Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a revolutionary German economist and philosopher, and the founder of the Communist movement. Marx was writing against a backdrop of great industrial change. Overcrowded, newly industrialised cities were expanding, and much of the working class lived in great poverty. Marx saw history as the story of class struggles, in which the oppressed fight against their oppressors. According to Marx, as history unfolded, the victory of one class would pave the way for the future freedom of the rest of society.
Marx viewed the unfolding process of history as follows:
- First in ancient and mediaeval society the landed and wealthy had oppressed the slaves and the poorest plebeians and labourers.
- Then, as new technologies were invented and market forces grew stronger, everything changed. The middle classes - gaining wealth and power from trade and manufacture - challenged the power and authority of the old rulers.
- But at this stage a new struggle was formed between the bourgeoisie (the property owning class) and the proletariat (the industrial working class).
Marx argued that the capitalist bourgeoisie mercilessly exploited the proletariat. He recognised that the work carried out by the proletariat created great wealth for the capitalist. The products created in the factory (the material outcome of the workers' labour) were sold for more than the value of the labour itself i.e. more than the workers' wages. For instance, the factory worker may get paid £2 to produce a yard of cloth. The capitalist then sells the cloth for £5. In this way, the capitalist, who controls the process of production, makes a profit. But the worker does not benefit from this added value, and fails to benefit from the fruits of his/her own labour.
Marx believed that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. He described how the wealth of the bourgeoisie depended on the work of the proletariat. Therefore, capitalism requires an underclass. But Marx predicted that the continued exploitation of this underclass would create great resentment. Eventually the proletariat would lead a revolution against the bourgeoisie. The final struggle would lead to the overthrow of capitalism and its supporters. Marx wrote that modern bourgeois society 'is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.'
Following the proletariats' defeat of capitalism, a new classless society would emerge based on the idea: 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'. In such a society, land, industry, labour and wealth would be shared between all people. All people would have the right to an education, and class structures would disappear. Harmony would reign, and the state would simply 'wither away'.
The two authors claim that in feudal times, society was much more stratified, with virtually every class having several levels, and that modern-day society has become boiled down to the haves and the have-nots. The formation of the bourgeois occurred when increased trade contributed to the fall of feudalism, and when growing trade markets continued to expand, the manufacturing system began to dominate the economy. Those controlling manufacturing were the bourgeois. The authors state that the bourgeois were egotistical, tossing aside “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm,” and that they decreased the value of the individual worker, turning those who had previously held positions of prestige into mere wage-earners, simply because the bourgeois cared more about money. (Wadsworth, 2011) Furthermore, the authors tell us that the bourgeois consume other countries, causing unindustrialized countries to become dependent upon those that are industrialized. Other evils of the bourgeois included the concentration of property into the hands of a few, shrinking of family size, and destroying and polluting nature.
The proletariats, on the other hand, were in fact created from the oppression of the capitalists. These laborers were looked at as “appendages” of their machines, paid only enough to sustain themselves. (Wadsworth, 2011) However, as the development of industry continued the proletariat formed unions, which grew not only in number but in strength. The most interesting part of the essay is where the authors allude to Conflict Theory. They state,
“The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries.” (Wadsworth, 2011, pg. 16)
So, not only was the bourgeois in conflict with the proletariat, it was also in conflict within its own population. The constant struggle between classes led Marx and Engels to suggest that the proletarians’ growing numbers and strength of their movement would lead to the eventual downfall of the upper-class capitalists; that the average laborer would emerge from turmoil and regain a state of equality in society. They predicted, “… the victory of the proletariat [is] … inevitable.”
In reading this essay, there are a few things worth noting. First was the mention of man’s colonization and industrialization of nature. Even today we struggle to find a balance between advancing our economy and maintaining standards for a healthy environment. The formation of the Green Party is an example of people gathering together to fight pollution, clearing of forests, etc. However, some technological innovations have become necessary to our modern society. Power lines, for example, supply energy for heat and lighting to billions of people worldwide; telephone lines provide a method of communication between homes; canals, railroads, and highways ensure safe transportation. On another note, the authors mention on page fifteen that, “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class.” (Wadsworth, 2011) However, due to the issuance of child labor laws, and emerging research into workplace discrimination revealing that on average men are still making more money than women.