Is Marxism Outdated?
Marxism is an economic and social system in which means of production are not owned by the rich but by producers themselves. This idea is founded on the belief that people own their labour and should get an equal amount of value, product or resources for their labour input. This implies that individuals should not be paid an amount less than what they produce so that the wealthy can benefit from the labour input of other people.
Marxism eliminates the notion of ‘profits for profits sake’ and suggests that since everyone puts in resources, whether labour, effort or time, the output of production should be redistributed back to everyone meaning that the wealthy will be unable to ‘exploit’ workers by taking more than what they have actually worked for (Muzaffar, 2008). Indeed, workers cannot input their labour in two places at the same time, but the owners can run multiple enterprises meaning that they gain more for less physical effort.
As an idealist economic philosophy, Marxism assumes that both the wealthy and the poor want to work and that they will work to meet their needs. However, it operates under the assumption that people will always be earnest and honest, and therefore, doesn’t allow for organized crime, scam artists, corruption, moochers and such (Muzaffar, 2008).
From the introduction above, it is clear that Marxism is more of a social utopia than a political paradigm. It is a utopia of society where the wealthy do not exploit other poor people, where production is driven by voluntary cooperation of people and society without concurrence. In the past few decades, the world has experienced an increase in ‘new liberal’ thinking rather than the previous conservative description of human behavior that was based on the ‘neoclassical’ school of economics. This school of thought analysed all aspects of life as an economic behaviour where people are seen as advantage-maximising individuals.
Karl Marx had predicted that revolution could only happen in America (capitalist West) if only revolutions occurred in China, Russia and elsewhere. In contrast to this prediction, these societies were dominated by communist parties where poor citizens gained less economically. This could be cited as one of the weaknesses of the Marxist theory. Indeed, the ‘Fall of Communism’ in Eastern Europe and USSR demonstrated the weaknesses of these regimes as they could not generate high standards of living similar to that of America (Muzaffar, 2008).
Marxism can also be said to be outdated since, in the 20th century, capitalist societies developed in different ways from how Karl Marx had predicted. First, he had predicted an increase in unemployment, but the fact is that since The Second World War, these societies have experienced prolonged phases of near full employment (Bergfeld, 2014). Second, he had predicted an increase in poverty levels in capitalist societies, but the reality is that absolute poverty in these societies has been greatly minimised. Furthermore, poor citizens in these societies are protected by Welfare State institutions which were not well established during the time of Karl Marx.
In the United Kingdom, the political system was mainly operated in the interests of industrialists and rich property owners for much of the 19th century. These groups were dominant both economically and politically. Today, the society has changed significantly with the rise of trade unions, occasional labour governments, adult suffrage and diverse pressure groups that enhance representation of working-class people at the political level (Muzaffar, 2008). It is also worth noting that politics is no longer dominated by a ‘ruling class’ and that Democratic Pluralism models are important in describing how power is distributed in capitalist societies.
Another argument in support of Marxism’s irrelevance is the fact that capitalism has developed into post-capitalism. As a result of this development, there now exist economic policies and regulations that encourage high living standards, a Welfare State and relatively more equal income and wealth distribution in contrast with the 19th century. However, there is still some inequality, but this is often justified using the ‘Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification’ (Wood, 2016).
This theory claims that we cannot avoid social inequality and that it is even beneficial in some ways. Furthermore, equality in terms of opportunities has now been enhanced meaning that individuals have better chances of rising in the class structure. Unlike Marx’s proposition that division of labour results in alienation in capitalist societies, this is unlikely under capitalism and more likely under socialism. Karl Marx’s discussion and analysis of capitalist class structure is ineffective in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Managerial revolution is another aspect that supports the argument that Marxism is outdated. In the 20th and 21st centuries, large companies have undergone managerial revolution whereby these firms are now controlled by senior managers instead of major shareholders (Wood, 2016). This means that the capitalist’s economic power has been minimised even though they are still rich. Indeed, Marx underestimated the growth of the middle class and its importance. In fact, he later recognises this growth in his later works but does not say a lot about them. The living standards of people in the working class has been on the rise, and they seem content with their current situation under capitalism.
