Philosophy 230 - 12.2.2 Marx’s Dialectical Materialism and the Proletariat Revolution

In contrast to Hegel’s idealistic dialectic, Karl Marx (1818–1883) proposed a view of the dialectic called dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism identities the contradictions within material, real-world phenomena as the driving force of change. Most important to Marx were the economic conflicts between social classes. The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) states, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels [1969] 2000, ch. 1). Marx and Engels note that in every epoch of history (as understood at the time) society has been divided into social orders and that tensions between these social orders determine the direction of history, rather than the realization of any abstract ideals. Specifically, they identified the colonization of the Americas and the rise of trade with India and China as the revolutionary forces that created and enriched the bourgeois class, ultimately resulting in the death of feudalism. Similarly, Marx regarded the clash of economic interests between the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (workers) as the contradiction that would bring down capitalism and give rise to a classless society (Marx and Engels [1969] 2000).

Connections

For a deeper dive into Marx’s views, visit the chapter on political philosophy.

Marx laid out a detailed plan for how the proletariat revolution would occur. Marx proposed the concept of surplus value as a contradictory force within capitalism. Surplus value was the profit the capitalists made above and beyond the wages of the workers. This profit strengthens the capitalists’ monetarily and so gives them more power over the workers and a greater ability to exploit them. Marx viewed this surplus value as a key part of the “economic law of motion of modern society” that would inevitably lead to revolution (Marx [1954] 1999).

Despite there being competition among workers for jobs, Marx believed that conflict with their employers would bind them. As capitalism advanced, the workers would form into a class of proletariats, which would then form trade unions and political parties to represent its interests. As the revolution advanced, the most resolute members of the working-class political parties, those with the clearest understanding of the movement, would establish the communist party. The proletariat, led by the communists, would then “wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State” (Marx and Engels [1969] 2000, ch. 2). The communist party would need to rule society as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and enact reforms that would lead to a classless society.

These developments did, in fact, materialize—but in Russia, not in England, as Marx had predicted. Marx had expected the revolution to begin in England, since it was the most industrial society, and to spread to other nations as their capitalist economies advanced to the same degree. The unfolding of actual events in a way contrary to Marx’s predictions led Marxists and others to doubt the reliability of Marx’s system of dialectical materialism. This doubt was compounded by the realizations that the Russian communist party was responsible for killing millions of farmers and dissidents and that some working-class parties and unions were turning to fascism as an alternative to communism. By the early to mid-20th century, opponents of the capitalist system were questioning orthodox Marxism as a method of realizing the ideal of a government by the working class.

Think Like a Philosopher

Watch “Karl Marx on Alienation” from the series A History of Ideas. The video examines Marx’s claim that the alienation and oppression created by capitalism would fuel revolution in the working class. He called for the workers to revolt, as “they had nothing to lose but their chains.”

Questions:

  • Was Marx wrong about the marginalization occurring within and through a capitalistic economy? Using at least one credible source, offer an argument (based on your source) that either supports or refutes his claim. Does your argument resonate with your lived experience?
  • Where was or is the revolution? Should we dismiss Marx (or at least his claim that alienation occurs through the oppression rendered by privately owned means of production) given the absence of a global revolution?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax