Many people have complained that his ideas are sketchy and incomplete, with a professor’s incapacity to finish anything properly. His vision of a socialist society is utopian in that it is a world without conflict and therefore where politics itself is unnecessary, but his vision lacked detail. It would be for others to determine what Marxism and a dictatorship of the proletariat would look like in reality.
The Theory of Alienation
Marx’s first key contribution to politics is his theory of alienation. Like Hegel, Marx starts from the premise that the world as we encounter it is alien to us, and that our estrangement from the world must be overcome. Hegel said the world is first experienced as alien because we don’t understand it, but there is generally logic to the way things are. If we can understand that logic, we realise that the world is as we would rationally choose it to be. Marx turned this view upside down. We should not accept the world as it is by trying to understand it; we should act to change the world into what we think it should be. Marx saw the system of private ownership of property as the central cause of alienation, where some people provide all the capital and others provide all the labour. In this system we are estranged from the products of work, from the process of working, and from each other. Workers create things for the market, not for their own consumption or for the pleasure of creating. The worker who is employed furthers his own oppression though his work, by supporting the system and increasing the wealth and power of his employer. Workers become estranged from the process of work when they are forced to become merely cogs in a machine, with mind-numbingly dull and repetitive tasks. Even if capitalism can be moderated and workers own the capital they manage, they are still at the mercy of the impersonal forces of the market.
Marx also took the collectivist view that we are fulfilled when our work is to the benefit of society as a whole. This did not mean we need sacrifice our individuality, because we would so internalise the desire to do what we must for the good of society that there would be no tension between our own desires and society’s needs. Whether this scenario is ever possible is debatable, but Marx believed it would never be possible under a capitalist system. Competition and the buyer-seller relationship naturally cause enmity, and leads us to treat each other as means to our own ends. Those who we must collaborate with to produce anything are competitors; they might undercut us by working for less. Marx thought capitalism must be overthrown not simply because it is immoral, but because it is also irrational. Production is intrinsically cooperative, whereas the market is intrinsically competitive and built on mutual hostility. Capitalism produces irrational outcomes, such as people perishing of hunger while others eat themselves to death.
Marx rejected Hegel’s view of the ideal modern state as a constitutional monarchy run by a class of bureaucrats who serve the general interest of society. According to Marx, Hegel had unwittingly revealed that the bureaucrats and their masters control the state like a piece of property, making the state itself another source of alienation. Subjects had to recover their rights as equal citizens, including their power of collective and cooperative decision making within a democratic republic. However it is flawed to use a republic to force political equality when there is economic inequality. If economic inequality can be removed, this will remove the key source of social conflict. Without social conflict there is no need for politics. This is a truly egalitarian version of Plato’s Republic. Marx was never entirely clear how this apolitical self-governing society could occur, but he was clear that the starting point was revolution.
‘The Communist Manifesto’, written in the 1840s, announces that history is the history of class struggle. The assertion that class conflicts exist was not news and is intuitively plausible. The idea that all conflict is related to class is another matter. Nevertheless, Marx reasoned that it is inevitable that capitalism will end in revolution. Progress occurs principally due to increases in productivity. Marx recognised that so far capitalism had led to huge increases in productivity, but predicted that this was unsustainable. The search for more productivity will continue to drive down wages and lead to increased unemployment. An ever larger and more desperate working class facing an ever smaller class of owners are all the ingredients needed for revolution.
Clearly, capitalism has not widely been overthrown by revolution, and this is central to the credibility issue of Marxism. Marx was aware of the many exceptions and apologies his analysis had to accommodate. One came from his assessment of Asia. “Asiatic” society in Marx’s view did not foster increases in productivity, did not lead to class conflict and did not lead to competitive pressure. This raised the question of whether a form of government and economic system might emerge in Europe that would defuse class conflict and derail the revolution. Marx assessed why Victorian Britain had so far not succumbed to revolution. In short, the state gave sufficient politic power to the bourgeoisie to keep them on side, and it provided consistent real wage rises for workers and seduced them with the spectacle of empire. This does not wholly subvert Marx’s political theory. One answer was the assertion that the Victorian model relied on Britain’s status as the world’s only super power, and that this situation was not sustainable. The other answer was the acceptance from an older Marx that violent revolution is not the only route to his egalitarian society.
According to Marx, revolution happens when the ruling class doesn’t provide enough concessions to the insurgent class, or the insurgent class has demands that the ruling class cannot meet. In 19th century Europe there were two possible scenarios for revolution. The first is that the ruling class does not give sufficient political power to the working class and their radical bourgeoisie allies. This will lead to insurrection, and if successful – revolution. However the risk of insurrection given the disparity in firepower between a state’s military forces and an untrained and ill-equipped insurrection force is clearly significant. The other route was the parliamentary road to socialism. A democratic republic had to eventually accept universal suffrage, and that would inevitably lead to socialism. However Marx’s assumption that the working class would vote solidly as a class has so far proven incorrect. There are generally important divisions within this class which make voting habits more complicated (e.g. the distinction between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ workers).
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Regardless of how capitalism is overthrown, the result will be the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is an intermediate form of democratic government that will precede a fully stateless self-managing society. It does not mean dictatorship by an individual. By Marx’s analysis all forms of government are class dictatorships – a liberal democracy is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (middle class). A democracy with a working class majority is by definition a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is a dictatorship in the sense of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. The principle aim of this dictatorship will be to abolish class altogether, by abolishing private ownership of the means of production. This tyranny of the proletariat over other classes is acceptable because all citizens will soon become part of the proletariat. Marx acknowledged that some may need to be ‘urged’ to accept the revolution, but believed that the vast majority will want it; therefore the level of violence needed to enact it will be small. Marx believed that revolution will occur because capitalism has started to constrain the productivity of a society, and that the revolution will unlock the potential of a society. Revolution must not destroy the productive capability of society. Attempting to build socialism among the ruins is in a Marxist sense hopeless.
Marx’s final egalitarian society will remove the sources of alienation, and will be made up of citizens who contribute to the collective project because they want to. However his limited discussion on the mechanics of this society leaves many questions as to how it would work. How could a truly egalitarian society be maintained? Many have observed that particular people would naturally become managers and administrators, and would gradually turn into a ruling class. People would struggle to resist the temptations of authority, and would desire more than others have got. Marx claimed that if we are rational we would realise that these temptations are not in society’s best interests, but this appears to ask too much of people. Even if it were possible, others have claimed that rational administration is not enough to prevent stagnation and a loss of human aspiration. There will always be charismatic leaders who will startle us into wanting something different. Marx insisted that his work was based on “scientific socialism”, but ultimately his vision appears as utopian as anything dreamed up by his rivals.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: