Marxism had a huge impact on the world, and though discredited by history, continues to undermine Western Civilization and Christianity in its latest expressions in gender theory, feminism, and post-modernism. So I thought I’d provide a quick explanation.
Marxism’s initial appeal came from its ambitious scope: Karl Marx said his theory explained not only why everything important in history had happened; more significantly it predicted everything important that ever would happen, in particular the workers revolution that would bring history itself to an end with its fulfillment in the perfect socialist society. It was imminent, his theory showed, adding Millennarian fervour to the intellectual appeal.
It was the 19th Century, after all. Big theories were in vogue. Charles Darwin was explaining everything that ever had or ever would happen in Nature with his theory of Evolution. Karl Marx admired Evolution, by the way. I don’t think Darwin returned the compliment.
Marx said history was driven by one thing only: that humans were alienated from their labour and its product. Just as the Greek or Roman aristocrat owned his slaves and their product, the capitalist owned the wage workers’ factory output. Ultimately all wars, all intellectual activity, derived from this fundamental fact.
Now the details. Depending on how advanced the productive technology was at any time, an appropriate method of production would evolve (Tools and methods together Marx called the infrastructure, the means of production). These would bring about a matching social organization of ruling and working classes, a political system to legitimize and enforce this, and a religion to bless it.
Very primitive production (hunting, gathering), produced chiefs and followers and animism; primitive farming produced landowners and slaves, monarchy and polytheism; more advanced farming produced feudal lords and serfs, monotheism and the divine right of kings; And the harnessing of water, fossil fuels, and specialization produced the bourgeoisie, the factory system, capitalism, representative democrac, wage slavery and Protestantism.
It also produced the French Revolution as France’s landed aristocrats were expelled by its vulgar middle class factory owners.
Each formulation throughout history Marx called a thesis, which eventually gave birth to an internal contradiction Marx dubbed its antithesis, (Okay, he stole the whole scheme from Hegel, but as they like to say in Marxist studies, he turned Hegel on his head) . Each antithesis swallows its parent and produced a new synthesis. (This is Marx’s Historical Dialectic). Capitalism, even as Marx was writing, was producing the working class, or proletariat, its antithesis, that would rise up and destroy it.
One of Marx’s “Iron Laws,” was that capitalists would be driven by competition to reduce wages to the point they drove the workers to starvation–and revolution. For this impoverishment would force the working class to become aware of its own united self-interest and its own power. Then, inevitably, Marx promised, the proletariat would overthrow the bosses and assume ownership of its own labour, resolving the last contradiction.
The wastefulness of capitalist competition would give way to harmony and plenty. Oppression would end and with it the need for government, the state, and religion.
Religion’s role in this was to assure the suffering workers that they would be rewarded in heaven for their pain; meanwhile the rich might be rewarded in this world, but would surely be punished in the afterlife.
The overall theory is called Dialectical Materialism. It didn’t work at all at predicting the future and, apart from the French Revolution, it didn’t actually match up with history very well either. The workers of the world did not unite, for example. In their name, however, dedicated and ruthless activists did take over Russia and then China where they murdered upwards of 100 million of their own countrymen to achieve their ends.
But that is okay for Marxists because they do not believe in countries, nor in countrymen. In fact, they do not believe that human beings with rights exist at all as such unless and until socialism has been achieved. That is why even people on the right side of history can be killed when necessary. They aren ‘t really people yet. Just fighters on one side or the other of history. (Arthur Koestler explores this ruthless expedience in Darkness at Noon.)
The owners of the old factors of production (eg. France’s aristos) will always resist the march of history expressed by the efforts to take over by the owners of the new factors of production (eg. middle class factory owners). The factory owners must likewise resist the efforts of the workers to claim ownership of their labour and its product.
They must resist because Marxism acknowledges only one motivation: self-interest. Instead of evil, there is the working class’s alienation from the fruits of its labour. But this alienation is, like everything else in Marxism, inevitable, given the technology and method of production at any given time. Instead of good, there is only “Being on the right side of history.”
But if it all be inevitable, why should anyone kill anyone else to achieve it? asked the Mensheviks in Tsarist Russia, for example. Because history needs a push sometimes, replied the Bolsheviks, speaking out the barrels of their guns.
I’ll add that Marxism’s perfect socialism obviously resembles and replaces Christianity’s promise of a paradise on earth after Christ’s Second Coming, when sin is all washed away. Marxism is, therefore, sometimes said to be a Christian heresy.
How does communism fit into all this? At the theoretical level, communism is the next to last stage before perfect socialism is achieved but after capitalism is overthrown. At this penultimate stage the workers are ruled for their own good by a single political party: the communist party. This is called “communism building socialism.”