15 Karl Marx and Scientific Socialism

Dr. Ritu Khosla

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1.1 Life and Work
1.2 Source of Marx’s Thought
1.3 The Character of Marxian Socialism
1.3a Dialectical Materialism
1.3b Historical Materialism or Materialistic Interpretation of History
1.3c Theory of Class war/ Class struggle
1.3d Theory of Value and Surplus Value
1.3e Theory of State and Revolution
1.4 Conclusion
1.5 Exercise to Do
1.6 References


Karl Marx, one of the most revolutionary writer, philosopher, and intellectual of his time, is considered as the originator of ‘Scientific Socialism’. Through his work and innovative ideas he gave world altogether a different point of view. Marxism as a philosophy has three basic elements i.e. philosophy, an economic theory, and a political theory.


1.1 Life and Work


Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, a city in the Rhineland province of Prussia. He studied history, law, and philosophy at Bonn, Berlin and Jenna. As a young student he joined a group of persons called ‘Young Hegelians’. Due to his radical views he could not get employment as a university teacher. He began with radical journalism due to which he got expelled from Prussia and thereafter he got involved in conspiratorial activities in France and Belgium from 1843 to 1849.


The most intellectual phase of Marx’s life began with his friendship with Engels. They both worked together from 1844 onwards for development of Scientific Socialism. In 1848, at Brussels, Marx along with Engels wrote the famous Communist manifesto. Marx’s orderly proclamation of his economic doctrine first appeared in his Critique to Political Economy in 1859.


1.2 Source of Marx’s Thought:


Marx was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel as a student in Bonn and Berlin University. From Hegel he learnt the fact that the world, including individuals and societies, is dynamic in nature and is in a constant flux. Its history involves not only sequence of events but a gradual course of un-foldment that proceeds in a dialectical way. All development occurs through contrast and conflict. Hegel’s dialectical formula thus involves: thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.


Second, Marx was also under the influence of classical school of British Political Economy especially Adam Smith, Ricardo and William Thompson for the theory of value and surplus value that aimed at the welfare of the capitalists. Marx, on the other hand, made use of the theories in the interest of the wage-earners.


Third, from French revolution tradition he built up his theory of the state and of revolution.



1.3 The Character of Marxian Socialism


Marxian socialism is popularly known as scientific socialism or proletarian socialism. Marx called his theory scientific as it is based on the study of the past history which is ‘a necessary product of historical development’. Also, instead of attacking the evil outcomes of capitalism, it assails the capitalist system itself.


1.3a Dialectical Materialism


The entire structure of Marxism rests on the doctrine of dialectical materialism. Communists apply this materialistic doctrine to find the answer to every problem with which they possibly may be dealing.


Dialectic as a method considers that all historical processes go by opposites. Opposition and contradictions are found far and wide in nature and thought. Each tendency once develops completely gives way to an opposite tendency which devastates it. Then the conflicting tendency progress towards an equilibrium or unity. Again this unity is not everlasting or permanent as soon the opposite forces emerge. The lower form is negated in the higher.


Influence on Marx: The idea of dialectic progress can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Later it was Goerg Hegel who first made the application of dialectic to historical progress. Hegel gave a theory of history with ‘change’ as its central theme that was motivated by dialectic conflict. As discussed earlier from Hegel Marx learnt the great truth that the world including individuals and societies is dynamic and its history is involves a gradual process of unfoldment that proceeds in a dialectical way. In other words, development happens through contrast and conflict. Hegel on this basis gave the dialectical formula of ‘thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis’. In this dialectical process the negative aspects of the thesis and anti-thesis are destroyed which Hegel termed as ‘negation of the negative.’


Marx, however, did not adopt complete version of Hegel’s dialectic rather changed it suit to his views on historical progress. Marx used dialectic as a means to explain historical development but in the preface to the second edition of Das Capital he wrote, “In Hegel’s writings, dialectic stands on its head. You must turn it right way up again if you want to discover the rational kernel that is hidden away within the wrappings of mystification.”


