The Guardian explains Marx to me

And leaves me very confused:

This is a constant and universal process but revolution can only come to the fore, let alone be successful, when both the objective material conditions and the subjective political conditions are ripe for it. This, then, was how Marx saw his theory of history as scientific, driven as it was by the material and political conditions of production and not by the working out of abstract ideas and spirits.

My confusion comes from the fact that as a market, or classical, liberal I\’m just fine with signing up to that. Things\’ll change when conditions are right for things to change.


For example, what we might regard as the greatest change of the 20th century, the economic emancipation of women. Sure, we can tell the story as one of brave pioneers fighting against the oppressive patriarchy. Even willing to agree that that contributed to what happened.

But it wouldn\’t have succeeded without being in fertile soil. A society like 1900, when it really did take two people working full time to keep a household on the road… working full time and more inside the household, one working full time outside it for money…..and that full time for money work relying a great deal on the heavier male musculature….simply couldn\’t have supported that economic emancipation.

By the 50s, 60s, the society is in huge ferment. Domestic labour saving gadetry (the stove, washing machine instead of mangle, vacuums instead of brooms, etc, etc) plus the rise of the service part of the economy, overshadowing manufacturing, led to the conditions where this emancipation was possible.

Yes, of course this is a pencil sketch, not a detailed thesis. But I\’m quite sure that if the Betty Friedans, Andrea Dworkins and all had been saying the same things they did in 1910 they\’d have got nowhere. And that the Pankhursts campaigning in 1960 would have got a lot further than they did.

So, yes, I\’m agreeing with Marx that the great societal changes will only come when the objective material conditions allow them to be successful.

And then here\’s my confusion: how do we know, how can we know, when such is true? I suppose we could rely upon committed revolutionaries to tell us when and force into doing something about it: the Leninist solution. But an entirely different reading is possible.

We let people try their own thing. If that own thing turns out to be successful then more people will do it and the societal change will come. If it doesn\’t, oh well, back to the drawing board. Similarly, success shows that the objective material conditions existed for said success, failure that they did not.

And what do we call a world, a society, in which one can do one\’s own thing? One possible description is of a classically liberal one. You can do what you like as long as it doesn\’t harm others or derail the attempts of others to do as they wish.

And what do we call a system in which various different ideas compete for success unaided? That\’s a reasonably good description of a market actually, a market in ideas, a market in ways to live.

Which is what so confuses me. If a classically liberal market based socio-economic system is the very way in which we can find out whether the objective conditions exist for societal change, how come Marxists are so against the classically liberal market based socio-economic system which will tell us whether the objective conditions exist for the societal changes they desire?

*Scratches head*

7 thoughts on “The Guardian explains Marx to me”

  1. It’s a little complicated, Tim, but in terms of Marx’s own writing this largely stems from the failure of the 1848 French Revolution, which he saw as resulting from the betrayal of the working class by the petit bourgeoisie.

    Prior to the establishment of the Second Empire, Marx held out the hope that the middle classes would side with the working class to bring about revolutionary change. In modern terms, that would be the equivalent of the unions and the Federation of Small Businesses lining up against the corporate sector.

    In that sense, Marx’s beef was never really with markets, only with what he saw as the negative influence of large concentrations of capital, giving him a somewhat Rousseauean vision of the economy as consisting of a market of workers’ co-operatives and small traders enjoying similar levels of economic and political power and exhibiting common goals and objectives.

    When the Second Republic fell, with the support of the petit bourgeoisie, Marx saw this as a fundamental betrayal and turned his back entirely on the middle classes, who he saw as having been corrupted by the capitalist system.

    It’s from that, and from what happened later that the antipathy towards markets emerged, not least because, strictly speaking, there’s never been a ‘true’ Marxist revolution.

    Cmmunism has only ever been practiced in societies that had a largely peasant economy at the time the revolution occurred (Russia, China) rather the industrial economy that Marx saw as a central to his ideas and hence the objective and subjective conditions that Marx predicted never came to pass.

    Its one of the great ironies of political philosophy that a Marxist society has never emerged out of an industrial society, only out of societies that were effectively feudal/semi-feudal when everything kicked off.

  2. “Communism has only ever been practiced in societies that had a largely peasant economy at the time the revolution occurred (Russia, China) rather the industrial economy that Marx saw as a central to his ideas”.

    Hmm. Not sure how that applies to East Germany or Czechoslovakia, though. Strong industrial bases, decades of Marxist government … and the occupying Russians had become fairly industrialised before they took over.

    I suppose you could argue that Russian Marxism, emerging from an absolutist state (I don’t think you could really call it feudal) was unsuitable for controlling anything decently.

  3. Stephen, I think the clue is in ’emerged out of’ in Unity’s comment. Marxism was imposed on East Germany and Czecho.

    I’ve just deleted Norman Geras from my favourites, with some regret, because he comments, in relation to the same ‘Guardian’ piece, ‘A crucial part of Marxism’s appeal is the view that capitalist societies are pervasively unjust. As they indeed are.’ I ain’t got time for bollocks with my coffee any more.

  4. A crucial part of Marxism’s appeal is the view that capitalist societies are pervasively unjust. As they indeed are.’

    Hmm. I’d probably agree that they are, given that life itself is pervasively unjust. There’s little we can do about it though.

  5. Marx was emphatic that human society was determined by the “material productive forces,” rather than by men. He posited (on the basis of his own understanding of the future society that these material productive forces–by which he meant steam engines, hammers and forges, etc.–intended to produce) that, when the time was “right,” those forces would bring forth the ultimate social relationship–communism–as an “inevitable” occurrence.

    Regardless of how internally contradictory the writings of Marx might appear, the single theme that not only defined his work but also underpinned its widespread appeal (and was seen to justify revolution) was (and continues to be) the idea that the injustice of the capitalist system lay in the fact that its profits–the source of the income, wealth, and power of the capitalists–was wrested from the portion rightly belonging to those laboring in production.

    Marx’ entire edifice depends on that concept. He was a “classical” economist and, like all classical economists, believed “value” to inhere in the valued objects and commodities. When, in the mid-19th century, occurred the “marginal revolution” and realization that the source of value was the human mind, Marx’ influence as an economist (as opposed to political theorizer and revolutionary agitator) was finished. From that point onward, only Marxist economists held fast to the imputation of value to things: all others became “neoclassical,”: i.e., agreeing that the human himself was the source of all value.

    Read Mises. Understand.

  6. Tim Newman:

    “Life is pervasively unjust?” As opposed to what other, purportedly “just” condition?

  7. As opposed to what other, purportedly “just” condition?

    Well, death, for one. But life is unjust, as evidenced by my watching others trap girls I had hitherto been chatting up in the university bar, to cite one example.

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