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Dr. Marx in 1875

LUMPENPROLETARIATRuchira Sen is another one of my favourite thinkers and theoreticians at UMKC’s heterodox economics department.  I can’t wait to read all of her work.  (Plus, I’ll have to share with you her presentation at UMKC’s 2015 Interdisciplinary Conference (IDC).)

Bonus!  Ruchira Sen has agreed to sit down with Lumpenproletariat.org to discuss her work, Marxian theory, and her recent paper she presented on theories of capitalist imperialism at this year’s IDC.[*] Thanks, Ruchira!



s200_ruchira.senRUCHIRA SEN(6 DEC 2013) “The Marxian Social Theory and Capitalist Crisis” by Ruchira Sen, Economics/Social Science Consortium, graduate student (University of Missouri-Kansas City)

Abstract: This paper provides a brief explication of Marxian social theory. It examines the Marxian view of the development of capitalism and the contradictions that make capitalist crisis inherent in the system. In this regard, this paper argues that the Marxian explanation for crisis in capitalism is superior to the neoclassical consensus approach which simply assumes crisis away. This paper also tries to look at Marxian social theory from a contemporary lens, revisiting the structure-agency debates about revolutionary political praxis in the Second International and taking lessons from them with regard to the further development of Marxian social theory to address the questions of economic instability at the core of capitalist development and indecent labour conditions at the periphery today.


Over the last five years, the world watched while the financial crisis in the USA deepened into a very real recession. In the European Union governments plunged their people into destitution and unemployment to pay off their debts. The repercussions of the crisis in the advanced capitalist core spread to developing countries who, already saddled with unimaginably poor and rapidly deteriorating living and working conditions, also faced the brunt of macroeconomic instability.

It is no wonder that the dominant ideas of the pre crisis period fell into disrepute. These were the ideas of the neoclassical consensus. According to the social ontology of this view, human nature is innately rational and that while atomistic, rational individual agents make decisions intended to maximise their own benefits, an ‘invisible hand’ coordinates these decisions in such a way that social welfare is maximised. Clearly, in a system like this, there can be no systemic breakdown –there is no possibility of crisis. Any unemployment is the result of some rigidity in wages and that the self equilibrating mechanism of the invisible hand would sweep such unemployment away. However, it became clear that nothing like this would happen.

As young people around the world searched for alternative ways to understand what was happening around them, ideas of radical political praxis became popular. The Occupy Wall Street movement identified finance capital as a dominant ‘class’ and rose to speak truth to power. Anti austerity protests in Europe echoed this sentiment. All over the world, there was a resurgence of radicalism and a development of class consciousness. With the rise of such ideas, there was a renewed interest in Marxian social theory.

Section 1 of this paper is aimed at briefly outlining the main ideas of Marxian social theory –these are i) alienation, commodity fetishism and surplus value, ii) the process of historical development in capitalism or historical materialism and iii)the ‘reserve army of labour’ and capitalist crisis. In Section 2, I will explicate the Marxian Social Theory according to Global Social Theory (Bowles, 2013)[1] which provides a useful set of criteria to compare and evaluate the various interdisciplinary social theories. Through this I aim to draw out how very different the Marxian social theory is from the neoclassical consensus approach and why it provides a superior analysis of capitalist crisis. In Section 3, I argue that Marxian social theory is more than just a way of observing the world. Instead, Marxism takes theory away from the ivory tower and into the streets –Marxian social theory is a theory of praxis. As Marx is known to have said, “Philosophers have interpreted the world in several ways: the point however, is to change it” (Marx, 1888).[2] Marxian social theory is also a theory of development –everyday new social relations are developed, everyday capitalism evolves –praxis must also evolve to speak out against newer forms of exploitation. Similarly theory must also evolve to understand the newer contradictions within the capitalist system and to map out future political praxis. Therefore, Marxian social theory is a product of history. It is not possible to go back to reading Marx’s writings to discover a pure form of his ideas (Joseph, 2006)[3]. Instead, the theory must evolve and resolve the conflicts within itself to address the contradictions in the economic system. In this light, I revisit the old debates of the Second International and draw from the ideas of different Marxian scholars to think of new ways to understand the current crisis in capitalism and what it means for revolutionary political praxis.


When Marx was a young man writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin, he was an active member of the ‘Young Hegelians’ –a club of young students who were interested in the ideas of Hegel (Giddens, 1971)[4]. Marx was drawn into this circle as he admired Hegel’s view of development as a historical process through a conflict of ideas –a process of thesis and antithesis –that converge to form a synthesis. About the time Marx submitted his dissertation, Feuerbach published his ‘The Essence of Christianity’[5]. This work was received by the Young Hegelians with great enthusiasm. As Engels was to write “The spell was broken: the ‘system’ was shattered and thrown aside…Enthusiasm was general: we all became at once “Feuerbachians’” (Marx and Engels, 1958)[6].