While Hegel regarded ‘spirit’ as the evolving reality but for Marx it was ‘matter’. Hegel considered history as the evolution and unfoldment of the ‘World spirit’; on the other hand, for Marx it is ‘economic forces’. Marx considered history as evolution of ‘Matter’ and not of ‘Idea’.


Marx’s Dialectical Materialism:


Though Marx nowhere gives a clear explanation of materialism but he advocated his materialism as dialectic and not mechanical.


Marx considered the world by its very nature materialistic which constitutes different forms of matter in motion. The world develops as per the the laws of movement in matter. In other words, Marx assumes nature or material world as primary and mind or thought as secondary. Thus the material interests of society are of primary importance and spiritual life of secondary importance. Marx thus considered the spiritual life as mere manifestation of this objective reality. In the words of Marx, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on contrary, their social being that determine their consciousness.”


The various social doctrines that developed at various time frames of history were thus merely an expression of the material being of society. The mode of production of material values being in a state of flux and development could be explained by dialectic- the process of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.


Marx’s conviction in dialectic process made him believe that socialism can never be born except out of the ashes of the capitalist society. He advocates that capitalism bears in itself the seeds of its own destruction and out of this conflict between the capitalist class and the working class, the classless society will emerge.


Thus by using this dialectical method, Marx called his concept scientific and definite as compared to the doctrine of materialism stated by Freuerbach Holbach which was more of mechanical in nature and drew heavily upon physics and chemistry.


Marx considered dialectic as a force behind every supposed absolute truth. On the basis of Materialism he gave a sweeping rejection of religion which he regarded as the opium of people. Marx believed that religion provided merely imaginary satisfactions to the people that in turn misdirected their rational efforts to found real satisfactions.


Another implication of the dialectical materialism was that it suggested a kind of social revolution that would pave a way for the establishment of a new superior society in which the state would no longer be required. Through this social revolution production would be socialized which would further result in the elimination of all sources of exploitation and social inequality.


The final goal of social development would be thus a classless society.




It is strange that though the theory of dialectical materialism occupies the fundamental place in the socialist structure but Max and Engels never worked out to develop their ideas about it. Nowhere do they write on it in detail, despite the fact that it is assumed in all their writings.


No doubt conflict and contradictions play important roles in human affairs, but they cannot be treated as the only motivating factors in historical evolution. Carew Hunt observes that although “the dialectic may give us valuable insight into the history of human development, the Marxist claim that it constitutes the only scientific approach to reality cannot be allowed.”


1.3 b Historical Materialism or Materialistic Interpretation of History:


Marx rejected Hegel’s idealism and applied a doctrine to the interpretation of history which accepted the view of world that mind and spirit are only the products of matter.


The theory of materialistic interpretation of history is based on the simple truth that ‘man must live to eat’ and his endurance depends upon the success with which he can produce to fulfill his requirements. Society though created to fulfill the necessities of life, has never succeeded in its aim, thus resulting in tensions and stresses.


The doctrine of historical materialism can be stated as: Not only the economic structure of society rather man’s entire political, intellectual and spiritual activities are the inevitable consequence of economic factors only. It implies that economic factor is the sole factor that determines history, intellectual and spiritual activity, laws and institutions. As Marx said, “the political and intellectual life of a society is determined by the mode of production, as necessitated by the wants of material life.” With the innovation of new productive forces the then existing economic structure becomes inadequate and inappropriate, thus demanding a change. This change is then resisted by the prevailing vested interests, thus resulting in a revolution. Marx thus observes that all revolutions are resultant of economic factors.


According to Marx, man is stimulated by his material needs and thus all ideas, conceptions consciousness and consequently politics, law, morality, and religion of people are resultant of the material action and economic relations of men. Stating the role played by economic factors, Marx said, “it fashions their religion; it determines their laws; it shapes their literature and their art.”


Marx draws a distinction between forces of production and the relations of production. The forces of production comprise the existing natural resources, the tools and machinery inherited from past, and the capabilities of the people to utilize these resources and make technological advances. To make efficient use of the available forces of production, appropriate and necessary economic, social, religious and philosophical institutions are set up by men.


Marx considered forces of production dynamic which are subject to constant change that may happen due to the discovery of new raw material, new source of power, or due to enhancement in techniques of production. Such changes demand corresponding change in the relations of production so that the available forces of production could be fully utilized. Marx firmly believed that failure of the relations of production like social, legal and political institutions in adjusting themselves with the rapid changing system of production and distribution of wealth leads crisis in society. The single way out to bring out society of this crisis is revolution. In their Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels clearly stated class-struggle as the sole means to alter social structure. Marx thus linked the theory of class struggle with the Materialist or Economic interpretation of History.


Criticism: Marx’s doctrine of Materialistic interpretation of history is not infallible as it has many shortcomings that make the doctrine illogical.


Marx asserts that every successive stage of society which crops up on due to internal negation of the proceeding stage constitutes a higher form. This is wrong. History is not a constant record of progress; it is much a saga of dissolution and decay.


The doctrine of materialistic interpretation of history also overlooks the role played by non-economic factors in determining history. It has overlooked the fact that human passions, sentiments, emotions, religion, personality, etc, influences human activities. For instance no one can deny the role played by religion in shaping human activities. In India and even in America, the local elections are mainly influenced by religion. Prof Laski also held the opinion that Marx’s insistence upon an economic background as the whole explanation was radically false.


Marxists also neglected the force of nationalism as an important factor. Bertrand Russell writes, “The most obvious non-economic factor, and one the neglect of which has led socialists most astray, is nationalism. Of course, a nation, once formed, has economic interests which largely determine its politics, but it is not as a rule, economic motives that decide which group of human beings shall form a nation.”


Historical materialism further fails to verify how small incidents fabricate mighty results. No single factor can become a big movement. Further, if relations of production are based on forces of production then it becomes hard to explain why alike forces of production generate different relations of production and also different political and legal systems.


In the present day states great power resides in the hands of high administrative officials. The military coups in various states also give the lie to the Marxian theory.


Ebenstein points that the Marxist interpretation holds that imperialism is caused primarily by economic interests and rivalries that it is essential aspect of capitalism, and that war in the capitalist era is the inevitable result of such imperialist tendencies between the capitalist states. There have undoubtedly examples of imperialism in history whose origins can be traced to economic factors but on the other hand, contemporary Western Europe and Japan provide examples of flourishing capitalist societies without empires or imperial ambitions.


Similarly, the Marxian economic explanation of war is neither wholly true nor wholly false, and can account only part o the historical reality. For example, the core of the conflict in the two world wars was not the protection of British investments in Africa or of American loans to British and France, but the more fundamental issue of whether totalitarian militarism was to rule the world.


1.3c Theory of Class war/ Class struggle


By the side of materialistic/ economic interpretation of history, Marx gives significant place to the doctrine of class struggle. The former contains his theory of social change while the latter describes its mechanism i.e. the mode in which society progresses from one stage to another in path of its historical development. Theory of class struggle is the theory of class war as propounded by Marx in collaboration with Engels. Marx did not view world-history as a record of wars amongst nations rather envisages it as a succession of struggle between opposed classes for economic and political power.


Context of Class struggle:


According to Marx ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’. It implies that every historical era in history is typified by the supremacy of an economic class and gives way to another era in which the opponent economic class which was exploited in the preceding era conquests over its erstwhile exploiters after a hard struggle. Thus according to Marx, the social movements which make history are class movements.


Further Marx articulates that at all times and in every country society tends to divide itself into two hostile classes on the basis of their economic conditions- one is the small privileged class that owns means of production and the other is the large class of workers who convert the raw material into usable commodities. In the ancient Rome there were patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild masters, journeymen; apprentices, serfs. Similarly class antagonism prevails in modern society too. The difference between the time eras is that the new classes, new methods, new forms of oppression and new forms of struggle have replaced the old ones. In current scenario society has split up into two hostile camps- bourgeoisie and proletariat.


Marx, however, has not worked in detail on the class struggle in the ancient and medieval periods, as he was more interested in examination of the clash between the exploiting capitalist and the exploited proletariat class.


Understanding the conflict between two hostile camps/ classes:


The fundamental argument of Marxian philosophy is that every system of production society is inclined to divide up into two hostile camps with contradictory interests.


