(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
To understand the theories of Karl Marx, it might be best to start with the concept of dialectics. This concept is based around controversies or contradictions, where there are opposing forces or sides, and the challenge is to resolve these issues through logical argument. For Marx, an essential element causing the controversies in society is materialism. He argued that all through history, society has been dominated by class struggles, and that history is the product of material class struggle. According to Marx, this struggle effects our social, economic and political systems, often with less than desirable results.
Marx argued that work should be regarded as a social activity, and the way work is done to be determined socially. He looked at the resources used in production such as land and buildings, natural resources and technology, and the social arrangements needed to transform these inputs into goods. He observed how the mode of production changes as societies move from feudalism to capitalism. Marx felt that the mode of production changed more rapidly than did the social infrastructure for coping with it, that is, the mode would change but laws (including labor laws) needed to govern various aspects of the mode were much slower to catch up. He also argued that different groups of people –labor and the owners of the capital – had different objectives or interests. For Marx, these issues were a fundamental cause of tension, conflict and social disruption.
Under capitalism, Marx argued, workers are alienated from their human nature or spirit when they have to give up ownership of their labor. Thus labor becomes a commodity, or is inextricably tied to the products it produces. Therefore one class, the bourgeois, has control over the factors of production. He observed that the value of output usually exceeded the cost of inputs and regarded the resultant surplus as coming from surplus labor, which equaled the value of the output minus the pittance paid to most workers in the nineteenth century.
Marx believed that under capitalism, the surplus went to the bourgeois. This enabled profits to be reinvested in new technology and for rapid growth to occur. But, as more and more was invested in technology there was less for labor, which was actually the source of profits according to Marx. Profits would fall and eventually recession would result. This would cause labor costs to fall and profits to increase, allowing investment in more technology once again. He believed that the ups and downs of this cycle would become ever greater, making the bourgeois richer and the proletariat poorer, and that eventually the system would collapse anyway and everyone would be worse off.
A fairer system for all, he argued, would be a socialist system with the factors of production in the hands of the proletariat. Everyone would benefit equally and profit levels wouldn’t bounce up and down and lead to crises. Sometimes, in more democratic societies, Marx thought this might be achieved by peaceful means. However, in other societies, he knew the bourgeois would not want to give up ownership peacefully and he proposed that the proletariat do it by force through revolution.
Marx’s critics have argued that capitalism is a better system, with its self-interest and its incentives for everyone to make more money. This factor is often missing from the highly planned, authoritarian communist systems with their bottlenecks and their slowness to respond and where technology and innovation is often stifled. Further, while Marx was worried about problems caused by conflict, the capitalist model has welcomed conflict as inevitable and healthy, and has benefited greatly from it.