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Basic Theoretical Principles of Karl Marx: Historical and Social Context

Updated on December 15, 2017
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Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Communism was beautiful on paper but in practice was twisted and distorted. The result was hideous, quite Orwellian and, deadly. The idea of communism as it was intended was idealisitic; in practice it brought misery and death to millions.

I wrote the following many years ago.

Some of the strongest and most influential arguments concerning social theory were brought forth by Karl Marx. As is the case with many theorists, Marx was greatly influenced by the social events that were taking place in his younger days.

The 1830's and 40's, the years of Marx's young manhood, were years of profound despair for the German educated classes. What transpired in France after Louis Philippe relinquished his rule was of great significance. The powerful industrialists were at conflict with the working class over differences pertaining to employment. The political parties of the time had tried to settle the disputes, but to no avail. Then, with the support of the farm-holding peasants, Louis Napoleon was chosen as the new leader. The working class experienced an expansion of privileges under this more liberal leadership. This leadership under Napoleon soon decayed, and The Holy Alliance took control of the nation's government. Under Napoleon's French Regime, the Jews, who had suffered from civil disabilities earlier, achieved equal rights as citizens. They owed their emancipation to the Napoleonic regime which had incorporated Trier, Marx's birthplace, into the confederation of the Rhine. However, after Napoleon's defeat, the Rhineland was assigned by the Congress of Vienna to Prussia, where Jews were still deprived of their civil rights. Saint Simon, a theorist of the early 1800s, said that the Holy Alliance "increased taxes, protected the rich; their church and their courts, their very attempts at progress, depend on nothing but force; they keep two million men under arms" (Wilson 1972:100). A blanket of repression covered all those who attempted to think independently. This repressive regime was depressing to those who had had some freedom under Napoleon's regime. Liberals who had dreamed of reform prior to Napoleon's defeat found themselves in a police regime considerably more efficient than its predecessors.

Germany was lagging behind France and England not only politically, but socially and economically as well. The middle classes had failed to attain power, and various traditional, sectional and religious interests divided the country, thus preventing the emergence of a unified middle class movement. Government supervision hampered the growth of free capitalism. The state governments severely regulated exports and imports. For example, permission was required before a mine could be opened; it could also be withdrawn after the owner was in business. Under such social and economic conditions, the lower and middle strata of the professionals, the administrators, and the educated became the major proponents of nationalism and liberalism. Young men not yet burdened by responsibility and position were in the lead of the movement. These were the people who were firmly prevented from engaging in any practical activities that might bring about concrete freedom.

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in the Rhenish city of Trier where his father practiced law. He was born into a long line of Jewish ancestors who had always been oppressed and exploited because of their religious beliefs and practices. Threatened with the loss of his legal practice due to the Jewish stigma, Marx's father decided in 1817 to convert to the liberal Lutheran Church of Prussia. He regarded this conversion as necessary to the future of his law practice and assigned this change no moral significance.

From all accounts, it seems that Marx's mother, who was largely uneducated, never had much of an influence on Karl, however, relations with his father, despite some strain, remained close almost throughout his life. Marx's father taught Karl about the world of human learning through the letters of the great figures of the Enlightenment, and also introduced him to the Greek and German classics. As Karl matured, he began to develop spite for his father because he was subservient to government authority thereby weakening the intellectual bonds between them. Karl decided he wanted to further his education, and with his father's blessing, set out to do so.

At the age of 17, Karl registered with the faculty of law at the University of Bonn. In 1836 he left Bonn to transfer to the University of Berlin where he studied philosophy, in particular the criticism of law and religion. Berlin, as the capital, offered a very exciting atmosphere. It was here that Marx was influenced and joined a group of young philosophers called the Young Hegelians. They associated themselves with Georg Hegel, the German philosopher who had raised critical questions about man's way of thinking. The Young Hegelians criticized many social institutions by attributing religious overtones to them. The Young Hegelians considered conceptions, thoughts and ideas to be products of human consciousness. Due to Marx's provoking, argumentative manner, his proposals at their meetings were often voted down "because everyone whose feelings had been hurt by his conduct was inclined to support everything that Marx did not favor" (Wilson 1972:199). Under the radical and freethinking influence of several of the Young Hegelians, Marx abandoned the aspirations of a law career and instead devoted himself to the study of philosophy.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

After several years of philosophizing, Marx faced an uncertain future and had no prospects for a career. He found that opportunities for his employment, especially at the University of Bonn, were scarce due to his anti-religious beliefs. The fact that he was denied acceptance at UB because of his personal beliefs, probably affirmed to him that the owning class did not want Karl Marx to interfere with their profit-seeking. Governments worldwide were offended by his critiques written in various journals, and they tried to smother his ideologies by denying him entrance to their nations. Marx would have probably said his rejections by these governments were caused by the governments' fears that the common people would listen to him, realize he was right, and revolt in hopes of change. These early difficulties within Marx's life, coupled with the societal transformations of the time, influenced Marx's future social thought.

It was not long before Karl's talents were recognized and he was asked to write radical articles involving the practical battles of the day. He wrote about the misery of the peasantry and the "harsh treatment the poor received for the theft of timber in forests to which they thought they had a communal right" (Coser 1971:60). Because of these articles, Marx became known as a radical writer and his articles were suppressed. Again, he was looking for a new station in life.

