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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

Marx: Social Systems, Class Struggle and Revolution

Marx’s critique of economics (or political economy as it used to be called), has to be seen in the wider context of his study of the forces of production and the social relations of production.

On the one hand, the productive forces are the means available for transforming nature to satisfy human needs. Raw materials, tools, labour power, technological knowledge about how to produce goods with various inputs, are all examples of the productive forces as is, too, the important factor of social and co-operative labour; labour that collectively thinks, acts, designs and makes things.

The productive relations, on the other hand, are social relations involving people and the control of the productive forces; who has access to the means of production and who does not. One significant feature of social relations in class societies is who controls the surplus produced by society and who is excluded from access to this surplus.

Marx structured the forces and social relations of production within social systems or modes of production. For Marx, social systems are not static and natural but are instead in a constant process of historical change. No social system lasts forever and capitalism is no exception.

Marx, in particular, viewed a social system, such as capitalism, as historically formed with a beginning and end in revolutionary class struggle. Capitalism, for example, can be considered as the sum total of social relationships around production and distribution in which there are two fundamental classes.

On the one hand, there is the capitalist class who own the means of production and distribution protected by the machinery of government including the armed forces and on the other a working class majority who have nothing but their ability to sell as a commodity. As a consequence of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution these two classes under capitalism have irreconcilable conflicts of interest.

Although slave societies, such as Greece and Rome, Feudalism and capitalism are class societies; capitalism, for Marx, differs from previous social systems by being unable to exist:

without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and with them the whole relations of society… (Communist Manifesto p. 63, The Communist Manifesto and the Last Hundred Years, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1948)

Capitalism is distinguished from previous social systems by two things; the “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation…” and the simplification of class society into two conflicting and antagonistic classes.

We should not forget that Marx gave capitalism and the capitalist class its due. He wrote:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all the preceding generations together…p64

However, this praise was tinged with irony. Yes, capitalism did create “massive and more colossal productive forces” but in doing so set its own limits to the future development of the forces of production to meet the needs of all society rather than those of a minority capitalist class.

The Material Basis of Social Existence

Marx began his study of social systems by looking at the way society makes it’s living, that is, by highlighting the material basis of social existence.

In the German Ideology of 1846 he wrote:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature....Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life

Capitalism is a dynamic but crisis prone social system in which the capitalists and workers are locked together in an exploitive social relationship. There can be no capitalists without workers to exploit but because workers do not have direct access to the means of production and to what is produced, they are forced to sell their ability to work or labour power to the employer. This forms an exploitive capital-labour relationship.

Capitalists are in continual competition with other capitalists and are forced to exploit the labour power of the workers by paying them less in wages and salaries than the social wealth actually created by the workers. Workers, under capitalism, produce what Marx called “surplus value”. The subsequent commodities produced by workers are then sold on the market for a profit.

Although capitalists can never exist without a working class to exploit, under different social conditions workers can exist without capitalists; labour without capital; production and distribution democratically used by all of society to meet human need and not profit. Capitalism is not the last page in human history. There is a socialist alternative. That page has still to be turned.

The Importance of Political Ideas

Marx showed that social systems based on class, like capitalism, have contradictions between social production and private ownership. Social and co-operative labour produce social wealth but it is appropriated for private use by a minority class of capitalists, leading to class conflict class, struggle and social revolution.

This does not mean that ideas and beliefs are neither important nor should be taken seriously. On the contrary, socialist ideas informed, for example, by the writings of Marx, are both practical and realistic because. Marx’s socialist ideas are based on studying the real world, how it works and how to change it in a material and revolutionary way.

Ideas are not epiphenomena but can act back on material existence. Socialist ideas come out of the class struggle but are important for human agency, socialist men and women, to gain political power to replace capitalism with socialism.

Ruling class ideas also have a great bearing on retarding social change by preventing workers from understanding the real world. The reactionary politics workers are confronted with on an almost daily basis take the form of “immigration causes unemployment and low wages”, “we need leaders” and “socialism is against human nature” and so on.

These insidious ruling class ideas of which we are too familiar, act as barriers preventing a conscious awareness of resolving social problems by establishing common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

One aspect of Marx’s analysis of social systems which is often overlooked is the time factor in which social change takes place; the period in which one social system is replaced by another. Marx gave no time frame for the establishment of Socialism because socialism was dependent on the conscious and political action of the working class.

The unreasonable request for giving the precise second, minute, hour, day, month and year for the establishment of socialism rests on two fundamental errors.

First, these critics ignore the power of capitalist propaganda to currently prevent revolutionary change from taking place. The working class is drenched day-in and day-out by capitalist propaganda often in the form of blaming other workers for their problems; immigrants, those living on sink estates, the elderly and so on.

Second, these critics ignore the length of time it took from capitalism’s movement away from the edges of feudalism to become a social system in its own right. The 1832 Reform Act certainly tilted political power away from the aristocracy towards the capitalist class but it took decades to consolidate this power.

Capitalism may have come into human history dripping with dirt and blood but it did so at different times and only really came into its own in Europe from the 1850s (see Eric Hobsbawn’ s three volume study; The Age of Revolution, the Age of Capital and the Age of Empire).

What these critics lack is the ability to comprehend “theoretically the historical movement as a whole”. They do not understand the laws acting on capital’s movement from one economic crisis to the next. They do not grasp the forces acting between and on the two classes at any one instant in the struggle over the intensity and extent of exploitation and politically over the means of production and distribution. Nothing appears to change. But changes take place. And it takes place fast.

