Overview and Critique of
Karl Marx and Marxism

Marx's writings are a background and constituent of much social theory. It has a label, Marxism, which has a history of social theory (Marxist sociology), seeming opposition (Weberians), additions (Lenin, Trotsky, Mao), practical responses (in nation states and revolutionary movements) and lies as a stimulus when evolving into something else (Habermas, Baudrillard).
Marx used Hegel's dialectical method and this remains throughout. This is where thesis confronts antithesis, so to achieve a higher plateau with the best parts preserved but weakest rejected (negating the negations), the process to begin again with another antithesis. It is historical and ultimately optimistic.
Marx did his own dialectical approach with Hegel in fact because whilst he kept this method he rejected the substance of Hegel's dialectical process, which was in the realm of ideas and understanding, like poetic story telling being replaced by theology and it being replaced by reason, giving freedom. Instead, he brought in and adapted the ideas of a number of "materialist" sources. There was Adam Smith (1723-1790), who discussed the invisible hand of the market and factory efficiency and profit, but who should be seen as examining economics as a structure (even if of individuals) generating its own effects and having no logical place for privilege. There was Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) who, viewing the feudal idle rich and place of the church, believed that the combination of reason in administration with power resting with those who produced, along with the abolition of inherited property, would remove social conflict and therefore the purpose of and need for the state. Power with scientists and engineers would end the need for the state! This is progress through history using reason, but following on from power shifting along with the economic base. (see Noble, 2000, 45 & 76) Pierre Joseph Proudon (1809-1865) was against property, full stop (Noble, 2000, 76-77), and this influenced Marx too. So Marx developed the substance of these applied to the dialectical method to see that struggle was between different economic classes.
Karl Marx It seemed this way in the nineteenth century, a time of transitions and threatened interests. The state was seen as primarily a protector of interests. Is it not possible, for example, for the state to be a processor of different kinds of conflicts, and of co-operation, and a referee?
Communism predated Marx, who, with Engels, wrote the Communist Manifesto for the Communist League in Brussels.
Friedrich Engels Engels was a capitalist, of course, with a textile business that supported Marx's work, whilst Engels himself wrote about poverty in Manchester (Engels, 1987). Such capitalism was at once red in tooth and claw, but organisation and development allowed different employment strategies, whether liberal philanthropists (like at Styal, Manchester, where, with a religious ethic, better living conditions produced a healthier compliant workforce, worth it economically) or socialists like Robert Owen (who had a stronger social conscience for its own humanist sake). Marx who was poor and, mainly dependent, ended up in exile in Hampstead where he was buried.
So the emphasis by Marx was struggle, and this produced improvement afterwards. This potential depended on the economic base: a technological improvement which facilatated types of ownership and changes in ownership through struggle, otherwise known as the relationship of production. The relationship of production is the social order, is the make-up of the state in that epoch. It starts with tribal primitive communism (primitive peoples), Asiatic empires (e.g. Egypt, Mesopotamia, China), the ancient (e.g Greece, Rome) where there were estates with private property and slavery, feudalism (landed and serfs) and capitalism (bourgeoisie and working class). Out of this final oppression would come struggle, revolution and socialism. But this would no longer be domination by a class, and no further transformations.
This history is short circuited to the point of being misleading, and to say that historical change and the make-up of the state comes down to ownership is hugely reductionist and also misleading.
The change to socialism is a final transformation, however, because of the material wealth produced by capitalism: more than enough to go around, a situation of no scarcity and therefore no conflict. It is almost as if such society has come full circle from tribal society where the absence of property for production meant no conflict too in exploitative terms. Communism is a utopia, an ideal.
This idealism appears in many places within Marx, who after 1850 tries to root idealism out in pursuit of a scientific explanation (except the Hegelian dialectic). The principal difficulty is the analysis of being exploited in the factory system. It is the other side of Adam Smith's efficienct factory production line, and it is alienation through having one's own (varied) creative process extracted from one's ownership and control (it has to be about ownership with Marx, but we might think it is about the ways of doing work). It is dehumanising from a position where we know what it is to be fully human. So there is an ideal of being human from which everything else is measured.
Yet how do we know this? How do we know at what point human fulfilment takes place and is "natural"? Is human fulfilment when a person can lie on the beach all year in sun with no money worries? This would be boring. Perhaps it is when able to some productive work some times and then wish to leave it a while? Is human fulfilment linked to work at all? The Protestant Ethic might think so, but what is its basis? Don't we all have different responses to what is valuable?
Later Marx abandoned this in favour of a purely systematic approach of exploitation through capital intensive means creating more surplus value against the reduced amount for the workers. What people do becomes governed by contradictory systemic laws (sort of Adam Smith's view turned around) of history unfolding as technology advances with these relations of production, and these laws operate right into the consciousness of how people think - all the way they organise their ideas and the ideas themselves.