Because of his exposure to the Young Hegelians and his personal middle-class background, Marx regarded the laws of modern society as being based on an inevitable historical process which, in turn, was based on moral and human implications. He saw these institutions being undermined by the economic and social realities of his day. He deemed it "right" to identify with the sufferings of the workers in the present phase/s of capitalism. He felt this identification was correct because it was also historically inevitable "given the laws of economic and social evolution, that the workers were the exploited class and were destined for victorious overthrow of capitalism" (Marx 1973:xiii).

In 1843, Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, his childhood sweetheart. Shortly thereafter, Marx began to pour much of his energy into writing many volumes of social and political history and theory. Losing hope that a position could be found in Germany, due to the changing social atmosphere, Marx left for Paris in hopes of attaining an academic position. The Paris years, from 1843-1845, were as important for Marx's intellectual development as the years of exposure to the Young Hegelians. Due to the tolerant government in Paris, it became a haven for radicals who had, like Marx himself, left their homeland where they had been persecuted for their activities and beliefs. Marx met many radicals in Paris to whom he talked and compared his own thoughts and social theories. Most importantly, it was in Paris that his lifelong friendship with Frederick Engels began. It was through Engels, a textile manufacturer's son, that Marx was introduced to an understanding of the concrete conditions and the misery of working class life.

The harsh conditions of the factories were claiming the lives of thousands. The workers were being killed off at the rate of fourteen hundred a year through the "breaking of rotten ropes, the caving-in of workings due to over-excavated seams and the explosions due to bad ventilation and to the negligence of tired children; if they escaped catastrophic accidents, the lung diseases eventually got them" (Wilson 1972:160-161). Engels studied the city's Parliament structure (those who represented the city in Parliament) and realized that they were crowding the middle-class movement into the background so they could continue to maximize profits by exploiting the working class.

Marx's continued intellectual friendship with Engels, coupled with his previous social experiences, converted him to socialism. Shortly after his conversion, Marx wrote many of his early works which explicated his philosophical and political positions. Most of these works were not published during his lifetime, "having been written primarily as a means for intellectual self-clarification" (Coser 1971:62).

Engels was born in 1820 in the industrial town of Barmens. In 1841, Engels, like Marx before him, attended the University of Berlin where he aspired to study philosophy. Like Marx, Engels came under the influence of the Young Hegelians and learned much from their styles of critique. It was soon afterwards that Engels was converted to communism by Moses Hess, the son of a Jewish manufacturer. Hess had traveled in England and France and had come to the conclusion that eliminating hatred between nations was impossible without first reducing commercial competition. These opinions of Hess, along with Engels' association with the Young Hegelians, had a significant influence on Engels. He did not fully realize the impact of Hess's opinions until he (Engels) went to Manchester where he witnessed severe economic depression and unemployment.

"He saw the working people living like rats in the wretched little dens of their dwellings, sometimes even without beds to sleep on when all the furniture had been sold for firewood, sometimes living in the same room with the pigs; spending their lives, without a sewage system, among the piles of their excrement and garbage; spreading epidemics of typhus and cholera" (Wilson 1972:160).

Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels

Shortly afterwards, the French government acted to expel Marx upon the request of Prussia. This action was taken because Marx had made some anti-royalist comments within some socialist papers. Marx then fled to Brussels where he made contact with the Worker's Educational Association. They commissioned Marx to write The Communist Manifesto. This doctrine outlined the aims and beliefs of the working class. When the German revolution broke out in 1848, Marx returned to his native land to once again write radical papers in hopes of fueling the revolution. When the revolution failed, Marx was asked by the French government to leave. He then relocated to London, the city in in which he was to remain.

Engels traveled in London as well. He noted the masses of people who swarmed by one another oblivious to the presence of other people. He, like Marx, noticed the alienation one could feel within a city such as London. He saw individuals in these large cities as being helpless and selfish. He felt "the brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are herded together within a limited space" (Wilson 1972:162). In London, as in Manchester, Engels noticed the ever growing phenomenon of distinct economic classes. He witnessed how the middle class in England was being absorbed by both sides. He envisioned the on-coming reality of a poor proletariat confronting an abundantly rich owning class.

Engels, like Marx, yearned to ease the condition of the working class through education of the ignorant masses, making them aware of the horrid, unnecessary conditions to which the owners subjected them. Engels thought the literature of the day was concealed in subject matter that neglected to deal with the oppressive circumstances that were taking place. According to Engels, what the masses needed was German philosophy. This would teach the workers how a person could become one's own master.

In London, Marx isolated himself with his family, Engels and a few friends. Because of his intense pursuit of personal intellectual endeavors and his poor handwriting, Marx could not find regular employment. As a result, most of the London period for Marx was spent in extreme poverty. He continued his scholarly tasks even when he and his family were pursued by angry creditors and found lodging difficult to obtain. Three of his children died from malnutrition which was complicated by improper care. In the case of one, Marx had no money to pay for a coffin until one of his disciples helped him out. "Had it not been for the financial support that the devoted Engels gave to the full measure of his ability, the family might have gone completely under" (Coser 1971:64).

In 1863, Marx joined the International, an international federation for working men who had pledged to end the prevailing economic system and replace it with some form of collective ownership. Due to his brilliant writing style and his powerful oratorical abilities, Marx was soon chosen as leader of the International. With his new position and his authorship of Das Capital, a book "that sought to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society" (Coser 1971:66), Marx must have felt he had finally achieved the union of socialist theory and revolutionary practice he had long sought. This unity did not last long. Due to quarreling among the members, the International soon began to weaken. Marx tried to revive the International by moving it to the US, but to no avail. The International died in the US in 1876.

