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Class Conflict and Revolutionary Socialism

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Marx assumed that “interests” were independent of human ideas and thoughts. He said that socialism was the ideal system for the proletariat. He said class interests determine the thinking of individuals and that this situation causes irreconcilable conflicts between the various classes. Marx then returned to the point at which he had started—namely, that socialism is the ideal state.

The fundamental concept of the Communist Manifesto (1848) was that of “class” and “class conflict.” But Marx didn’t say what a “class” was. Marx died in 1883, 35 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. In those 35 years he published many volumes, but in not one of them did he say what he meant by the term “class.” After Marx’s death, Friedrich Engels published the unfinished manuscript of the third volume of Marx’s Das Kapital. Engels said this manuscript, on which Marx had stopped work, many years before he died, had been found in Marx’s desk after his death. In one three-page chapter in that volume, Marx tells us what a “class” was not. But you may search through all his writings to learn what a “class” was without ever finding out. In fact, “classes” don’t exist in nature. It is our thinking—our arranging in categories—that constructs classes in our minds. The question is not whether social classes exist in the sense of Karl Marx; the question is whether we can use the concept of social classes in the way in which Karl Marx meant it. We can’t.

Marx did not see that the problem of the “interest” of an individual, or of a class, cannot be solved simply by referring to the fact that there is such an interest and that men must act according to their interests. Two questions must be asked: (1) Toward what ultimate ends do these “interests” lead people? (2) What methods do they want to apply in order to reach these ends?

The First International was a small group of people, a committee of a few men in London, friends and enemies of Karl Marx. Someone suggested that they cooperate with the British labor-union movement. In 1865, Karl Marx read at the meeting of the International Committee, a paper, Value, Price, and Profit, one of his few writings originally written in English. In this paper, he pointed out that the methods of the union movement were very bad and must be changed. Paraphrasing:“The unions want to improve the fate of the workers within the framework of the capitalist system—this is hopeless and useless. Within the framework of the capitalistsystem there is no possibility of improving the state of the workers. The best the union could achieve in this way would be some short-term success. The unions must abandon this ‘conservative’ policy; they must adopt the revolutionary policy. They must fight for the abolition of the wage society as such and work for the coming of socialism.” Marx didn’t have the courage to publish this paper during his lifetime; it was published only after his death by one of his daughters. He didn’t want to antagonize the labor unions; he still had hopes they would abandon their theory.

Here is an obvious conflict of opinions among the proletarians themselves concerning the right means to use.The proletarian unions and Marx disagreed as to what was in the “interest” of the proletarians. Marx said that the “interest” of a class was obvious—there could be no doubt about it—everyone would know it.Then here comes a man who doesn’t belong to this proletarian class at all, a writer and a lawyer who tells the unions they were wrong. “This is bad policy,” he said. “You must radically change your policy.” Here the whole idea of the class breaks down, the idea that an individual may sometimes err but that a class as a whole can never err.

Criticisms of Marxian doctrines have always been superficial. They haven’t pointed out how Marx contradicted himself and how he failed to explain his ideas. 1Böhm-Bawerk’s critique was good but he didn’t cover the entire system. Critics of Marx didn’t even discover Karl Marx’s most manifest contradictions.

Marx believed in the “iron law of wages.” He accepted that as the fundamental basis of his economic doctrine. He didn’t like the German term for this law, the “brazen” law of wages, about which Ferdinand Lassalle [1825–1864] had published a pamphlet. Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle were not friends; they were competitors, very serious competitors. Marx said Lassalle’s only contribution was the term itself, the “brazen” law of wages. And what was more, the term, was borrowed, borrowed from the dictionary and from Goethe.2

The “iron law of wages” still survives in many textbooks, in the minds of politicians, and consequently in many of our laws. According to the "iron law of wages,” the wage rate is determined by the amount of food and other necessities required for the preservation and reproduction of life to support the workers’ children until they can themselves work in the factories. If wage rates rise above this, the number of workers would increase and the increased number of workers would bring wage rates down again. Wages cannot drop below this point because there would then develop a shortage of labor. This law considers the worker to be some kind of microbe or rodent without free choice or free will.

If you think it is absolutely impossible under the capitalist system for wages to deviate from this rate, how then can you still talk, as Marx did, about the progressive impoverishment of the workers as being inevitable? There is an insoluble contradiction between the Marxian idea of the iron law of wage rates, according to which wages will remain at a point at which they are sufficient to support the progeny of workers until they can themselves become workers, and his philosophy of history, which maintains that the workers will be more and more impoverished until they are driven to open rebellion, thus bringing about socialism. Of course, both doctrines are untenable. Even 50 years ago the leading socialist writers were forced to resort to other elaborate schemes in the attempt to support their theories. What is amazing is that, during the century since Marx’s writings, no one has pointed out this contradiction. And this contradiction  is not the only contradiction in Marx. 

