Karl Marx was a well-known historian, economist, socialist, and revolutionary of the 19th-century. Despite being born and educated in Germany, Karl Marx would later flee from his native country to Paris and later London following his radical political and socialistic views. Today, Karl Marx is well known for his contribution to social aspects such as freedom through his philosophical and social theories that have come to be collectively known as Marxism.
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Marx was especially troubled by the social conditions that resulted from the emerging capitalistic society of the 19th Century. These conditions included harsh working environments, long working hours, and low pay. As the paper reveals through various concepts and theories by Marx, it was the responsibility of the socialists and scientists to transform the society through promoting ideologies of class-consciousness and social action as a way of availing freedom to the oppressed class of people.
Terms and Theories by Marx
Labor as Seen Through Historical Materialism
According to Marx, societies progressively develop or evolve according to the different modes or stages of social production. Marx claims that during the evolution of social production, human beings were forced to come together without their will or desire to enter into established relations. Therefore, Marx outlines the essential role of labor as a means of production. However, labor cannot exist on its own.
It relies heavily on other materialistic components of production. Such elements include the objects of labor such as animals, land and plants, means of labor (referring to items used by labor force), productive social forces, which consist of knowledge and skills used in production, and productive relations between the working force and the owners of materials and means of production. In Marx’s opinion, productive relations and the corresponding prolific social forces make up the production mode of any capitalistic society. Such relations are independent of the will, consciousness, and desire of people.
Marx asserted that the mode of production was not static but was rather self-motivated. Changes were mainly initiated following alterations in production relations. According to Aronowitz (2016), such transformations later led to societal transformation.
The socialist principle emphasized people working together for the benefit of the majority. Moreover, Marx stated that the success of socialism would only be realized through the rising of the factors of production to attain an abundant economy and/or secure cooperation among people. In turn, this move would lead to the abolishment of the ideologies of capitalism such as social classes, capitalistic exploitation, commodity fetishism, collective production, and the adoption of virtues of communism such as collective responsibility and collective benefits. However, Marx warned that the transition from capitalism to socialism would only succeed if it could be carried out under the dictatorial rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat since the latter would not easily give up on the privileges it enjoyed under capitalism (Hoppe, 2013).
Marx describes a capitalistic society as a society focused on the production of objects or commodities where the means of production do not belong to the workers (alienation) but to a special elite class, namely, the bourgeoisie. This elite class purchases the labor and exclusively derives all the benefits obtained from products including the sale of objects of production. Through his observation, Karl Marx was able to analyze important economic and social aspects that govern a capitalistic society.
According to him, a functional capitalist society is divided into two social classes, namely, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In this relationship, the bourgeoisie dominates the proletariat who are mainly the poor working class. This relationship eventually leads to social problems such as inequality due to the disproportionate distribution of power and wealth.
Theory of Social Class
Marx argues that in a dynamic human society, especially a capitalistic one, classes are bound to emerge due to a conflict of interests between the owners of the factors of production and the workers. In this respect, a capitalistic society will be divided into two main classes: the bourgeoisie and the working class. The latter dominates the former. Marx’s main concern was the inequalities that were created by capitalism to the extent of leading to the unequal distribution of power, wealth, and status.
He believed that the enormous differences that existed between the grandiose lifestyles of the super-rich in comparison with the meager way of life of the poor working class was not only unmerited but also would inevitably result in class conflict. In this regard, Marx believed that it was the duty of scholars and scientists to transform the society by mobilizing the oppressed proletariat class to overthrow the bourgeoisie, a move that would create a new, healthier, and more equal and free social order.
Marx’s emphasis on conflict as a fundamental instrument for stimulating social change and freedom marks a phenomenal contribution to the philosophical and collective disciplines (Resnick & Wolff, 2013). Two of his most recognizable contributions include the ideologies of class-consciousness and freedom. Class-consciousness represented a sense of common or shared interests and/or problems that existed among workers whereas freedom represented the collective resolve by workers to overcome their problems. Therefore, according to Van Galen and Noblit (2012), it can be argued that class-consciousness drives social action.
Theory of Capitalism
In a capitalist society, labor is objectified by becoming a commodity. Marx referred to this peculiar, yet a significant aspect, as commodity fetishism. In this context, the worth of a commodity, including labor, is not only realized in its use but also its application as a tool for exchange of value. Through its trade value, products can be exchanged for other valuable items such as money through a medium, for instance, the market.
