Karl Marx and Class Issues Essay

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Karl Marx & Class Issues

Karl Marx is notorious for having promoted communism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but moreover, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century Marx is respected as an economist, sociologist, philosopher and author. His views are rarely embraced in the neo-liberal community (that promotes free-market capitalism, globalization and the power of the private sector) but his scholarship is generally included in economics and sociological studies. This paper presents his views on class, and responses to those views from other scholars.

Viewpoints & Challenges in Response to Marx' Theory on Class

"Studies of Marx's theory of history are complicated by the fact that Marx himself never provided a systematic treatment of its central principles… [hence] the task of elaborating historical materialism has fallen to Marx's interpreters" (Katz, 1999, p. 59).

The late historian Sidney Hook believes that Marx -- who thought of himself as something of a "scientific socialist" -- was actually more like a "utopian socialist"; in fact Hook insists Marx was one of the "most important utopian socialists who ever lived" (Hook, 1993, pp. 3-4). In other words, Marx posited that utopia for workers would come about in a communist system. Hook, known in the 1930s as the leading American intellectual regarding Marxism, critiques Marx, in that several of the predictions Marx made regarding class "…have not occurred [since] the proletariat has not become pauperized"; but in fact, he asserts, the proletariat has entered (in many cases) the middle class (Hook, 11). Marx was also wrong about the influence of "politics on economics," Hook explained, and Marx never predicted a welfare state, but that was the reality in 1993 when Hook had his dialogue with philosopher Tibor Machan.

Marx's view of capitalism was that as the higher class of citizens accumulates more and more wealth the lower side of the economic pole, the poor, will get "misery" -- which is actually the case in the UK and U.S. (Hook, 11). Where Marx was wrong, Hook continues, is when he asserted "…under the whiplash of hunger and need," the poor will "…rise and seize power." But it hasn't turned out that way unless one believes the "Occupy" movement is on the verge of seizing power or bringing down the big banks, corporations, and other moneyed institutions.

Marx believed that capitalism's workers / laborers are "exploited and abused," and as a result they lead "circumscribed and stunted lives," according to R. Nordahl (1999, p. xv). In his era, Marx expressed that wage-laborer class has "…little opportunity to develop their individual talents," Nordahl continues, and while the capitalist "exploiters" don't have to share the burdens of employees, they do "reap most of the benefits" (Nordahl, xv). Marx made that evaluation of the "exploited" working class but he "…failed to make due allowance for the growth of the middle class," Nordahl points out (xv). Paraphrasing political science professor Jean Cohen, Nordahl emphasizes that Marx (in his book Das Kapital) goes to great lengths to analyze economic categories, but his analysis is "…in isolation from their cultural, political, and private determinations" (xvi). And this can be seen as a flaw in Marx's condemnation of capitalism in that he saw it as a "self-sufficient, albeit contradictory, system with its own internal dynamics and reproductive mechanisms" (Nordahl, xvi).

And given that Marx fails to see the link between culture, politics and private goals and dreams of workers, he boils it all down to class, Nordahl continues (xvii). In fact class is "pressed into service by Marx for too many different purposes," Nordahl asserts. For Marx, class expresses: a) the "internal mechanisms of social stratification"; b) the relations of "domination" in capitalism; c) the "internal contradictions of capitalist mechanisms of accumulation and reproduction"; and d) he uses class to define "the agents, and the forms of the revolutionary transformation to communism" (Nordahl, xvii). The bottom line in Nordahl's critique of Marx is that Marx offers a "socio-economic" approach to class rather than a political approach, and hence, he focuses on "class interests" and not on "radical needs" of society -- and in the process he loses sight of the "real importance of politics, civil society, and the public sphere…" (xx).

Historian G.E.M. de Ste Croix explained prior to his death that the Marxist theory of the importance of class conflict (class struggle) has "…little or no heuristic or explanatory value and does not enable us to understand the contemporary world"; hence Marx's analysis of modern society is a failed analysis (Ste Croix, 1999, p. 18). What galls de Ste Croix in particular about Marx's view of class is the way that Marx and Engels repeatedly allude to "ancient slaves as a class"; slaves were similar to 19th and 20th century wage-workers under capitalism, according to Marx. Moreover, Marx refers to the struggle of slaves -- "not, as [he] should have done, between slaves and slaveowners, but between slaves and… citizens" -- which is "clearly a mistake because the great majority of free men, even citizens, owned no slaves" (Ste Croix, 22). In addition, Ste Croix argues against Marx's description of slaves as part of a "class" because Ste Croix insists slaves to not constitute a "class" but rather a "status" or "order" within society (22).

Author / professor Jon Elster asserts that Marx fails in his argument that workers and capitalists are "mere placeholders" that are "condemned to act out the logic of the capitalist system" (Elster, 1986, p. 30). Elster disagrees with Marx when the German socialist insists that "capitalists are forced by competition to act as they do… [using] inhumane practices of exploitation" and workers are "forced to sell their labor power" (30). Elster rebuts Marx, asserting that both workers and capitalists have choices (laborers can be peasants or workers and capitalists "…engage in the very paradigm of choice behavior" (30).

Stephen Lee offers a brief glance at European history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in terms of how ideas and movements were responding to Karl Marx and the transformation of "ideas" regarding class (Lee, 2000, p. 6). Prior to the 1890s, Lee explains, the thrust of most Marxist organizations "…had aimed at a progressive change to a worker's state" through the dynamic of social democratic parties (i.e., peaceful means) (7). However, by the beginning of the 20th century, there was a "growing force advocating violent revolution" -- in particular the Bolshevik Revolution -- which caused a fracturing of some of the social democratic movements that had been active, Lee continues (7).

Rosemary Crompton concisely explains how Marx's work in effect is solely responsible for establishing the word and the concept of "class" into the political / economic milieu -- then and now. Marx considered the struggle between classes "…to be the major motive force in human history" (Crompton,1998, p. 11). His views were not shared at all by more conservative thinkers and writers, but since before and after the French Revolution -- due to Marx's well-circulated writings -- "class" (and the "lower classes" in particular) have been regarded as "…a possible threat to the established order" (Crompton, 11). Hence, "class" is a term with many implications, and it describes material inequalities as well as social injustice, due to Marxism.

In conclusion, this paper presents varied viewpoints of Marx's theory of class, but it also interprets Marx's theoretical descriptions of "class" as blatant obsessions with pessimism:

"The class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital… must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition… the fluctuations of the market…" (the Communist Manifesto).

Perhaps, given his sensitivity to the economic hardships that many workers… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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