Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow. Yet we’re also
often keen to dismiss the ideas of capitalism’s most famous and ambitious critic, Karl Marx.
This isn’t very surprising. In practice,
his political and economic ideas have been used to design disastrously planned economies
and nasty dictatorships.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t reject Marx too quickly. We ought to see him as a guide whose
diagnosis of Capitalism’s ills helps us navigate towards a more promising future.
Capitalism is going to have be reformed - and Marx’s analyse are going to be part of any
answer. Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany.
Soon he became involved with the Communist
party, a tiny group of intellectuals advocating for the overthrow of the class system and
the abolition of private property. He worked as a journalist and had to flee Germany, eventually
settling in London.
Marx wrote an enormous number of books and articles, sometimes with his friend Friedrich Engels
Mostly, Marx wrote about Capitalism, the type of economy that dominates the western world.
It was, in his day, still getting going, and Marx was one of its most intelligent and perceptive critics.
These were some of the problems he identified with it:
Modern work is “alienated” One of Marx’s greatest insights is that
work can be one of the sources of our greatest joys.
But in order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need ‘to see themselves
in the objects they have created’. Think of the person who built this chair:
it is straightforward, strong, honest and elegant
It’s an example of how, at its best, labour offers us a chance to externalise
what’s good inside us. But this is increasingly rare in the modern world.
Part of the problem is that modern work is incredibly specialised. Specialised jobs make
the modern economy highly efficient, but they also mean that it is seldom possible for any
one worker to derive a sense of the genuine contribution they might be making to the real
needs of humanity. Marx argued that modern work leads to
alienation = Entfremdung
in other words, a feeling of disconnection between what you do all day and who you feel
you really are and what you think you ideally be able to contribute to existence.
Modern work is insecure Capitalism makes the human being utterly expendable;
just one factor among others in the forces of production that can ruthlessly be let go
the minute that costs rise or savings can be made through technology. And yet, as Marx
knew, deep inside of us, we don’t want to be arbitrarily let go, we are terrified of
being abandoned. Communism isn’t just an economic theory.
Understood emotionally, it expresses a deep-seated longing that we always have a place in the
world’s heart, that we will not be cast out.
Workers get paid little while capitalists get rich
This is perhaps the most obvious qualm Marx had with Capitalism. In particular, he believed
that capitalists shrunk the wages of the labourers as much as possible in order to skim off a
wide profit margin.
He called this primitive accumulation = ursprüngliche Akkumulation
Whereas capitalists see profit as a reward for ingenuity and technological talent, Marx
was far more damning. Profit is simply theft, and what you are stealing is the talent and
hard work of your work force.
However much one dresses up the fundamentals, Marx insists that at its crudest, capitalism
means paying a worker one price for doing something that can be sold for another, much
higher one. Profit is a fancy term for exploitation.
Capitalism is very unstable
Marx proposed that capitalist systems are characterised by series of crises. Every crisis
is dressed up by capitalists as being somehow freakish and rare and soon to be the last one. Far from it, argued Marx,
crises are endemic to capitalism - and they’re caused by something very odd. The fact that
we’re able to produce too much - far more than anyone needs to consume.
Capitalist crises are crises of abundance, rather than - as in the past - crises of shortage.
Our factories and systems are so efficient, we could give everyone on this planet a car,
a house, access to a decent school and hospital.
That’s what so enraged Marx and made him hopeful too. Few of us need to work, because
the modern economy is so productive.
But rather than seeing this need not to work as the freedom it is, we complain about it
masochistically and describe it by a pejorative word “unemployment.” We should call it freedom.
There’s so much unemployment for a good and deeply admirable reason: because we’re
so good at making things efficiently. We’re not all needed at the coal face.
But in that case, we should - thought Marx - make leisure admirable. We should redistribute
the wealth of the massive corporations that make so much surplus money and give it to
This is, in its own way, as beautiful a dream as Jesus’s promise of heaven; but a good
deal more realistic sounding.
Capitalism is bad for capitalists
Marx did not think capitalists were evil. For example, he was acutely aware of the sorrows
and secret agonies that lay behind bourgeois marriage.
Marx argued that marriage was actually an extension of business, and that the bourgeois
family was fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment, with people staying together
not for love but for financial reasons.
Marx believed that the capitalist system forces everyone to put economic interests at the
heart of their lives, so that they can no longer know deep, honest relationships. He
called this psychological tendency
commodity fetishism = Warenfetischismus
because it makes us value things that have no objective value.
He wanted people to be freed from financial constraint so that they could - at last - start
to make sensible, healthy choices in their relationships.
The 20th century feminist answer to the oppression of women has been to argue that women should
be able to go out to work. Marx’s answer was more subtle. This feminist insistence
merely perpetuates human slavery. The point isn’t that women should imitate the sufferings
of their male colleagues,it’s that men and women should have the permanent option to
Why don’t we all think a bit more like marx?
An important aspect of Marx’s work is that he proposes that there is an insidious, subtle
way in which the economic system colours the sort of ideas that we ending up having.
The economy generates what Marx termed an “ideology”.
A capitalist society is one where most people, rich and poor, believe all sorts of things
that are really just value judgements that relate back to the economic system: that a
person who doesn’t work is worthless, that leisure (beyond a few weeks a year) is sinful,
that more belongings will make us happier and that worthwhile things (and people) will
invariably make money.
In short, one of the biggest evils of Capitalism is not that there are corrupt people at the
top—this is true in any human hierarchy—but that capitalist ideas teach all of us to be
anxious, competitive, conformist, and politically complacent.
Marx didn’t only outline what was wrong capitalism: we also get glimpses of what Marx
wanted the ideal utopian future to be like.
In his Communist Manifesto he describes a world without private property or inherited wealth,
with a steeply graduated income tax, centralised control of the banking, communication, and
transport industries, and free public education. Marx also expected that communist society
would allow people to develop lots of different sides of their natures:
“in communist society…it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow,
to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after
dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
After Marx moved to London he was supported by his friend and intellectual partner Friedrich
Engels, a wealthy man whose father owned a cotton plant in Manchester. Engels covered
Marx’s debts and made sure his works were published. Capitalism paid for Communism.
The two men even wrote each other adoring poetry.
Marx was not a well-regarded or popular intellectual in his day.
Respectable, conventional people of Marx’s
day would have laughed at the idea that his ideas could remake the world. Yet just a few
decades later they did: his writings became the keystone for some of the most important
ideological movements of the 20th century.
But Marx was like a brilliant doctor in the early days of medicine. He could recognise
the nature of the disease, although he had no idea how to go about curing it.
At this point in history, we should all be Marxists in the sense of agreeing with his
diagnosis of our troubles. But we need to go out and find the cures that will really
work. As Marx himself declared, and we deeply agree:
Philosophers until now have only interpreted
the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.