Jake Gordon

What kind of 'work' has traditionally preoccupied Marxist theorists and why?

When Karl Marx died on the 14th of March 1883, much of his work - including the second and third volumes of Capital - was still unfinished or unpublished. Also, Marx's thought can be seen to change, and even conflict with itself as he aged: young Marx's work was generally that of a philosopher; whilst the mature Marx was more a revolutionary social economist. The early Marxists knew little of Marx's earlier work as it remained unpublished, particularly in English, until many years after his death. Also, Marxism is not just theory but also political action, and has had significant effects through the 20th Century. These factors, in part, have created a legacy of Marx which has its disparate factions which interpret Marx in varying ways, and leads to distinct difficulties when asked to comment upon 'Marxist theorists' as a general group.

This essay will explore and make attempts to pinpoint the kind of 'work' which has traditionally preoccupied Marxist theorists, explaining the reasons for these preoccupations.

The Logical Answer

First, an important distinction should be made between Marxists and Marxians, as this will be of particular help to us in understanding the 'why' of a Marxist preoccupation with a certain kind of work. Wikipedia's entry on 'Marxism' states that:

"It is usual to speak of Marxian theory when referring to political study that draws of the work of Marx for the analysis and understanding of existing (usually capitalist) economies, but rejects the more speculative predictions that Marx and many of his followers made about post-capitalist societies." (Wikipedia.org, accessed 16/3/2004)

That is, whilst a true Marxist believes that historical materialism will see the inevitable success of communism - progressing from capitalism - a Marxian rejects this inevitability. Further, Marxists believe that a workers' revolution is the only route to a communist society. A communist society does not come about through many small and smooth changes, but through class conflict with violent revolution. Hence, it is of little surprise to find that Marxists take their interest with work which creates the greatest possibility of conflict and revolution.

Penn (1985) writes that for Marxists "[t]he agency of revolutionary transformation from feudalism to capitalism is the bourgeiosie, and in the case of capitalism to socialism, it is the class that the industrial bourgeioisie creates through factory production, the industrial proletariat". Such an accont is central to Marxism because it provides "the theoretical underpinnings that guarantee the final success of socialism. Clearly, this provides useful ideological support for Marxist political parties and intellectuals since it vindicates the ultimate correctness of their diagnoses." (Penn, 1985: 5)

So, we see that Marxists are interested in the work of the industrial proletariat, a class in conflict with the bourgeioisie capitalists who employ their labour power. Hook (1955) explains why it must be this industrial working class rather than farmers or benevolent individuals of other classes who form the revolution:

"[F]irst, the members of the working class are more numerous than the members of any other class and have acquired a certain discipline and capacity for organization in virtue of their function in production; second, they occupy a strategic role in society and can paralyze the economy by general strikes; third, and most important, the conflicts between all other groups can be composed without altering in any fundamental way the basic property relations of society, whereas the conflict between the workers and the owners of the instruments of production is endemic and breaks out again and again in accute form. It cannot be solved short of transformation of the entire system - by a social revolution carried out in democratic countries peacefully and in non-democratic countries violently." (Hook, 1955: 31)

But this in itself does not explain why a socialist revolution is so important to Marx and his theorists, and hence why Marxists are so interested in the work of the urban proletariat. Marx agreed with Adam Smith that capitalism was a worthy progression away from feudalism, creating a more free society. However, he also saw fundamental problems inherent in the capitalist economic system which could only be avoided by replacing the capitalist mode of production with a new economic system - that of socialism.

Alienation is a key concept used by Marx and his theorists to criticise the capitalist mode of production. Marx developed the concept at most length in the 'Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts' of 1844. The concept is used to describe ways in which humans become estranged from the products of their labour, the labour process itself and fellow human beings. It is in factory work - wage labour - that alienation is most profound and easily visible without abstraction: the wage labourer must work for the capitalist as they have no other means of living, and products created by them do not belong to them, but to their capitalist employer.

Another of Marx's attacks on capitalism is on the accumulation of profit through exploitation of the wage labourer, which he discusses at great length in the three volumes of Capital. According to Marx, the wage worker sells not their labour, but more specifically their labour power. Any profits made by the employing capitalist comes from the difference between the value of this labour power, and the value of the goods produced by their labour. If profit is made, then the wage labourer is being exploited by the capitalist for their own monetary gain. Crucially, this exploitation is inherent in a capitalist mode of production, and cannot be avoided without altering the entire mode of production, the economic base.

So, what we have is a logical answer to the question posed, obtained by working backwards from the principles of Marxism. Marxists see inherent problems with capitalism, such as alienation and exploitation; these problems can only be avoided by replacing the capitalist mode of prodution with a socialist one; socialism can only come about from a revolution; a revolution can only be brought about by the wage labouring, urban, industrial proletariat class at its heart. Hence it is the kind of work that these wage-labourers did which has been traditionally of interest to Marxist theorists. Whilst this answer is logically a sound one, in reality a more detailed and complex answer is required due to development of both communism and capitalism since Marx's writing.

The Complex Answer

It is important to realise that Marxists are not all simply intellectual theorists. Many also applied themselves politically, particularly the earlier Marxists. After all, Marx had encouraged his followers not just to interpret the world as philosophers of the past had, but more importantly to change it. This they did. Vladamir Lenin is one of the great Marxist theorists with many literary works to his name, and was also the active leader of the Soviets following the October Revolution of 1917. What ensued was communist reign in much of the world for decades to come. At the time the successes made by the Bolschevik party - and in later years other communist parties and regimes throughout the world - was seen as proof of the universal truth in Marx's theory. However times have changed, and today the Soviet Union has disbanded whilst communism/socialism in other countries is also in decline and disappearing, reverting to capitalism.

Yet according to Marx, socialism was inevitable. So why has communism, thus far, failed so drastically on its promises? This is a question which Marxist theorists should have answered, but Braverman (1974) criticizes Marxists because "[n]either the changes in productive processes... nor the changes in the occupational and industrial structure of the working population have been subjected to any comprehensive Marxist analysis since Marx's death" (1974: 7). So perhaps Marxist theorists had been too preoccupied with the urban, factory wage labourer to understand that they were no longer such a pivotal class in society. Braverman goes on to explain that "Marxism was adequate only for the definition of the 'industrial proletariat', and that with the relative shrinkage of that proletariat in size and social weight, Marxism... has become 'outmoded'." (1974: 9).

Mills writes that "[m]uch of marxism after Marx is an attempt to explain why the wage workers of advanced capitalist societies have not generally become proletarianized, much less performed the act of proletarian revolution" (1962: 140). According to this line of argument, by studying why these workers aren't revolutionary, perhaps because of flaws or misunderstandings of Marx's writings, they can project forward when and why they will be revolutionary, and hence why socialism will inevitably reign.

Much discussion of work by Marxist theorists revolves around the relationship between profit, value and labour power and how these terms develop through the volumes of Capital and other works. The first volume was published in 1867 whilst Marx was still alive, whilst the other two were assembled by Engels from Marx's notes after his death, partially incomplete. In the first volume, Marx assumed that all commodities were sold at their values. That is, all capitalist profit therefore came from the difference between the amount paid for labour power, and the value of the commodities produced by it. However in the latter volumes, the situation becomes more complex and confuses many readers, with the price at which commodities are sold not necessarily equal to their value, in economic terms. In 1865 Marx wrote a paper on 'Value, Price and Profit' which was first published until 1898, after his death. This paper can be seen as a cut-down version of volume one of Capital, and is more easily accessible. But still, it is not exactly plain and simple for all to understand.