Toward the end of his life, Marx finally achieved a measure of comfortable living. Engels, the more affluent of the two, enabled Marx to spend his last few years in relative ease. In 1881, Marx's wife died and Marx himself died in his study on March 14, 1883.

The formation of Marx's intellect is usually associated with Hegelian philosophy and the study of political economy and its effect on society. His intellect was further shaped by his great respect (thanks to his father) for the Enlightenment, which had stressed the gradual and harmonious progress of mankind. Marx, an avid reader, was influenced by much previous literature, not to mention the famous thinkers who had composed these past works. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, whom Marx admired, held the common belief that the human environment could be altered to allow a fuller and more wholesome development of human capacities. Perhaps this early type of optimistic thought influenced Marx to think revolution was the best way to better society. These early philosophers thought, like Marx, that humans are objects of nature, yet they also have the capacity to improve their condition through education. They also thought the abandoning of superstitious and irrational beliefs would enable people to face the "real world". This sounds very much like Marx's comments on an "illusory happiness". The intellects of the Enlightenment viewed people as socialized beings who could only better themselves by changing the circumstances in which they lived.

Marx was influenced by the Kantian (Emanual Kant) philosophy which saw the history of humankind as a "gradual unfolding" of our true spirit. Kant felt the "ideal state" could only be obtained through wars, revolutions and much strife. Marx's intellect was further influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who thought people were innately good but that they had been forcibly corrupted by the society in which they lived. He saw men as the creators of a society which in turn had brought forth inequality. To overcome these problems, Rousseau thought people could bond together to overthrow "bad" social institutions in order to obtain a better life.

Marx was also influenced by the views of Hegel's philosophy which envisioned history as the progression of stages. Hegel, a German Idealist, saw existing societies as containing the ingredients for future societies. He thought it a mistake to view history from a standpoint of various spheres of culture; he instead wanted history to be portrayed in a complete, unified manner. Hegel's views came from his knowledge of ancient Greece, an ideal civilization of harmony and unity that was eventually destroyed by specialization. He also noted that the rising of social classes, increased wealth of the aristocracy, and military control, were also factors that caused the fall of ancient Greece. Since the masses no longer had control of their own lives, the Grecian civilization was no longer the product of its citizens. Although I discuss only a few of the thinkers who had an impact on Marx, we can see from the above comments how much Marx borrowed from other theorists, especially in regard to their ideas of alienation, history, etc.

Marx's and Engels' work was in radical opposition to that in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. They considered his book a rationalization of the greedy motives behind the system of private property which had already damaged British society. It was this type of idealistic, utopianistic thought that Marx and Engels hoped to fight against. Saint Simon, a social theorist of the early 1800's, wanted to improve the conditions of the poor, as did Marx and Engels. Simon thought the propertied classes must be made to understand that an improvement in the condition of the poor would mean an improvement within the owning class. Marx and Engels accepted several points of Saint Simon's theory, in particular his discovery that modern politics was simply the science of regulating production.

Under Hegel's influence, Engels and Marx became ardent proponents of Hegel's Dialectical Materialism. This was a principle of change conceived by Hegel. This principle was a law which involved contradiction and reconciliaiton and could be operationalized in the natural world and within human history. Hegel said, "The world is always changing, but its changes have this element of uniformity: that each of them must pass through a cycle of three phases" (Wilson 1972:210). He termed these elements the thesis, a process of affirmation and unification, the antithesis, a splitting off from the thesis, and the synthesis, the reconciliation of the thesis and antithesis. The synthesis was seen as an advance over the thesis because it produced a unification which displayed the best features of both the thesis and antithesis. Marx and Engels adopted this principle and applied it to their concept of capitalistic society and the future. Their thesis was the bourgeoisie society, which had unified out of the disintegration of the feudal regime. Their antithesis was the proletariat, which had been produced by the development of modern industry. This split of the proletariat from society was due to the specialization imposed upon them by the bourgeoisie. This was the factor that would begin to turn the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The synthesis, or result of this conflict between the owners and the workers, would be the commencement of communist society. This conquest of the industrial plants by the working class would represent a higher unity for society because it would harmonize the interest of all humankind. It was through the Dialectic method that Marx formulated his technique of thought which transcended to his literary style.

To better understand how Marx's early life influenced his mature social thought, we need to look at more than the events, conditions and changes that were going on around him. There is no doubt that his family's departure from the Jewish faith, mixed with his middle class upbringing, had a large impact on his social thought. At a time when the middle class was being depleted, it is no wonder that Marx formed his views of conflict. He realized that governments the world over suppressed his literature because they were afraid it would do exactly what he wanted it to do: to educate the working class about the unnecessary misery and suffering the owning class was subjugating the workers to. These early thoughts of Marx had been embraced by the Young Hegelians who had helped to sharpen and focus Marx's early social thought. In noting that German culture at that time was dominated by the uneducated and the "illusion" of religion, the Young Hegelians had made the critique of religion one of their philosophical tasks. Marx's critical thinking, mixed with his early experiences with religion and the Young Hegelians, were definite building blocks for many of the views he held throughout his entire life. Considering his social environment, and the influences of his intellectual predecessors, it is no wonder that Marx came to view history as nothing but the succession of separate generations.

