Marxism – its basics

The following is an excerpt from my book Tony Abbott: The Student Years that will be released early 2018.

The first consolidation of the New Left at Sydney University came with the appearance of Trotskyists and Maoists in student activity. A pro-Chinese faction within the CPA had broken away and established Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in March 1964. In the same year a Trotskyist faction formed. Because some Trotskyists stepped forward in the mid-1960s to take a leading role in the student activism after 1967, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of classical Marxism to follow the events.  Without that understanding, it will also be difficult to comprehend what Abbott was fighting and what motivated him. The leftist devotee may find it tedious to have the basics of Marxism rehearsed here – and not with the brilliant colour he would likely want. I have frequently found, however, that many of Tony Abbott’s supporters have little idea of what Marxism entails. I anticipate that this book will have most appeal to that readership. Furthermore, most people objecting to the stifling regime of Political Correctness, which is none other than society’s forced adherence to Marxist dogma and its various interpretations, are similarly in the dark about Marxism.

One of conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s leading charges in his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left [i]is that the neo-Marxists evade or seek to shield their theories from the objections that were raised against Marx’s theories from the beginning. Ludwig von Mises raised many of those criticisms in a series of lectures in 1952 that later appeared in a book, Marxism Unmasked: From Delusion to Destruction,[ii] to which Scruton refers. In my brief survey of Marxist dogma, I will include some of the more obvious objections. What follows can be found in a variety of sources. I have, however, drawn much from Mises’ book, including the objections. To begin, one can divide Marxism into three main areas. The first is a metaphysics that was taken and adapted from Georg Hegel’s philosophy of history. The second is a theory of economics and the third is about what it means to be a human person. It is about the ethics of the individual at work.

Marx thought that Georg Hegel had discovered an invariant law governing the evolution of nations through history. Hegel called it the dialectic. Hegel had taken the term from Plato’s dialogues in which the dialectic was a progressive form of argument. In logical terms, it followed ‘the method of the contrary’. If one offers a definition of what one of the cardinal virtue is – fortitude for example – it is likely that someone will offer an objection or a counter definition. If the speaker considers the objection serious enough, he will modify his definition to accommodate the objection. He then has a new definition. If there is another objection, there will be a further modification to come at a new definition. And so it could go on. The process of the dialectic, then, is thesis, antithesis and then synthesis which leads to a new thesis and so on. Hegel broadened the dialectic to explain the historical development of nations.

A nation does not remain static. It is always on the move. Its social, political and economic structure will raise oppositions. Those oppositions will inevitably develop into conflict out of which a new structure emerges that accommodates the best features of each opposition. The new arrangements would be an improvement. It would not be too long, however, before oppositions arise which also develop into new conflicts. Out of the conflict, a new structure would emerge. You can see the dialectic in operation: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In the process of the dialectic is what Hegel called the ‘Spirit’ of the nation. The Spirit guides the nation to its perfection, its Idea or Absolute Idea. The process of the dialectic is clearly metaphysical – or spiritual. The dialectic is a necessary law of historical evolution. It will operate no matter what nations or individuals attempt.

Marx was beguiled by this necessary law of historical development but added a correction to where he considered Hegel had fallen down. Instead of a metaphysical or spiritual process, Marx insisted the law was materialistic. It was not the spiritual but the material that was inherent in the necessary law of the evolution of states. That all-important material element was what Marx called the ‘material forces of production’ or the means of production. In other words, Marx’s dialectic was about the nation’s economic development. Here again, the materialist dialectic was a necessary law of development that decided on the form the nation would take in every respect – government, law, customs, arts, and religion. These were the production relations Marx said the material forces of production – the means of production – determined. We can speak of an economic base that determines a superstructure, a superstructure of government, law, customs, arts and religion. Nations and peoples have no choice in what the superstructure consists. The economic base – the means of production or the material forces of production – decides what the superstructure is. This distinction between economic base and superstructure is critical. Therefore, to summarise, at a given stage in history, according to Marx, nations have a particular economic base – or possess certain material forces of production. That economic base determines a superstructure of laws, government, customs, religion, art and so on. The beliefs of the superstructure are its truth. Truth was relative to the superstructure. Beliefs are subjective. So determined, people could not think otherwise. To go deeper, the materialist dialectic works in the following way.

A nation’s material forces of production and the production relations determined by them result in a conflict between those who benefit and those who are disadvantaged or exploited. A nation divides itself into classes. The concept of class is of the first importance in Marx’s theory, although he is never explicit about what class is exactly. He says what it is not, but not what it is. Resentment and dissatisfaction arise between the classes to the extent that conflict arises. This is an all-important point. The materialist dialectic is about the clash of class rather than the clash of nations. The course of history is an account of the clash of classes. So we have the thesis in the economic state of affairs that prevails at a given point and the antithesis in the resentful exploited class. Conflict is inevitable. It develops and resolves itself into a new economic state of affairs in which the material forces of production are different – more advanced technologically. They determine a different set of production relations. The change in the material forces of production is a crucial element in the resolution of the class conflict. We have the synthesis and the new economic order. The materialist dialectic carries on relentlessly until it reaches a perfect state of affairs in which there are no classes and no conflict.

The concrete examples Marx gives are the ancient King states in which the king oppressed and exploited the slave population. That inevitable conflict resolved itself into the system of feudalism – the lords oppressed and exploited the serfs. The hand mill, a tool worked by the hand, characterised the means of production in feudalism. The conflict unleashed by the feudal system resolved itself into the capitalist system, today’s economic system, in which the few own the means of production – represented in the beginning by the technologically advanced steam mill. Capitalists continue to maintain their position by the continuing technological advances. The capitalist class oppresses and exploits the immeasurably larger class of workers who are dependent on them for their livelihood.

According to Marx, the capitalist class will become ever more powerful eliminating competition and impoverishing the working class – or the proletariat. The oppressed and barely subsisting proletariat will become conscious of their indigent state – become class conscious. They will begin their resistance. The materialist dialectic makes revolution inevitable. However, in the case of the capitalist vs. the worker, the materialist dialectic will reach its end point, the state of perfection, in which classes will disappear – freedom and justice for all – and the state will wither away. The materialist dialectic leads to a (materialist) paradise on earth – the state John Lennon so wistfully yearns for in his mega-hit Imagine, the 20th century’s anthem of materialism. No heaven above, no hell below and no religion, too. Between the imploding of capitalism and the blissful state of communism, there will be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. ‘It would prevent remnants of the old capitalist ruling class from trying to return to power and would “re-educate” the workers into a “higher consciousness” free from the residues of the prior bourgeois mentality.’

This summary explains not only Marx’s idea of the dialectic – an invariant law of historical evolution. Leaving aside the metaphysics of the materialist dialectic – it is indeed a metaphysical theory – Marx also gives an account of how economies rise and fall and eventually lead to the capitalist system. Marxists claim that Marx has offered a true economic description of the failings of the capitalist system. Included in this economic description are certain basic notions. There is the Labour Theory of Value, which in brief says that economic value is decided by the cost of labour a commodity demands. There is also Marx’s theory of Surplus Value. The employer pays a worker an amount estimated necessary to produce a commodity. However, the worker produces a product or commodity that is higher in exchange value than his wages. There is a surplus value which the worker has produced but does receive. It is shaved off as profit for the employer. Marx says this is the fundamental conflict between employer and employee or between the capitalist class and the working class. It is exploitation.

In addition to the injustice of capitalist exploitation, there is the degradation of the human person. The degradation is a consequence of the self-alienation the worker has to suffer in the capitalist system. This self-alienation and its causes form Marx’s ethical theory. A worker on the factory production line loses a sense of who he is. He stands there cut off from his fellow man performing partial repetitive work to produce a commodity. It is not even his. In his place in the production line, he does not even see the completed product. He is a sort of automaton separated from the person he is. His humanity disappears. He suffers self-alienation. At the same time, the capitalist system causes him to become an object and to attach life to the market forces and commodities. Marx speaks of commodity fetishism and reification. Fetishism is the attribution of life to material objects. The notions of reification and commodity fetishism were developed by some of the neo-Marxists.