As with Adam Smith, everything is market based including the workers and their wages. That all they can do is sell their labour makes them a class, of which they become conscious, and at the mercy of capital. This capital investment grows as competition continues, but with prices the same means profits fall and the workers get less. Firms go out of business, with a tendency towards monopoly and thus fewer richer owners. Whilst there maybe commodity fetishism (compare with Baudrillard!), the decline in wages and rise in capital and therefore overproduction creates more unemployment and more overproduction. A collapse starts, and with ever more capital there is ever less for the working class. Those that remain employed, seeing the army of unemployed, find their comeptitive position such that their wages are meagre, barely enough to live on. This, contrasted with more wealth to capital, and fewer of them in ownership, leads to collapse and revolution.
Yet Marx's theory actually depends on human action, and therefore consciousness. The rise in capital wealth for the few is contrasted by the workers with the few's ideas about liberty, equality and democratic reform. The workers themselves have adopted a factory system culture of discipline and organisation. Their consciousness of their state contrasted with the capitalist's state means that revolution does have to happen. It is not purely a system collapse. So culture and choice comes back into the scientific theory.
Marx even undermined his own systemic causal explanations further when he discussed historical events around the coup of 1851 (Napoleon), looking at all kinds of instututions and ideas (superstructure) like a radical cultural commentator might. The more cultural strands of Marxism (Gramsci, Frankfurt School) and thus post-Marxism come from this deviation from the materialist dialectic. It thus gives legitimacy to those who see cultural factors as important and where only deeper down does the economic base make its changes to the superstructure.
Suppose, however, for a moment that the more systemic analysis is accepted as sound, away from the cultural admissions. Is that actually any good?
The economics is pretty weak. The whole point of capital investment is that it expands productivity and output. Suppose that all the return from capital goes to capital. It leaves the workers in an unchanged condition. Actually, however, the market shifts in terms of skill levels and scarcity, in terms of the capital releasing workers for other service businesses, and if workers become "cheap" then this will offset some of the drive to capital investment. The market economy is not painless but it can be quite flexible, and technological change opens up new possibilities even when certain set industries tend to oligopoly. In political-economy terms the belief in liberal democracy does tend to legitimise capitalism, even though it can seemingly run without it (the lastest example being Communist led China), but also the legitimising pay off of some social democratic welfarism and wage protection actually stimulates capitalism itself. A high wage economy is beneficial to the whole system, if perhaps not to some individual parts.
Marx is simply wrong that the whole of production is given to labour. Capital like land is an entity in itself. Now it may be in the past that some feudal Lord took what was not his, from the monarch, and at the point of technological growth was able to develop surplusses from capital investment that might have been theirs, but from this point on a system of banking and investment contributes to the expansion of total output. Furthermore, as technologies shift new opportunities arise by those of enterprise using such developed investment resources, and start to own themselves.
All this "growth" does not depend on geographical expansion (imperialism) of markets and thus supporting armies etc.. It can be done within a population. There is a question of natural resources and the environment, and there are issues of accountability, and there are issues of structural change and cyclical interventions too. But Marx's analysis is simply wrong.
It is also wrong historically, which is far more drawn out and subtle than he argues for. For example, British capitalism was privately financed on the back of agricultural surplusses, a banking system and foreign slavery. But other systems were state encouraged, and had a different dynamic. Furthermore, capitalism had its roots in mercantilism, a pre-industrial form of capitalism.
On Marx's own argument, a tendency to monopoly means a tendency to price control and higher surplus. The Baran and Sweezy approach (that incorporates monopoly surpluses and has kinked demand curves) does not work as a system, because of the effect on interest rates and other price mechanisms. But even if the system were to change, investment is still needed, and it still needs to be financed, and many economic decisions still need to be made. Whatever the system, the pool of money takes its value from the output of the economy, and to use some of this for spending in deferrence of consumption will depend on its effectiveness as reinvestment, and the investment in that which people want and value. How value is to be measured is a topic in itself, for there is no certain way within any culture that real value as opposed to consumerist desires can be measured. This isn't just a postmodernist's claim: we assume needs must be met, however far they stretch, but then what of the luxuries that lead to comfort and utopia? What sort and when does luxury become necessity and when is productive capacity reached?