Capitalist exploitation is yet another facet that Marx described in his theory to be characteristic in a capitalistic society. Moreover, capitalistic exploitation is derived from the aspect of exchange value in the market where labor is considered a commodity apart from being a factor of production. In this regard, labor, just like other commodities such as land and capital, commands a fair value in the market.
Therefore, the commodification of labor illustrates the extent of fetish capitalistic exploitation that is masked under the impression of equal and fair exchange. Marx suggests that to eliminate commodity fetishism, social production, and capitalistic exploitation, the anarchical market needs to be eliminated. In other words, according to Marx, the market is more significant relative to the other facets of capitalism (Hoppe, 2013).
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Theory of Alienation
According to Marxists, four conceptions emanate from the theory of alienation. The aspects include the separation of the laborer from the product of work, the lack of control of the process of labor by the employee, isolation from fellow human beings, and human nature (Geyer & Schweitzer, 2012).
The concept of alienation of laborers from the product of labor emphasizes the separation of the worker from the product that he or she produces due to the lack of direct ownership. In other words, capitalists own whatever the laborer produces. Thus, the worker is alienated from the product he or she produces. Moreover, Marx argues that alienation further intensifies as the products of labor begin to dominate the worker. Due to such dynamics, the worker has no say regarding what he or she should be paid or the working hours or other conditions. This leaves him in a state of oppression (Geyer & Schweitzer, 2012).
In terms of alienation from the process of labor, the worker lacks direct control in the production process. He or she has no freedom to participate in setting the conditions of labor, organizing the work, and/or revealing the effects (physical and mental) of labor. Marx states that this dynamic aspect is detrimental to society since it lacks the important facet of creativity due to the absence of autonomy of the worker. Sadly, according to Geyer and Schweitzer (2012), any alienation of this kind is under the control of hostile forces, namely, capitalists, whose only drive is to increase production at the expense of the workers.
Alienation from fellow human beings is a form of separation that results from the revolts by the laborers against those who exploit labor. As Marx explains, this exploitation is highly driven by the need to make higher profits. Thus, laborers can be in a sense referred to as“slaves” of the capitalistic society ruled and controlled by their “masters”, the capitalists. Such masters are not interested in the freedom of their captives.
Marx’s Emphases on Freedom
Under capitalism, the working classes are oppressed by being forced to work under harsh job conditions such as long working hours and meager reimbursements. Since they do not directly own the objects of production such as land, they inevitably lack the freedom to dictate the terms or the conditions of labor. Therefore, they are forced to conform to the vices of capitalism such as exploitation and social production.
To resolve this issue, Marx advocates for a transition from a capitalist society to a socialistic one through the ideologies of class-consciousness and social action (Dunayevskaya, 2013). According to Marx, workers in a socialist society are free from exploitation by the capitalists since labor will is no longer be viewed as a commodity or object but a tool that can be deployed to acquire abundance in the society for the benefit of all people.
According to Marx, capitalism alienates workers from the enjoyment of the benefits of production. Only a few individuals in society enjoy the majority of the paybacks. Marx argues that for workers to acquire the freedom to enjoy the benefits of their labor, they need to adopt the spirit of class-consciousness. In this respect, they need to identify alienation as a collective or common social problem to form a common ground for public action. Such social endeavor may be in the form of antagonizing the capitalists, workers demanding their rights to be respected, and even overthrowing the industrialists. By so doing, Geyer and Schweitzer (2012) assert that the oppressed workers would have acquired competitive freedom that will allow them to enjoy the benefit of their labor.
In a capitalistic society, the laborer lacks the freedom to directly control the process of production, the situation of production, and even the value of labor. However, this condition does not hold for a socialist society that Marx advocates. Since the worker enjoys producer freedom in a socialistic society, it also implies that he or she has the capability and freedom to influence important aspects of production such as level of production, creativity, working conditions, and/or may even dictate the prices of products. It also means that the worker is free from the hostilities of capitalism that result from unfavorable control by the capitalists (Geyer & Schweitzer, 2012).