What is one who has no acquaintance with Marx’s ideas to think of his grand vision? It could sound pretty enticing, couldn’t it? Indeed, the Marxist promise of the perfect society makes useful propaganda. Who would not want a blissful society, paradise on earth, and see the comeuppance the bosses deserve? But does it all bear scrutiny – particularly all that stuff about self-alienation, reification and commodity fetisheism that has unleashed interminable disquisitions in the sequestered space of academic offices and that on the surface does not seem a true description of consumer society as we today experience it in the concrete? Who thinks of their hi-fi or car or iphone as an object-extension of themselves? Nobody I know or have ever known.

Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1848. Marx produced his masterpiece, the three-volume, Das Kapital, between 1867 and 1894, the third volume released posthumously. By the 1890s, there were serious criticisms of Marx’s socialist ideas. Marx’s collectivist socialism, it was alleged, presented dangers to liberty and economic prosperity.  Richard M. Ebeling in his introduction to Marx Unmasked wrote of Mises:

Mises observed that most of the earlier critics of socialism had rightly pointed out that a system of comprehensive government planning of economic affairs would create the worst tyranny ever experienced in human history. With all production, employment, and distribution of output completely under the monopoly control of the State, the fate and fortune of every individual would be at the mercy of the political authority.

The vast empirical evidence of more than one hundred years supports Mises. Mises as an economist wrote much about the economic incoherence of the socialist system. In detail that I cannot cover here, he claimed that a socialist economy simply would not work. The gist of economic criticism, however, is that the consumer dictates to the businessman his wants in a market economy and the businessman works out from the mix of labour costs and scarce resources, taking into account the competition, whether he can satisfy a particular consumer want. The market economy, of course, presumes private property. There is, says Mises, a ‘rationality’ in all this that is entirely absent from the centrally planned economy of Marx’s socialist vision. Mises makes the point in saying that the businessman or the entrepreneur in a market economy decides by economic data what’s to be produced whereas the state official decides in a centrally planned socialist economy. It is no wonder that Marxist centrally planned governments have failed – often spectacularly. The latest sorry tale of socialist collapse is Venezuela whose socialist president the late Hugo Chavez replaced businessmen with party ideologues to run the state’s nationalised industries.

That Marx’s conception of a capitalist economy is so fundamentally wrong is demonstrated in his key proposition about the unrelenting impoverishment of the worker under the capitalist system. Marx does not recognise that the consumer/worker is king for the successful capitalist. The consumer is active, not a passive object worked upon. The capitalist produces what the market wants and, if he has any sense, ensures that his market remains in intact, that is, that the worker has the ability or wealth to do his job as a consumer. Furthermore, Marx contradicts himself on the capitalist’s treatment of his workers. On the one hand, he claims that the capitalist’s impoverishment of the worker is inevitable, part of the capitalist system. On the other hand, he also recognises the ‘iron law of wages’. The iron law of wages was fundamental to his doctrine. That law states in brief that the worker’s wage ‘is determined by the amount of food and other necessities required for the preservation and reproduction of life to support [his] children until they can themselves work in the factories.’

Another fundamental contradiction is that while Marx asserted the doctrine of the necessary impoverishment of the worker, leading to rebellion, he also organized a revolutionary movement. Why would he – or any of the 1960s radicals – need to spend so much time organising revolution when change to the economic base was inevitable? Moreover, why condemn the capitalist in such strong language when the capitalist had no choice in exploiting the worker? In his dialectical scenario, that was the capitalist’s job. It was a necessary step towards the worker’s paradise. Workers logically should appreciate being exploited. What a tangle Marx got into, Mises said. Mises runs through a catalogue of problems or contradictions in Marx’s philosophy, and I cannot go into them all here. I refer the reader to his book. I will rest with a couple more before returning to the Marxists at Sydney University.