Marx was impressed with Feuerbach’s materialism. Unlike Hegel, Feuerbach did not see the ‘real man’ as emanating from the ‘divine’. Instead, he argued that the divine is an illusory product of the real (Giddens, 1971)[7]. For Feuerbach, God can only exist as long as man is ‘divided against himself’ or ‘alienated’ from himself. God is simply a fantasized being on whom man has projected his own highest powers and faculties and is thus seen as perfect and all-powerful and in contrast to whom man appears limited and imperfect. Feuerbach asserted the primacy of the material world arguing that the love formerly directed towards God must be directed towards man, replacing religion with humanism. While the old Hegelian idealist philosophy assumed that thought precedes existence, the new Feuerbachian philosophy argued that existence precedes thought.

Since Marx was primarily interested in philosophy as a guide to political praxis or the guide to a better world,[8] he was attracted to materialism as it made human beings into the agents of change. However, Marx felt that Feuerbach’s approach was ahistorical –Feuerbach conceived an idea of the ‘abstract man’ who existed prior to the existence of society and reduced man to the ‘religious man’ without recognising that religious feeling is itself a social product and that the abstract individual he analyses belongs to a particular form of society. Therefore, Marx did not see Feuerbachian materialism as an alternative to the Hegelian dialectical process. Instead, he sought to juxtapose materialism to the Hegelian dialectical process to create the theory of historical materialism in which human history is created not from a conflict of ideas but from contradictions between material processes and social relations between human beings.

Marxian social theory has often been accused of economism –of privileging the economic sphere or the sphere of production and exchange over any other. However, this was also a product of philosophical debates in Marx’s time as the prevalent ideas of socialism or communism were ‘Utopian’ in nature –Marx and Engels were of the view that they were not grounded in the material developments of the time –and therefore, irrelevant for praxis and social change. This is why Marx thought it most important to begin Capital with an analysis of commodities and the relations of production and exchange.

i) Alienation, Commodity Fetishism and Surplus Value

Marx identified the capitalist production process as a system based on commodity production. A commodity is not merely something produced for its ‘use value’[9] or its ‘value in use’ but for sale in the market. Capitalism is associated with the creation of large, national and even international markets for goods. When a commodity is sold in the market, it assumes a kind of value other than value in use. This is the value in exchange –the value at which one commodity can be exchanged for another. However, what is the basis for exchange i.e. what is the philosophical rationale for equating say, a desk to three pumpkins? What does the desk have in common with the pumpkin? Certainly not ‘use value’ –as a desk and a pumpkin are used for different purposes.

To explain this, Marx drew upon an idea of abstract value. Commodities acquire abstract value as they are products of human labour. The value of a commodity is the expenditure of human labour in its production –whether or not they are commodities, all goods possess value as they are products of human labour. This value must not, however, be confused with price. Price in Marx, may be affected by demand conditions. Abstract value however, is not. Returning to the example of the relationship between a desk and a pumpkin –they are both products of labour. A carpenter has spent a certain number of hours producing the desk and a farmer has spent a certain number of hours growing pumpkins. The relationship between the desk and the pumpkin is actually a relation of exchange between the carpenter and the farmer. However, it takes the form of a relationship between things as opposed to a relationship between people. This is called ‘commodity fetishism’ –it alienates people from the products of their labour and human relations take the form of relationships between commodities. Commodity fetishism is exacerbated by the use of money which works as a unit of account for measuring the value of commodities, thus obfuscating the fact that when we say that a desk is worth $30, it is a product of a certain number of hours of human labour.[10]

However, if the value of any commodity is given by the number of labour hours in its production, one is bound to ask this question: Is the product of a lazy worker who takes more time to produce a commodity more valuable than the product of an industrious worker who takes less time to produce it? Marx solved this dilemma by introducing the idea of ‘socially necessary labour’ –the number of labour hours required to produce a commodity on average (which can be empirically calculated). He further brought out the idea of ‘alienation’ –workers are not only alienated from the products of their labour as they lose control of the production process but they are also alienated from their own labour –their labour becomes a commodity like any other, its value in use being the actual kind of labour i.e. masonry, carpentry etc and its abstract value being the labour hours required to produce the means of subsistence required for workers to reproduce their own labour day by day. The minimum level of subsistence required for labour to reproduce itself is sociologically determined –it is the cultural notion of basic living standards, it is also a product of history –the claims of workers from developing countries or ex colonies who are historically accustomed to worse living standards may be more downward elastic than the claims of workers from developed countries. As labour is a commodity like any other, it becomes possible to think of average labour hours required to produce a particular commodity as the socially necessary labour required to produce it.

The concepts of value as abstract labour and labour as a commodity like any other also help us to examine another philosophical dimension –profit. Capitalism is driven by the eventual motive of accumulating capital. Suppose we think of capital as money capital. Then the process of production can be written as M-C-M’ i.e. money (M) is used to purchase commodities which are transformed by the process of production and sold for money (M’). No capitalist will go through the pain of purchasing commodities to be transformed via production unless the end result M’ is greater than the M that he put into production. But how does M’ become greater than M? Where is this surplus value created? Marx identified the ‘hidden realm of production’ as the source for the creation of surplus value. Commodities are transformed by the application of human labour and it is this human labour which is the source of surplus value. This can be understood by an example much like one of Marx’s own examples in Capital Volume 1 (Marx, 1887)[11]. Suppose the average workday is 12 hours. The average per-worker socially necessary labour hours required to produce the means of subsistence for workers as a whole is 5 hours. This means that on average, workers have expended 7 hours of labour over and above the minimum labour hours required for them to produce the means of subsistence necessary to reproduce their own labour. This extra 7 hours is called surplus labour or surplus value.