He saw these generations as being exploitative in relationship to materials, capital, and the productive forces handed down by preceding generations. This intellectual view of history was the foundation for Marx's thought concerning the stages leading to capitalist society and to his vision of a future communist world. First, it seems relevent to closer examine Marx's controversial view of human history.

Marx thought the evolution of people was characterized by people's struggles with nature. This notion probably was held by Marx because of the conflicts he noticed between different religious affiliations and economic status groups, not to mention the overall social turmoil (mentioned earlier) of his day. He said,

"History is the history of man's self-realization; it is nothing but the self-creation of man through the process of his work and his production: the whole of what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labor, and the emergence of nature for man; he therefore has the evident and irrefutable proof of his self-creation, of his own origins" (Fromm 1961:26).

In other words, history, according to Marx, was a process of the continuous creation, satisfaction and re-creation of human needs. "The same holds true for all other achievements of man; ideas, art, any kind of man-made objects. They are man's creations; they are valuable aids for life, yet each one of them is also a trap, a temptation to confuse life with things, experience with artifacts, feeling with surrender and submission" (Giddens 1971:13). Yet Marx was confident that someday the social structure would change for the better. In fact, he said, "At one point of history man will have developed the productive sources of nature to such an extent that the antagonism between man and nature can be eventually solved" (Fromm 1961:19). Here we note Marx's optimistic attitude concerning humankind. He saw each individual as being influenced by previous cultures, and by interaction with the natural and social world in which people live. He thought people could contribute to the further modification of future society. Now that we have an understanding of Marx's views concerning many facets of human interaction, we can begin to see how he applied these views to the different stages of society of which he saw history comprised.

Statue of Vladamir Ilyich Lenin beside Soviet flag.  He was a marxist revolutionary and leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  He was the first leader of Communist Russia (USSR).  It is estimated 1.5-6 million died violently during his rule.
Statue of Vladamir Ilyich Lenin beside Soviet flag. He was a marxist revolutionary and leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He was the first leader of Communist Russia (USSR). It is estimated 1.5-6 million died violently during his rule.

Marx looked at industrial capitalist societies, as well as all societies in general, as generating stratification, conflict and change of social structures. He saw these strata as being influenced by patterns of social organization based on technological resources, productive activities, the division of labor, and the different need-levels of members within a certain population. In this early stage of development, all would have access to the means of production; a visible example being the !Kung who share the food which is obtained by hunting and gathering. As this metamorphosis proceeds, Marx begins to make definite distinctions between capitalist and non-capitalist societies. Other societies develop a pattern of rank differentiation based on control of the means of subsistence in which certain key figures gain control through kin relationships. These leaders do not contribute an equal share of their labor to the whole. "Division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears" (Marx 1973:11). Industrial capitalist societies, on the other hand, involve a system based upon the control and distribution of the means of subsistence which creates a class system; namely the bourgeoisie and proletariat. According to Marx, "classes emerge where the relations of production involve a differentiated division of labor which allows for the accumulation of surplus production that can be appropriated by a minority grouping, which thus stands in an exploitative relationship to the mass of producers" (Giddens 1971:36).

In industrial capitalist societies, Marx later saw the materialization of technological factors (McCormick's reaper, sewing machine, etc.) as increasing the amount of production possible per worker and thus decreasing the needed labor force. "The hour [had] struck for the advent of machinery. The decisively revolutionary machine, the machine which attacks in an equal degree the whole of the numberless branches of this sphere of production" (Marx 1973:56). This technological implementation rudely awakened the working class to the realization that they were the victims of the owners' unquenchable drive for profit. The owners also realized they had to be competitive with other owners or else they too would become victims.

Non-capitalist societies, while becoming aware of opposing interests, turned to increasing social differentiation through higher and lower rank such as having a chief, medicine man, soothsayer, etc. This social differentiation, which favored the male, could have led to an increasing preponderance of unfair practices committed against women and other subordinate individuals, yet a class distinction was still absent. Meanwhile, industrial capitalist societies continue to undergo worse conflicts due to the ever-widening interests of the worker, who is laboring to earn a living, and the owner, who is exploiting the worker to increase his profit. "The more productive capital grows, the more it extends the division of labor and the application of machinery; the more the division of labor and the application of machinery extend, the more does competition extend among the workers, the more do their wages shrink together" (Marx 1973:97). Marx saw this growth of productive capital to be the result of the endless exploitation of the working class by the owning class in which the owners tried to produce as much as they could for the lowest price.

"Wherever the bourgeoisie has risen to power, it has destroyed all feudal, patriarchal and idyllic relationships. It has ruthlessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound men to their 'natural superiors'; it has left no other bond between man and man but crude self-interest and callous 'cash-payment.' It has drowned pious zeal, chivalrous enthusiasm and popular sentimentalism in the chill waters of selfish calculation. It has degraded personal dignity to the level of exchange value; and in place of countless dearly bought chartered freedoms, it has set up one solitary unscrupulous freedom---that is, freedom of trade. In a word, it has replaced exploitation veiled in religious and political illusions by exploitation that is open, unashamed, direct and brutal." (Wilson 1972:188).

Marx saw these overt conflicts among non-capitalistic societies, as eventually leading to violent class struggles in which the workers would overthrow the profit seeking class. This would create the need for a complete formulation of a new structure based on new needs, technologies, productive activities and especially the division of labor. Marx's final answer to these problems was the end state of communism. The general social structures continue to have conflict among the ranks which, like the industrial capitalist society, need a new social organization. However, the general system does not die; instead, it forms new patterns within the same structure based on resources, production, division of labor and especially the needs of the members within the population. This, then, would lead to stability, which the non-capitalistic societies had experienced in earlier stages.

Josef Stalin was the leader of the USSR after Lenin died.  Many millions died violently under Stalin's rule----far more than under Lenin
Josef Stalin was the leader of the USSR after Lenin died. Many millions died violently under Stalin's rule----far more than under Lenin

Marx noted that the division of labor was not only based in Europe, but also internationally. He thought perhaps the reason India had been invaded so many times was because the people within India are divided into various subgroups according to caste or religion. Due to these various subgroups, the people of India are too weak to defend themselves. In regard to India, Marx said, "What we call its history, is but the history of the successsive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresting and unchanging society" (Marx 1973:138). The English aided the destruction of India by breaking up the native communities and uprooting their native industry. The advent of increased transportation also aided in the weakening of India to external influence.

Like the Indians, the Chinese were corrupted by the British. This was accomplished largely with the marketing of opium. This powerful drug weakened the authority, which in turn led to the downfall of the Manchu dynasty. People began to form physical dependencies upon this drug and it tore apart every facet of traditional Chinese society. Due to their new faith in opium, the Chinese began to neglect their ancient religious ideologies. Their dependence on opium is exactly what the British wanted. This enabled the British to penetrate the most isolated regions of China.

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations, even the most barbarian, into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst. In a word, it creates a world after its own image" (Marx 1983:13).

Both India and China were seen as new money making frontiers to the bourgeoisie. The British capitalistic markets were beginning to dominate the entire world.

Regardless of their residence, Marx saw the owning class as greedy, destructive and exploitative, although he realized not all societies were like this. Marx saw early forms of society as politically autonomous, economically self-sufficient and kin based. He would have viewed these groups as "primitive" because they depended on communal efforts for survival. Marx would have favored the idea of virtual equality while concomitantly bracing himself for the transformation of this society into an ancient, feudal and eventually a capitalistic society.

Within a capitalist society, Marx thought wealth was not capital until it controlled the means of production, bought labor power and put it to work. Capitalism continuously expanded "surpluses by intensifying productivity through an ever rising curve of technological inputs" (Wolf 1982:78). This was done by denying the laborers independent access to the means of production; they therefore were forced into working for the rich for a living.

"Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, modern industry, the place of the industrial middle class, by industrial millionaires---the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois" (Marx 1983:10).

These views concerning the division of labor and expansion within the industrial capitalist society helped formulate Marx's opinions on various facets of human interaction.

Marx viewed human nature as innately good, however he thought we had been afflicted by the events of society, past and present. He felt there was a true happiness and said that "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness" (Marx 1973:14). This is why he termed religion the "opium of the people" (Marx 1973:14). Marx also conceived that "the economic forms in which men produce, consume, exchange, are transitory and historical" (Marx 1973:5). If Marx did not believe we were innately "good", he would have never envisioned a society changing into a communistic society. In saying the economic constraints we are placed under are transitory, he provides us with a glimmer of his optimistic attitude concerning human nature. However, he still felt anger over the alienation of the individual. Marx saw the individual as a mere by-product of society's economical and ideological ideas and institutions.

He saw individuals as being alienated from many facets of society. He thought working class individuals had no free will because of stipulations heaped on them by the elite. What little consciousness the individual has is dependent on the consciousness of society; "He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity" (Marx 1973:95). Then, after the worker receives his hard-earned pay from the owner, he is set upon by members of the petty bourgeoisie, such as the landlord and shopkeeper. They hope to collect his wages so they will survive. Marx exemplified his thoughts concerning alienation of the individual when he said,

"The savage in his cave-a natural element which freely offers itself for his use and protection-feels himself no more a stranger, or rather feels himself to be just as much at home as a fish in water. But the cellar-dwelling of the poor man is a hostile dwelling, 'an alien, restraining power which only gives itself up to his blood and sweat'-a dwelling which he cannot look upon as his own home where he might at last exclaim, 'here I am at home', but where instead he finds himself in someone else's house, in the house of a stranger who daily lies in wait for him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent" (Ollman 1971:148).

It was examples like this that captured the attention of many individuals and made people question the society in which they lived.

One could wonder how a society could let this happen to an individual, but Marx saw the structure of society as the cause. Marx saw the owners as controlling the social institutions to further justify and validate their profit-seeking endeavors. In fact, he said,

"The property owning class dominates politically because it has more of the means of political mobilization. The working class, on the other hand, have no such natural means of organization. For them to take part in politics, they have to make special efforts to create political organizations and painstakingly try to connect workers from different places together into a common force" (Collins 1985:73).

Marx thought change was possible only through violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat. "Marx's aim was that of the spiritual emancipation of man, of his liberation from the chains of economic determination, of restituting him in his human wholeness, of enabling him to find unity and harmony with his fellow man and with nature" ( Fromm 1961:3). He said, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. [and then exclaimed] "Workingmen of all countries, unite" (Marx 1983:44)!

