Marxism is the political and economic theories put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis of communism. It is of interest to me given the stigma attached to it, largely due to past regimes claiming to be Marxist but not accurately reflecting its core principles. For the purposes of this essay, I will be treating Marxism in its classical form, encompassing the works of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and Luxemburg and Gramsci. This classical approach touches upon a breadth of issues, but Marxist analysis on how political power impacts on wider patterns of social and economic equality, will be the focus of this essay. I will also be treating Marxism as an ideology; it identifies a problem in society, has a future vision of what society would look like in absence of this problem and then proposes a plan to achieve its future vision. I will first argue that Marxism has strong merits when it comes to the problem it identifies (exploitative capitalist systems) and solution it suggests (a socially and economically equal society). I will then highlight its weaker merits when it comes to delivering and implementing a plan of action to reach this goal, primarily due to the altruistic human nature that would be required for Marxism to be implemented successfully (something which I would argue does not exist in the current climate).
Merit 1: The Problem It Identifies
Marxism has strong merit when it comes to the problem in society that it identifies: the capitalist system. The capitalist system facilitates the exploitation of workers (the proletariat) by the owners of the means of production (the bourgeoise). This exploitation occurs because workers produce more value than the cost of their labor, given the fact that they have no choice or power to do otherwise. In this way the proletariat are kept in a perpetual cycle of exploitation whilst the bourgeoise are able to profit from their pressure of circumstance to continue providing their labor (Marx and Engels, 1848). This identification deserves merit when considering the vast inequality that many people have endured and continue to endure in capitalist societies. GDP per capita across the globe grew from $2,038 in 1980 to $10,926, but in the same period the top 1% income share (what we could consider as the ‘modern bourgeoise’) has increased from 17.80% to 20.60% (Inequality.org, 2019) Therefore, we can see how income imbalances are currently occurring in a predominantly capitalist world, demonstrating Marxist analysis is most definitely a strong merit when describing the disparities that occur under capitalist systems.
However, in ‘The German Ideology’ Marx states that professions are “forced upon him [the worker] and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman …” (Marx and Engels, 1965). In modern societies, this way of life in which professions are passed from generation to generation (within families and sections of society) is less common. The increase in access to education globally, and shift from primary-secondary sectors of the economy to tertiary ones, has given individuals more choice and freedom to enter a variety of fields, and now we see families where every individual is part of a separate profession. There has also been an exponential growth of the middle-class across the globe, suggesting social mobility is still facilitated in a capitalist system. This puts into question the merit of Marxism in the problem that it identifies due to the vast difference between the world that Marx was writing in, and the modern world. In response, I would draw attention to the exploitative hierarchies that are present in the modern world. As Marx and Engels hypothesized, “Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class” (Marx and Engels, 1848). This supports the fact that despite the greater access to education and growth of tertiary sectors, large companies and TNCs still hold overarching power over much of the economy and effectively create a ‘modern bourgeoisie’. They are able to subject workers to zero-hour contracts (such as those seen in McDonalds and Sports Direct) and circumstantially force workers to work in substandard conditions (such as those seen in DHL and Amazon warehouses). Therefore, we can see that despite Marx writing in a time much different to now, Marxism highlights a problem that is timeless; as long capitalist systems are in place, power imbalances can occur, and a ruling class is always able exploit those powerless against them. Marxism gives valid analysis of how capitalist societies have developed and continue to develop whilst neglecting the poor, even in a modern sense, and therefore this aspect of Marxist ideology is a significant merit.
Merit 2: The Solution Is Proposes
Marxism has a further strong merit when looking at what it sees as the solution to the exploitation evident in the capitalist system; an ‘equal’ society with dismantled class divisions, often referred to by Marx as the ‘communist utopia’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). Marx and Engels suggest that “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels, 1848). Essentially, by dismantling class divisions of all types, everyone will be put in equal standing with one another, promoting the growth and development of one another. However, many argue that Marxism is insufficient in addressing other social issues that are relevant to the equality of society. Therefore, Marxism would not be able to achieve a truly equal society if other forms of social injustice such as gender inequality and racism are not addressed at all, limiting the merit and purity of the ‘equality’ that Marxism seeks to reach in society.