The Theory of Surplus Value turned the political economy of Marx’s day on its head. The labour theory of value was nothing new –it was something the all political economists since Adam Smith agreed on. However, the Theory of Surplus Value expressed the idea that profit is by nature, a product of the exploitation of labour. It brought in a class consciousness into the study of political economy and thereby radicalised it.

Underlying Marx’s discussion on commodity fetishism and surplus value is the concept of alienation. Unlike in philosophical discussions of his time, Marx does not understand human alienation as alienation from the ‘essence’ of humanity. Instead, the Marxian view of alienation is to be understood in material terms and through material processes. Alienation implies the worker’s lack of control over the production process. The worker cannot take decisions with regard to the production, exchange and distribution of the products of her labour. With the mechanisation of the production process and the division of labour this facilitated, the worker has lesser and lesser emotional connection with or creative satisfaction from the production process. She could be doing no more than tightening a screw on an assembly line –for over eight hours a day! Under the capitalist production system, the ordinary worker cannot develop her mental and physical capabilities. Meanwhile, relations between people are reified as relations between things i.e. commodity fetishism and the human relations of production are forgotten.

The alienation of the worker in the capitalist economy is founded upon the disparity between the productive power of labour which increases with the expansion of capitalism and the lack of control which the worker is able to exert over the objects she produces (Giddens, 1971)[12]. As average productivity of labour increases, more commodities are produced –as more commodities are produced, they become cheaper and it takes lesser labour hours to produce the means of subsistence. The more workers produce, the lesser is the value of their labour.

ii) The Process of Historical Development in Capitalism or Historical Materialism

It may be recalled that the neoclassical consensus theory is based on an idea of ‘natural rights’ –right to life, liberty and property. Marxian materialism posits a direct critique of such ideas. The main defect of idealism is that it attempts to analyse the properties of societies by inferring the dominant system of ideas (Giddens, 1971)[13]. This neglects the fact that the dominant class is able to disseminate ideas which are a legitimisation of its position of dominance. The legal freedoms that are possible in bourgeois democratic systems legitimise contractual obligations in which property-less workers are heavily disadvantaged as compared to owners of capital. Therefore the right to liberty includes only freedom of speech, expression and ownership of property –not freedom from hunger or exploitation.

Nonetheless, Marxist materialism must also be seen in a historical sense –as driving the evolution of history. Contrary to the neoclassical consensus view, the ‘right to property’ or even the existence of property was not a ‘natural’ order of things. Instead, when one traces history back to primitive communism, property is communal –it is not co-operative in the sense that people pool in their property and share it; instead, people use natural resources in the same way that cattle graze upon the commons. Just as the ‘commons’ belong to everyone, similarly, there was no private property –land and other resources were simply held in common.

Marx theorised that the system of private property ownership first showed up in the Greco-Roman city-states[14] in which only ‘citizens’ or property-holders had rights. The expansionist tendencies of these city-states came with an expansion in population which necessitated the conquest of more property –in the sense of land and slaves.

The best example of historical change through the dialectics of material processes can be seen in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The most well known known case study as documented by Marx is that of the classic case of England in which a beleaguered nobility, impoverished by wars fought against each other, began disbanding its army of retainers and fencing off pasture-lands (a process partially accelerated by the increase in wool prices and the rise of the wool industry) to create a large pool of ‘free’ labour. By ‘free’ labour, it was meant that these disbanded workers were stripped of any property or any feudal obligations –in fact, they were stripped of everything but their labour power. This was the first necessary condition for the development of capitalism –the creation of a working class, a proletariat. Added to this was the contribution of colonial expansion and international trade which brought in fresh imports of spices and muslin, causing the aristocracy to prefer holdings of money rather than land and retainers. The feudal system contained within itself, the seeds of its own destruction.

This is the essence of Marxian dialectics. Historical development is driven by contradictions between forces of production and production relations. As production relations change, it is found that the whole system of social and cultural ideas that once served to uphold production relations becomes oppressive to material change and the ‘economic base’ of production relations comes into conflict with the ‘superstructure’ of social and cultural relationships.

As expected, this view has been subject to interpretations and misinterpretations. One such interpretation is that of Marx as a technological determinist. Historical change is driven only by changes in technology or forces of production. Technological change comes in conflict with the system of production relations based on the old technology and drives a change in production relations. These in turn come in conflict with the social, cultural and religious relationships which legitimise the old relations of production and thus act as fetters upon the change in production relations and thus, these must also change. All societal change is driven by technological change. Technological determinists draw upon Marx’s famous quote in The Poverty of Philosophy for support, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist (Marx, 1847)[15].”

