Home Marxist Education Education Classes The basic tenets of Marxism: a tool for understanding the world.

The basic tenets of Marxism: a tool for understanding the world.

An Outline Statement for New Members

The basic tenets of Marx’s thought were derived from three separate systems of belief: German philosophy; French utopian socialism; and English political economy. Drawing from these, and by way of inversion, Marx arrived at his basic theoretical position: dialectical and historical materialism.

The Hegelian School of German Philosophy introduced Marx to the idea of the dialectic process at work in history. Hegel posited the theory that all historical change was the product of social conflict, but for Hegel the essential conflict in human society and the consequent "law of motion" in history was but the expression of the dialectic (conflict-debate) process in the human mind. Thus in Hegelian terms the "Idea" was the source of all social, political and historical change. Conversely, Marx considered the "Idea"- the human consciousness- but an expression, albeit not a passive one, of the material world:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.



Marx asserted that Hegelian dialectical idealism, whilst striking at a basic truth, stood the process of historical change on its head, whereas he, with his concept of dialectical materialism, had stood the theory "the right way up".


French Utopian Socialism.

Before the advent of Marx, French utopian socialism constituted the most important body of European socialist thought. Utopian socialism rejected class struggle, was not proletarian-based, and believed in the transformation of society on the basis of an appeal to reason:

"Not one of them (the theorists of utopian socialism) appears as a representative of the interests of the proletariat which historical development had, in the meantime, produced. Like the French philosophers, they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once. If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. (Selected Works Vol.2 p109)

Marx, therefore, while completely accepting the rationale of socialism, utterly rejected the belief that an appeal to reason would transform society and bring about its reorganisation on the basis of socialist principles. Such a concept ran entirely counter to Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism as the motive force in social change. For Marx, socialism could only be achieved on the basis of class conflict. If the utopian socialists appeal was to reason, then Marx’s call was to "arms": only a proletarian "army" was capable of transforming society.

The English Classical Economists.

From the work of the English classical economists, and Ricardo in particular, Marx was able to deepen his understanding of the nature of capitalist society. The essential philosophy of the classical economists was that the individual pursuit of self interest was in the best interests of society as a whole.

Conversely, Marx maintained that individual freedom in economic matters could only be at the expense of the community. In an examination of Ricardo’s theory of "labour value", Marx was able to show that this was the essential basis of class conflict in capitalist society. Marx held that the basis of social conflict at all stages in human history was to be found in the economic contradictions thrown up when existing class relations reached a point where they became a barrier to the fullest possible utilisation of new productive forces. Thus in the same way as feudalism was a barrier to the advance of capitalist modes of production and trading concepts, Marx considered that the capitalist mode of production based on surplus value (the expression of the profit motive) by its very nature led to cyclical slumps and mass unemployment. This was because, in order to make a profit the capitalist had to pay the worker wages that were considerably less than the value of the worker’s product. Consequently, the market which is largely determined by the purchasing power of the worker could not absorb the sum total product of industry. Industrial capitalism therefore was the victim of recurring "crises of overproduction", and as such was a barrier to the fullest and most effective utilisation of the means of production. Marx recognised that the capitalist mode of production had ushered in vast new forces of productive capacity, but because of the internal contradictions within the system could not utilise them to the full.

The Role of the State.

The maintenance of power by a ruling class, Marx asserted, was achieved both through ideology and by means of coercion. In every society the ideology of the ruling class found expression through religion, art, literature, and culture in general. Thus the ideology of the ruling class was the ideology of the majority of the people for most of the time. However, history had shown the ideology of the old order came under attack from the lower classes when economic contradictions became particularly manifest. Therefore all past social conflict, whether expressed through religion, or abstract concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity, was but the expression of the underlying economic contradictions.

For the most part, Marx held, the ruling class maintained its position of dominance by virtue of its control over ideas; but in the background, always ready to be brought into force when the power of ideology failed was the iron fist of state coercion, expressed through the army and police. Marx therefore decreed that the struggle for socialism had to be conducted in two ways: through the battle of ideas and by the creation of a revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading the struggle for the conquest of political power.

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