A recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown that the differences between the rich and the poor in Britain have increased considerably over the last 20 years. On a global scale it has been calculated that half of the world lives on less than the equivalent of one American dollar a day. We see poverty around the world but at the same time there are those people who own vast properties and make the equivalent of millions of pounds annually.
The initial reaction of most people when they consider these inequalities is a feeling of injustice or anger and perhaps even a desire to change this material distribution. This is why it has been so important to try to explain and justify these inequalities. These justifications may state that these material inequalities are a direct result of inequalities in natural talents, or given the corrupt nature of humanity that these inequalities will always exist, or simply that things will be a lot worse if we try to interfere.
However, there are those who have been unimpressed with these justifications and seen them as mere excuses for an unfair distribution of wealth. Some have not just stated that these inequalities be eradicated, but have actively tried to reduce them. One of the most influential of all such individuals was a philosopher and political activist called Karl Marx (1818-1883). His specific brand of thought has been the most influential political philosophy ever written. His philosophy has influenced thousands of revolutionaries around the world to change the nature of many societies, most radically in Russia, China and Cuba. So why has this German had so much influence on the political nature and ideology of our planet?
Marx argued that in many countries around the world particularly in Western Europe there was inequality, and that this was neither inevitable nor justifiable and could and should be eradicated. He believed that the inequalities in society did not mirror inequalities in natural talents but mirrored, in fact, the inequalities of ownership of private property. This ownership is ultimately social and contingent in nature and therefore possible to change. These inequalities of ownership are an essential element of the economic system called capitalism which was predominant in many Western countries during Marx’s day and is even more predominant in the world today. This system for Marx is responsible for the enormous material inequalities and thus must be abolished. In order to understand why capitalism inevitably produces an unequal distribution of wealth it is necessary to understand how it works.
For Marx, capitalism is essentially a system where success relies upon the ability to accumulate as much wealth as possible. Capitalism is characterised by the division between a small group of capitalists and a large group of labourers. The capitalists are essentially those who own the factories, land, raw materials and labour power, all of which are used to produce or sell the commodities. These can be referred to as the productive forces. The labourers, who make up by far the far greater group, do not own any of the productive forces but are the ones that work on them in order to produce or sell the commodities which are used by the capitalist in order to make money. The greatest inequalities lie between the class of labourers and the class of capitalists or as Marx referred to them, the proleteriat and the bourgeoisie.
According to Marx, capitalists are able to live in luxury compared with the mass of workers because they do not pay the workers the entire value of their labour, that is, what their labour actually produces, but only the cost of reproducing their labour-power. The former minus the latter is referred to as surplus value and this is what the capitalist appropriates by virtue of their ownership of the productive forces. This ownership in turn is protected by the law of the country and therefore the whole power of the state which uses its vast array of force and physical violence through the police and army to ensure that these patterns of ownership are maintained. For Marx, liberal or parliamentary democracy is merely there to assist the oppression of the proletariat and the effective functioning of the capitalist system.
The question now becomes, if this system is so unfair and unnecessary why did it ever come about and why has it lasted so long? Marx uses his theory of history in order to answer this question. This theory was initially espoused in one of his early texts The German Ideology (1846) written with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, an English cotton mill owner. The basic premise of the theory is that throughout the whole of the history of humanity there has been one overall aim which has predominated over others, that is, of increasing material productivity relative to labour input. The way in which productivity is increased is through improving the tools used within production and the ways in which these tools are used. Together these are referred to as the productive forces of society. The material production of life comes before everything else and therefore conditions the nature of society more than any other social activity. For Marx, it is this drive to increase production beyond all others that has shaped the course of human history and as such all history must be understood in relation to this drive. It follows that one cannot understand the whole of history unless one studies the development of the productive forces.
Yet to understand the development of the productive forces one must also understand the relative patterns of ownership of these forces. With the development of the productive forces there tends to arise new relations of ownership or relations of production. These in turn facilitate the development of the productive forces while at the same time being determined by them. Changes in ownership require the protection of the state apparatus, so those oppressed by the new ownership do not overthrow the new system. As a result, the new relations of production change in turn the legal and political aspects of the society, what Marx referred to as the superstructure of society. A particular superstructure will last as long as it facilitates the development of the productive forces via the maintenance of the productive relations. However, if and when this superstructure starts to hinder this development and a new system of relations would benefit the development more, a revolution will take place and the current relations and superstructure are changed in accordance with the demands of the productive forces. As Marx states in his 1859 Preface to a Critique of Political Economy:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or-what is but a legal expression for the same thing-with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.
No society can resist the development of the productive forces for very long regardless of the interests of those who own them. For Marx, capitalism was far more effective than the preceding feudalism in developing the productive forces and this is why it replaced feudalism.
Nevertheless the productive capacity of capitalism can only last so long and is ultimately limited by the drive for profit. In particular the tendency of capitalism is to use productive forces according to profit, thus reducing the productive output of society in areas where the profits are not high enough. As a result of capitalism not utilising the full capacity of its productive resources Marx argues that this system must be replaced by a system that does use all the productive resources and that system is communism. The unique characteristic of communism is that the productive resources of society are owned by everybody within that society. This is to say that for the first time in history there is not a minority of individuals who own the productive resources and therefore manipulate their use in the interests of their own very specific class. If the productive forces are owned by everyone then production will be in the interests of everyone and therefore exploitation, gross inequality and major hardships and suffering within society will end. Marx describes aspects of this society, which is the last type of economic system to develop, as there is no other system which can develop productivity further than communism. In The German Ideology, for example, Marx states that in a communist society:
Why for Marx must this magnificent utopian society replace the cruel ruthless, heartless and fundamentally immoral society which is capitalism? The answer to this question lies in the class structure of capitalism. As mentioned, capitalism generates two groups of people, those who do and those who do not own the forces of production. This means that there is only one class that is oppressed and this class is enormous. They in turn do not oppress any other class so when they eventually cause a revolution in the ownership of the productive forces, all exploitation and oppression will be eradicated. This revolution comes about like all revolutions as a result of class struggle. This is why Marx says at the beginning of his classic work, The Communist Manifesto that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’. For the first time in history a majority class acting in the interests of the majority will cause a revolution. This revolution, however, can only take place when the workers themselves as a class become revolutionary. In order to become revolutionary certain material preconditions must be met, including the increasing of the gap between the owners and the propertyless.
In addition, the proleteriat must consciously be aware of the possibility of a communist revolution. This can be said to be the function of communist parties and academics around the world. This is essentially what Marx did all his life despite fierce opposition from political authorities in several countries. As Engels said in his funeral address during the burial of Marx in Highgate cemetery, Hampstead:
His mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society…..to contribute to the liberation of the present day proleteriat which he was the first to make conscious of his own position and its needs, of the conditions under which it could win its freedom. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success which few could rival ….and consequently was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time…he died, beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers from the mines of Siberia to the coasts of California…his name and his work will endure through the ages.