Perhaps herein lies part of the problem, particularly for the earliest Marxists. Marx's economic theory is not easy to understand. It is disjointed across many books and papers, some published before his death, and others not, and without full and solid conclusions. It is confusing to even the most intelligent individuals. Many, many attempts have been made to simplify Marx's work, to understand it, to dissect it, to elaborate upon it, to explain it. In that course, mistakes have been made, and Marx's words have been taken out of context or misinterpreted. Mills writes that "[t]here is of course... no one Marxism" (1962: 16), and Marx himself claimed "I am not a Marxist" when people made invalid conclusions and extrapolations from Marx's work and claimed it as Marxism.

So, what relevance do this have to the question? Well, we're arguing that traditionally Marxist theorists were preoccupied with the industrial, factory wage labourer, because they were seen as the only revolutionary agent. But perhaps they only had the potential to be, through subjective rather than objective characteristics. In fact, Marx never explicitly himself claimed that the working class was the ipso facto revolutionary agent.

So traditionally, the Marxist theorists were indeed interested in the industrial proletariat, but perhaps they shouldn't have been, or at least should have 'kept with the times' more as the industrial proletariat decreased in size and hence revolutionary power. Indeed, modern Marxists prefer to treat the economy as a whole. Some see socialism coming after an economic crises, a crises from Marxist theory which occurs because the average rate of profit decreases over time. Others look to the so-called new social movements which show us that perhaps it is not class but other forms of oppressive, exploitation and inequality which may have a revolutionary potential - for example due to race, ethnicity, gender, the environment or subordination to machines.

Marxist theorist have traditionally been in interested in the class struggle between the proletariat, industrial wage-labourers and the bourgeiosie capitalist class. They have been preoccupied by this because they believed the proletariat had the potential to be a revolutionary agent. Through them, socialism could be brought about.

History has shown socialism not yet to be successful. Perhaps this is partly because of Marx's often muddled and complex writings which have been difficult for his followers to understand. Perhaps also traditional Marxists have failed to take account for the decreasing size and power of the proletariat, and the changing nature of capitalism.

[2,310 words, written March 2004]

Bibliography & References

Acton, H (1967) What Marx Really Said, New York: Schocken Books
Althusser, L (1969, english ed. trans. Brewster, B) For Marx, London: NLB
Althusser, L (1970, english ed. trans. Brewster, B) Reading Capital, London: NLB
Bottomore, Tom (1975) Marxist Sociology, London: Macmillan
Braverman, Harry (1974) Labour And Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century, New York: Monthly Review Press
Grint, Keith (2000) Work And Society: a reader, Oxford: Blackwell
Hook, Sidney (1955) Marx And The Marxists: the ambiguous legacy, London: Van Nostrad Reinhold
Lewis, John (1965) The Life And Teaching Of Karl Marx, London: Lawrence & Wishart
Marx, Karl & Engels, Frederick (1985, notes/introduction by Taylor) The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin
Marx, Karl & Engels, Frederick (1996) Collected Works: vol. 35, capital, vol. I, London: Lawrence & Wishart
McInnes, Neil (1972) The Western Marxists, New York: Library Press
McLellan, David (1998, 3rd Ed.) Marxism After Marx, London: Macmillan
Mills, C Wright (1962) The Marxists, London: Cox & Wyman
Penn, Roger (1985) Skilled Workers In The Class Structure, Cambridge: CUP
Pierson, C (1997) The Marx Reader, Oxford: Polity Press

Online Resources:
In Defence of Marxism (updated 2004) Online: marxist.com (last accessed 16/3/4)
Marxists Internet Archive (updated 2004) Online: marxists.org (last accessed: 16/3/4)
Wikipedia (updated 2004) Online: wikipedia.org (last accessed 16/3/4)
Usenet Archives/Google Groups (groups.google.com): Numerous discussion threads posted in 'soc.politics.marxism', 'alt.politics.socialism.trotsky' and other groups.
Email Correspondence: Thanks to Colin Richardson and Ben Odams for pointing out inaccuracies in a previous essay on Marx, and for some helpful pointers to help write this essay
by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved