Marx, Engels, and Capitalism


As philosophers who inherited the goals of the Enlightenment, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed the main theme was freedom, freedom to become a full human being, creating oneself through free choices. They attributed a high value to the human personality and believed that making a life was distinct from making a thing. The concern for the alienated human under capitalism can be found in a number of remarks made by Marx and Engels:

“..devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things..”

“Labor does not only create goods; it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity…”

”…the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object…”

“…the appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the worker…”

By the Nineteenth Century, the economic and social conditions that created what Walter Benjamin would call “high capitalism” were the result of numerous factors that converged over several centuries. World markets emerged and production and consumption became international and cosmopolitan. Local industries collapsed under the stress of factory goods and imports. The result was that capitalism or capital was concentrated in a few hands due to centralized production. These centers of production attracted workers and the uprooted poor poured into cities and cities, such as London, grew astronomically overnight.

The globalization of the Nineteenth Century was halted by the incessant wars of the Twentieth Century, and it is only in the past decade that we have returned to the levels of globalization that Marx witnessed. During the Nineteenth Century, national states arose and accumulated great power over the people, but state power was undermined by capital’s international scope. The fortunes of the nation state, as Adam Smith predicted, became entangled with capitalism, which was in the position of making or breaking the stability of the state through finances.

Power shifted from a small privileged class that presided over land, but did not produce products to the middle class, which based its power upon the kind of wealth that could grow exponentially. The bourgeoisie was first ruling class based, not upon ancestors, but on what they actually did which was to produce, but production had the tendency to outstrip demand or need. In order to make sure that adequate demand for commodities continued, the bourgeoisie economy had to be based on competition for the new or novel product. The producers were forced to innovate, and, in order to compete, the means of production must constantly be revolutionized and the objects produced must constantly change. As Marx commented,

“The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than have all previous generations put together…”

“The bourgeois society has resolved all personal honor and dignity into exchange-value; and in place of all the freedoms that men have fought for, it has put one unprincipled freedom—free trade…”

Therefore the lives of ordinary people are controlled by the ruling class, which has vested interests invested in the capitalist system. This class is in change and uses economic chaos and social crisis to its own advantage, seeing and seeking lucrative opportunities for further profits. Capitalism is thus characterized as needing a permanent revolution, or a yearning for change. The “revolution” is not, of course, a political, social, or economic one, for real change threatens the status quo of the dominant class. Instead, the impulse for “revolution” and “change” is transferred or displaced towards commodities. Capitalism forces individual self-development but only in restrictive and distorted ways, because everything bourgeois society builds will only to be torn down. In perhaps his most famous and often quoted remark, Marx perceptively described the conditions of capitalism:

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face…the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men…”

According to Marx, the middle class is most violently destructive ruling class in history. The bourgeois class does not efface old structures but absorbs them and incorporates them into the market and new life becomes the new commodity to be consumed. Capitalism manages to co-opt and absorb all challenges to its authority. Marx pondered the impact of this new social condition upon human beings and commented,

“The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life.. Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness…”

Human consciousness alters with every change in conditions of material existence in social relations or social life. Even society’s moral and ethical standards determined by monetary considerations. Is it moral to appropriate the labor of others? Is it ethical to exploit the desperation of human beings? Why does labor allow such exploitation? Under capitalism, dissimulation will silence these questions and will not allow the answers to be heard, thus, solidifying the “false consciousness” of ideology. The social mind is malleable to the forces of social persuasion, responding to the needs of the dominant class to further their position.

To reify the power relations already in place, the forces of legitimation work ceaselessly. The elements of the superstructure are called into play to legitimate the status quo or the “natural,” whether the functions of the superstructure are education or the law or art. Art and Law are commodities and the cultural workers produce in the name of the power relations with which they are complicit. The artist, along with other intellectuals and poets, has lost his/her halo and has become a wage-laborer. The artist is but a producer of ideas into material works of art, which are a form of perception or consciousness formed by capitalism.

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”and “Marx, Engels and Alienation” and “Marx, Engels and Property” and “Marxism, Art and the Artist”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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