Unit Overview

Around the time that John Stuart Mill is writing about utilitarianism, another philosopher is going to introduce to the world a philosophical idea that will profoundly shape the world from the time of its creation until the present day. Marxism not only inspired revolutions around the world, most notably in Russia and China which are to this day not fully capitalist but was influential in the formation of the modern state that we find in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc. Many of the basic ideas of government that we take for granted like the government regulation business to making sure they pay a minimum amount and provide safe working conditions to workers were brought about by Marxist inspired worker’s rights protest movements. Before there was #metoo and #blacklives matter, there was worker’s rights protest movements to protest low wages, unsafe working conditions, lack of paid time off, no limit to the amount employers could demand an employee work, etc. Or in other words the weekend, the 8-hour workday, and the minimum wage are all the result of Marxist protest movements.

The most basic idea of Marxism is that we must eliminate poverty by ending “class struggle.” He proposed to eliminate poverty by eliminating “private property in the means of production.” His ideology is called communism because he proposed common ownership of the means of production. He claimed that the history of the world was a history of class struggle. He felt that the newly created capitalism was no better than the monarchies of the past that Europe had revolted against. Marx’s work begins a discussion that is still ongoing about the morality of economic inequality. Most industrial nations have done much to reduce economic inequality (public education, social security, free medical care for the poor, etc.) but economic inequality has been on the rise in recent years, especially in the United States. And most of the world still lives in poverty.

The main reading for this week is Marx’s communist manifesto. I’ve provided some notes for the key ideas I want you to be familiar with and link to the Wikipedia page for Marxism. There are also numerous documentaries and sources online that you can use if you are not clear on any of the concepts.



Key Points:

  • Political theory that arose as a reaction to early forms of capitalism that arose in the wake of the monarchical revolutions of Europe
  • Founded by Karl Marx (1818 -1883)
  • Key Ideas
    • Common ownership of the means of production
    • Reduction or elimination of economic inequalities that lead to the exploitation of the working class
    • Proletariat (working class) – labor
    • Bourgeois (the wealthy) – capital
    • Class Struggle
    • History is the history of class struggle
    • Political revolution to create an oppression free classless society
  • Marx thought that the enlightenment revolutions, while noble, had merely removed one ruling class, the aristocracies, with another, the bourgeois
  • Thought that revolution was a kind of historical necessity, capitalism was merely a phase of history on the way to pure communism
  • Hugely influential, has dramatically shaped the course of history for billions of people (most notably China and Russia)
  • Argued that the proletariat ought to fight a violent revolution against their oppressors
  • Conditions of early capitalism were absolutely terrible
    • Child labor in coal mines
    • Abject poverty for the masses (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Was Marx right?
    • Yes and no.
    • He underestimated capitalism’s ability to socialist elements
    • One of the things he calls for in his communist manifesto (worth the read) is an end to child labor and universal education) which are common to all industrialized countries
    • So, while most first world countries fall short of socialism or communism (common ownership of the means of production)
    • They are nothing like the capitalism of Marx’s time with
      • Graduated tax code (something Marx calls for)
      • Inheritance tax
      • Social security
      • Universal Healthcare (something that all industrialized countries except the US), and in the US medicare, medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act
      • SNAP (foodstamps)
      • Universal education
      • Child labor laws
      • Workers rights (safety laws, unions, weekends, 8 hour days, overtime)
    • Since Marx’s time most industrialized countries have negotiated a middle ground
      • America in the middle part of the 20th century was much closer to socialism
      • Europe is now much closer to socialism
      • This is an ongoing and unfinished issue

It is impossible to overstate Karl Marx’s influence on the course of history. Almost every major political and social movement and every major world event since Marx’s time has been influenced by his ideas, directly or indirectly. All the major wars that the US has been in since World War II are directly or indirectly related to communist or socialist revolutions. Every country in the world either had a socialist revolution or pursued many of Marx’s idea. The United States never had a socialist revolution but many of the ideas that Marx called for, like universal education for children, various forms of taxes including an income tax, etc.,  have been implemented here. And, the worker’s rights and labor union movements which dominated social conscious from the end of the 1800s to the middle of the 1900s were directly related to Marx’s ideas regarding the working class. US workers were inspired by Marx’s famous call to action “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Aside from its historical influence the other reason to be interested in Marx’s ideas is that the questions he raised are directly relevant to our time. While extreme poverty has been going down in the world overall, we still live in a world in which the worlds’ richest 8 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people, just to use one statistic as an example of how extreme economic inequality is today around the world.