Marx also underestimated the significance of divisions within social classes. Unlike the proposition of Marxism, the duties of manual workers have undergone major changes in the past decades leading to reduced ‘alienation.’ Most of these workers find their work interesting even if there will always exist some alienating work in any society, whether socialist, capitalist or industrialist (Wood, 2016). Minimal evidence exists concerning how class consciousness has changed over the past century, but some postmodernists explain that the relevance of class in people’s lives has greatly reduced. This argument among others can be used to explain why Marxist style revolutions have not been experienced in many capitalist societies.
On the other hand, modern Marxists argue that Marxism is still relevant in today’s contemporary world and they give several arguments. They argue that despite the theories brought forward to criticize Marxism such as democratic pluralism, managerial revolution and changes in class structure, the wealthy still exercise massive political and economic power. On managerial revolution, modern Marxists criticize it and state that is it inaccurate since there is no difference in class background between managers and owners (Wood, 2016).
They explain that values and attitudes of owners and managers are similar since even managers are allowed to own a huge amount of shares in these firms. Furthermore, the major aim of every company is to increase profitability and hence managers are likely to do everything possible to cut on expenses including wages and salaries of employees.
Modern Marxists also argue that the powers of the capitalist class have not been reduced by nationalism because of the high compensation given to these capitalists. This is because nationalism has not extended to most profitable sectors of private industries and even those nationalised industries still employ managers who hold similar business objectives (Sperber, 2013). In most cases, these managers come from private industries and nationalised industries may occasionally subsidise private profit. This argument demonstrates that although certain aspects of Marxism can be regarded as weak, or might have become irrelevant to some extent, some of Karl Marx’s propositions apply even to today’s world.
As opposed to suggestions of post-capitalist theorists, modern Marxists dismiss the huge significance attached to changes in the capitalist class structure of the United Kingdom. Their first argument is that even though there has been some redistribution of income and wealth, it has only occurred between the wealthy and those who are comfortably off (Bergfeld, 2014).
The comfortably often come from the same families as the wealthy, and hence the redistribution rarely changes the position of the poor. They also argue that even with some sections of working class individuals (skilled manual workers) becoming more satisfied with their work and income, they remain significantly worse than most people in the middle class. Their values and attitudes have not, therefore, changed significantly since the 1960s.
Some modern Marxists such as Abel Smith and Townsend demonstrate that in a relative sense, the Welfare State has not eliminated poverty as an agency of social control. Furthermore, when it comes to educational achievement, they explain that there are significant social class differences. They also demonstrate that the chances of a working-class individual moving into an upper class is extremely low in comparison to an upper-class citizen staying there. In response to democratic pluralism, these Marxists explain that the theory offers a grossly inaccurate explanation of political power distribution.
The discussion on whether Marxism is outdated can only be concluded through Ralph Miliband’s proposal of modified Marxist theory. He acknowledges that there still exist a group of people with dominant economic power and that there is still unequal distribution of income and wealth (Miliband, 1969). He also explains that the managerial revolution exaggerates the powers of senior managers in firms and that it understates that of property owners. Lastly, he acknowledges that manual workers or working class are at a great economic disadvantage in comparison to wealthy people in the upper class.
In his modified theory, he acknowledges that a significant number of Cabinet Ministers engage in business hence supporting the argument that business people play a significant role in government institutions. However, he states that business people comprise only a small proportion of elite state positions (Miliband, 1969). His theory also explains that administrative, military and political elites come from the middle or upper class. These elites then tend to define ‘national interest’ as the interests of the economic class that is dominant and hence support economic policies that favour maintenance of their capitalistic status quo (Miliband, 1969). The theory also acknowledges the wealth of the upper class as an influencing factor of political power. I believe this theory better describes the extent to which Marxism is still relevant in the world today.
- Bergfeld, M. (2014). Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton.
- Miliband, R. (1969). The state in capitalist society(1st Ed.). New York: Basic Books.
- Muzaffar, P. (2008). Is Marx Relevant to International Relations Today? E-international Relations students.
- Sperber, J. (2013). Is Marx still relevant? The Guardian. Retrieved 7 March 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/16/karl-marx-ideas-resonate-today
- Wood, J. (2016). In defence of Marxism: Marxist theories of globalisation and social injustice and the evolution of post-socialist ideology within contemporary movements for global social justice. Doctoral dissertation, Birkbeck, University of London.