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The Pivotal Position of Karl Marx

We could start our account of the conflict tradition with many different thinkers. But for our purposes it is useful to begin with Karl Marx. What is referred to as the thought of "Marx" is actually more of a symbol than the work of one individual. Marx is the center of a tradition that dramatized conflict more than any other. It also became the doctrine of a political movement -- at one time revolutionary, but since the victory of the Communists in Russia in 1917 and subsequently elsewhere, Marxism has further had to serve as the statement of an official Establishment. As a result Marxism has gone through many splits and variations corresponding to political disputes within the camp of Communist regimes and of revolutionary movements elsewhere in the world. These political connections and applications are part of Marxism's appeal for some intellectuals, but they are responsible for considerable repulsion on the part of others. For all this, our concern here is with the intellectual contribution of Marxism to a realistic understanding of the world as a situation of domination and conflict. This means ignoring whatever is the orthodox or unorthodox socialist or Communist line and concentrating on whatever ideas prove to be most valuable in the lineage marked by the name of


" Marx." The very existence of the Communist regimes in the world today and the shape of their own internal conflicts cannot be understood if the Marxian tradition had not opened up a lineage of conflict sociology.

" Marx" is a symbol, among other reasons, because he pulled together the various ingredients of conflict analysis existing before his day. It is well known, for example, that he drew on the philosophy of Hegel. What is crucial about Hegel is that he gave more emphasis to conflict than any philosopher since Heraclitus. Hegel was the last of the great German idealist philosophers, and among the most dynamic. Kant had demonstrated that reality is never seen in itself but only through the screen of our subjective ideas, including the categories of time and space. Hegel had made these ideas less subjective as well as less static, explaining them as a gradual unfolding of the Spirit that makes up the world itself. In a sense Hegel (like Kant before him) was defending the religious world view in an era of growing science. The Spirit is God, but conceived in a heretical way and modified to encompass a changing historical and physical world whose secrets were increasingly being revealed by the viewpoint of science. Against the growing tide of chemistry, physics, and biology, Hegel placed his defense of the Spirit on the human realm of consciousness. Philosophy, religion, and law are not only subjective realities, but they also have a history and show the Spirit evolving from a lower to a higher form of enlightenment. In this light Hegel wished to show that the overemphasis on the material world, represented by science, was merely a passing stage in the development of the Spirit. Human consciousness inevitably went through a historical stage in which it took the external appearances for the essence of things; the Spirit, which is pure Idea, outwardly manifests itself at one stage as the idea of material things. This is because the Spirit is divided from itself; it is alienated and reified -- terms that Marx and some of his followers. were later to appropriate for their own world view. Eventually, though, the Spirit would come to full self-consciousness; humans would come to realize that they and the world were both God, both Spirit. The millennium would be achieved.


As in all religious or quasi-religious schemes, the endpoint of Hegel's'system is hard to visualize in real terms. Hegel's earlier mysticism (formulated, to be sure, in the heady days of the German national reforms responding to the French Revolution) gave way to an ideological defense of the laws of the Prussian monarchy as representing some kind of historical and rational perfection. By the 1830s and 1840s, when Marx was a student, Hegel's system was fair ground for young liberals and radicals who wanted to take it much further. For Hegel, religion had been a progressive force, pointing the way to future history and the overcoming of human alienation. For the "Young Hegelians" of the 1830s and 1840s, religion was clearly the tool of Prussian authoritarianism and had to be exposed or drastically purified. Some, like David Strauss, used new critical scholarship to expose Jesus as merely a human historical figure; others, like Bruno Bauer ( Marx's own teacher), expounded a religion based purely on love without supernatural sanctions or conservative dogmas. Still others, like Ludwig Feuerbach, attacked the entire basis of Hegel's idealism, turning it upside down and insisting that the world is thoroughly materialistic. The power of science, which Hegel had attempted to outflank and contain inside his idealistic progresssion, nevertheless had continued to grow and religion was no longer upheld by intellectuals but imposed by the brute force of the orthodox state.