Nevertheless, we must not hold Marx’s theory to the moral standards of today’s society. The society in which Marx and Engels were brought up had differing norms from those in modern society, making it perfectly conceivable why the dismantling of class divisions was a core mission and not the dismantling of gender/race-based norms. Accordingly, to ensure that Marxism achieves the greatest equality for all in society, modern Marxist thinkers have taken these cleavages into account. “Racial, sexual, national, linguistic and other oppressions interact with this basic class oppression to produce sections within the working class who are doubly or ‘specially’ oppressed” (D’Amato, 1999). Modern Marxists have incorporated other forms of systematic oppression such as hierarchal sexual ordering and hierarchal racism into Marxist analysis, acknowledging the necessity of this to fully understand the wide range of inequalities that occur in capitalist systems. Therefore, overall, Marxism as an ideology deserves credit for identifying equality between the bourgeoise and proletariat as the solution to the capitalist system, by dismantling hierarchal systems of oppression. Despite Marx and Engels not explicitly including forms of racial and gender oppression in their works, more modern Marxists have ensured that combatting these inequalities is also addressed and incorporated in Marxist ideology. Therefore, Marxism’s merit of identifying a solution remains strong and overcomes criticism.
Merit 3: The Plan of Action
Marxism has weaker merits when it comes to providing a plan of action, to replace capitalist structures, that is compatible with human tendencies. Firstly, it is useful to note that there is conflict between major Marxist thinkers on what is the correct way to implement Marxist ideology (for example, Leninism suggests dictatorship rule), whilst Marx is strongly against a powerful and centralized state. On a broad and general basis, Marxism aims for society to organize naturally along lines, where there is no private property, and equal wealth. Marx suggests that “each would give according to their ability and take according to their needs” (Marx, 2008). However, the implementation of communism in its fullest form is in direct contradiction to human nature. A communist system does not work because it requires people to be altruistic, otherwise those who earn more from ability would have no obligation or desire to give to those who are in need. Unfortunately, working for the benefit of others over the self, is not in harmony with the current state of human tendencies, and therefore there is little merit in the Marxist solution to inequality and oppression. Many thinkers are in support of this view, with Dawkins relating human evolution and the competitive nature of early human society, to modern human selfish nature (Dawkins, 1976).
If this selfishness is owed to evolution, it is conceivable for human tendencies to evolve through education, but Marxist thinkers evidently focus on social and economic upheaval as the solution. Gramsci is the only classical Marxist thinker out of those listed in my introduction, that focuses on other instruments that the ruling class use to control the proletariat, other than economic and social tools. Gramsci suggests cultural hegemony also needs to be addressed in order to fully complete the removal of a ruling class. The bourgeoise can develop a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that they became the ‘common sense’ values of all. By dismantling the capitalist cultural hegemonies that encourage selfishness and profiteering, the nature of humans could adapt and hence, tend towards an altruistic outlook of one another. Therefore, Marxism in the form proposed by Marx and Engels, and Lenin and Trotsky are unable to provide a structural solution with merit to the problem of class divisions and subsequent exploitation. The lack of altruism in current human tendencies leads to incompatibility with the solution of a communist society whereby attention is only given to the economic and social structures of society. However, this does not mean that human tendencies are not adaptable; Gramsci’s suggestion of the dismantling of cultural hegemonies, propagated by the ruling class, provides a basis for fostering more altruistic human tendencies and is what I see as the missing part of Marxism from other thinkers in providing a workable, structural solution to the capitalist system. In this way, Marxism’s solution can be saved but only with the incorporation of Gramsci’s thinking and applying it to ensure that people are satisfied by the communist solution.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that classical Marxism, as an ideology, has strong merits in its identification of the capitalist system as exploitative, and merit in its identification of a society rid of inequality as the solution. These elements of Marxism substantially overcome the criticisms that have been put against them. However, criticisms of Marxism’s plan of action to solve the problem of the capitalist system limit the merit of this element of Marxism. The addition of Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemonies would add merit to the Marxist solution by ensuring that popular support is gathered behind the Marxist cause, otherwise, Marxism is impractical given human tendency to pursue individual goals rather than a common goal. Thus, Marxism as an ideology is unable to overcome criticisms of its practicality in being applied to a wider society setting, unless there is a shift in focus to dismantling cultural acceptance that humans are unable to foster a ‘common goal focused’ environment.