It is certainly true that Marx did consider technological change to be an important engine of social change. However, it is definitely inaccurate to say that Marx thought it was the only engine. As in Lukàcs’ critique of Bukharin, “Technique is a part, a moment, naturally of great importance, of the social productive forces, but it is neither simply identical with them, nor. . .the final or absolute moment of the changes in these forces” (Lukàcs, 1925)[16].

Discussion of Marxian materialism also raises the question of the inevitability of the historical process –is every exploitative system based on class and property eventually doomed as every system contains within itself, the seeds of its own destruction? Is it inevitable that like feudalism, capitalism must also collapse? This question was one of the chief bones of contention in the Second International where Lenin and the Bolsheviks were of the view that the Bolsheviks must seize political power in Russia and commence the process of building a socialist state on the principle of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ while Kautsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci and several others felt that such a move would be premature and adventurist. (Joseph, 2006)[17]. For most of these thinkers, it was assumed that even capitalism plays a historic role –that of developing the means of production.

This brings in the age-old question of structure and agency. Is there an ‘agency’ in Marxian social theory? A technological determinist may think otherwise as for her, all social change arises from technological change (even though this is a very ahistoric way of looking at technological change). Similarly, the supporters of the ‘inevitability’-of-capitalist-collapse view may lay emphasis on structure –capitalism would collapse when the forces of production had expanded, when labour was cheapened and when there would arise a very big contradiction between the development of capitalism and its own collapse.

However, one must recall that Marxian social theory is a theory of praxis. And the Marxian view of social stratification is based on class divisions. There are two principle classes in capitalist society –the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the property-less free workers or the proletariat who have been historically dispossessed of everything but their labour power. In addition to these, there is also the free peasantry, the professional or the middle class and the lumpen proletariat –vagabonds, criminals etc. The existence of classes and the creation of class consciousness leads to a process of class struggle. If the workers are successful in organizing themselves and creating a ‘class consciousness’, they can struggle for living minimum wages, the famous eight hour work-day[18], decent work conditions and so on. This brings them into direct conflict with the capitalists as reducing the length of the workday or demanding minimum wages reduces the rate of surplus value. The agency of class can also express itself as it did during the Bolshevik or the Chinese revolutions –a well organized, disciplined movement of workers and peasants can help seize State power and commence the task of building socialism –even though capitalism has not yet been built and has thus not fulfilled any role, leave alone its historic role of developing the means of production. Lenin justified this contradiction by arguing that Russia was the ‘weakest link in the imperialist chain’ –it was a largely agrarian, feudal society but it had a highly disciplined industrial proletariat with an advanced sense of class consciousness while the national bourgeoisie was weak and disorganized and entirely dependent on international support which wasn’t always forthcoming. It was an opportune moment for the proletariat to seize power and create its own socialist development model (Lenin, 1921)[19].

The structure-and-agency debate is still an important question for Marxist political praxis today especially for Marxist praxis in the periphery of economic development. In India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has come under valid criticism for appropriating land from the peasantry for the development of industry by big capital –no doubt a betrayal of the ‘toiling masses’ of Bengal. The Party justified this policy by drawing upon the idea of the inevitability of capitalist collapse –it saw its own task as the task of building capitalism[20] and when capitalism would reach an advanced stage of development, it would self-destruct. Similarly, the Communist Party of China continues to follow a strategy of export-led development based on the suppression of wages in order to export cheaper and cheaper manufactures to the rest of the world. Chinese workers are known to work shifts of over thirteen hours a day (Hirway, 2010)[21] and there have been reports that workers have been made to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide on account of the inhuman work conditions in the factories.[22] The CCP however, sees no contradiction between its role of upholding the interests of the workers and the building of ‘market socialism’ –by the Stages of Capitalist Development approach, the CCP is only developing the forces of production and that one day market socialism would inevitably make way for communism.

iii) The ‘Reserve Army of Labour’ and Capitalist Crisis

Unlike the neoclassical consensus which has almost no explanation for chronic periods of unemployment, in Marxian social theory chronic unemployment is more of a norm than full employment. This is because unemployment in capitalism pays a social purpose –it serves as a depressant on wages so that the rate of surplus value can be increased. Marx introduced the concept of the ‘Reserve Army of Labour’ –a pool of chronically unemployed workers who can be drawn into the labour force when demand conditions are favourable, thus bringing about an increase in production without a corresponding rise in wages. As individual capitalists compete for profits, there is a tendency to opt for labour saving mechanisation which tends to displace workers and bring about an expansion of the reserve army of labour. This adds weight to Marx’s theory of immiserisation. ‘Value’ in capitalism is created by labour –which reproduces not only its own value (i.e. the number of labour hours required to produce the workers’ means of subsistence) but also ‘surplus value’ which is on aggregate, the profit that accrues to the capitalist class. The expansion of capitalism can occur as long as capitalists have the incentive to accumulate capital –which is as long as capitalists make profits. The reserve army of labour plays a role in suppressing wages to mere subsistence levels so as to allow for high surpluses and thus, the expansion of capitalism. As capitalists compete with themselves, they adopt labour saving mechanisation –thus increasing the ‘organic composition of capital’ –this causes the displacement of labour and the expansion of the reserve army of labour –which further depresses wages. The more value that labour creates, the cheaper it becomes.

In the course of the development of the advanced countries however, Marx’s theory of immiserisation was said to be disproved as workers in advanced countries found that they would obtain wage increases and decent conditions of work and life through the success of their trade union struggles. However, Marxist scholars from Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin to Paul Baran, Andre Gunder Frank, Prabhat Patnaik and many others observed that the improved conditions of the working class in the advanced countries had followed upon the ‘export of unemployment’ to the developing countries where a ‘free proletariat’ had been created by a process of primitive accumulation driven by various colonial processes –taxation (Forstater, 2005)[23], forced contracts (Dutt, 1902)[24] etc. The process of primitive accumulation had created a ‘reserve army of labour’ for global capitalism in the developing countries –simply exporting unemployment away from the advanced countries where improved conditions of work and life and thereby, a degree of political stability became possible. What workers in advanced countries did not foresee was that the reserve army of labour – even though it was stationed in the developing countries –would still serve as a depressant to wages in advanced countries. In the recent years, this has become more apparent with the shift of production processes away from advanced countries to developing countries –made easier perhaps by the technological improvement in communication facilities, fuelling the popular American fear of the shift of jobs to China.

Though the whole aim of the capitalist production process is to create profit, profit in capitalism has a tendency to decline. This is because the total profit in the economy depends on surplus value created within it. In fact the rate of profit is given by the ratio of surplus value to the value expended in total production i.e. constant and variable capital. Constant capital here, is the total labor hours that are expended in replacing the depreciation of plant, machinery and tools. Variable capital is the total labor hours expended in creating the means of subsistence required by the workers to reproduce themselves. In the economy as a whole, the ratio of constant to variable capital tends to rise as capitalists engage in labor saving mechanisation in competition with other capitalists for individual profits –this produces a new equilibrium in which every capitalist has a higher ratio of expenditure on constant capital than before, causing the rate of profit to decline.

There are ofcourse, some countervailing tendencies to this downward tendency –the rise in the ratio of constant to variable capital also means a rise in productivity which may find expression as an increase in total surplus value as with increased productivity on average, workers can reproduce their own value in lesser time, thus producing more surplus value per working day. This can also be driven by an intensified exploitation of labour through an expansion of the working day.

Marxian social theory holds that capitalism is an anarchic system and there is no definite agency relating production to consumption. This is in sharp contrast to the neoclassical consensus theory which assumes that this definite agency exists in the form of an invisible hand. In Marxian social theory, capitalism is also an expanding system driven by a restless search for profit. As the profit motive is dominant, any state of affairs involving an imbalance between the volume of commodities produced and their saleability at the average rate of profit constitutes a crisis for the system. If goods produced cannot be sold at the average rate of profit, then the average rate of profit must decline. This in turn dissuades capitalists from investing their capital in the production process, causing the engine to slow down and causing workers to be laid off. As workers are laid off, consumer purchasing power is diminished which causes another tendency for the rate of profit to decline.


To truly understand how the view of crisis in Marxian social theory is superior to the neoclassical consensus theory view, it is useful to compare the two theories according to a pan disciplinary set of criteria. The Global Social Theory Approach (Bowles, 2013)[25] lays down a set of interactive criteria in a dynamic framework by which we can evaluate and compare the various ‘relatively adequate’ interdisciplinary theories. The criteria specified in the GST are as follows:

  1. A conception of human nature as held by different theories.
  2. An understanding of social stratification and structure and how group identities are constituted.
  3. Individual or group agency or action
  4. Material and social processes that may lead to certain goals –whether growth or development or some sort of end.
  5. Philosophical foundations or meta-theoretical commitments:
  6. Ontological commitments –what does x theory assume to be real? Social Ontology is a theory of existence.
  7. Epistemological commitments –how does x theory claim knowledge of what it thinks is real. Is it based on a trust of observation (empiricism) or is it based on the inner thought processes of the human mind (rationalism)? Epistemology is a theory of knowledge.
  8. Axiological commitments –what moral values does x theory uphold? What is its conception of the ‘good life’ or of ‘virtue’. Axiology is a theory of value.

These criteria are dynamic and interactive as shown in Figure 1 [misformatted at the moment, apologies; click Figure 1 to see the fully labelled diagram]

R. Sen Figure 1 Marxian Social Theory

Source: Adapted from Bowles, 2013[26]


As seen in Figure 1, the conception of human nature serves as an ontological commitment by which one may arrive at an understanding of the nature of human agency. Similarly, human agency may be confined and directed by social structures. Human agency sets in motion, the material and social processes of development which in turn, reproduce the social structure.

