Karl Marx and Adam Smith wrote in the same time period during the industrial revolution, where the bourgeois had risen to power by oppressing and exploiting the proletariat. The term bourgeois refers to the people in the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor. The proletarians are the people in the class of modern wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live. While Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, wrote in favor of capitalism, Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, was a harsh critic of the system and declared its inevitable destruction and consequent rise of the working class.
According to Marx, history is a series of class struggles that rise and fall according to economic changes. Marx claimed that society has an economic base; economic changes force a consequent restructuring of society. For example, the thirteenth century in Europe saw the pinnacle and the decline of the feudal system. Instead of personal military services Vassals began giving money to their lords as payments. The lords preferred these money payments because it allowed them to hire professional fighters who were better trained and more disciplined than their vassals. Wars were being won by professional men-at-arms and archers. The original feudal system of honor and loyalty was diluted into a financial relationship where the subjects pledged allegiance to the lords only for the duration of employment. This new temporary relation between warrior and lord, known as “bastard feudalism,” was the first step towards the division of labor as seen in the times of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. It marked the beginning of the progression from a feudal society to a capitalist one. The feudal system soon became inadequate and eventually gave way to capitalism.
In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith celebrated capitalist society. The central thesis of The Wealth of Nations is that capital is best employed for the production and distribution of wealth under conditions of no governmental interference, or laissez-faire, and free trade. In Smith’s view, the production and exchange of goods can be stimulated, and a consequent rise in the general standard of living attained, only through the efficient operations of private industrial and commercial entrepreneurs acting with a minimum of regulation and control by governments. To explain this concept of government maintaining a laissez-faire attitude toward commercial endeavors, Smith proclaimed the principle of the “invisible hand”: Every individual in pursuing his or her own good is led, as if by an invisible hand, to achieve the best good for all. Therefore any interference with free competition by government is almost certain to be injurious. The division of labor is another crucial component of capitalist society. According to Smith, division of labor benefits society in three ways:
“first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.” (Smith, Wealth of Nations, p.6)
By overproducing one good, one may trade or barter for other goods. In order to trade or barter with another person, one must appeal to that persons self-interest. Hence, self-interest stimulates society. Smith states that this self-interest is the basis of civilization.
Although Marx does not disagree with division of labor, he does criticize the self-interest that motivates society. He proposes a society with strict governmental or state control over industry and production. Marx considered capitalism as another phase in the progression of society towards a better economic structure, one without class struggle — socialism. Marxs proposed socialist society, dubbed communism, would have only one class of people, the proletariat. He further explains that this socialist society will inevitably overcome capitalism because capitalism fosters its own downfall: “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, p. 79)
Furthermore, unlike uncivilized countries, civilized society capitalism has many people who do not work, for example, the bourgeoisie who consume more goods than those who labor. Yet Smith announces that there is enough for everyone. Marx disagrees:
“But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence The modern laborer instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave the proletariat within his slavery.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, p.77-8)
Previous class struggles fell for different reasons than capitalism will fall. They grew inadequate for the changing economy and industry. Marx would argue that had these economic changes not occurred, these class struggles may have persisted until today. Capitalism, on the other hand, will undoubtedly fail because of contradictions in the system. Marx explains that the serfs, in the period of serfdom, were able to raise themselves to membership in the commune, much like the early bourgeois was able to develop into the modern bourgeois (of Marxs time) while under feudal absolutism. But, as the bourgeois rise, they further oppress the working class. The proposition of The Communist Manifesto is that the oppressed class, the proletariat, cannot truly free itself from the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, without at the same time freeing society at large from all “exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.” The only solution from all class struggles in history is to have one class the proletariat.
Marx makes it clear that capitalism has brought some benefits to society: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarcely one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, p. 66) Yet the effects that capitalism has on the relations between people is not worth the benefits it brought economically. Marx claims that capitalism has reduced professions of honor and reverence, such as the physician, the priest, and the scientist, to paid wage laborers. He condemns it for transforming every interaction amongst members of society into purely money relations. He goes so far as to say that the family relation has been reduced to a money relation. Children have become instruments of labor and articles of commerce. Workers have become a commodity. They must sell themselves, their labor power, in order to exist. They “live only so long as their labor increases capital.”
Furthermore, Marx favors the abolition of bourgeois private property. Although he recognizes that the ability to own property is a major element of personal freedom, he claims bourgeois private property is a symbol of the system of producing and appropriating products based on exploitation of the many by the few. This private property, which is wage-labor by workers, creates capital the kind of property that exploits the worker. The resulting communist society will set all people around the world as equals in a unified working class. The distinctions and advantages of physical strength and talents will disappear. Along with all these elements of oppression and abuse of the proletariat, Marx states three main factors that ensure the uprising of the proletariat and uprooting of the bourgeois. First, with the urbanization and centralization of workers that industry sparked, workers have been concentrated in greater masses in certain places where they have the ability to form unions to fight for their rights. Second, the improvements in communication brought by industry allow a worker to contact workers in other regions. Third, through political and general education, the bourgeois have provided the proletariat with the knowledge and leadership needed to revolt. Again, “what the bourgeois produces above all are its own gravediggers.”
After reading Marxs adamant and insistent arguments in The Communist Manifesto, one must raise the question: why has capitalism survived thus far? Recent history, such as the collapse of the economy of the former U.S.S.R., has proven the impracticality and flaws of the communist system. Today, the most productive and wealthy countries are those with a capitalist system. The United States, for example, has thus far overcome the “contradictions” in the capitalist system fairly effectively. A major shortcoming of Marx was his misinterpretation of the influence of non-economic factors. His view is that the economic factor is basic. Once non-economic factors, such as constitutions, philosophical theories, religions, etc., have developed from the economic situation, they operate as individual forces. But all developments whether political or philosophical are based on economic developments.
This clearly does not hold in the modern day. As demonstrated by nations such as the USA, non-economic factors may actually preserve or control the economy. Marx never seems to consider a regulated capitalist society where monopolies are banned, trade unions are common, and a minimum wage ensures workers a minimum salary. He failed to foresee a compromise between socialism and capitalism. Two of the ten points of communism that he lists in his book are actually implemented by many capitalist governments heavy, progressive income tax and free state education for children. Furthermore, Marx proposed to eliminate mental and physical superiority amongst workers by having only one class in society. As Charles Darwin would argue, this idea goes against the rules of nature. Nature is a survival of the fittest. By ignoring this fact, Marx intends to retard the process of evolution. The stronger and smarter members of society will be better off and will have offspring who will carry these traits. Gradually, but naturally, society will increase in aptitude and ability. In response to Marxs great disappointment with the capitalist society of his time, he constructed a society that was too extreme in its position. A complete uprooting of capitalist society does not seem feasible because of the advantages it offers many individuals. If Marx had proposed improvements of this society, he may have had more of a positive impact.
The Portable Karl Marx
Wealth of Nations