archive - go to homepage

Terry Eagleton

"The politics of Karl Marx"



If Marx is indeed some sort of philosopher, he differs from most such thinkers in regarding his reflections, however abstruse, as being ultimately practical - as being at the service of actual political forces, and indeed as a kind of political force themselves. This is the celebrated Marxist thesis of the unity of theory and practice - though one might add that one aim of Marx's theory is to arrive at a social condition in which thought would no longer need to be simply instrumental, geared to some practical end, and could be enjoyed instead as a pleasure in itself.


Marx's political doctrine is a revolutionary one - "revolution" for him being defined less by the speed, suddenness or violence of a process of social change (though he does seem to consider that insurrectionary force will be involved in constructing socialism), than by the fact that it involves the ousting of one possessing class and its replacement by another. And this is a process which might clearly take a good deal of time to accomplish. We can note here the peculiar feature of socialism: that it involves the working class coming to power, but in doing so creating the conditions in which all classes may be abolished. Once the means of production are communally owned and controlled, classes themselves will finally disappear:


All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.

(Communist Manifesto)


Or as Marx puts it in the idiom of his earlier writings:


A class must be formed which has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong but wrong in general. There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only a human status ... This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat.

(Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)


If the proletariat is the last historical class, it is because its coming to power in what Marx calls the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is the prelude to the building of a society in which all will stand in the same relation to the means of production, as their collective owners. "Worker" now no longer designates a particular class membership, but simply all men and women who contribute to producing and sustaining social life. This first phase of the anti-capitalist revolution is known to Marx as socialism, and it is not one which will involve complete equality. Indeed, Marx sees the whole notion of "equal rights" as itself inherited from the bourgeois epoch, as a kind of spiritual reflection of the exchange of abstractly equal commodities. This is not to say that for him the concept lacks value, but that it inevitably represses the particularity of men and women, their uniquely different endowments. It thus acts among other things as a form of mystification, concealing the true content of social inequalities behind a mere legal form. In the end, Marx himself is concerned more with difference than with equality. Under socialism, it remains the case that:


... one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a long time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an equal right for unequal labour. It recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an unequal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.

(Critique of the Gotha Programme)


Socialism, then, is not about some dead-levelling of individuals, but involves a respect for their specific differences, and allows those differences for the first time to come into their own. It is in this way that Marx resolves the paradox of the individual and the universal: for him, the latter term means not some supra-individual state of being, but simply the imperative that everyone should be in on the process of freely evolving their personal identities. But as long as men and women still need to be rewarded according to their labour, inequalities will inevitably persist.


The most developed stage of society, however, which Marx dubs communism, will develop the productive forces to a point of such abundance that neither equality nor inequality will be in question. Instead, men and women will simply draw from the common fund of resources whatever meets their needs:


In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"



In communist society we would be free of the importunity of social class, and have the leisure and energy instead to cultivate our personalities in whatever way we choose, provided this respected the injunction that everyone else should be allowed to do so too. What distinguishes this political goal most sharply from liberalism is the fact that, since for Marx an expression of our individual being is also a realisation of our species-being, this process of exploring and evolving individual life would be carried out reciprocally, through mutual bonds, rather than in splendid isolation. The other is seen by Marx as the means to my own self-fulfilment, rather than at best a mere co-entrepreneur in the project or at worst an active obstacle to my own self-realisation. Communist society would also turn the productive forces bequeathed to it by capitalism to the end, as far as possible, of abolishing all degrading labour, thus releasing men and women from the tyranny of toil and enabling them to engage in the democratic control of social life as "united individuals" newly in charge of their own destinies. Under communism, men and women can recuperate their alienated powers and recognise the world they create as their own, purged of its spurious immutability.


But socialist revolution requires an agent, and this Marx discovers in the proletariat. Why the proletariat? Not because they are spiritually superior to other classes, and not necessarily because they are the most downtrodden of social groups. As far as that goes, vagrants, outcasts, the destitute - what Marx rather witheringly calls the "lumpenproletariat" - would serve a good deal better. One might claim that it is capitalism itself, not socialism, which "selects" the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. It is the class which stands to gain most by the abolition of capitalism, and which is sufficiently skilled, organised and centrally located to carry out the task. But the task of the working class is to carry out a specific revolution - that against capitalism; and it is thus in no sense necessarily in competition with other radical groups - say, feminists or nationalists or ethnic activists - who must carry through their own particular transformations, ideally in alliance with those most exploited by capitalism.


What form would this society take? Certainly not that of a state-run social order. The political state for Marx belongs to the regulatory "superstructure" of society: it is itself a product of class struggle rather than sublimely beyond that conflict, or some resolution of it. The state is ultimately an instrument of the governing class, a way of securing its hegemony over other classes; and the bourgeois state in particular grows out of an alienation between individual and universal life:


...out of this very contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community, and at the same time as an illusory communal life, always based, however, on the real ties existing in every family and tribal conglomeration - such as flesh and blood, language, division of labour on a larger scale, and other interests - and especially, as we shall enlarge upon later, on the classes, already determined by the division of labour, which in every such mass of men separate out, and of which one dominates all the others. It follows from this that all struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc. etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggle of the different classes are fought out among one another.

(The German Ideology)


Marx did not always take such a briskly instrumentalist view of the state in his detailed analyses of class conflicts; but he is convinced that its truth, so to speak, lies outside itself, and sees it moreover as a form of alienation all in itself. Each individual citizen has alienated to the state part of his or her individual powers, which then assume a determining force over the everyday social and economic existence which Marx calls "civil society". Genuine socialist democracy, by contrast, would rejoin these general and individual parts of ourselves, by allowing us to participate in general political processes as concretely particular individuals - in the workplace or local community, for example, rather than as the purely abstract citizens of liberal representative democracy. Marx's final vision would thus seem somewhat anarchistic: that of a co-operative commonwealth made up of what he calls "free associations" of workers, who would extend democracy to the economic sphere while making a reality of it in the political one. It was to this end - not one, after all, very sinister or alarming - that he dedicated not simply his writings, but much of his active life.



Terry Eagleton is a writer and Professor of English at Manchester University, England.  The above is extracted from his essay on Marx in the anthology The Great Philosophers (ed. Monk and Raphael), 2000.