Thursday, September 3, 2009

Karl Marx Redux

While I was reviewing Marx’ theories for my last post, I noticed something interesting which is worth discussing as a separate topic. We don’t think of Marx as linked to the ancients, but his lack of knowledge of antiquity certainly had an impact on the validity of his theory of class warfare.

Marx is considered one of the founders of sociology, along with Weber and Durkheim, and there is no question about his contribution to the understanding of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of the workers in the factories of England. He was the first to describe the individual’s economic value as a producer of manufactured goods and he accurately described the negative impact of the exploitation of labor and the alienation of the worker. Marx felt that political leaders would always be dependent on the economic value of industrial production, support the corporations over the workers, and create private property on the backs of the exploited, so the only way for the workers to recover their value as human beings and end the exploitation would be through class revolt.

Marx provided a context for this revolution by placing it on the historical timeline of economic development in Western society. He started his progression with the feudal system, moved to the capitalist system, and finally predicted a transition to the communist system. In other words, he saw a pattern which, for him, showed the way to the future, and defined a communist political system as the ultimate result.

I’m not sure how much was known about the ancient economies during Marx’s time or how much Marx read what was available. Had current knowledge been accessible and had he been aware of it, Marx would have seen his context was invalid. He apparently didn’t understand that there were elements of capitalism in both ancient Greece and Rome and that the feudal system was not the first step in the development of modern production but merely a retrogressive period which occurred after the collapse of the ancient civilizations.

The ancients had corporations, factories (in a crude sense), capital formation, and the building of wealth through the accumulation of assets and capital. This is the natural behavior of people as they form a complex society.

The key factor that differentiates the ancients from the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The ancients did not have the machines or efficient means of transportation to produce and ship goods in quantity like we do today. Nevertheless, as I state often, the ancient world put into practice ideas we consider “modern” and any description of Rome and Greece as ignorant and undeveloped is totally false.

I suggest that the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was the true anomaly because it ushered in a period of severe exploitation of human beings in industry. Marx did not realize the inevitability of forces that would mitigate the harm – namely laws against exploitation and the rise of labor unions. Those safety valves were triggered before class warfare could become a reality.

In ancient and modern cultures, forces exist that create conflict between classes of human beings, but, ultimately, when exploitation reaches the breaking point, the people rise up and change their leaders or their political system. The structure of those uprisings is the sum of the contributions the role of the various classes and could never come from or evolve into a single class society.

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