which have propelled capitalism into the twenty-first century raises the question of the ending of exploitation. Though neither slaves nor serfs emancipated themselves, capitalism’s development has opened up the potential for the organised working class to emerge as the harbinger of another social order. This would, however, mean in effect the disappearance of classes, since bringing productive property under the control of the vast majority who use it would entail that all have essentially the same relations to the means of production. Echoing the subsistence communism that disappeared with the appearance of civilisation, the replacement of value by the conscious direction of our labour would, then, reconstitute our instinctive human social relations on the basis not of our primal integration into nature, but on the basis of wealth.


Marx's concept of ‘prosperity’ or ‘abundance,’ which is supposed to characterise the general plenty and lack of significant want inherent to socialism, has been widely criticised by the ‘realists’ of social science, for whom prosperity is a utopia--a cornucopian proposition grounded not in reality but fantasy.

Ludwig von Mises, for example, an economist of the ‘Austrian School,’ in his great diatribe Socialism wrote that abundance is a transparently ridiculous principle. Socialists, he said, claim that if the product of society were evenly distributed, it could provide a high standard of living to everyone, and when it is pointed out that this is false, they merely respond by claiming that socialism will allow for such an increase in living standards by developing the means of production better than capitalism. The reality is that scarcity--the name given by economists to the postulated unlimited desire for limited wealth--excludes prosperity in any society; socialism can deliver it no more than capitalism. This is to misunderstand the meaning of prosperity.

While human beings may have an infinite appetite for consumption (or at least a great one, there being limited consuming time in the day, after all), their lives are—surprisingly to some—more complex than merely that fact. Consumption has its own prerequisites, and the reality of work currently dominates the lives of most. Work is, though an inescapable necessity, the negation of free time; or that which life actually is. Given a choice between work and freedom, freedom will always win, even if work can never be entirely eliminated, and as long as ‘freedom’ is not the freedom of enforced idleness and deprivation.

The categories of economics, worthless as they were to Mises, nevertheless give us a convenient way to answer him. As Mises notes, ‘Labour will... be discontinued at the point at which its continuation would give rise to more disutility than utility,’ though he did not think to speculate about at what point work might be discontinued when the worker’s reward is not restricted by exploitation. The increasing productivity of labour continuously alters the balance between the necessity to work and desire to leisure, as more can be produced with less labour. Aware of this, Mises nevertheless saw the progress of society solely in capitalistic value expansion; he could not imagine a working day of minimum length, since work beyond the minimum is necessary to accumulate capital. As opposed to this, conditions of genuine prosperity would signify that a high enough level of material wealth was reached that the producers are able to work less rather than more, whatever the detrimental effects on the measurement of this wealth by value. Advancements in technology and technique, at this point, would be used to decrease the average working time to the shrinking time necessary to maintain the population; although that does not preclude an increase in consumption as well.

While conditions of capital production may raise the possibility of prosperity, it could never lead to it. The reduction of the working day to its necessary minimum—implying the appropriation by the producers of their products—resulting from conditions of prosperity would make the accumulation of surplus value an impossibility. It is imperative for capitalism, as a matter of its very existence, to avoid prosperity, although it must attempt to avoid the complete destitution of the working class as well. To this end the monumental waste of government production began during the Great Depression is an absolute necessity, not only to employ those abandoned by the private economy and save the working class from extreme poverty, but to divert society’s resources and labour into unproductive channels, thereby staving off the emergence of such a general level of wealth that exploitation would become superfluous. Actual prosperity would mean that the workers no longer wish or consent to work more, at which point accumulation would all but cease.

In the Britain of the Industrial Revolution, the preconditions of prosperity had not yet come about. The labouring class frequently worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, and sat at the cusp of starvation. Despite this, the degree of exploitation was relatively small, most of the social product being required merely to maintain the workers in their dire conditions. The proletariat, seizing control of the means of production in 1820, would have found its aspirations for freedom and plentiful wealth stymied. Unable to support themselves at any level higher than absolute poverty at the minimum length of the working day, the workers would encounter the necessity to work more, not less, and to simultaneously deprive themselves in order to grow the productive apparatus. Since the workers cannot exploit themselves and socialism cannot accumulate capital, neither could have developed the means of production at that time. But, the horrors of exploitation during the Industrial Revolution can be seen in hindsight to have been the prerequisite of exploitation's eventual abolition in developed capitalism.

The frantic pace of capital accumulation which characterised the opening chapter of industrial capitalism did away with the limitations out of which it grew. Precisely by diverting whatever portion of the social product was not required to keep the labouring class alive into the expansion of the means of production, the capacity of social production was so increased that workers' standards of living rose enormously even as exploitation also pressed more heavily, and even as the working day was progressively shortened. This initial frenzy of capital accumulation both made the same difficult to continue and simultaneously made any continuation unnecessary. Having until now bought its survival ultimately by--along with massive bloodshed--offering the working class a rising standard of living, continuing to do so may obviate the very need for exploitation; without which there is no capitalism.

The prosperity of capitalism could in reality never be more than a poor imitation, as exploitation requires that the consumption of the workers be restricted to stimulate their continued submission to exploitation, even if exploitation will in its turn be the cause of their revolt against capitalism. It is not the case that a mere ‘redistribution of wealth’ constitutes prosperity, nor will it be achieved simply because the means of production will be far less restricted in their development in socialist society. For the workers to free themselves from toil and poverty in the midst of abundance they themselves must be consciously in control of their collective labour and its product. Prosperity denotes the capacity to achieve material plenty in the absence of slavery; capitalism develops its possibility, social revolution inaugurates its existence.

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Aug 5 2014 14:13


  • Marx's interest in history was ultimately incidental; by discovering the mechanism of human progress--its procession through various stages of growth, revolution, and transformation--he wished to explain the future revolutionary transformation of capitalist society.

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