This essay was first published in The Rapid City Journal.
The word “Marxism” (and “Marxist”) is thrown around a lot these days. But much like “CRT,” few seem to understand it. Having read Marx and taught economics, here’s a rough, one-page summary.
First, industrial capitalism is characterized by two major classes: (1) capitalists/entrepreneurs/employers/bourgeoisie, and (2) workers/laborers/proletariat. Unlike pre-industrial Europe, where most workers were serfs cultivating the same fields and craftsmen working in their own shops, capitalists (“medieval merchants 2.0”) roamed the earth in search of profit, and hired the mass of workers as employees (“feudal serfs 2.0”). When things like wool became lucrative, the serfs were evicted from the manor to make room for sheep, and had to find work in urban factories. Men, women and children were forced to work hours and in conditions more miserable than anyone had ever seen, for wages that often could not prevent malnutrition/starvation, and without any real support system or means of recourse (read Engels and Charles Dickens).
Second, employees are exploited via wage labor. This was evident enough in wage suppression: employers do what they can to pay employees as little as possible, regardless if it’s enough to live on. Capitalism tends towards slavery (the rise of global slave trade was a feature of capitalism, and capitalists fought hard for 300 years to protect this source of “free” labor.) Laws against slavery and child labor are on the books in most industrialized countries precisely because capitalists (1) have done it and (2) would do it again otherwise.
Exploitation is also evident in that workers are not allowed the full fruit of their labor: they are paid a fixed wage just for showing up, not paid for how much revenue is generated by their products/services in the market place. Marx called that additional value produced by workers a “surplus,” which the owner/capitalist unjustly holds on to. Like Smith, Ricardo, and others, Marx asserted that market prices do not capture the true value of human labor; there are different types of value (e.g., “use value” vs. “exchange value”).
Further is (third) the commodification of labor. People are no longer treated as people, but as just another input of production that can be replaced like a machinery part. This commodification occurs largely because “capital” (wealth produced in capitalism) is basically objectified labor, and the entire purpose of capitalism is to accumulate capital by extracting labor from workers. Even our contemporary language of “human capital” points to human commodification. If needy people benefit as a result of this process (Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”), that’s an unintentional byproduct.
Fourth, workers are therefore alienated. Because they’re not receiving profits (surplus-value) they created, they’re alienated from production. Because their products are sold in a faceless market, they’re alienated from what their own hands have created. Because they have no control over their own workplace conditions, they’re alienated from their workplace. The whole experience of “going to work” is foreign and depressing. As Marx said, “He is at home when he is not working, and is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but coerced…he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.”
Fifth, the proletariat isn’t going to put up with this exploitation for long. Enslaved humans will seek liberation. They will seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie in a revolution in order to abolish both the state and private property (which Marx also opposed) and establish a classless world and socially-planned economy in a new era of human history. (This type of epic showdown he envisioned never happened, though worker strikes and economic-related revolutions regularly have.)
Sixth, capitalist ideologies are the result of material economic conditions, and those ideas then go back to shape the material world. This is called dialectical materialism, because there is a constant back and forth between ideas and the physical world that generated them, and yet that material world is also influenced by ideas. (It’s similar to racist ideology: racist ideas about African Americans developed after the slave trade began in order to justify those profitable economic activities. Southern planters didn’t wake up one day and think “we should enslave African Americans because they’re inferior.”) Our ideas about the economy ultimately serve the wealthy bourgeoisie, like propaganda from a king’s court vindicates the king.
Seventh, Marx’s thought was influenced by biblical values. His parents were Jews who (to live safely in Germany) re-identified as Protestant. Marx’s high school final project included a paper entitled “The Union of Believers with Christ According to John 15:1-14.” Marx naturally used biblical language in some of his writings, like in describing the spirit of capitalism: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.” Marx identified as professing “evangelical religion” when re-applying for German citizenship in 1861. Despite this influence, most of his religious identification was cultural. Marx was highly critical of religion for its role in creating violence and disempowering workers. Religion is also the result of economic oppression, as he wrote in 1843: “Man makes religion, religion does not make man…Religious suffering is [nevertheless], the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
So there you go. Three quick observations.
Criticisms of Marxism are endless (as are variants of Marxism) because Marx’s views evolved, he’s sometimes confusing, and sometimes just wrong. Few “Marxists” after Marx would hold to all of the above points. Anti-capitalism is also a larger movement than Marxism. For example, at the First International Workmen’s Association (IWA 1864–1876), Marxists advocated taking over the state to achieve their goals, while Bakunin and the anarchists refused to dirty their hands with parliamentary politics and internal political revolutions.
Marxism is obviously more sophisticated than generic “socialist” ideas of government redistribution of wealth. In fact, things like universal healthcare and free education by the state (democratic socialism) have little to do with orthodox Marxism. Today, the word “Marxist” functions as a generic short-hand for critical description of modern capitalist society, even though many criticized industrial capitalism before and after Marx’s time, and even though Marx basically plagiarized some of his ideas from others (like Joseph Pierre Proudhon).
Marxism was the most thorough and influential critique of capitalism, even with all its many flaws, failed predictions, and perverse manifestations (i.e., Moaism and Stalinism, to whatever degree they are “Marxist”). The impact of Marxism in social science is immeasurable, which is why (as General Mark Milley recently argued) it must be studied alongside everything else.