And this includes the development of the working class from its appearance as an incoherent mass in the cities and towns of cities like Manchester, described by Engels in his CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND (1845), to being able to form a socialist party at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Time, History and Revolutionary Change

Engels pinpointed the decline of Feudalism in Europe as around the 15th century. In an unpublished paper found after his death, he wrote:

So it was that the feudality of all Western Europe was in full decline during the fifteenth century. Everywhere cities, with their anti-feudal interests, their own law, and their armed citizenry had wedged themselves into feudal territories; had, through money, in part established their social – and here and there even their political – ascendancy over the feudal lords. Even in the countryside, in those areas where agriculture was favoured by special circumstances, the old feudal ties began to dissolve under the influence of money; only in newly opened territories (such as the German lands east of the Elbe) or in other remote regions away from the trade routes, did the domination of the nobility continue to flourish.
https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1884/decline/index.htm

Marx and Engels also gave a condensed resume of the political development of the capitalist class out of Feudalism in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune, here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany) there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France), afterwards, in the period of manufacture proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility,…the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway p. 62)

Although the capitalist class in Britain had established itself politically during the 17th century it took 200 years until it began to exercise real political authority free from the aristocracy. There had to be revolutions in Britain (1642) the American colonies (1775), France (1789) and later in Russia in 1917 to establish a world capitalist class within a world capitalist system.

During this period, in asserting its own interest, the capitalist class was also forced “to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena” (Communist Manifesto).

It was not until the end of the 19th century in Britain, that the capitalist class had its first cabinet member when William Henry Smith (of W. H. Smith and Son) was appointed Financial Secretary to the Treasury under the Disraeli Government. He was later to become the First Lord of the Admiralty. The appointment gave rise to the character of Sir Joseph Porter, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore.

W. S. Gilbert's Pinafore lyrics are scathing of this social arriviste:

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my Party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!


The corruption associated with political patronage is not new in capitalist politics as another of their operettas Utopia, Limited demonstrates only too well when, in 1856, the capitalist state passed the Joint Stock Company Act minimising the risk of large corporations and their owners.

The political power of the aristocracy to check the will of the capitalist class was not removed until 1911 when they were no longer allowed to prevent the passage of “money bills”. And legislation passed by the Liberal government of the day also restricted their ability to delay other legislation to three sessions of Parliament. While the Hereditary element of the House of Lords did not lose its remaining power until the 1997 Labour Government restricted their number from sitting in the House of Lords.

In fact, when Marx and Engels wrote the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO the capitalist class had only established itself over a very small part of the globe. The same level of development applied equally to the working class. Workers struggled to form trade unions; political their first acts were to blinding lash out through Luddite rebellion until the Chartist Movement of the 1840’s. Yet a movement had been established within capitalism by a working class acting through its own experience and initiative which will not go away.

This led Marx to write:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.... The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones..... All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO)

From Capitalism to Socialism

Marx’s genius was to show not only how a social system developed historically but how it was replaced by another social system through class struggle and social revolution. He notes that ironically the capitalist class in its political struggle with the feudal ruling class is forced to supply the working class with “its own elements of political and general education”. This education can usefully be turned around by the working class to be used to “fight the bourgeoisie” and win the “battle of democracy”.

Socialism, then, is not a determined social system. Socialism is necessary but its establishment is also contingent on a working class socialist majority taking conscious and political action to gain control of the machinery of government including the armed forces. Without socialists you are not going to get socialism.

Marx’s revolutionary proposition was that socialism had to be established by the working class itself. No one is going to do it for them. Leadership is an essential capitalist political concept. Socialists do not need leaders; they do not need people to think and act on their behalf unless in the capacity of delegates. Leadership in anathema to both being a socialist and for the establishment of socialism.

Socialist ideas arise because capitalism’s class relations and the private ownership of the means of production has become an impediment on the development of the forces of production including social labour to be used by all of society to adequately meet human need.

The question of why there is the urgent need for socialism is a question which will not go away. And the answer is quite simple; capitalism does not exist to meet human need but to make a profit. In fact capitalism causes the social problems the working class confront on a daily basis; education, housing, health and so on.

Nevertheless, workers still have to learn from their experience as a class to become what Marx called capitalism’s “gravediggers”. Workers do not automatically become socialists otherwise socialism would have been established a long time ago. There is no magic button to press to establish socialism only hard and repetitive work by workers to convince other workers to become socialists.

The working class has to overcome through its own political efforts the barriers which prevent a socialist movement from becoming a rapid torrent rather than a mere trickle. No one else is going to do it for them. There is no reason why this cannot be the case despite the breadth and depth of capitalist propaganda set against the urgent and pressing need to establish socialism.

And it is this response to capitalist propaganda that socialist ideas are important and come into their own. And unlike previous generations’ workers have increased capacity to communicate with one another through the internet, web sites, chat forums and other social media trending towards recognition of common interest and common political purpose.

The working class has the potential to move from being “a class in itself” to becoming “a class for itself”. And the cause of the faster rate of flow of that movement will be an increasing awareness not only of capitalism’s inability and disinterestedness in meeting the needs of all society but also its continuing capacity to cause environmental despoliation and devastation throughout the globe in its rapacious desire to accumulate capital and expand value. CAPITAL and Marx’s other works on political economy were written with this revolutionary purpose in mind.

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