The genesis for Marx’s ideas came from the successes of the enlightenment and from the failures of the enlightenment. By this point in history, England, France, and the United States are democracies but economic inequality is as high as ever. The enlightenment revolutions provided the frame work for equality of rights but there was no material equality. If you were born poor you were going to die poor, and the vast majority of society was born poor, just like throughout the entirety of human existence.

Marx comes to view history through the lens of class struggle. He famously said, “History is a history of class struggle.” What he meant was that throughout history the names of the different social classes had changed one constant remained. There were two classes, the rich and the poor, and rich oppressed the poor. Under capitalism, the classes are the “bourgeoisie” or the capital-owning class, and the “proletariat” or the working class. The bourgeoisie own some sort of property like a factory or a natural resource or a corporation that allows them to earn large amounts of money without actually performing any labor. The proletariat or the working class must sell their labor to survive. Therefore they are at the mercy of the bourgeoisie and are vulnerable to oppression in the form of wages below what is needed to live and unsafe working conditions.

Marx believes that the only way to end oppression in human society is to create a classless society. He does not think wealth or income needs to be equal for everyone but he believed that as long as there were different classes, rich and poor, there would be oppression. His solution for creating a classless society is to “abolish private property in the means of production” or common ownership of the means of production. Hence, the name “communism.”

The means of production are any sort of property that allows a person to earn income without laboring. This could a natural resource like oil, it could be a large amount of land that can be farmed, it could a factory or some other type of business or corporation that employees people. There are two basic ways in which resources can be owned commonly. A resource can either be owned by the government and the benefit of that resource can be shared amongst all citizens. This approach makes the most sense when dealing with natural resources of the country. The other method of common ownership is “employee owned.” If a business is employee-owned then it means that all the employees own a share of the business and therefore share in the profits. This approach can work with small businesses and large international corporations as well.

Marx predicted that capitalism would collapse as workers would rebel against the tyranny of capitalism. The transition stage from capitalism to pure communism he called “socialism.” This, of course, raises the very interesting question of whether Marx was right. The answer is “Yes and No.” Marx failed to anticipate the extent to which capitalism could accommodate many of his suggested reforms. For example, Marx calls for an end to child labor and universal education for children. This right has become well recognized around the world and in fact even “capitalist” countries like the United States provides universal education. Most capitalist countries, like those in Europe, also provide free health care. Worker’s rights movements secured decent pay and safe working conditions and limits on hours that companies can force employees to work. You can thank Marx for the weekend! Marx also called for a graduated income tax, which the United States and every other country in the world has. Marx called for the abolition of the right of inheritance and the right to own land. While Western democracies have not instituted those policies we do have something similar in the form of inheritance taxes and property taxes. And governments have taken very strong measures to regulate business in so many different ways (environmental regulations, corporate taxes, labor regulations, anti-monopoly laws, etc.) So, from one perspective he was wrong in that he didn’t foresee the extent to which capitalism could accommodate his demands. Although from another perspective he might look at our society and argue that he was right. The societies of Western Europe and the United States have changed dramatically since the mid-1800s could easily be described as socialist, based on the above discussed changes in society. One thing is certain, capitalism looks nothing like it did in Marx’s time.

Democratic Socialism

What kind of economic system do we have in the United States? What kind of economic system does the rest of the developed world have? Is it capitalism? Is it socialism? It’s something in between. 2016 and 2020 democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called it “democratic socialism,” which is how most people would describe the economic systems of Europe. The key thing is that while Western Europe and the United States did not embrace communism they did embrace the idea of a welfare state, a state in which the government takes an active concern in reducing poverty through a wide range of government programs funded by taxes on the wealthy and on large corporations.

Here’s a speech by Bernie Sanders explaining what democratic socialism is:

Economic Inequality in the United States

Economic inequality in the United States has not been as high as it currently is since the time of the great depression, or the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Here’s a short video explaining just how extreme income inequality is in the United States:

Here’s a humorous exploration of the topic by John Oliver:

What I think these video’s, and recent popularity of democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders show is that Marx’s idea are still just as relevant as ever. Not to say he was right about everything, or even anything, but the issues of economic inequality are still largely unsolved. And those issues are worse here in the United States than in any other developed country in the world.

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