How can we deny the existence of conflict and disorder? There is an army of people living on the streets who would very much like to be a part of society or, at the very least, have food, warm clothes and a roof over their heads. These are the ones our "democratic" government is ignoring in lieu of spending several billions of dollars on new ways of killing people (defense). As Marx would have echoed, these people are the victims of a profit-seeking society in which they have lost. Their position cannot be healthy to the overall well being of the state. If one person is enslaved or alienated, how can we ever truly consider ourselves free? In particular, there were several institutions within society which Marx thought heavily contributed to the individuals' alienation.

Marx wanted to eradicate religious streams of thought in society because they brought about an "illusory happiness". He thought religion was an instrument which made people ignore the real world in hopes that their next life or afterlife would be better. Marx saw God as a creation of people's imagination; an externalized being of human's own characteristics. According to Marx, religious beliefs such as those of an afterlife were thoughts which impoverished people because it robbed them of their own free-will. Instead of people thinking on their own and doing what they think is right, they instead turn to written doctrine in order that they may be told what to do and how to act. By making the ruler of their lives an all-powerful, all loving and all knowing God, they deem themselves relinquished from responsibility.

Marx saw these trains of thought as originating in the Old Testament in the Holy Bible.

"The essence of what the prophets call idolatry is not that man worships many gods instead of only one. It is that the idols are the work of man's own hands-they are things, and man bows down and worships things; worships that which he has created himself. In doing so he transforms himself into a thing. He transfers to the things of his creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by the worship of the idol. He has become estranged from his own life forces, from the wealth of his own potentialties, and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols.

The deadness and emptiness of the idol is expressed in the Old Testament: Eyes they have and they do not see, ears they have and they do not hear, etc. The more man transfers his own powers to the idols, the poorer he himself becomes, and the more dependent on the idols, so that they permit him to redeem a small part of what was originally his. The idols can be a godlike figure, the state, the church, a person, possessions. Idolatry changes its objects; it is by no means to be found only in those forms in which the idol has a so called religious meaning. Idolatry is always the worship of something into which man has put his own creative powers, and to which he now submits, instead of experiencing himself in his creative act" (Fromm 1961:44).

Mao's Little Red Book.  His policies led to the deaths of many millions of people in China.  Tibet was invaded per Mao and hundreds of thousands of peaceful Tibetans slaughtered.   Mao is revered in modern day communist China-go figure
Mao's Little Red Book. His policies led to the deaths of many millions of people in China. Tibet was invaded per Mao and hundreds of thousands of peaceful Tibetans slaughtered. Mao is revered in modern day communist China-go figure

Marx thought that if we ceased to believe in a better life through religion, and if we all worked together in the "here and now", that we would be able to remove the most glaring injustices which had always oppressed humankind. To achieve this, Marx thought we must recognize the love of man instead of the love of God as the only true religion. Instead of having faith in God it would behoove people to have faith in themselves. We would be much better off if we realized the destiny of humankind does not depend on a being beyond or above our physical world, but instead on ourselves. The devil, to Marx, was nothing but a symbolic excuse for the errors people had committed themselves. By projecting their mistakes on an unseen force, they released themselves from responsibility.

I agree with much of what Marx says concerning religion. The difference between our religious views is that, while Marx does not believe in a God, I do. I do not subscribe to any of the religious doctrines be they the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, Koran or the Holy Bible. The fact there is more than one doctrine to explain creation proves that they cannot all be valid. If not all are valid, then who are we to say that one is better than another? I often find it amazing that many Christians say their religion is the only valid one. Many other doctrines have been around as long as the Bible, if not longer, yet ours is the best? On a world scale, Christianity is a minority when compared to other religions, but Christians continue to assert that everybody else is ignorant and "hell-bound".

My problem concerning religion is what many refer to as the problem of evil. The premise is: If God is all loving, all knowing and all powerful, how can damaging things or catastrophes take place? I believe the existence of evil in the world calls the existence of God radically into question. In reference to God, it is important to note that specifically I am questioning the existence of the God about which we are taught in the Holy Bible; the God which is seen as good incarnate. Evil, according to The American Heritage Dictionary (1983:244), is "something that is morally bad or wrong"---"something that causes misfortune, suffering or difficulty." According to the Bible, evil is Satan--Satan is the father of evil.

Under the teachings of Christianity, we are taught that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving. God loves us no matter what we do or who we are. We are also taught that if we do not accept Jesus Christ, God's son, as our savior and believe he died for our sins, we will forever burn in hellfire. Once in hell, we will be eternally tormented by Satan, the master of evil, and his angels of ill-intent. Therefore, God's love must be conditional; otherwise no person would ever go to "hell." It is illogical that an all loving God would send us to hell, nay, it is more illogical for hell, Satan and evil to even exist if God is all loving, powerful and the creater of all. Due to mass media and personal experience we are aware that misfortune, suffering and difficulty exist within the lives of all people everywhere. The existence of evil is a reality. Therefore, one has to question God's existence. If all powerful, God would not permit evil happenings to take place. If we are God's creations, and God is all loving, he would not have instilled within us the ability to commit evil deeds. If God is all loving, humankind would have no conception of misfortune and suffering.

To further facilitate my point, it is necessary to analyze some basic precepts of Christian doctrine. For me to argue that the Biblical God does not exist, it is important to assume God does exist. Within the Bible, Satan was originally an Archangel of God. Satan was cast out of Heaven by God for thinking he could rule Heaven better than God. God is the creator of all. God is perfect and all knowing and Heaven is God's home; and ours too if we live accordingly. One need not delve any further into the Bible than this to recognize the obvious discrepancies within this doctrine.