On the concept of alienation, spiritual freedom can be attained through the enhancement of the ability of workers to mirror the products about aspects such as aesthetic value and social relations produced through the free use of normative judgments. For instance, by reflecting on the aesthetic value of the products of labor, workers can achieve spiritual freedom by learning to appreciate the various social relations that are reproduced through their effort.
In terms of social and economic formation freedom, workers, and owners of production factors in a materialistic and capitalistic society are forced into a non-conscious relationship without their will or desire, with each of the two playings a pertinent role in the production process. One of the key advocacies of Marxism was the need to introduce changes to the material or harsh conditions to chant a new and desirable course of social freedom through the resolution of the important issue of human separation.
Marx believed that to provide people the freedom to enjoy the essence of humanity, there was the need to change the exploitative modes of production by replacing them with strategies that were more reflective of spiritual and competitive freedom. However, Marx realized the existence of a conflict between productive forces and prolific relations. Contextually, in a society, productive forces develop faster compared to dynamic relations. In this respect, Marx highlighted the barriers or formations to socioeconomic freedom.
The barriers included slave-owning, primitive communism, capitalism, and communism. Therefore, Marx suggested two favorable methods that would free the society from undesirable socioeconomic formations, firstly, substituting the feudal or old production relations with newer ones and secondly the destruction of the feudal socioeconomic formations and replacing the same with new ones (Brenkert, 2013).
In a post-capitalist society, Marxism advocates for a reconciliation of individual and communal freedoms. To achieve and reconcile the two concepts, Marx appreciates the need to abolish the idea of private property on one hand while upholding the communal regulation of production on the other. In this regard, men manage the production process with freedom of association through their conscious control. Notably, an individual cannot attain the idea of freedom through the advocacy of self-interest.
However, the community acquires it through collective actions. Yet, each individual has the freedom to cultivate his or her gifts to the extent that the items or the individuals do not transverse communal freedom. Furthermore, Marx’s concept of the reconciliation of individual and communal freedom enables the individuals within the social structure to enjoy the autonomy of rationality or reason, which they can use to further cement their social relationships and/or enhance human sovereignty (Brenkert, 2013).
Marx also emphasizes political freedom through social democracy. Collective egalitarianism is a concept of socialism that advocates for the reconciliation of aspects of both collectivism and democracy. Social democracy posits that a positive change in a socialistic society can only exist after a democratic process.
Through a self-governing process, people have the freedom to decide regarding their political agenda, including freedom, equality, and social justice among other important socialistic values without the restrictions of a capitalistic society. According to Marx, unlike a capitalistic society where the goal is to use political dominance to profit the members of a particular social class, the agenda of collective democracy is to meet the needs of all people. In this organization, all members of the community are required to actively participate in transforming society through a democratic process. Therefore, to this extent, according to Hunt (2016), each individual enjoys political freedom.
Marxism refers to social theories, for instance, historical materialism, class presumptions, socialism, capitalism, and alienation that were used by Karl Marx to explain the collective and economic aspects that resulted from private enterprises. Marx recommended the transformation of society from a capitalistic to a socialistic one. According to Marx, through the adoption of socialism, workers will be in a better position to enjoy aspects such as freedom that are restricted in capitalistic societies.
Through socialism, the worker is freed from oppression, exploitation, socioeconomic formations, alienation, and even gains individual and political autonomy. Marx also illustrates how individuals and societies can transform from capitalistic to socialistic zones through class-consciousness and social action. Such transformation would eliminate capitalistic restrictions and vices, thus enabling all individuals within the framework to enjoy human freedom.
Aronowitz, S. (2016). The crisis in historical materialism: Class, politics and culture in Marxist theory. Berlin, Germany: Springer.
Brenkert, G. (2013). Marx’s ethics of freedom. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis.
Dunayevskaya, R. (2013). Marxism and freedom. New Delhi, India: Aakar Books.
Geyer, R., & Schweitzer, D. (2012). Theories of alienation: Critical perspectives in philosophy and the social sciences. Berlin, Germany: Springer Science & Business Media.
Hunt, R. N. (2016). The political ideas of Marx and Engels: Marxism and totalitarian democracy, 1818-50. Berlin, Germany: Springer.
Hoppe, H. (2013). Theory of socialism and capitalism. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2013). Class theory and history: Capitalism and communism in the USSR. London, England: Routledge.
Van Galen, J., & Noblit, G. (2012). Late to class. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.