Marxism and Class Consciousness
Prof. Brandon Turner says libertarians can learn a lot from Karl Marx, even though they disagree with him on the nature of self-interest. Watch the full-length video on Facebook
- Marxism Explained in 2 Minutes, with Deirdre McCloskey – Learn Liberty: Deirdre McCloskey explains that many people do not understand what Marxism is and explains what it actually means.
- A Marxian Case for Capitalism | Live Debate ISFLC13 (video): In this clip from the debate “What To Do About Poverty”, Professor Jeffrey Reiman explains the virtues of capitalism from a Marxian perspective.
- Capitalism vs. Socialism (on demand program): Professor James Otteson explains the botht the philosophy and economics behind capitalism and socialism.
If we want to begin to understand the sorts of threats to the liberal order that are beginning to emerge today, we’ve got to begin to understand, and we’ve got to begin to read Marx in different and more interesting ways.
This I think is the real crux of the Marxist project. I think it’s the crux that libertarians in particular are very well situated to learn a lot from. It’s this; Libertarians have this very rich sociological, anthropological account of human nature. We see it in men like Smith and Hume and Montesquieu, down to sociologists, Tocqueville, Shills, Weber. All these resources that tell us, “Listen, human nature is a particular way. Human beings tend to be motivated by what we might call our economic self interest”. Absent certain contexts, contexts of incredibly high levels of social trust, incredibly high levels of fellow feeling and all this kind of stuff, ultimately this self interest is going to be a kind of universal principle of motion. Ultimately this is going to be the best principle upon which we can accurately predict human behavior.
For Marx, this is the important crux to understand. For Marx, what we attribute to human nature, he attributes to what you might call false consciousness. In other words he would say, “It is absolutely the case that in a capitalist society, individuals are motivated in the first place by something like economic self interest”. However, for him this economic self interest is a kind of mental construct that is built within each and every one of us from the very days that we’re born. In other words, we imbibe a kind of cultural and class consciousness without even recognizing it. It’s through this class consciousness that we adopt certain attitudes about property, certain attitudes about economic gain, about exploitation, about all these kinds of things.
For Marx, this is ultimately the empirical question that Marx didn’t come close to resolving. The question is, how do we get from this alienated state, this state in which we all suffer from this false consciousness, in which we all rely on economic self interest as a way of understanding ourselves and our role in the world. How do we get from that state to a non-alienated state in which we recognize universal fellowship, and all this kind of stuff?
For Marx, there had to be a kind of … The class consciousness had to arise from the bottom up. The working classes, their lot would be so increasingly miserable. They themselves would be so increasingly large that as the working class would get steadily bigger and bigger, the means of articulating the ideas of class consciousness would become greater and greater. In other words, what the capitalist class is doing is, they’re pulling in all of these people who used to be dispersed all across the countryside. They’ll pulling them all into cities. They’re putting them all in touch with one another in factories and in close social settings. They’re making each and every one of them worse off every single day.
That conflict has to reach such a pitch that this sort of bottom up swelling of the working class will undo the capitalist order through a violent revolution.
Now, the crazy kind of historical fact is that, for Marx, it had to be some place like England that had reached what he saw as the pitch of industrial advancement. It had to be some place like England that would lead this revolution, when in fact it turned out to be Russia, which was not anything like England in terms of industrial development, in terms of its intellectual class, or anything like that.
Is that one of the central ironies here? That while Marx assumed that it would be the capitalist strongholds like the United States or the United Kingdom, where the conditions in factories, and some of the foundations of the progressive movement in general, poor working conditions, child labor, things like that would eventually lead to a revolution. But we’ve actually seen it in countries with large, at the time at least, agricultural economies, and not much of a rich class. It was really rebelling against the existing monarchies. At least you could say that in Russia and China. Was Marx just wrong about where his ideology would take off?
To be clear, I think Marx was wrong about that. But in this particular instance, it’s difficult to fault him for the ways that the Russians adopted his ideas. This is where Lenin really steps in, and this is where somebody like Stalin and Mao steps in. They say, “Listen. We can’t wait. The time is not ripe for this bottom up revolution to take place. We’re going to have to speed things up a bit”.
The way that things are sped up, the general name we give to this would be something like vanguardism. You’ve probably heard the term, “The vanguard. The vanguard of the revolution”. The basic idea is that Russia and China and these other countries, that they would become in some sense one party centralized states. The goal of this party would be the goal of raising class consciousness. The nation state itself would become the tool of the vanguard. Would become the tool by which consciousness is raised. Would become the tool by which socialists, early stages of socialism, is turned into communism.
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