How can we think of Marxian social theory when set in the framework of GST criteria? Does Marxian social theory involve a conception of human nature? According to Norman Geras (Geras, 1983)[27] there is a vulgar view of Marx which holds that the individual is of no importance in Marxian social theory and that human nature is only a product of social structures. This view is derived from Marx’s ‘The Sixth Thesis of Feuerbach’ (Marx, 1888)[28]

“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.

“In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations”

-Marx, 1888.

Geras argues that it is incorrect to form a view of the conception of human nature in Marx on the basis of a single quote while the whole point of the transcendence of capitalism and the alienation inherent in capitalist division of labor is the full development of human potential and capabilities. The fully developed individual would not have to spend the entire day tightening a screw on an assembly line, for example. Instead, she should be able to fish in the morning, take part in production activities –all of which must give creative satisfaction and theorise in the evening.

Marx is of course, best known in classical sociology as one of the pioneers of the theory of social stratification. Social stratification in Marxian social theory is based on class and agency is expressed through the development of class consciousness and class struggle. The dialectics of change take place through the development of production relations and via class struggle, the working class is able to effect changes in the production process and in social, cultural and religious relationships that are defined to suit the needs of the bourgeoisie and to justify the exploitation of labour by capital. It is a matter of debate whether change in cultural and social relationships by the assertion of an identity (for example, by the feminist movement) is a revolutionary change or merely a superstructural change. In the recent years however, Marxist political activists have become more open to building coalitions –often called ‘rainbow coalitions’ –of social and progressive movements like the indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador or the feminist movements or movements against nuclear energy –to serve as agents of social change.

Through the agency of class struggle or by the dialectics of change driven through technology, material and social processes resolve their contradictions and create newer forms of capitalism. The Marxian social theory is a teleological view that anticipates some kind of end. For the Marxists, the end is communism. As the popular socialist saying goes, “Another world is possible”.

It is not difficult to see that this view is in sharp contrast to the neoclassical consensus theory. While the Marxian social theory has an ontological commitment to looking at every relationship or every force as a product of history, the neoclassical consensus view takes an ahistorical view of human beings as innately rational, atomistic individuals who take actions to maximize their own welfare and therefore, set off processes by which the welfare of society is maximized. Clearly, such a view is not only ahistoric but also not systemic. It does not understand deviations from situations of maximum social welfare as a part of the system. Instead, it makes false predictions, stating that the ‘disequilibrium’ will soon go away and that some institutional mechanism may be holding it up.

The Marxian view on the other hand, understands that every system has contradictions which are resolved as a part of a historical process to make way for newer forms of a social system or perhaps, a new social system altogether. The capitalist system has a tendency to cause the immiserisation of a large part of the global population in its relentless drive for profits –which may have to come to a halt as a very poor population cannot be a very good market for goods and services. Also, there is no definite agency by which all that is produced will be sold in the market –causing an inherent tendency towards overproduction and crisis.

Marxian social theory does not believe that every crisis will bring about the socialist revolution, however –contrary to popular perception. Quite often, a crisis may be successful in doing no more that suppressing wage claims to the level that restarting production may once again, become profitable (Giddens, ibid). The rise of Keynesian policies for stimulating activity presented a new social system in which institutions to keep economic activity at a desirable level were created. However, though this enabled the development of welfare and social security in advanced capitalist countries, the presence of the reserve army of labour in developing countries continued to depress wages. The challenge before Marxist political activists has remained that of identifying the contradictions in the rapidly developing capitalist system and arguing that the capitalist system, at each juncture, is based on creating great wealth at one end of the world and great poverty at another.


Marx is perhaps, one of the most interpreted, re-interpreted and misinterpreted figures in the philosophy of social science. Interpretations of Marx have ranged from positivist, heuristic, deterministic and humanist to critical realist. Nonetheless, there is no ‘pure’ form of Marxist theory and Marxian theory develops with Marxist political praxis –as a way to understand and address the challenges thrown by new developments –whether in technology or in institutions, whether in relationships based on class or identity.

The most heated debates in the history of Marxist political praxis were played out during the Second International –an international organization of socialist and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889. This was dissolved before the First World War as the different national parties could not form a united front against the war -which was a victory for the revisionist view championed by Bernstein who believed that the proletariat should support the war effort of their respective countries in the immediate and in the long term, win concessions from capital in the form of higher wages and better working conditions. Bernstein had given up hope that some crisis or some instability in capitalism would set off contradictions leading to its own downfall. Instead, he believed that through the system of credit and cartels, the capitalist system had largely stabilized and that the working class should direct its energies towards securing a better life in the capitalist system.