The mind-body problem in philosophy is a wide, complicated area. The task is to account for how one’s mental states are related to one’s physical make-up. There are various explanations, but Marx’s explanation is our subject here. Marx’s explanation for the origin of ideas was a material one. The material forces of production were responsible for the ideas that developed into a full-blown superstructure. Looking more closely at this contention, although Marx was never explicit about what exactly those material forces of production were, it seems fairly sure that he meant tools and machines. Tools and machines were the origin of ideas, and thus the origin of society. They were the basis of everything. Manifestations of the human mind are products of the material productive forces. But how could this be? Tools and machines just don’t materialize out of nothing. Surely an idea of what sort of tool one needs precedes the making of the tool. One equally assumes that a social state exists in which there is a division of labour. Marx further contradicted himself when he dismissed John Locke’s empiricist epistemology – all ideas have their origin in the senses – as the class doctrine of the bourgeoisie. However, class as the origin of ideas contradicted the doctrine of the material forces of production as the origin of ideas.

Finally, there is what I consider the biggest problem of all, one that destroys Marx’s materialist philosophy at its roots. Marx adopted Hegel’s dialectic but rejected its metaphysical or spiritual nature. Indeed, Hegel’s philosophy was idealist. Idealism, in brief, is the claim that the mind or mental states constitute reality. Now Marx may have stated that his adjusted Hegelian dialectic was materialist, and being materialist had the status of science, but how could a universal objective invariant law governing the material world be material? Materialist metaphysics claims that the world is material, everything is reduced to the material, that there is nothing beyond the material. Where in the material world can one observe that material thing called an invariant law predicting the growth and change of societies? This is the point that Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume made about the scientific method. Causality is merely the repetition of particular contiguous actions. No, Marx’s law of dialectic materialism is beyond the material, making it no less metaphysical than Hegel’s idealist dialectic. The truth is that Marx could not wriggle out from under the influence of German philosophy in general and Hegelian metaphysics in particular. It is a point that Scruton emphasizes.

I have raised some fundamental philosophical and economic objections to Marxist theory. Of more significance surely for the ordinary person in Australian society is what it would mean if one or other group of Marxists succeeded in imposing their liberating ‘vision’ on them. What Marxists refer to as the base and superstructure is in the ordinary person’s terms the economic system of capitalism and all those institutions, customs, law, associations and religions – and all their unique colour – that make up our present society and with which they are so familiar. Even more, they are the expression of their lived life. For the ordinary person there is no such distinction of base and superstructure. Our system of government and law that has its origins in time out of mind presides over Australian society. One of its chief milestones was the Magna Carta of 1215 that subjected everyone to the law of the land – including the sovereign. All those institutions, associations, clubs – Burke’s little platoons – customs, traditions that make up Australian society have been formed over time from the ground up and have proven their worth. In all this, as a component, there is an economic system based on private ownership of property that allows the freedom to everyone to produce goods, provide services and trade them. Of course, some government regulation is appropriate to prevent real exploitation of the system.

All I have described as Australian society is for the Marxist an unequal oppressive system that is transitory and therefore has no legitimacy. Because it has no legitimacy, it invites anyone with the power, however acquired, to hasten its destruction and lead the ‘people’ to the promised heaven on earth. This is the logical consequence of the theory. But as I have already pointed out, we do not have just an abstract theory whose incoherence can be criticised. We have the empirical evidence. We have the results of the implementation of Marxism in one or other interpretation on real societies. The result has been without exception disastrous for the people, issuing in moral and material degradation. It is a story that has been told many times through the decades. But when you see a photo of a smiling young 21st century woman, broadcast through social media, holding up a sign which says ‘I want full communism because I value a fair society – The Greens Party’, you have to conclude that the message has been forgotten or suppressed by clever propaganda, or both.

Gerard Charles Wilson

[i] Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Bloomsbury, London, 2015.

[ii] Ludwig von Mises, Marxism Unmasked: From Delusion to Destruction, Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, 2006.

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