What really destroyed Marx was his idea of the progressive impoverishment of the workers. Marx didn’t see that the most important characteristic of capitalism was large-scale production for the needs of the masses; the main objective of capitalists is to produce for the broad masses. Nor did Marx see that under capitalism the customer is always right. In his capacity as a wage earner, the worker cannot determine what is to be made. But in his capacity as a customer, he is really the boss and tells his boss, the entrepreneur, what to do. His boss must obey the orders of the workers as they are members of the buying public. Mrs. Webb3, like other socialists, was the daughter of a well-to-do businessman. Like other socialists, she thought her father was an autocrat who gave orders to everybody. She didn’t see that he was subject to the sovereignty of the orders of the customers on the market. The “great” Mrs. Webb was no smarter than the dumbest messenger boy who sees only that his boss gives orders.

Marx had no doubt as to what the ends were toward which men aim. Nor did he have any doubts as to the best way to attain these ends. How is it that a man who read so much and interrupted his reading only to write, didn’t realize the discrepancy in his ideas?

To answer that question, we must go back to the thinking of his time. That was the time of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species [1859]. It was the intellectual fashion of that day to look upon men merely from the point of view of their membership in the zoological class of mammals, which acted on the basis of instincts. Marx didn’t take into account the evolution of mankind above the level of very primitive men. He considered unskilled labor to be the normal type of labor and skilled labor as the exception. He wrote in one of his books that progress in the technological improvement of machines causes the disappearance of specialists because the machine can be operated by anyone; it takes no special skill to operate a machine. Therefore, the normal type of man in the future will be the non-specialist.

With regard to many of his ideas, Marx belonged to much earlier ages, especially in constructing his philosophy of history. Marx substituted for Hegel’s evolution of Geist the evolution of the material factors of  production. He didn’t realize that the material factors of production, i.e., the tools and machines, are actually products of the human mind. He said these tools and machines, the material productive forces, inevitably bring about the coming of socialism. His theory has been called “dialectical materialism,” abbreviated by the socialists to “diamet.”

[In an aside, Dr. Mises told of visiting a school in Mexico, an “escuela socialista,” a “socialist school.” Mises asked the school’s Mexican dean what “socialist school” meant. The dean explained that Mexican law required schools to teach the Darwinian doctrine of evolution and dialectical materialism. Then he commented on the provision in the law making this requirement and on the school system itself: “There is a great difference between the letter of the law and the practice. Ninety percent of the teachers in our schools are female and most of them are practicing Catholics.”]

Marx reasoned from the thesis to the negation of the thesis to the negation of the negation. Private ownership of the means of production by every individual worker was the beginning, the thesis. This was the state of affairs in a society in which every worker was either an independent farmer or an artisan who owned the tools with which he was working. Negation of the thesis—ownership under capitalism—when the tools were no longer owned by the workers, but by the capitalists. Negation of the negation was ownership of the means of production by the whole society. Reasoning in this way, Marx said he had discovered the law of historical evolution. And that is why he called it “scientific socialism.”

Marx branded all previous socialists “utopian socialists” because they tried to point out why socialism was better. They wanted to convince their fellow citizens to their view because they expected people would adopt the socialist social system if they were convinced it was better. They were “utopians,” Marx said, because they tried to describe the future earthly paradise. Among the forerunners of Marx whom he considered “utopians” were Saint-Simon, a French aristocrat; Robert Owen [1757–1858], a British manufacturer; and Charles Fourier [1772–1837], a Frenchman who was without doubt a lunatic. (Fourier was called the “fou [fool] du Palais-Royal.” He used to make such statements as “In the age of socialism, the ocean will no longer be salt but lemonade.”) Marx considered these three as great forerunners. But, he said, they didn’t realize that what they were saying was just “utopian.” They expected the coming of socialism because of a change in the opinions of the people. But for Marx, the coming of socialism was inevitable; it would come with the inevitability of nature.

On the one hand, Karl Marx wrote of the inevitability of socialism. But on the other hand, he organized a socialist movement, a socialist party, declared again and again that his socialism was revolutionary, and that the violent overthrow of the government was necessary to bring about socialism.

Marx borrowed his metaphors from the field of gynecology. The socialist party is like obstetrics, Marx said; it makes the coming of socialism possible. When asked if you consider the whole process inevitable, why do you not favor evolution instead of revolution, the Marxists reply, “There are no evolutions in life. Is not birth itself a revolution?”

According to Marx, the goal of the socialist party was not to influence, but only to help the inevitable. But obstetrics itself influences and changes conditions. Obstetrics has actually brought about progress in this branch of medicine, and even saved lives. And by saving lives it could be said obstetrics has actually changed the course of history.

The term “scientific” acquired prestige during the course of the nineteenth century. Engels’ Anti-Dühring (1878) became one of the most successful books among the writings of philosophical Marxists. One chapter in this book was reprinted as a pamphlet under the title “The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science,” and it had enormous success. Karl Radek [1885–1939], a Soviet Communist, later wrote a pamphlet called “The Development of Socialism, from Science to Action.”

