Thursday, 19 November 2009

Politics/Philosophy: Engels explains Marx

Friedrich Engels summarises Marxism in one paragraph!

In his preface to the 1883 German edition of the "Communist Manifesto", Engels summarises Marxist thought in a sigle paragraph:-
(The text is taken from the Penguin Classics edition: the numbers inserted are mine, and refer to notes at the end)

"The basic thought running through the Manifesto - that economic production and the structure of society of every epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of the epoch (1); that consequently (ever since the dissolution of the primeval communal ownership of land) all history has been the history of class struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development (2); that this struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie) (3), without at the same time freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression and class struggles (4) - this basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to Marx (5)"


(1) A philosophical & psychological concept. Human consciousness is not innate and unchanging, but is determined by the social and economic environment in which we live. Hegel, a generation before Marx, had recognised that people in the middle ages thought differently from modern people (e.g. they might be more concerned with the salvation of their souls than with making money). Mill and other liberal and utilitarian philosophers saw man as essentially a self-seeking competitive individualist, but Marx denied this was innate: it was merely that possessive individualism was the attitude best suited to success in capitalist society. People had thought differently in the past, and in the future, if social and economic conditions changed, people would think differently again. It does appear that Marx thought the working classes had a different consciousness; motivated by class solidarity and co-operation rather than individual competition. In any case, possessive individualism was ultimately a false consciousness, since the vast majority of people were doomed to fail in such a competition.

(2) A theory of history. Society is divided into classes whose interests are irreconcilable. Thus, in the middle ages, when society was divided into lords and peasants, it was in the interests of the former that the peasants should do the maximum of work for the minimum of reward, whereas the interests of the peasants was precisely the opposite. At any given stage, there is a ruling class, which holds political power and uses it to further its own class interests, and an oppressed class. History is the story of struggle between the classes. All important events since the end of the middle ages have been caused by the rise of a new class, the urban bourgeoisie, which eventually managed to wrest political power from the old landed nobility: the most spectacular case being the French Revolution. Now the bourgeoisie (the capitalists) hold power and run society in their interests, against those of the new oppressed class, the urban workers (proletariat), who do all the hard work for inadequate reward. Marx always saw history as progress: he always portrayed capitalist society as a vast improvement on mediaeval feudal society, but he denied that it was the final stage of human development; the coming stage, communist society, would be much better.

(3) The coming revolution. The proletariat will overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels were confident this would take place in the near future, though they never gave much detail of the actual process of the revolution, or even whether it would necessarily be violent. The intense competition for profits would compel capitalists to reduce their wage-bills in order to save money, thus not only driving the workers to despair, but also resulting in people being unable to afford to buy the products that capitalism produced. There would thus be increasingly deep ecomonic slumps and business bankruptcies until eventually the whole capitalist system would collapse; brought down not so much by its brutality as by its inefficiency. In 1848 when the "Communist Manifesto" was written, revolution seemed imminent. By 1883, when Engels wrote this preface, Marx was dead and Engels had noticed a number of significant social and political changes which he described in a later book, "Socialism, Utopian and Scientific". General prosperity had increased, and the state was starting to provide social security systems for the masses. nevertheless, engels never wavered in his belief that revolution would come.

(4) A prediction of future society. After the revolution there will be "communist society", with only be one class (the proletariat), and consequently no more class conflict or exploitation. This will last for ever, and human history as we know it will stop - though Marxists would argue that true human history coild now start: mankind will at last be the master of his own destiny, instead of being pushed around by blind social and economic forces. The coercive state will "wither away". (It should be stressed that no Marxist governments ever pretended they had achieved Communism; they merely argued they were well on their way towards it) Human nature will change: possessive individualism will disappear and be replaced by something more co-operative. (Interestingly enough, Mill had argued that communism was bound to fail because he regarded possessive individualism as innate in human nature. At present, the advantage seems to lie with Mill)

(5) Engels adds the following footnote:- "This proposition ..... is destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology". Just as Darwinism enables us to understand life on earth, so Marxism enables us to make sense of what happened in history: to perceive a theme in what would otherwise appear as a meaningless collection of random events. It also enables us to predict what will happen in the future, and perhaps 'help it on a bit': not something that Darwin would ever have claimed for his theories, though many of his followers did!

No comments:

Post a Comment