The Young Hegelians were Marx's milieu. He shared their leading enthusiasms: atheism and materialism. But Marx was an ambitious intellectual driving to move beyond. Unlike his peers, he was much more politicized. The merely intellectual, apolitical stance of the others aroused only his scorn, as did the softhearted and utopian religion of love preached by Bauer and Feuerbach. In a time when Hegel was being criticized by his peers, Marx defended Hegel as superior to those who came after him precisely because he had seen all of history as having a long-term dynamic that moved through certain inevitable stages and did not depend on the utopian schemes and wishful thinking of the individuals of the time. Marx was also attracted by the explicit emphasis on conflict in Hegel's scheme. This was built into Hegel's logic, the technical driving force of his system. It is


the logical contradictions, which Hegel uncovered in every philosophical concept, that produced a dialectic and, hence, change. For Hegel the history of philosophy was the key to the history of the world itself. Marx was later to regard this type of scheme as an ideology. But it needed only to be inverted to be put right: Hegel had the world standing on its head, Marx had only to turn it over upon its feet. Thus, unlike Feuerbach and other materialists, Marx's materialism retains Hegel's full historical vision -- inevitable contradictions and changes, stages of development, and utopian outcome included.

Hegelianism was Marx's first intellectual acquisition, and it remained the basic framework of his thinking throughout his career. Already in the early years of the 1840s, Marx had fitted Hegelianism to his political radicalism. An inevitable contradition existed in the material system of his own day, which would eventually bring about the system's downfall and the ushering in of a new stage. Logically of course it might be that many more stages would follow before the end, but like Hegel, Marx believed that he was living through (or near to) the final transition -- the stage at which human alienation would finally be overcome. It remained only to find the mechanism by which this would come about.

The utopian and millennarian element in Marx was to prove to be a weakness in his intellectual system. But it did flow from two aspects of Hegel that gave a favorable impetus to the development of a conflict sociology. One of these was the emphasis on conflict itself as a driving force. Though Hegel drew primarily on philosophical and religious history, he nevertheless assimilated to his grand scheme of historical stages the realities of human domination. Ancient society ( Hegel was thinking of the Greeks and Romans) he unsentimentally characterized as a world of masters and slaves, with medieval Christianity as a kind of lugubrious revenge of the slave mentality. It is only a step from here to class domination and conflict. History, said Hegel, is a "slaughterbench at which the happiness of peoples. . . have been victimized." Moreover he saw the conflicts and changes of world history as not random, but as logical and inevitable. No doubt Hegel's own theory of the pattern of these changes is overstated and erroneous, but


the underlying message points directly to the creation of a sociological science. There is a general pattern, Hegel's theory asserts, and basic causal generalizations about social conflicts and transformations can be made. For this reason, however much the Marxian tradition has kept of Hegelian mystification (including the more recent fashion of emphasizing the uniqueness of each period of history), there is an underlying thrust in the direction of a general sociological science.

Historical inevitability for Karl Marx's own career came in the form of a crackdown by the Prussian government on radical antireligious professors like Bruno Bauer. Losing his mentor and his chance of an academic career, Marx went to Paris, the home of revolutions. He quickly went through and beyond the ideas of the French socialists, utopians like Charles Fourier (or his British counterpart Robert Owen) who advocated the dropout path of building one's own socialist communities: a path that could scarcely avoid the inevitable intervention of, and conflicts with, the surrounding society. More important, Marx read the French historians on their own revolutions, men like François Guizot who saw the actors on the stage as social classes, though they confined themselves to arguing for the triumph of the industrial bourgeoisie over the outdated landowning aristocracy. Marx's materialism began to take on a class content.

Most important of all, Marx discovered economics. This was not only the archetypal science of the material side of society, it also contained, in its own classics, a good many elements of the conflict perspective. The economics Marx learned was what we now call "classical" economics, to distinguish it from the "neoclassical" economics created by men like Jevons, Menger, and Walras in the 1860s and 1870s. In the "classical" form, economics still rested on the labor theory of value: the doctrine that the source of all value is the transformation of the natural world made by the application of human labor. This already implied a critical element, in that the worker was by implication entitled to the fruits of his or her efforts and was exploited if he or she did not receive them. (Neoclassical economics was to remove this radical implication by eliminating the labor theory of value in favor of the psychological conception of


marginal utility: value became defined not in terms of what supplied goods and services, but in terms of the psychology of the relative demand for them.) Property, too, was seen as a key element in economic theory, especially in the classical form: owners of land and of capital confront workers who own nothing but their labor, which they are forced to sell to keep themselves alive. These "factors of production" were to become the major class actors in Marx's scheme. Marx even found a readymade vision of harsh economic conflict in such writings as those of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo -- they argued that the interests of the different economic classes are inalterably opposed: for Malthus it was the overbreeding of the working classes that kept their wages down to near-starvation level, for Ricardo it was the inevitable shortage of land that favored the wealth of the landowners.

In such writings Marx found plenty of ingredients for his own vision of social conflict. To be sure, he criticized the bourgeois economists severely: for their inclination towards the stance of the capitalists and for failing to see that their economic "laws" merely represented the workings of one particular period in human history. Marx's Hegelian vision translated the conflicts of the capitalist economy into contradictions that would bring about its downfall and its transcendence by yet another type of system.

After much searching and synthesis of different positions, Marx produced the system for which he had been looking. He brought together his revolutionary political aims to found a socialism that would not be utopian but inevitable: His was a Hegelian vision of a series of historical stages that were driven by inner contradictions towards a final overcoming of human alienation. Marx's materialism was not merely static but resulted from a dynamics of the capitalist economy that produced crisis, class conflict, and eventually revolution. For sheer architecture of intellectual comprehensiveness, Marx's system is astounding. Its impressiveness is such as to compel admiration, quite apart from whether it works or not in the real world -- no doubt one reason why Marx's ideas have always attracted followers.

Put briefly: Marx's system rests on the point that labor is


the source not only of economic value, but also of profit. In a pure market system, operating under the impulsion of supply and demand, everything exchanges for its own value. Hence arises the conundrum: Where does profit come from? Marx answers: from labor, which is the only factor of production from which can be squeezed more than the cost of reproducing it. This is, technically, the "exploitation of labor," which means working laborers longer than the number of hours it takes to reproduce their labor. But capitalist competition impels manufacturers to introduce labor-saving machinery, which in turn cuts their own throats. For profit still comes only from the exploitation of labor, and the more that labor is replaced by machines, the smaller the basis of profit becomes. The result, schematically, is a falling rate of profit and a series of business crises. Across these crises, capital becomes more monopolistically concentrated as weaker capitalists are driven out and into the ranks of the workers; simultaneously, productive capacity continually exceeds consumer demand among the displaced and increasingly unemployed workers. Eventually the productive technology of the system is completely at odds with the legal property forms of capitalism. The ideological and political superstructure falls apart; economic crisis is followed by class confrontation and political revolution.

For Marx, the economic mechanism is not the only reason for a materialist dynamic that produces Hegel's inevitable contraditions and transformations. History moves as a whole; Hegel's sequence of philosophies, religions, and laws are also part of the system, but in this case a dependent part rather than the driving source. Economics explains politics, law, and human culture. There is even a deep spiritual element in the whole process. The spiritual alienation built into Hegel's sequence of stages is completely taken up in Marx's economic series. Just as the Spirit is divided from itself in the form of reified ideas of the material world that seem to press on the individual consciousness from the outside, in Marx's vision humanity is oppressed by a material world that is itself created by humans. Workers create the social and economic world by their own labor and are then oppressed by their own products, which stand over against them. Thus, the overcoming of capitalism


and the institution of socialism is not merely an economic change, but the historical overthrowing of alienation. The world created by humans finally comes back under their own control, ending the basic estrangement of the self.

Date: 2015-04-20; view: 1373

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