Marx’s doctrine of ideology was concocted to discredit the writings of the bourgeoisie. [Tomás] Masaryk [1850–1937] of Czechoslovakia was born of poor people, farmers and workers, and he wrote about Marxism. Yet the Marxians called him a bourgeois. How could he be considered “bourgeois” if Marx and Engels called themselves “proletarian”?

If the proletarians must think according to the “interests” of their class, what does it mean if there are disagreements and dissent among them? The confusion makes the situation very difficult to explain. When there is dissent among proletarians, they call a dissenter a “social traitor.” After Marx and Engels, the great man of the Communists was a German, Karl Kautsky [1854-1938]. In 1917, when Lenin tried to revolutionize the whole world, Karl Kautsky was opposed to the idea. And because of this disagreement, the former great man of the party became overnight a “social traitor,” and he was called that as well as many other names. 

This idea is like that of the racists. The German racists declared that a definite set of political ideas were German and every real German must necessarily think according to this particular set of ideas. This was the Nazi idea. According to the Nazis, the best situation was to be in a state of war. But some Germans—Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven, for instance—had different “un-German” ideas. If not every German must think in a certain way, who is to decide which ideas are German and which are un-German? The answer can only be that an “inner voice” is the ultimate standard, the ultimate yardstick. This position necessarily leads to conflicts that must result in civil, or even international, war.

There were two groups of Russians, both of whom considered themselves proletarians—the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The only method to “settle” disagreements between them was to use force and liquidation. The Bolsheviks won. Then within the ranks of the Communist Bolsheviks there arose other differences of opinion—between Trotsky4 and Stalin — and the only way to resolve their conflicts was a purge. Trotsky was forced into exile, trailed to Mexico, and there in 1940 he was hacked to death. Stalin originated nothing; he went back to the revolutionary Marx of 1859—not to the interventionist Marx of 1848.

Unfortunately, purges are not something which happen just because men are imperfect. Purges are the necessary consequences of the philosophical foundation of Marxian socialism. If you cannot discuss philosophical differences of opinion in the same way you discuss other problems, you must find another solution—through violence and power. This refers not only to dissent concerning policies, economic problems, sociology, law, and so on. It refers also to problems of the natural sciences. The Webbs, Lord and Lady Passfield, were shocked to learn that Russian magazines and papers dealt even with problems of the natural sciences from the point of view of the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. 

For instance, if there is a difference of opinion with regard to science or genetics, it must be decided by the “leader.” This is the necessary unavoidable consequence of the fact that, according to Marxist doctrine, you do not consider the possibility of dissent among honest people; either you think as I do, or you are a traitor and must be liquidated.

The Communist Manifesto appeared in 1848. In that document, Marx preached revolution; he believed the revolution was just around the corner. 

He believed then that socialism was to be brought about by a series of interventionist measures. He listed ten interventionist measures—among them the progressive income tax, the abolition of the rights of inheritance, agricultural reform, and so on. These measures were untenable, he said, but necessary for socialism to come.

Thus, Karl Marx and Engels believed in 1848, that socialism could be attained by interventionism. By 1859, eleven years after the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had abandoned the advocacy of interventions; they no longer expected socialism to come from legislative changes. They wanted to bring about socialism by a radical change overnight. From this point of view, followers of Marx and Engels considered later measures— the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and so forth—to be “petty bourgeois” policies. In the 1840s Engels had said British labor laws were a sign of progress and a sign of the breakdown of capitalism. Later they called such interventionist measures or interventionist policy (Sozialpolitik) very bad.

In 1888—40 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto — a translation was made by an English writer. Engels added some comments to this translation. Referring to the ten interventionist measures advocated in the Manifesto, he said these measures were not only untenable, as the Manifesto claimed, but precisely because they were untenable, they would necessarily push further and further toward still more measures of this kind, until eventually these more advanced measures would  lead to socialism. 

Excerpted from Marxism Unmasked: From Delusion to Destruction
  • 1. "The Unresolved Contradiction in the Economic Marxian System” in Shorter Classics of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1962 [1896; Eng.Trans. 1898]), pp. 201–302.—Ed.]
  • 2. [Marx also criticized Lassalle for using the term “Arbeiterstand” (state of work); Marx said Lassalle was confused, but Marx never explained how Lassalle was confused.—Ed.] 
  • 3. [Beatrice Webb (1858–1943), wife of Sidney Webb (1859–1947), later Lady and Lord Passfield, British Fabians.—Ed.] 
  • 4. [Leon Trotsky (1879–1940)] 

Ludwig von Mises was the acknowledged leader of the Austrian School of economic thought, a prodigious originator in economic theory, and a prolific author. Mises's writings and lectures encompassed economic theory, history, epistemology, government, and political philosophy. His contributions to economic theory include important clarifications on the quantity theory of money, the theory of the trade cycle, the integration of monetary theory with economic theory in general, and a demonstration that socialism must fail because it cannot solve the problem of economic calculation. Mises was the first scholar to recognize that economics is part of a larger science in human action, a science that he called "praxeology."

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