On the basis by which men earn their livelihood society can be divided into two broad classes; the capitalist and the wage earning. A capitalist is one who owns the material means of production i.e. land, workshop, raw material, and capital. The wage-earner is one who survives by selling his labour. He either tills the land of landlord, or works in a workshop where he converts the raw material provided to him by the capitalist into a usable product.


These two classes depend upon one another. The land owned by the landlord would remain un-ploughed if there were no labourers to till the same; the workshops and factories would remain inoperative and of no use if there were no workers. Similarly, the workers would remain idle and in turn starve if they were not employed by the landowners or


Marx, however, argues that howsoever necessary one class may be to the other, the interests of two would collide. One can expand only at the cost of other. Capitalist owners want to earn more and more profits and want the factory workers to work for them at subsistence wages where as the wage-earners want to gain highest possible price for their labour. But in this competition the wage-earners are positioned at the disadvantageous place and this provides capitalists an opportunity to oppress and exploit them.


Marx also points out that the modern bourgeoisie is itself the creation of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange. The weapons with which the bourgeoisie brought feudalism to ground are ironically now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. This new weapon would be now wielded by the modern working class- the proletarians. Therefore what the bourgeoisie are producing would lead to its own grave digging. Thus the fall of capitalist and victory of the proletariat is inevitable.




The theory of class struggle as propounded by Marx is less satisfactory as it is difficult to define the term ‘class’ and therefore the tern ‘class struggle’ altogether. At present time it is furthermore difficult to define the terms proletariat and bourgeoisie as many workers are now shareholders in the companies they work for. The French Syndicalist Sorel called the Marxian ‘class’ as mere abstraction. Sabine also said, “Though Marxists have always believed in class struggle to be the only reliable guide to political strategy, the vagueness of the Marx’s concept of a social class was responsible for some of his worst errors in prediction.”


Furthermore the theory of class struggle seems to be vague. It is impossible to trace out any time period in the history in which there was a clear cut division of classes between the rich and the poor. The reality is that at every stage the human beings have freely intermingled with one another.


Also the idea of class struggle or class war is bad and harmful in itself. It openly teaches the lesson of hatred and violence which in itself is a threat to the whole mankind and its survival.


1.3d Theory of Value and Surplus Value


Karl Marx was not an expert economist and thus depended on his friend Engels for economic ideas. Also, his theory of value is majorly influenced by the Ricardian theory. In fact Marx was once called ‘a Ricardo turned socialist’ as he shared many of his ideas and assumptions with Ricardo but yet directed them to different conclusions.


Marxian theory of value unlike other theories of value is not a theory of prices as it does not try to explain the notion of prices and the reasons behind their fluctuation. Rather it is a theory that explains the exploitation of labour by the bourgeoisie under the capitalists system of production. Its prime purpose is to prove that the capitalists are dependent upon the labour of the working class but in the process deprives them of major part of the wealth which they produce. As per Marx, the capitalist mode of production leads to the the exploitation of working class and the Marxian theory of surplus value shows how this exploitation takes place.


Marx considers labour as the sole creator of value. Out of the four elements of production namely, labour, land, capital and organisation- the latter three elements are unproductive as they can reproduce only when labour is put in them and are thus of no source of value. Among all four elements, it is only the labour which is a variable element and thus adds value.


Marx further observes that capitalists have a monopoly on the means of production which includes resources, factories, tools and machinery. Ordinary people have to work in order to survive and for that the workers sell their labour to capitalists at marginal price which is decided by the capitalists. Marx for this idea was influenced by Ricardo’s Iron law of wages which illustrated that capitalists are driven by the desire to earn profits and for this aim they pay their workers only substantive wages that is required to feed themselves and their families. This much amount is paid as it would bring them back to work the next day. Thus the workers are enslaved to the capitalist masters who give inadequate wages, regardless of the value they produce.


Theory of Surplus Value: According to this theory, the value generated by the workers above their subsistence level is called surplus value. The capitalist buys the labour of a poor worker, employs that to the resources that he possesses and thus generates a commodity having ‘exchange value’. Such a commodity is sold for a price much greater than the wages paid to the workers and the amount required for the upkeep of the factory. This difference between the exchange value of the manufactured commodity and the price paid to the workman for his labour is the surplus value. This value though is generated by the labour of a worker but is kept by the capitalist who employs him. Marx calls it as the product of unpaid labour.


For example, let us assume that it takes eight hours of work for a labourer to produce necessities of life for his and his family’s survival. If a labourer is made by the capitalist to work for fourteen hours but is remunerated only subsistence wage then the extra six hours of labour is of surplus value. Marx argues that the surplus value can only be produced by labour so the labour should have claim over it. Also, any profit that the capitalist make through worker’s labour is exploitative.


Marx opined that the surplus value can be only eliminated with the defeat of capitalism and socialisation of the means of production followed by end of exploitation of labourers.


1.3e Theory of State and Revolution


Theory of State


The history of political theory has always been the history of the state as it has been, as it is and as it ought to be. However, there prevail differences of opinion with regard to the origin, nature and functions of state, the limitations on its authority and the extent of obedience to which it is permitted. There has also prevailed a view that state was not essential for human advancement rather it has been an obstacle in the way of human progress and that man will do better without it.


Palmenatz writes, “Men need the protection of power and also resents the burden it imposes; and poorer they are, the less they need the protection and the more they feels the burden.”


Marx never made an attempt to devise a comprehensive and systematic theory of the state. SMH Chang writes, “Before Lenin published his State and Revolution in 1917, the Marxian theory of state had been almost entirely neglected not only in economics but also in sociology and political science. In short, there is no doubt that the Marxian theory of state has been gradually neglected in social sciences.”


The Marxian theory of state finds its full expression in a book called ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ (1884) written by Engels. The general thesis of the book is that ‘mankind passed through several stages of social organisation before the emergence of patriarchal family, slavery and private property, which in Europe were all three effects of domestication of animals: that thereafter economic progress and an always more intensive division of labour, enriching some people more than others and promoting trade between persons belonging to different clans and tribes, caused the breakdown of the old tribal society, substituting for it state, whose primary function was to facilitate the exploitation of one class by another.’


The Marxian theory of state is seen as a structured power of one class for subjugating the other. The state is seen as nothing more than an organisation which the bourgeoisie adopted for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests. Thus being the expression of the dominance and a part of a machinery of the class struggle, the essence of state power lies in its ‘purely repressive character.’ According to Marx and Engels the state does not, and cannot, really stand above the conflict of classes; it only appears to do so; it does not really hold the conflicting economic classes in check; it only appears to do so.


Further, Marx did not consider state as a higher moral institution. He had no faith in the Hegelian idea that “the state is a March of God on earth” rather Marx held that the state is merely the servant of the property class. The essence of the modern democratic state lies in the fact that ‘it is based on unhampered growth of bourgeoisie society, on the free movement of private interest’. The state aims to maintain the socio-economic and political order of the ruling class.


Also, the government, according to Marx, is not a creative rather an obstructive force in social evolution. It is an organization by which the ruling class imposes its will upon the subject classes and maintains its advantaged position in economic matters. In every stage of social development, the ruling class due to its control on the government has been able to formulate its will into law. As pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, the government in modern state is a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. After winning this machinery of the state, the ruling class for all time made use of its legal authority to oppose all major changes.


Major changes, according to Marx could be brought only through revolution and the working classes were to organise themselves for that purpose.


According to Hunt, “The first task of the revolution which Marx held to be inevitable outcome of the class struggle for a new economic order is the capture of the state by the proletariat and its utter destruction, since every part of its apparatus is contaminated with bourgeoisie ideology, as are all those associated with its administration.”


Theory of Revolution:


Marxist theory of revolution is an integral part of his doctrine of dialectical materialism. As per the dialectic model, development of thesis and antithesis takes place gradually, but as a consequence of the conflict between the two, synthesis appears in a sudden stroke. Similarly, productive forces innate in any society build up completely before a change takes place, and the change itself would be sudden. This sudden revolutionary change will eventually transform the complete structure of society until the new society in its turn is overthrown and remoulded. Thus any considerable social change is the result of a revolution. Marx considered revolution as indispensible midwife of social change.


