Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher, economist, and social theorist whose account of change through conflict is known as historical, or dialectical materialism. His manuscript, Das Kapital, is the fundamental text of Marxist economics and his systematic theses on class struggle, history and the importance of economic factors in politics have exercised an enormous influence on later thinkers and political activists.
Alienation Marxism began in a critique of religion, as a young man, Marx had learned from various German philosophers that God did not exist, that 'God' was in fact a name given by men to human nature which had been abstracted and set over them as an alien power. 'God' was an illusion, a projection of human power at the expense of human well being.
"The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that for man the supreme being is man, and thus with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, and contemptible human being." (1) That is what is at the heart of Marxism, that nothing is above man, neither nature nor God. Marx extended this critique of religion to the state and private property.
These too were viewed as alien powers, human creations that had assumed an independent and sovereign authority over their creator. Marx wanted to enlighten people about their predicament and to show them how to win back the power they had alienated to religion, private property and the state.
Capitalism also alienates man from other men. Firstly, and most clearly, there is the class antagonism separating workers from capitalists. As well as this antagonism, the labour market ensures that man will constantly be opposed to other men through competition and conflicts of self-interests. This means that any form of community is impossible,
"The enslavement of the collectivity to its own products entails the mutual isolation of individuals" (2). This shows that the alienation of society and alienation of the product of labour are closely linked. The State "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." (3)
This is the clearest assertion of the basic notion of Marxist theory of the state. The interests of the two classes: the dominant and the subject class, were not equally reflected in the legislation and decisions that emerged from the state. He views the state as the means whereby the ruling class forcibly maintains its rule over the other classes.
The nature of the technological and economic system of each society determines the power relations within that society, dividing it between those who own and control the means of production and those who are exploited. These classes struggle over resources and when the technological and economic base of society changes, a new class develops.
Historical Materialism Marxists called the study of how societies developed over time the dialectic materialist theory of history. Marx viewed history in terms of different forms of ownership and essentially thought that there were four distinct stages (or epochs) – tribal, ancient, feudal and capitalist.
Tribal This was a form of primitive communism. It was based on a productive system based around kinship and where individual members co-operatively produced the means to survive collectively – therefore there were no struggles between classes as it simply did not exist.
Ancient Tribes merged and formed cities and states. Property became privately owned and a system of class relations developed from this ownership. The relationship between owners and producers of labour formed a class system of citizen and slave (e.g. ancient Rome).
Feudal The chief form of property in this stage was landed property, with a class system emerging between enserfed peasants who perform the physical labour, and the aristocracy, who had social and political rights giving them power over the serfs. Capitalism With the industrial revolution meaning that working on the land had given way to working in factories etc – the peasant serfs from the previous epoch were now effectively turned into 'wage slaves' who must sell their labour in order to meet their economic needs. There was a widespread emergence of private property and a developed class system of capitalists who own the means of production – who Marx termed the bourgeoisie – and the workers, the proletariat.
Marx believed that the next epoch would emerge as the proletariat started to develop class consciousness (breaking free from the 'false consciousness' that led them to believe that they weren't exploited). They would realise that they were oppressed and would rise up in revolt and overthrow capitalism in a socialist revolution. In the first stages of socialism the state would be a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' where the workers would rule the other classes by force. "The class domination of the workers over the existing strata of the old world must last until the economic foundations of the existence of classes are destroyed." (4)