Then it has to be asked, is there such a direct connection between economics and politics, class and the state. In history, the epochs of civilisations are simply the relations of production. So is the unity between state and economics now. Really? There are all kinds of ethnic, feminist, environmental and bureaucratic issues to consider, issues which pre-dated capitalism in the formation of modernity (Held, 1992, 29).
Marxism has no place for recognising political difference or its resolution (Held in Hall, Held, McGrew, 1992, 28). Because everything is objective and scientific, even non-Leninist and non-Stalinist Marxism has the potential for massive intolerance. It might be claimed that Leninism of some part is necessary, to have a vanguard group that decides what is the objective criteria of decisions to be made. Even in the most benign system it will exclude minorities and favour some over others. There is then no place for opposition - how can there be when it was conceived that there would be no state? So what was liberating is bound to be oppressive (see Held, 1992, 29) and a utopia becomes a nightmare in the real, diverse, complicated, resource-limited world.
Some of the pre-Marx socialist views about decisions passing to scientists and engineers already operate within economic bureaucracies. In addition, the owners of capital are not the same as the managers of capital. The managers may serve the owners, but they also serve the law, which is broader and more complex. Businesses run by salaried and bonus based managers have to be efficient, but then the rewards of efficiency go in several directions. Much investment capital is now institution based anyway, so that the circle of management never ends. The state may well seek to preserve the nature of this society, as it openly stated in several countries with the terrorist attack in New York in 2001, but this is through fear of the total consequences, not to preserve the privilege of one "class", and within the circulating system evolutionary reforms are tested, and priorities shifted.
That the Marx understanding of economics is so incorrect at the time and out of time now, and his history so reductionist and misleading, and the prophetic outcomes so wrong (where surely there is evidence required!), and the utopia so nightmarish, that one wonders why he has had the impact he has.
Of course part of this was the number of nation states operating in his name, with the additions of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. These were not fully working capitalist states but feudal countries in political flux which then did their industrial investment centrally and at a cost to consumer/ individual economic development. Part of Marx's impact elsewhere in expanding capitalist countries was the tension of transition, the decline in the quality of life for the new urban masses, and the poverty that Engels did survey. In recent times, when the state socialist countries collapsed, and China became something else, a lot of the influence of Marxism fell. Fukuyama speaks instead of "The End of History" (1989 and 1992), a phrase that inverts Marxism and the objectivity of history and its industrial base. It is noticed that in The Great Disruption Fukuyama has no indexed reference to Marx at all yet has ten for Weber.
The reason for intellectual impact (other than for Fukuyama) is simply that it provides a systemic view and a means of criticism. Like a religious tradition, it gives a resource (and a large one) to work around and from. Marx is also broad within his own contradictions and inability to make a consistent system. This is always a positive point, for future writings by followers, because the Hegelianism and materialism do not work together, and so it leads to more debates and an industry of conversation. Being a total theory - criticisms from outside are rejected on its terms, e.g. bourgeois standpoints - it facilitates people writing from within. At the very least it offers coathangers, and has good starting off points for further observation and analysis for non-Marxists and post-Marxists. It is also clearly a Western tradition, and an objective tradition: a materialist version of the Christian hope towards the Kingdom of God. Like Christianity, it is rooted in history, though history is given a further realist twist by Marx because history also replaces God. It has a prophetic nature too, just as Jesus and the inter-testaments period believed in a soon coming of the Kingdom he believed in the final overthrow of class and the state. It, like Christianity, sees a period of torment before the golden age can dawn. In secular terms it is another Hegelian one step up, but not the final stage of thought at all. It is too linked with production, with an industrial age, of mass movements, of contradictory and reductionist analyses.
Like realist Christian theology, like Hegelianism, Marxist echoes will continue on, because echoes are needed to go on with thought. Those that start social analysis with some systemic reference, may well start with Durkheim, and the richness of Weber, but a more economic conflictual analysis usually takes them to Marx as a reference and starting point. There are important concepts to be forever reworked like alienation and false consciousness, though these often fall in the area of culture and value. The question is, having nodded towards Marx, how quickly one leaves behind his legacy when the human project in all its complexity and diversity changes and moves on.


Baran, P., Sweezy, P. (1968), Monopoly Capital, London: Penguin.

Engels, F. (1987, first published 1845), The Condition of the Working Class in England, London: Penguin.

Fukuyama, F. (1989), 'The End of History?' The National Interest, No. 16, 3-4, 8-15, 18 reproduced in Held (1992), 48-49.

Fukuyama, F. (1992), The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press.

Fukuyama, F. (1999), The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, London: Profile Books.

Held (1992), 'Liberalism, Marxism and Democracy' in Hall, S., Held, D, McGrew, T. (eds.), Modernity and its Futures, Cambridge: Polity Press and Oxford: Blackwell in association with The Open University.

Noble, T. (2000), Social Theory and Social Change, London: Macmillan.