HS-102 Readings

Socialism and Marxism




    Socialism is an ideology whose defining condition is ownership of the means of production by the government or by a collective.

     Since private owners of the means of production (capitalists) exploited the workers, the way to end the exploitation was to take ownership from the capitalists and put it in the hands of the government.

     The power of the capitalists and the powerlessness of the workers was nowhere more evident than in the early factory system.

     While workers thought in terms of "bread and butter" issues (hours, wages, working conditions), there were a few aristocratic and middle class philosophers who identified with the oppression of the working class and developed the socialist ideology.

     There were a number of "utopian socialists" whose ideas were either never realized or involved only limited communities which failed to last. Among these were Saint Simon whose concern for workers was an outgrowth of a sense of Christian brotherhood; Robert Owen, a Scottish industrialist who provided a "model" community for his workers at New Lanark, Scotland and later founded a utopian community called New Harmony,  Indiana; and Louis Blanc who developed the idea of "social workshops" where the workers shared in the ownership of the workshop and made the management decisions.

     More important for the future was "scientific socialism" or Marxism, which Karl Marx developed in a more rigorous way as a system which, he said, was evolving from historical circumstances, rooted in a class struggle made inevitable by economic developments. Though no Marxist movement was able to acquire political power in the 19th century, there would be self-described Marxists in the 20th century who would achieve political power and claim that they were carrying out the Marxist prediction.

    Marx wrote in terms of a dialectical process, a struggle between opposites, as the historical process which brought change. His view of a struggle between classes is called dialectical materialism.

    In any particular era, it was said, there was a dominant, ruling class and an oppressed class. As economic circumstances changed, a new ruling class emerged and a new oppressed class was created. As an example, in the traditional period (pre-liberal revolution), the ruling class was the aristocracy and the oppressed class was the peasantry. In the modern period, the new ruling class were the capitalists or bourgeoisie and the new oppressed class were the working class or the proletariat.

    Marx saw the enormous productivity of capitalism, but also looked at its evils:
      1. Competition drove the less successful into bankruptcy, while those who survived became ever more powerful and wealthier.
       2. Workers were powerless to protect themselves against a system which demeaned the value of labor, reducing it to a commodity, rather than recognizing labor as the true measure of value.
        3. Workers were exploited. The details of this exploitation were described, in detail,  by his close friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels.

    Marx predicted the collapse of capitalism through its inherent contradictions: ruthless competition among capitalists would destroy capitalism. Its own decadence would invite the proletarian revolution to overthrow the capitalist state.

    The state was defined by Marx as the instrument by which one class dominates another.  The liberal goals of the bourgeois (liberal) revolution were dismissed as meaningless, because only the capitalist class benefited.

    The capitalist state would be replaced by the proletarian state which he called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    The proletarian state would create a socialist economy and a classless society. Once that was accomplished, the state would no longer have a purpose, and would wither away.

    The result would be the communist society, in which the great productive capacity of the new economy, evenly distributed according to need, would enable  people to perform work for self-fulfillment rather than for monetary value.

    Marxism was never realized by any government in the 19th century, but because some governments in the 20th century have claimed to be Marxist, it is important to understand its appeal.

    The "Achilles heel" of liberalism is the fact that, without government intervention in the private market, the lower class live lives of desperation , while surrounded by others who have wealth and live in luxury. This inherent injustice will always give the Marxist vision a magnetic appeal, even if that vision cannot be realized.

West Homepage