Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels


Today it is fashionable in some quarters to dismiss Karl Marx because of his apparently “failed” theory of an inevitable revolution in which the lower classes, realizing their exploitation, would rebel against those who owned the means of production. Witnessing the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many said, “Marx was wrong.” This rather anachronistic judgment fails to take into account that Marx was not an economist but a philosopher and that he could not see into a future in which capitalism would create a dazzling world of commodities that would tempt the working class to become consumers, buying into the very system that enslaved them.

In many ways, Hegel established a way of analyzing the past and set up a method by which Nineteenth Century historians could work. Karl Marx adapted Hegel’s idea of the dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis into what he called “dialectical materialism.” Instead of appealing to ideas, Marx appealed to historical forces, a theory of history or a theory of things. In contrast to Hegel’s “absolute” synthesis of categories, Marx was critical of “ideas,” which are empty and produce ideology. Like Hegel, Marx claimed scientific precision for his philosophy with history as measurable record of clear progress. History, for Hegel, consisted of opposing forces: thesis and anti-thesis that over time would evolve into a synthesis that would, in its turn, become the new thesis. Through these colliding forces, new stages would be reached and progress would occur. Marx was deeply concerned with social process/progress. As a materialist, Marx’s ideas were phenomenological and not transcendental but he gave a great deal of attention to Hegel’s philosophy of history. As Marx commented,

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when men seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language…”

Marx was also aware of the ideas of Kant and knew that Kant’s Copernican Revolution needed to be taken into account. Kant, Hegel, and Marx were Determinists, that is, they all created philosophical systems that had a high explanatory value—each system could answer all the questions. The difference in the thinking of these philosophers rested upon what forces determined their particular structure. For Kant, the a priori workings of the human mind determined his system of knowledge, for Hegel it was the dialectic, and for Marx, it was the economic system. Marx asserted that people are not free to choose social relations but are constrained by material reality, which is determined by economic production.

The key to Marx’s system is dialectical materialism, and his dialectic was the class system created by the capitalist system. The creation of a privileged upper moneyed class and a dispossessed underclass resulted in a clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The basis of society or the skeleton of society is economics. Marx created a social model that distinguished between base and superstructure. The base is the mode of production, which in Marx’s time is capitalism; and the superstructure can be defined as the social structures produced by human consciousness. The superstructure is the laws and politics that define the form of social consciousness. Consisting of education, cultural customs, political and legal practices, the superstructure both produces and reinforces an ideology, which functions to legitimate the power of the ruling class.

Human consciousness is determined by the mode of production or the economic system. According to Marx, material relations between things are part of universal laws of history. Marx wrote of the fatal evolution of capitalism, which is characterized by the domination of the bourgeoisie or middle class society who owns the mode of production and its necessary exploitation of the lower classes who produce the wealth. The Bourgeoisie created a new social class, the urban poor, or the proletariat, that was collected into urban centers and concentrated in masses that could be exploited by the new system. In contrast to the previous system, feudalism, value-in-exchange, capitalism is an abstract system, based upon an abstract concept called “money” and is not attached to the external qualities of things. Feudalism was a system based upon barter and upon a system of responsibilities. Thing was exchanged for thing, obligation was exchanged for obligation. A peasant could exchange a cow for a pig and give a portion of the harvest to the feudal lord who, in turn would protect the peasant who took care of the land he owned.

Within capitalism, a thing, an object is priced abstractly on the open market and will be sold according to what “the market will bear,” or according to what people will pay for it. The end “value” of the object on the market has no relation to what those who own the means of producing the thing pay the workers for their labor. Human “labor” is embedded in goods and becomes abstracted. In capitalism, the worker is alienated from the object and the difference between what s/he is paid and what the object sells for creates “surplus value,” which is appropriated by owner of capital who has exploited the laborer’s lack of alternatives. The excessive supply of labor drives wages down. The minimum cost of making the product is covered by the laborer in a few hours, while the surplus or excess “value” goes to the employers. According to Engels, “The appropriation of unpaid labor is the basis of the capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of the worker….”

When the surplus value, created by the worker, is appropriated by the owner of capital, a dialectic is created between “labor and management,” and management’s exploitation of the helpless laborers leads to a class struggle. The competition among the capitalists functions according to the law of capital accumulation or the concentration of wealth in a few hands. The capitalist impulse is towards monopoly control of production, such as seen currently in the business model of Microsoft. The end result is that capital becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, and unemployment grows as production becomes more technologically efficient. The result is overproduction and a crisis, such as seen in the American automotive industry.

The crisis of overproduction is resolved by opening new markets, which become new centers of production. The old markets are limited in ability to absorb goods, which increases stress on the producers who must sell commodities. Theoretically, the consumer needs only one television set but to resolve the stress a new and false need must be created, such as a television set for every member of the family. The problem of overproduction is solved by manufactured desires that engender new demands for the new commodities, which are absorbed into the community. Marx and Engels stated,

“…the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and with them all the relations of society…constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…”

Marx and Engels wrote a theory of social causation or historical determinism and understood history to be a history of class struggles with every epoch having a prevailing mode of economic production and exchange. The human being and human consciousness and social organization necessarily followed from this basis of political and intellectual history.

Also read: “Late Nineteenth Century Philosophy” and “Marx, Engels, and Alienation”

and “Marx, Engels, and Property” and “Marx, Engels, and Capitalism” 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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