Marx was trying to engineer a model to explain human exploitation as class conflict. However, in so doing he developed and applied Hegel’s dialectical method as a heuristic, a piece of philosophy. Hegel had revized dialectical technique by building into it an historical dimension such that everything is in a state of ‘becoming’. Dialectics implies that for anything to exist it must have a contrast or opposite: we know about day because it contrasts with night; we know about right because it contrasts with wrong. At a general level Hegel argued that for every idea (thesis) there is an opposite idea (antithesis). These beliefs play themselves out in people’s lives through argument and potentially violence. History is thus driven by conflicts which are resolved (synthesis) into new theses which in turn automatically generate new antitheses and so on and so on. Hegel argued that ideas such as justice/injustice drive people to change history. Dialectics, he argued, are in turn underpinned by spirit (geist) says Hegel, as far as I can see, another word for what Aristotle called ‘the unmoved mover’, or as Descartes put it, God who guides everything through rationality.
As an engineer such an idealistic model was unacceptable to Marx who wanted to examine more realistic economic forces. However, he did accept, mistakenly from my perspective, Hegel’s argument that dialectics drive historical change, thus investing his model with damaging levels of idealistic influence that undermined what he engineered. Concomitantly, he argued that 19th century British people can trace their circumstances through a series of dialectical convulsions or revolutions triggered by economic exploitation not differences of opinion: history is driven by fights about work and survival resources, not political differences. Marx as an engineer privileges work over thinking and emotion! Living is a dialectical experience in which mundane, practical experience and thoughts interrelate: base and superstructure. Social structure is also dialectical: there are two classes of people, the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Slavery was dialectical – slave owners (Romans) and slaves; feudalism was dialectical – lords and peasants. These social structural arrangements were exploitative and ended in class war and revolution. He argued that more recently we have seen capitalistic systems emerging characterised in similar dialectical terms – ruling class (owners of capital) and working class (owners of nothing). All these social structural arrangements are dialectical systems of exploitation which are resolved by class war. This is a materialist approach that explains change using an idealistic dialectical model of conflict. In so doing Marx gathers up all other forms of dispute and characterizes them as issues of class, totally under-estimating forces involved in all other forms of exploitation – sexual, ethnic etc. Such a model falls short of sufficient realistic engagement to engineer viable solutions to social problems.
Marx’ was so confident that his ‘scientific socialism’ had provided a true analysis of horrendous 19th century exploitation and deprivation in new industrial cities like Manchester that he committed himself to a political programme designed to inform workers of their plight and offer them a collective way out through class war: hence The Communist Manifesto. He believed such a manifesto and programme of education was necessary to counter systems that conditioned people into a capitalistic way thinking and acting. Marx was very aware of how difficult it would be for large numbers of proletarians from very disparate backgrounds to identify with one another sufficiently to join together as a class ‘for itself’, and take revolutionary action to get rid of privately owned capital. There are two important concepts that Marx developed to explain just how difficult generating class solidarity will be: ‘ideology’ and ‘alienation’. Living in a capitalist social system, is exploitative and alien to human beings. Marx made this unequivocal judgement because of his belief that Rousseau’s version of human nature was right as opposed to that of Hobbes. Rousseau argued that ‘natural man’ was essentially kind and sensitive to others needs whereas Hobbes believed that we are naturally selfish brutes in need of control. However, both Rousseau and Hobbes were philosophers: neither model uses much realistic evidence. Here again we see Marx building untested philosophical ideals into his model. Taking Rousseau’s view, living in a capitalist system dehumanizes all people: if he had taken Hobbes’s view exploitation is natural and needs to be curbed by government. Accordingly, Marx has to explain why people become nasty. ‘Natural people’ to paraphrase Rousseau, are abused and dehumanized by capitalist exploitation. However, they do not resist because they are made docile and uncritical by lies (capitalist ideologies) that condition people to adopt capitalistic values and attitudes, argued Marx. These conditioning systems are reinforced by our practical experience of living in capitalistic systems such as fear of unemployment. To survive people need work. However, capitalistic work is alienating: we work like machines; there is no end-product, we are in competition with our fellows, we lose ourselves in false needs such as shopping.
There are significant problems with his model of historical change through class conflict. For a start, Max Weber argued that capitalist practice did not result from feudal revolution but was driven by religious, Protestant ideals. Perhaps more importantly, Weber argued that Marx’s model of class and class ownership was too simplistic. Weber showed that business development needed enormous amounts of capital investment that could only be financed by shared ownership. To run these large joint stock companies we needed bureaucrats; a middle class. He was correctly forecasting significant growth in middle class occupations and middle class identities. Bureaucratic growth has not been a temporary phenomenon in mature capitalistic countries such as Britain and is accompanied by a related significant decline in so-called manual, working class jobs. These changes have serious implications for Marx’ predictions of class war: if there are no proletarians who will revolt?
However, Marx’s notions of ideology and alienation are of real importance even though they are in need of re-formulation into more realistic heuristics. Nevertheless, too much of his analysis is governed by philosophical dogma such as ‘dialectics’ and ‘natural man’ for his model to make a viable, realistic contribution to understanding contemporary human experience. Thus, Corbyn may become Prime Minister because Marxist influenced views give outsiders hope, and outsiders are a majority. However, deployment of such idealistic, socialist heuristics will fail to give his supporters what they need because they lack reality congruence.