“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Thus begins The Communist Manifesto. Indeed, politics as a mode of class struggle is the hallmark of Marxism.
Marxism is one of the most important ideologies of the modern age. It influenced the entire world politics, and threatened the capitalist philosophies and countries around the world. The socialist doctrine known as Marxism is based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Lenin, Mao Tse-tung and Marshal Tito also made significant contributions to the growth and spread of this political ideology. Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky are other prominent thinkers of Marxism.
The Basic Tenets of Marxism
The Marxist view on politics can best be understood through the fundamental principles of the ideology based on the writings of Marx, Engels, and other later Marxist thinkers. These are the following:
According to Marx and Engels, the world is by its very nature material and it develops as the result of a conflict between two opposing material factors. In other words, history is conceived as a dialectical process where contradiction is the essence of it.
When two opposing material forces come into conflict with each other, a new situation is born. This new situation, according to this principle, is called development. We can understand this process in the form of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. The capitalist class is the Thesis, and the working class is the Antithesis. The interests of the capitalists and workers are all the time opposite to each other; it is irreconcilable and thus a continuous struggle between the two. The struggle will come to an end only when the workers have won and a new social system is born. This new development is Synthesis. Such a social system is characterized by a ‘classless’ and ‘stateless’ society.
Historical Materialism or Economic Interpretation of History
Marxists believe that in every country, politics, religion, art and culture are greatly influenced by the economic conditions. To Marxists, all the social and political changes, the revolutions and the wars are due to economic and material factors. Therefore, economic system is the root of all events in history. Marxism looks upon economic conditions as the basis of life, our thinking, our behavior as well as the political and ideological systems.
Marx has divided the history of mankind into six periods or ages:
- the age of primitive communism;
- the age of slavery: masters and slaves;
- the age of feudalism: lords and serfs;
- the age of capitalism: bourgeoisie and proletariat;
- Dictatorship of the Proletariat; and
- Communism, when all class struggle ends.
The new ideal society, Communism, according to Marx, will be a classless and stateless society. It will be marked by social harmony and stability.
Doctrine of Class Struggle
In each age, in every society, there have existed two classes- one possessing the means of production and the other which is exploited by the former class. Marxism pictures human history to be an endless struggle between the two antagonistic classes- the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-nots.’
To bring an end to this struggle, the Have-nots or the proletariat in the capitalist society must win over the bourgeoisie. And, the only means to do so is through revolution.
Politics as an Instrument of Class Exploitation
Marxists argue that politics is nothing but an act of domination of one class over the other. The class who controls the means of production also dominates the society, culture, religion, state and politics, and influences ideology, morality, family and everyday life. Therefore, politics is the medium in which power allows those who possess it to ensure their hold on the society and to profit by it.
Accordingly, Marxism aims at abolishing the classes from society, which will lead to the “withering away of the state” and politics in due course.
Classless and Stateless Society
A classless and stateless society is the ultimate goal of Marxism. To overthrow the capitalist state, Marx recommended revolution. Immediately after the revolution, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat will be established.
However, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat will only be a transitional state of affairs. It is a state in between ‘capitalism’ and ‘complete communism’. Real communism signifies a stage when there will be no class and no state. In a classless society, though administration will remain, politics and state will wither away. The state arose as an instrument of class oppression; when classes disappear, the state will disappear. The classless and stateless society is Marx’s ideal state, the New Ideal Society.
Karl Marx is the first socialist writer whose work can be termed scientific. Marx, along with Engels, tried to bring a world communist revolution. And, indeed, they succeeded in doing doing so, though it was not a complete one.
Marx and Engels clearly stated that the interests of the capitalists and those of workers were opposed to each other. They said that politics is the study of class relations and class struggles in the society. In that, they were not wrong.
Marx and Engels gave the working classes the assurance of being on a winning side. The concluding part of the Communist Manifesto declared:
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
In fact, success of communism in the erstwhile Soviet Union, China, Cuba and many other parts of the world proved Marx right!
Marx, Engels and Lenin raised the workers from the morass of fatalism and taught them that they have to unite for the purpose of securing their emancipation.
Nevertheless, Marxist view of politics is subject to certain criticisms on many grounds. First, Marx argued that the state is an instrument of class exploitation. However, critics point out that, in modern times, the state cannot be regarded as the product of class antagonism. Rather, it is a social welfare state. It represents all classes in society and tries to promote their interests. The state is not used for coercion.
Second, Marx’s economic interpretation of history is also criticized on many grounds. It is true that in many instances those who command property also capture political power. But this may not be true all the time. On the other hand, history is not determined by economic conditions alone. Political, social, cultural and geographical factors also form important parts in determining historical phenomena.
Third, Marx believed that in the capitalist society, the poor become poorer. But this is not correct all the time. Today, the economic conditions of the working class have considerably improved.
Fourth, Marx glorifies class warfare. He wants to abolish capitalism and establish a classless and stateless society through violent and revolutionary methods. However, critics have argued that it is possible to set up a socialist state through peaceful and constitutional means (Democratic Socialism).
Fifth, The Marxist theory of withering away of the state is also untenable. In Russia, there is no sign of the disappearance of the state, nor in China. Instead, the Soviet State became omnipotent and all-powerful. To assume a society without a class and a state, as a matter of fact, is a mere flight of imagination.
Finally, there have always been a question of freedom and democracy in the communist countries. In the former Soviet Union, people had no political or spiritual freedoms. Even today, political and civil rights are allegedly denied to people in China.
With the disintegration of erstwhile Soviet Union, the relevance of Marxism has been questioned by many scholars. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union does not mean the end of Marxism or its influence on politics and economy. Many political systems and ideologies continue to be influenced by Marxism. No discourse on political economy is complete without reference to Marxism.
With global reports indicating the growing gap between top executives and lower employees, we cannot satisfactorily argue that the economic conditions of lower working class have actually improved under capitalist economy. Moreover, the increasing conflict between large industries and their factory workers does not indicate that class antagonism has actually faded.
What has to be noted is that Marxism continues to be extremely relevant. So is its views on politics and economy.
NOTE: This was my assignment during undergraduate studies in Ramjas College, University of Delhi, New Delhi.
- Andrew Heywood, Politics
- G. H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
- Oxford Dictionary of Politics
- Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy, A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx