Karl Marx – failures and successes

Karl Marx died 134 years ago, on March 14th, 1883. His work was hugely influential, though not in the way he conceived. He interpreted history in terms of class struggle, believing that societies develop though conflict between those he called the bourgeoisie, who controlled the means of production, and the proletariat, who provided the labour that made the products.

Marx followed the labour theory of value, as had Adam Smith, holding that the value of goods lay in the labour it cost to produce them. The various inputs of production could be valued at the labour it had taken to make them. From this came his view of profit as “surplus value” that derived from exploitation, not paying the worker the true value of his product. The problem with this is that value is not a property that resides in object. It exists in the mind because people value things, and value them differently. We value things; they don’t have value. If nobody values an object, then it has no value, no matter how much labour it might have taken to produce it.

Marx also followed a Hegelian view of how change takes place. In Hegel’s view a state of affairs (the thesis), generates contradictions within it (the antithesis), and from a violent clash between the two, a new order emerges (the synthesis). This, in turn, becomes a new thesis, and the cycle is repeated. History, on this model, moves in triads, though a series of violent clashes. Marx thought that capitalism would and did generate internal contradictions, such as the class-consciousness that comes from putting workers together in factories. From these would come the violent clashes that would ultimately see capitalism replaced by socialism. Revolutionary violence was the force driving change.

It is a pity that Marx had not given more attention to the Darwinian view of change. His “Das Kapital” was published in 1867, eight years after Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” Marx had read Darwin, and admired the way he accounted for human origins without recourse to religion. What he didn’t spot was the mechanism of change, by which innovations gradually over time spread to become the new norms. It provides a more fruitful and convincing account of how human societies develop and change, by evolution rather than revolution.

On the Marxist analysis, the climactic struggle and outcome should have come first in the most advanced and developed economies, those in the fullest and final stage of capitalism. It did not, of course, because Russia was not among them. Lenin simply did what was needed to win power, and rewrote the book afterwards. Mao later did the same in China. Neither case followed the Marxist model of historical progression.

Where Marx did succeed was in pointing to the way in which changes in the economy, specifically in the means of production, lead to changes in its social organization and, indeed, to a society’s culture and its laws. In his 1847 “Poverty of Philosophy,” he wrote, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” Marxists tend to over-egg this insight if they claim this to be the sole cause behind social change, but other historians regard it as one useful key, among others on the chain, as they seek to unlock and understand why the past happened as it did.