Marx’s theory of society, social change and revolution

4 March 2022
Jess Lenehan

Marx’s view of how society’s ills could be resolved underwent a major change between 1843 and 1845. At the start of this period, he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung—attempting to apply insights from the philosopher Georg Hegel to the struggle for a more liberal and democratic Prussian state. At the end of it, he was a communist, convinced of the potential of the working class to overturn capitalism and build a new, more equal and free society in its place.

The banning of the newspaper by the Prussian authorities in March 1843 was a turning point. Seeing little prospect for further political activity in such a climate of repression, in October that year Marx moved to Paris. There he became involved with socialists and circles of radical workers—his first direct experience of a workers’ movement that was then still in its infancy. It was in Paris too, in 1844, that Marx began his life-long friendship with Friedrich Engels, who travelled there from Manchester, where he had been collecting material for his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, which was published in 1845, and building links with the Chartists.

A selection of Marx’s notes from this period—based on his intensive study of the mechanics of contemporary society, and in particular the position of labour within the emerging system of industrial capitalism—was later published as the 1844 Manuscripts. The first note in the published collection indicates how much his focus had already shifted. “Wages are determined”, he wrote, “through the antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker”.

In 1845 and 1846 Marx collaborated with Engels on the texts that were later published as The German Ideology. In chapter I, they explain their new perspective of “historical materialism”. In seeking to understand human society and history, they wrote, “the premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones ... They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live”.

This approach was in stark contrast to the kind of idealist philosophy that dominated in the radical liberal circles that Marx had previously been part of. “Men must be in a position to live”, they went on, “in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself”.

The key to understanding society and social change, then, wasn’t to be found in abstract theorising of the philosophers, but in the realm of the material conditions of life and the daily production and reproduction of those conditions. According to the historical materialist standpoint, the manner in which people produce their means of subsistence (the food, shelter and so on they need to survive) is the foundation on which the entirety of what we call “society” rests. Understanding any aspect of society, then, had to start with an understanding of the particular “mode of production” it was based on.

This is where class became central. People, of course, can be grouped by workplace, locality, speciality or any number of things. As Marx and Engels saw it, however, the most important way they are grouped is by the way they access their means of subsistence, or the money to do so. Does it come primarily from working for someone else, or from having others work for you? The answer to this question—about which class you belong to—is the most important aspect of the many elements that condition an individual’s consciousness and view of the world. And the existence of such fundamentally differing standpoints within a single society points to something that Marx and Engels came to see as the basic driver of social change throughout history: class conflict.

The basic opposition at the heart of production between the worker and the boss had been present in various forms, they contended, from the first emergence of class societies to their own time. “The history of all hitherto existing society”, as Marx famously put it in the opening passage of the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, “is the history of class struggles.

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

At whatever point you consider in history following the emergence of class societies, you find, on one side, a ruling class that enjoy their role in society and the rewards of their social position. On the other side you find the workers (or peasants, slaves and so on), for whom the situation is completely different. The “good life” enjoyed by those at the top is won off the misery and impoverishment of those at the bottom.

This is not, and can never be, a stable state of affairs. It’s not just that those at the top will always look for ways to turn the screws and squeeze yet more riches from those whom they see it as their “right” to rule. Nor that the miserable existence forced on those at the bottom guarantees rebellion. It’s also that, over time, what Marx and Engels called the “forces of production”—which includes workers themselves, their knowledge and skills, the tools and machinery they use, and so on—gradually develop in such a way as, ultimately, to begin to be stifled by the existing “relations of production” that the rulers want to maintain.

However stable and permanent a particular class society might look, then, the basic conflict at its heart ensures change will ultimately come, whether the ruling class wants it or not.

Under the emerging system of capitalism, Marx realised, this fundamental class conflict was growing in both scale and intensity. The whole world was being drawn into one system—building, on one side, a capitalist ruling class destined to overtake all of its predecessors in wealth and power, and on the other side a working class of enormous proportions and capacities.

The emergence and growth of the system in Europe from the fourteenth century onward destroyed old ways of life and eroded the ideological and material basis of reactionary monarchies. These developments paved the way for an explosion of economic productivity and raised, in the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, the (illusory, but nevertheless significant) banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the new ideal towards which society should strive.

Understanding these developments didn’t make Marx anything like a cheerleader for the system. There was never, as he saw it, a “heroic” phase of capitalist development. Capitalism’s immense productivity created the possibility of the creation of a society of genuine freedom and abundance. But this possibility was threatened from the start by the ever increasing scale of barbarism and destruction that was the flip side of the system’s ceaseless drive to conquer and accumulate.

The technological advance was immense, but it was used destructively. Marx wouldn’t live to see atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions slaughtered in industrial wars and holocausts or today’s unfolding climate catastrophe. But he saw enough to know that, while capitalism could conjure up gigantic forces of production and incredible technological feats, it couldn’t control them or put them at the service of humanity as a whole, rather than just the profits of the rich. The periodic economic crises, wars, genocides and other “un-natural” disasters the system brought with it provided a periodic reminder of its fundamentally destructive core.

The hope for an escape from all this lay, as Marx saw it, with the working class. This class, with all its latent power and knowledge, the class that contained within itself every grievance in society, and which had no stake in capitalism’s continuance, could become, as Marx put in the Communist Manifesto, the system’s “gravedigger”.

It could do so not only because of its potential to resist its exploitation and oppression—a potential it shared with previous labouring classes like the peasantry under feudalism. It could do so because its role as producer of all the profits and wealth that are capitalism’s lifeblood gave it the power both to bring the entire system to its knees, and to build an alternative, socialist, system in its place. The bigger capitalism grew—Marx realised—and the more gigantic the productive forces it created, the more numerous, and potentially powerful, the working class would become. The single remaining missing ingredient for the “revolutionary reconstitution of society” along communist lines was the kind of class consciousness required for workers to wield their power collectively.

This, for Marx, was where revolution came in. “Revolution is necessary”, he wrote in The German Ideology, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.

No ruling class in history has ever gracefully accepted that its time in power was complete. The capitalist class itself had to contend with the structures that arose from and defended feudal society and the power of the aristocracy. The working class, in turn, has to contend with the capitalists and the governmental powers, police, military, right-wing media and all the other structures that have grown out of, and defend, capitalist society. Only a mass, working-class revolution holds out the hope of successfully overturning this imposing edifice of reaction.

At the same time, it’s only through the direct participation of the mass of workers in the process of struggle and revolution that they can gain the consciousness and confidence in their power needed to begin running society for themselves. The reality of daily life under capitalism is (quite consciously, when you consider the role of the education system, the mass media and so on) unlikely to produce this kind of consciousness on a wide scale. The rupture to the fabric of this reality that occurs when workers fight back collectively against the system is like a window through which the “new world” of communism breaks through.

By the mid-1840s the main elements of Marx’s theory of society, social change and revolution were in place. In contrast to his idealist and “utopian socialist” predecessors, Marx’s socialism was grounded in an understanding of the fundamental material basis of class society, and of the contradictions of capitalism that point to its own demise. To be a communist didn’t just mean plucking out a vision of a better society and upholding it against contemporary reality. To do that meant only to write, in Marx’s famous quip “recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. Instead, it meant ascertaining which processes in contemporary society pointed towards a better future, and devoting your life to their success.

Historical materialism became, as the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács later put it, “the theory of the proletarian revolution”. The rest of Marx’s life would be devoted to putting this theory into practice.

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