If God is perfect and heaven a place of no imperfections, than how did Satan ever manifest sin while residing in heaven? Heaven therefore must be a place where sin and evil can take place. If God is all knowing , then it is fair to assume that he/she would have realized that evil was being created by his/her divine will. Hence it is logical to assume that God intended to create evil. For those who argue that God did not create evil, then they must believe the existence of evil has a separate origin. If so, then God is not all powerful; there must be another creator. These discrepancies have caused debate and argument ever since the Bible was first published, yet the discrepancies persist. Since I have clearly shown that God is not all loving and all knowing (and to a lesser degree all powerful) one would argue that the God of the Bible does not exist.

One need not even analyze Biblical doctrine to see the flaw within the beliefs of God's characteristics. People suffer, feel pain, are lonely, depressed, tortured, killed, mutilated; entire nations have been destroyed, innocent children die, millions of people throughout the world are dying of hunger, incurable diseases exist, ignorance abounds, yet God does not relieve these burdens. If God is all loving, he/she simply would not have allowed the Holy Wars, the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis in WWII, the famine in Ethiopia, or any suffering and misfortune at all. If God loves us, and is all powerful, why will God not put a stop to such horrors? In the face of all this evil the Biblical God simply cannot exist.

I feel evil in this world exists because people themselves choose to commit evil deeds. For example, the reason people are starving is not because of a lack of food. It is because those who have an abundance of food refuse to share with those who have little or no food. People who say the devil is the cause of their actions are projecting their errors onto an unseen, unquestionable force. A belief in the Biblical God is an escapism from the actual problems which abound on earth. Religion is never the cause but always the effect of man's alienation. It arises from social maladjustments-[it is] a cleavage between man's social and his individual existence" (Dupre 1966:110). The belief that God loves everyone, no matter what, gives meaning to many peoples' lives, especially those who are lonely. In other words, religion "provides an escape from 'reality' and provides answers to [the] mysteries of life" (Canaday 1988:2).

I believe that long ago some great ruler or rulers were distraught over the anguish and despair of life for most of his/her subjects, and, being concerned, wanted to help out. This ruler therefore commanded the most scholarly writers of the day to write a doctrine of comfort and reassurance for those in need of stability. I believe this to be the origin of the Bible.

The fact that there is a King James version of the Bible supports my claim that people have altered the Bible to satisfy their own desires as to what they want the Bible to say. In noting the discrepancies within religious doctrine, and the daily misfortune and suffering that goes on all around us (which Marx and Engels also noted), the existence of God has to be radically questioned by everyone. Perhaps the entire structure of religion has to be changed, nay, perhaps the entire structure of society has to be altered.

A middle aged and dapper looking Fidel Castro-long time Communist leader of Cuba.  He allowed the  Soviets to build nuclear silos on Cuba so the USA could be vaporized.
A middle aged and dapper looking Fidel Castro-long time Communist leader of Cuba. He allowed the Soviets to build nuclear silos on Cuba so the USA could be vaporized.

The only way to change a structure without causing bloodshed would be to use Gandhi's principle of non-cooperation. If not concerned about death or possible biocide, revolution or war seems a plausible alternative. Marx envisioned that capitalism would eventually, by revolution, transform into a communistic society. This structure, according to Marx, would be ideal to perpetuate society. He saw the communistic societal structure has having the following characteristics:

"1. Expropriation of landed property, and the use of land rents to defray state expenditure

2. A vigorously graded income tax

3. Abolition of the right of inheritance

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigres and rebels

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly

6. Centralization of the means of transport in the hands of the state

7. Increase of national factories and means of production, cultivation of uncultivated land, and improvement of cultivated land in accordance with a general plan

8. Universal and equal obligation to work; organization of industrial armies, especially for agriculture

9. Agriculture and urban industry to work hand-in-hand, in such a way as, by degrees, to obliterate the distinction between town and country

10. Public and free education of all children. Abolition of factory work for children in its present form. Education and material production to be combined" (Wilson 1972:186).

But how can we believe that a communistic society would perpetuate society when Marx also said "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle" (Marx 1983:9)? I think with time his ideal communistic society would show many of the same features of the preceding stages in his theory. Would not a centralized (Godlike) state government represent an elite group? Marx's centralized state and the people it controls represents individual alienation; an element which Marx wanted to eradicate. Due to the state controlling all credit and transportation, the individual would have had no say or autonomy of any part. This type of society, at least in my viewpoint, would alienate the individual more so than in capitalistic society. At least in industrial capitalist society the individual had some chance of controlling his/her destiny by perhaps going to college or working hard to make an "honest living". Marx also saw society as halting at the stage of communism where it would forever stay and flourish. It seems logical that Marx, in being a conflict theorist, would have foreseen problems in all societies, including his communistic society. With his knowledge of the fall of Rome and the ancient Grecian civilizations, it seems that Marx could have not been so naïve to believe his ideal society would last forever.

Many, as well as myself, question the point made by Marx that people's brutal and selfish impulses would evaporate with a socialist dictatorship. Marx had faith that the proletariats, having themselves been once oppressed, would never oppress others. Wilson thought this unimportant and instead looked at the ills which would be perpetrated upon the bourgeoisie by the proletariat during a revolution. He said, "Yet it is right for the proletariat to expropriate the bourgeoisie, and even to imprison them and kill them, in some sense in which it has not been right for the bourgeoisie to do the same things to them" (Wilson 1972:355). I agree with Wilson that killing is not the best answer, but how can he say the bourgeoisie never killed any of the proletariat? Thousands of the poor died in the industrial factories of the owners.

Many people who question Marx's idea of revolution would assume that once in power the proletariat would transform into the new bourgeoisie. This would seem like a natural occurrence, but Marx thought otherwise. He said, "The dominant class of the capitalist era had never willingly done anything but rob the poor in the interests of the well-being of their own group; but the dominant class of the proletarian dictatorship would never dream of abusing its position." (Wilson 1972:353) He thought that once in power, the working class would remember the horrors and oppression of their own past and that they would never subject anyone or any class to the conditions which they had been subjected.

I find that there are several misconceptions that many people have concerning Marx's social theory. Before studying Marx, I had always been told that he thought people were greedy and uncaring-veritable social animals. It had been rumored in text books that he was a "vulgar materialist", but this is not true. Marx saw the human individual as innately good, but constrained by the economic structure of society. In reality, Marx said, "They [people] do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them, have to fashion the material handed down by the past" (Wilson 1972:220). This statement silences those who think Marx vulgar or simply a materialist.

Many justify our present arsenals of nuclear arms because they say it is the Russians' plan to someday take over the world and convert every nation to communism. This is a misinterpretation of Marx's doctrine. He thought every society would transform to communism as a result of internal conflict, not external intervention. In knowing this, it seems as if our reason for having nuclear arms is moot.

I agree with Marx's concept of society. There is no doubt that economic status makes a difference in social mobility. For example, while everyone has the equal right to run for public office, (if they fulfill the requirements) not everyone has the several million dollars that it sometimes takes to establish a successful campaign. For the poor to take part in "politics, they have to make special efforts to create political organizations and painstakingly try to connect workers from different places together into a common force" (Collins 1985:73). Without the backing of a political party, one might as well not even consider being elected, regardless of qualifications.

I can see how unfair the capitalist society is by looking at my own parents. During WWII, the government drafted my father's three brothers into the war. My father, being too young, was asked to stay in the States to farm his father's farm in order to support the war effort. After 45 years, he is still on the same farm. He enjoys it, but he is very bitter that his hard work has never enabled him to do anything other than to pay bills. My mother and father have never been on a vacation because they always had to stay on the farm. They could not afford to pay someone else to do the farm work and they had to care for my siblings and me. My father, now 63 (should be retired) works incredibly hard and even works nights at an air freight express system to keep the family farm. He, along with other farmers (including the involved wives), are being exploited by the dominant organizations behind food production. The farmer has no choice but to sell the crop as the market dictates, and the price is usually so low it barely enables one to break even. While crop and animal prices stay constant, all other prices in maintaining the farm have inflated. This is a prime example of the "crime" of being taken advantage of by our nation's economic system.

In 1987, I earned 5,600 dollars. In 1987, I earned a lot more money than my parents. They often remark about how easy they thought it would be once "us children" grew up and started our own lives, but their economic condition has (somehow) worsened. As John Cougar Mellencamp sings, and my father echoes "this land fed a nation, this land made me proud, and son I'm just sorry there's no legacy for you now" (Mellencamp 1986).

There is no doubt that society is characterized by conflict and change. These conflicts usually have an economic basis. One need only look around to see the rich and the poor. Those who work the most get paid the least. People are starving to death while others have more than enough to eat. Economic conflict is the basis for the "holy wars" that have been going on with Falwell and the Bakkers. Oliver North was caught with his "hand in the cookie jar". Sports players make millions for playing games. Our government spends billions on nuclear arsenals even though we have enough to destroy the world. Indeed, economic conflicts rule our society, but what these people don't realize is that when all is said and done and it's time to pass from this life, not another moment will our money buy.

This knowledge weighs heavily upon me, but I feel we can change. If we keep questioning the "hows" and "whys" of the human interaction which takes place around us, we will someday break free of many of the misconceptions we have. For example, I thought my parents' farm "crisis" was "just the way things are", but after being exposed to people from many walks of life and through my studies in sociology, I now have a better understanding of my parents' situation in particular, and society's situation in general. I am beginning to have trouble taking anything for granted. If we can convince others to question those things which have always been taken for granted we will be moving towards a better future.

There is no doubt that my studies of Karl Marx have had a profound influence upon me. For some reason, I could relate easily to much of what he said. Granted, his social theory is not perfect, but that is irrelevant. He opened millions of people's eyes to the oppression and exploitation which was going on in his day (and still is). "No one has ever had so deadly a sense for the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves" (Wilson 1972:340). Marx always attempted to educate the working class in such a way that they could share with him the fruits of the new science that he was developing on their behalf. He tried to instill within them an awareness of their own misery and deprivation. By making them conscious, he wished to elevate them above the level to which their deprived social condition had condemned them. Marx gave us a formula for change and hope for the workers of the world. Marx was optimistic we could change and fought his entire life to better society. He said, "If we have committed ourselves to fight for the interests of the proletariat, it is because we are really trying to work for the interests of humanity as a whole" (Wilson 1972:233). Marx's contributions to sociocultural analysis and to my own sociological imagination cannot be

Soviet communism is in the dust bin of history.   What will become of communism in China and elsewhere?
Soviet communism is in the dust bin of history. What will become of communism in China and elsewhere?

© 2011 Missing Link


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