This view was sharply criticized by several voices in the Second International –the determinist voice of Kautsky, the orthodox “Pope” of Marxism and the revolutionary voice of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartakist group. Kautsky could not stem the tide of revisionism in the Party and perhaps, his doctrinaire approach to dialectical materialism as drawn from the natural sciences remained unappreciated by Party members (Joseph, 2006)[29]. Rosa Luxemburg criticized Bernstein’s notion of capitalism as a stable system. By 1913, Luxemburg had published her own understanding of crisis –Accumulation of Capital (Luxemburg, 1913)[30]. She understood that there is no agency to induce capitalists to keep investing their capital in production –with the expansion of the reserve army of labour and the infinite suppression of wages it is unlikely that the expanded reproduction can go on forever –eventually a situation of overproduction is bound to manifest itself. She identified the colonial incursion into pre capitalist markets as a possible source of demand, thus relating the concepts of crisis and imperialism. Luxemburg was however, highly critical of V.I. Lenin’s argument for taking over political power in Russia –like Gramsci and many others, she felt it was premature. She was also critical of the rigid centralism in Bolshevik Party organization as it suppressed individual liberties and felt that seeing the Party as the revolutionary vanguard would distance the Party from the masses.

On his part however, V.I. Lenin answered Bernstein’s claims of the stability of capitalism through the provision of credit and the creation of cartels with his own theory of imperialism. Lenin argued that capital was getting increasingly concentrated in the advanced capital countries through the development of financial institutions. The First World War, for which Bernstein thought that the proletariat should rally behind their national bourgeoisie, was an imperialist war –a war of monopoly interests competing for markets and sources of raw material. Lenin felt that given the character of imperialism, the spark of the revolution would not come from the proletariat in the advanced countries as imagined by the Marxian orthodoxy but from a developing country. Lenin advanced the idea that Russia was the weakest link in the imperialist chain (Lenin, 1917)[31] –its national bourgeoisie was weak, it was a largely agrarian society and it had a well developed industrial proletariat with an advanced sense of class consciousness –therefore, the Bolsheviks must seize political power. This was a view far removed from the deterministic view or the view of the inevitability of capitalist collapse on account of crisis. In fact, it was a rejection of the Marxian Stage Theory and an assertion of the agency of class through the actions of a Party-vanguard trained as revolutionaries through tight organizational discipline.

The debates of the Second International were centered on the question of crisis –would there be a day when capitalism would eventually collapse on account of a very large crisis? Bernstein rejected the idea and felt that political praxis should be confined to trade unionism. Luxemburg believed that one day, capitalism would run out of pre capitalist markets to make incursions into and the immiserisation of the global proletariat would bring about a state of overproduction –which is why political praxis should continue to be revolutionary rather than revisionist. Lenin did not concern himself with the question of inevitability. He was a man of action –or more appropriately, a man of praxis. He believed that given the concentration of monopoly capital under imperialism, the situation would be one of war as competing monopolists vied with each other for ‘spheres of influence’. In the interest of creating a world of peace, it would be best for communist revolutionaries to seize political power in relatively backward countries.

These competing views of crisis and imperialism maintain relevance for Marxist political praxis in today’s time. In the current period of capitalist crisis, should Left political parties aim to take political power or should they confine themselves to trade union struggles? When Left parties do take political power, should they aim to develop capitalism –even a more humane version of capitalism –or should they aim to form socialist states? What would be the nature of socialist states in the 21st century? Would they be based on democratic centralism like Lenin’s USSR or would they take a radicalized form of democracy where important political decisions are subject to referendum, where even the President will stand for election? What would be the nature of the production process –would it be organized by China where land is held by the State and leased to big business to set up large scale production units or would it be organized in a democratic way –owned and operated by workers? Many of such questions are recently under discussion with the founding of socialist states in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Many orthodox Marxists tend to reject the idea of such states as socialist because these States allow individual freedoms and even allow the right to hold property to an extent but no one can deny that these States have posed to challenge to the capitalist system –that too, despite their geographical proximity to the USA, the largest and most potent imperialist force.


The idea of crisis is fundamental to the discussion of Marxian social theory. Not only is the Marxian social theory capable of explaining crisis, but it also shows how crisis is inherent to capitalism as a system. In this way, it is superior to the neoclassical consensus theory view of crisis which is that it is a temporary situation caused by institutional rigidities.

The Marxian theory view of crisis or the question of stability at the core is related to the question of the economic and political relations between advanced and developing countries by which underdevelopment is reproduced in the developing countries. Marxian social theory allows for the explication of the capitalist production process as an international system wherein the conditions faced by workers in developing countries affect those of workers in the advanced countries as well. Most importantly, it supplies lessons for political praxis –the workers of the world must reach out to each other and develop an international class consciousness and work towards the building of a better world.


Bowles Doug, (2013) ‘Human Nature and Social Ontology’, Working Paper No. 8.

Dutt RC, (1902), “The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule. From the Rise of the British Power in 1757 to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Vol. I”. London, Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner (1902) 2001 edition by Routledge, ISBN 0-415-24493-5. On line, McMaster ISBN 81-85418-01-2.

Feuerbach Ludwig, (1957) ‘The Essence of Christianity’, New York.

Forstater Matthew, (2005), “Taxation and Primitive Accumulation: The Case of Colonial Africa”, Research in Political Economy, ISSN: 0161-7230.

Geras Norman (1983) Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a legend. Verso.

Giddens Anthony, (1971) ‘Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Weber’, Cambridge University Press.