In the Communist Manifesto, Marx proclaimed the democratic aim of a proletariat revolution. As per Manifesto, “The first step in the working class revolution is the raising of the proletariat to the position of the ruling class; the victory of democracy…..The proletarian movement is the


conscious movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.”


Marx talked about development of revolution two in phases. In the first phase, the bourgeoisie would undertake a struggle with feudalists. In this struggle the proletariat would lend their support to the bourgeoisie and later search for an opportunity to seize power from bourgeoisie. In the second phase of the revolution, the bourgeoisie that initially crushed feudalism would be destroyed by the proletariat with the help of left wing bourgeoisie components and these bourgeoisie elements would be later on rejected by the proletariat. After the throw away of the bourgeois state, the proletariat would still need the state. It will be a transitional, revolutionary stage in which the state will be dominated by the proletariat. The proletariat would strive to bring all means of production; industries, land, business, communications, transportation and commerce under the influence of state. The proletariat state would have a system of heavy and progressive income tax with elimination of child labour in factories, and provision of free education for all children in public schools. Marx believed that the ‘Dictatorship of Proletariat’ will be more democratic and liberal than the bourgeois democracy


The proletariats would later crush the opposing forces leading to the establishment of communistic society. Both Marx and Engels believe that following the proletarian rule, the state will wither away automatically with the extinction of all classes. The abolition of classes implies the abolition of the state, and in a society where there is no classes, there can be no state.


In the then formed communist society, everyone will work. However, the initial division of labour will disappear. The newly formed society will become a means to emancipation of men ‘by giving each individual the opportunity to develop and exercise all his faculties, physical and mental, in all directions, in which, therefore, productive force will become a pleasure instead of a burden. The new society will be based on the principle, “from each according to his capacity and, to each according to his needs.”




Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat is repressive in nature and cannot be democratic as Marx thought of. This is so because every dictatorship is based upon hatred and violence, so is the case with the proletariat dictatorship. Thus it is as callous as capitalism.


The theory provides with many unanswered questions. For instance, how long it will take the state to wither away? How long the dictatorship of the proletariat would continue? These are the questions which neither Marx nor Engels gave any answer. It is difficult to give up power after attaining it. The dictatorship of the proletariat will thus take up the form of class institution. Thus the concept of communist society is nothing but a utopia.


The critics also believe that even if a classless society comes into existence, it will not last long.


This is so because any arrangement imposed by force cannot last long.



Later some Marxists, particularly Mao Zedong pointed out that the class struggle will not end with the establishment of a communist state, but will takes new form. Contradictions will continue to persist even in communist state- contradictions between the advanced and the backward, between the positive and negative, even between the productive forces and the conditions of production. These contradictions need to be fought in order to achieve the goal of communism. Revolution is, therefore, a perpetual and continuing process. This view is known as the ‘doctrine of permanent revolution’.


Hunt criticised the Marxist theory of the state and of revolution on two grounds. First, it concentrates upon those coercive functions of the state which can be shown to be dictated consciously or unconsciously by class interests, and ignores other functions into which class interests do not enter. Second, the theory that the state will wither away rests upon the assumption that the proletariat revolution will establish a classless society. Yet there is no guarantee that the victory of the workers will necessarily lead to this.


1.4 Conclusion


The writings of Karl Marx moved around the questions of historical and economic theory and around the issues of economic and political strategies. He collected the philosophical material lying scattered and combined then to a systematic whole. His teachings became more or less a religion for millions of his followers. He combined his ideas with scientific aspects in order to generate weapons through which oppressed could fight against the oppressor. His ultimate focus, however, was in liberated and cultivated individuals. He believed that fairer and more productive economic arrangements are required so that every individual gets the time and opportunity for ‘free development, intellectual and social.’ Paying tribute to Marx Prof Laski writes, “The vital fact about him (Marx) is that he found communism a chaos and left it a movement. Through him it acquired a philosophy and a direction.”


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