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Concepts and main abstract notions of Karl Marx

Marx, observer of the evolution of human societies

The concept of social class was not invented by Karl Marx. It was used by the founders of political economy (Adam Smith…) and in the tradition of French political history (Alexis de Tocqueville), as well as by historians of the French Revolution (Guizot, Mignet, Thierry). For the English classics, the criteria of class identity lie in the origin of income: to the three types of income, ground rent, profit, and wages, correspond the three great groups of the nation, the landowners, contractors and workers.

For Tocqueville, the term classe is political and exists as soon as social groups compete for control of society. Marx therefore borrows from the classical economists the implicit idea of ​​classes as a factor of production, and from historians the classes, and their conflict as producers of history. However, Karl Marx adds to the concept of social classes its intrinsic status of struggle: without struggles there are no classes. Social classes are perpetual historically determined struggles. Marx himself notes his contribution to the understanding of social classes:

“Now, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not my credit for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor their struggle within it. Bourgeois historians had exposed the historical development of this class struggle long before me, and bourgeois economists had described its economic anatomy. What I have brought new is: to demonstrate that the existence of classes is linked only to determinate historical phases of the development of production; that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; that this dictatorship itself represents only a transition towards the abolition of all classes and towards a classless society.”

For Marx, social classes are inscribed in social reality. Their struggles determine social change as an enduring phenomenon. Classes result from a very general mechanism of division of labor, which developed at the same time as the private appropriation of the means of production. Classes emerge when the differentiation of tasks and functions ceases to be random and becomes hereditary. There is a tendency towards bipolarization between two antagonistic classes. The antagonism between the classes is the motor of any transformation which affects the functioning of the social organization and modifies the course of its history. According to Marx the capitalist production process creates two positions: that of the exploiter and the exploited. Individual behaviors and collective actions are explained by these positions in the reproduction of the system. Class conflict is a cultural feature of society. Conflicts are the main driver of major social changes. Marx is interested in the endogenous factors of change, that is to say those that arise from the very functioning of society.

Productive forces, social relations of production and mode of production

Each society can be characterized at a given time by its mode of production.

A mode of production is a set made up of the productive forces and the social relations of production. At each stage of social evolution, the mode of production reflects a state of society. The mode of production is social because without the productive forces there can be no question of production. The mode of production cannot therefore be reduced to its technical aspect alone. The productive forces include the instruments of production, the labor force of men, the objects of work, the knowledge and techniques in force, the organization of work. During these production activities, people form social relationships with each other. The mode of production is one of Marx’s fundamental concepts. The succession of modes of production can be schematized as follows: from primitive communism we pass to the slave, feudal, capitalist mode of production, and finally socialist / communist (the two terms are then synonymous). In communist society, productive contribution may apply the principle summed up in the formula: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. However, Marx is part of a dialectical thought, contrary to the mechanism present in previous materialisms, that is to say that he sees consciousness as a determining role in the unfolding of history. It is thanks to consciousness that the proletariat is transformed from a class in itself into a class for itself, that is, it becomes a class conscious of its class interests: to socialize the means of production [socialism ] with the aim of developing the productive forces to the maximum until the profusion of goods, the extinction of class differences and the dissolution of all political power during the transitional phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat. History remains a sum of contingencies subject to the vagaries of the class struggle. History is therefore not a linear evolutionism between modes of production but a dialectical transformation with at its center the taking of a class consciousness grappling with the fluctuations of class struggles at given moments in history.

As they develop, the productive forces increasingly come into contradiction with the social relations of production, which do not evolve at the same pace. Beyond a certain threshold, the system is blocked. An epoch of social revolution begins, the function of which is to make the old relations of production disappear in order to allow the development of relations more in conformity with the level reached by the productive forces.

Accumulation of capital, labor and surplus labor, alienation

The primitive accumulation of capital is defined as the process of creating the conditions for the birth of capitalism. The production of capitalism presupposes two preconditions. It is about the existence of a social category, made up of men deprived of the means of production and forced to sell their labor power, and about the accumulation of wealth essential to create capitalist-type enterprises. The conditions necessary for the birth of two fundamental classes of capitalist society must therefore be met.

Accumulation takes on great importance with the advent of the industrial revolution. The distinction between labor and labour-power is central to the analysis of distribution. What the worker sells is his labour-power. Its remuneration is established at a level which corresponds to the expenditure socially necessary to ensure its renewal. It is a commodity like any other whose value is determined by the amount of social labor required for production. What is advanced here is also based on the Aristotelian theory of the commodity which distinguishes use value (what the object represents for those who use it) from exchange value (what the object allows you to acquire). In the process of exchange there is therefore an inversion of exchange-value and use-value; thus, the currency of exchange is a commodity whose only use value is its exchange value. Adam Smith’s diagram of the law of supply and demand also accounts for the existence of an added value to the product of which the capitalist benefits but not the worker. Indeed, wages are derived from the social value of the object produced (the social value of the object produced depends on the raw materials, the production tools and the labor required for its production). The exchange value of a product is this social value, to which we apply a surplus often resulting from overwork. It is around the benefit of this added value that the class struggle takes shape because both proletarians and capitalists wish to attract it to themselves; Marx will show that the worker is fully entitled to claim the benefit of this added value as it is the use value of labor itself. What the capitalist does, therefore, is to make labor a commodity which costs less than what it brings in.

Now, labor power has the characteristic of giving more work than its maintenance requires. Surplus value is the additional value produced by the wage earner that the capitalist appropriates for free and legally. The increase in this surplus value for the capitalist can be obtained by prolonging the working day, by increasing its intensity, or by lowering the wage obtained by unemployment which puts downward pressure on wages. Surplus value is the form of spoliation of the proletarian under capitalism.

Profit is the modified form of surplus value which manifests as surplus. It is the search for profit that constitutes the main motive of capitalism. Activities are only developed if they are profitable and profitability depends on the rate of profit obtained (ratio between profit and all capital invested).

Capital can accumulate because the productive cycle of a capitalist system implies that capital, in the form of money, makes it possible to create a good which itself will be exchanged for more money. Thus, if A is money and C the commodity, the fundamental cycle of capitalism is A-C-A’, with A’ as an end in itself, and not C-A-C, as is the case with Aristotle.

The accumulation of capital leads to a long-term decline in the rate of profit, hence a downward trend in the rate of profit. It is an index of the historical limits of capitalism. If modernization has the explicit goal of increasing surplus value, there is an increasing substitution between “dead labor” and “living labor”. However, it is only living labor that creates value, dead labor being capital that comes to life only through labor power. From the over-accumulation of capital (excess accumulation) will result the impoverishment of the working class. Capitalism is a victim of its own logic. He is less and less able to manage his contradictions and is heading towards an inevitable crisis.

Marxist labor theory

Work is not only the transformation of a natural given (because we could then also find it in animals), it implies above all a faculty of representation. The way in which Marx will account for this activity is totally Aristotelian insofar as it begins with the representation of an end, thereby showing that the end is at the same time a principle. The work is therefore first of all a comprehensive representation which understands the purpose of the object and differs in this from the animal (the squirrel preserves the hazelnuts by instinct and not by representation without that he would have already built hazelnut freezers). The product of human labor (a redundant expression by the way) must therefore ideally exist in the representation of the worker, in other words the work ideally aims at an object which would fulfill a function perfectly.

In Chapter VII of Capital, Karl Marx therefore takes up this Aristotelian schema in which he makes the worker the one who subordinates himself to the end he has given himself. Work is therefore such that the individual identifies with and recognizes himself in what he has done: by acting, by working, man implements his own faculties, discovers his power of conceptualization and can improve hence its production capacity. Intelligence is therefore revealed by this activity insofar as man actualizes his own faculties in his work, which induces a process of identification: in the products of work, the individual therefore finds a part of his identity. As work participates in the identity of the individual, we can say that work is not only to have it (i.e. to produce) but also to be, in this there is therefore a properly ontological dimension of work.

This is why Marx accuses the industrial and capitalist mode of production of alienating the workers. Indeed, the worker no longer has, in this case, a comprehensive representation of what he is doing since he is unaware of the final product and therefore the reason for his activity. The issue related to identity is therefore canceled here since the only issue is that of remuneration. What is human thereby becomes animal, stemming from a reflex, a mechanical automatism (cf. the film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin).

In this sense, one can understand the abolition of slavery, not for moral concerns but for economic concerns because it was more expensive to maintain men in servitude within the framework of slavery than in that of wage labor (cf. the film Queimada by Gillo Pontecorvo with Marlon Brando).

Class struggle

For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “the history of all human societies up to the present day is only the history of the class struggle” (although in a later note Engels nuance this assertion).

Marx defines the essential elements that constitute a social class. The position of the individual in the relations of production (worker or exploiter) is, according to him, the main element that allows the definition of social class. At the same time, Marx held that for there to truly be a class, there must be class consciousness: the consciousness of having a common place in society. Marx noted that it is not enough for many people to be side by side on the same economic level for a class spirit to form. According to Marx, the central actors of the class struggle are, in the capitalist era, the bourgeois and the proletarians. Communism is for him the state of society rid of divisions into social classes, and therefore a society without class struggle.

According to Marxist analysis, the ruling class organizes society by protecting its privileges as best as possible. For this, it establishes the state, the political instrument of its domination: a police and an army responsible for maintaining security and public order, the “bourgeois” order. Marx also speaks of “the dominant ideology”. In any society there are certain ideas, beliefs and values ​​that dominate social and cultural life. These dominant ideas are essentially produced by the dominant class. Consequently, these ideas mainly express the domination of this class, that is to say justify it and strive to perpetuate it. These dominant ideas permeate the minds, and thus the exploited often have a vision of the world that goes against their real interests.

Karl Marx did not “invent” the class struggle. In reality, the class struggle was theorized long before him. The fundamental contribution of Marx, in relation to these historians, is to have demonstrated that the class struggle did not die out in the French Revolution, but that it was prolonged in the bourgeois/proletarian opposition to the capitalist era. Thus the end of the class struggle would be reached once the social classes are extinct, in communism.

(Includes texts translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu  from Wikipedia)

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