Hirway,(2010) “Labour Market Adjustment and Female Workers: Global Production and Expiry of Quotas in India’s Textiles and Garments Industry”, Labour in Global Production Networks in India, ed- Anne Posthuma and Dev Nathan, Oxford University Press.

Joseph Jonathan, (2006) ‘Marxism and Social Theory’, Palgrave.

Lenin V.I. (1917) “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Selected Works, Progress Publishers, 1963, Moscow, Volume I, Pg 667-766.

Lukacs George (1925), “Technology and Social Relations,” New Left Review, no. 39

Luxemburg Rosa, (1913) “The Accumulation of Capital”, 1951 ed: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Marx and Engels, (1958) ‘Selected Works’, Moscow

Marx Karl (1888), Theses on Feuerbach

Marx Karl, (1847) ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Paris & Brussels

Marx Karl, (1887) ‘Capital Volume I’, Progress, Moscow.

Marx, Engels (1958) ‘Selected Works’, Volume 1, pg 13-15


[1] Bowles Doug, (2013) ‘Human Nature and Social Ontology’, Working Paper No. 8.

[2] Marx Karl (1888), Theses on Feuerbach.

[3] Joseph Jonathan, (2006) ‘Marxism and Social Theory’, Palgrave.

[4] Giddens Anthony, (1971) ‘Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Weber’, Cambridge University Press.

[5] Feuerbach Ludwig, (1957) ‘The Essence of Christianity’, New York.

[6] Marx and Engels, (1958) ‘Selected Works’, Moscow

[7] Giddens Anthony, (1971) ibid

[8] When asked to write an essay on the reflections of a young man when choosing a career in his final school examinations, Marx wrote that the choice of a career must be guided by two principles –the welfare of humanity and one’s own excellence. According to Marx, there can be no conflict between the development of one’s own capabilities and the welfare of humanity. Instead, young people can find their own personal development only when working towards the welfare of humanity (Giddens, 1971, ibid).

[9] Use value derives from the consumption of a commodity. The use value of a chair draws from the fact that one can sit on it. It is possible for non-commodities to have use value for instance oxygen has use value in that one can breathe it in. However, oxygen is not a ‘commodity’ unless it is put into a cylinder and sold in the market as a commodity. In short, non commodities can have use value but commodities have both, use value and exchange value.

[10] It is not accurate to say that the desk is worth $30 equivalent in human labor hours as value must not be confused with price. However, in the aggregate, the national output (denominated in dollars) can be thought in its equivalent of human labor expenditure (Giddens, 1971, ibid.)

[11] Marx Karl, (1887) ‘Capital Volume I’, Progress, Moscow.

[12] Giddens Anthony (1971), ibid.

[13] Giddens Anthony (1971), ibid.

[14] In his early works, Marx wrongly assumed that there was no stratification based on property in Asiatic societies which were based on self-sufficient villages rather than cities. Perhaps Marx was not acquainted with the inhumane caste system in the Indian subcontinent and possessed a Eurocentric view that romanticized the Indian village system. However, this view may have been altered in his more mature works.

[15] Marx Karl, (1847) ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Paris & Brussels

[16] Lukacs George (1925), “Technology and Social Relations,” New Left Review, no. 39

[17] Joseph Jonathan, (2006) ibid.

[18] “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will.”

[19] Lenin V.I. (1921), ‘Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Communist International No. 18

[20] Perhaps by the proletarianisation of the peasantry.

[21] Hirway,(2010) “Labour Market Adjustment and Female Workers: Global Production and Expiry of Quotas in India’s Textiles and Garments Industry”, Labour in Global Production Networks in India, ed- Anne Posthuma and Dev Nathan, Oxford University Press.

[22] Huffington Post, December 7th 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/06/apple-foxconn-suicide-pact_n_858504.html

[23] Forstater Matthew, (2005), “Taxation and Primitive Accumulation: The Case of Colonial Africa”, Research in Political Economy, ISSN: 0161-7230

[24] Dutt RC, (1902), “The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule. From the Rise of the British Power in 1757 to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Vol. I”. London, Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner (1902) 2001 edition by Routledge, ISBN 0-415-24493-5. On line, McMaster ISBN 81-85418-01-2

[25] Bowles Doug (2013), ibid.

[26] Bowles Doug, ibid.

[27] Geras Norman (1983) Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a legend. Verso

[28] Marx, Engels (1958) ‘Selected Works’, Volume 1, pg 13-15

[29] Joseph Jonathan, (2006) ibid.

[30] Luxemburg Rosa, (1913) “The Accumulation of Capital”, 1951 ed: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[31] Lenin V.I. (1917) “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Selected Works, Progress Publishers, 1963, Moscow, Volume I, Pg 667-766.

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[*]  I mentioned to Ruchira the other day how the paper I wrote for Dr. Henry’s ECON 406WI – History of Economic [Theory] last year was also entitled “Theories of Capitalist Imperialism”. So, I’m excited to discuss further the evolution of theories of capitalist imperialism.


[Last modified 13:24 CDT 12 MAY 2015]

[Image entitled “Karl Marx 001” by John Jabez Edwin Mayall – International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]