The current economic crisis has been able to raise certain important questions about the capability of the capitalist system to guide the international economy towards prosperity. The protests in Europe and America – the most developed of the countries having their economies based on capitalism – have highlighted, along with other factors, the growing gap between the different economic classes.
The gap is really widening and there are more people falling in the poor class. Moreover, the mobility among the classes even in the developed countries of the world seems to be getting very strict, with the wealth accumulating in the hands of the few. Most consider the current crisis as temporary and think that with certain amendments the things are going to get normal, which seem favorable as well. But on the other hand there are some others who believe that these are the signs of downfall of capitalism.
Whenever, there are discussions about the current economic crisis and the downfall of capitalism it is necessary to discuss "Marx". Marx has been one of the most dominant of political philosophers and has had great impact on the modern political and economic history.
It is really not possible to avoid his concepts while discussing the current economic scenario; especially while discussing the class conflict or even class warfare. But before discussing that whether the theories of Marx can stand true in the interpretation of current scenario or not, it is necessary to have basic understanding of his concept.
For Marx an individual does not seem to have much significance except as an instrument of production but production is a collective act. This collective body is the economic class to which a man belongs and which moulds his thought and behavior. It is the class and not the individual which is the basic unit in Marxism which accounts for social evolution.
The materialist interpretation of history, on a dialectic basis, assumes a confrontation of opposites. Social evolution, therefore, must depend on social classes confronting each other in a class struggle. If economic interpretation represents the story of social evolution, class struggle represents its mechanism. Social movements are class movements.
To Mars, the class represents a very important entity. It has a collective unity for its own and its characteristic beliefs, notions and heritage. The individual has importance principally because of membership of his class. He imbibes the traditions and notions of his class by environment and education. It is the class which determines for the individual the pattern of his social environment and the manner in which he will deal with that environment. Economic relationship between men gets crystallized into economic classes which become thesis and antithesis in dialectic evolution of mankind.
The powers of the economically powerful class are transmuted into social rights and are translated into legal political systems. According to English, the state originated when class differentiations could no longer be handled by the primitive self government of the trial society and made necessary a power apparently standing above society in order to moderate the conflict.
There has been, Marx holds, class struggle since the breakup of the trial community organization. In fact, humanity has evolved to higher stages of development through class conflicts. Each system of production has given rise to two principal but mutually hostile classes; the owners and the toilers. In every society, the class which is able to control the means of production and distribution will govern that society.
By economic necessity, it will have to govern oppressively and to exploit other classes. The exploited classes cannot survive unless they resist this oppression and exploitation. Throughout human history, there has been class struggle between the exploiters and the exploited i.e. slaves against freemen, plebeians against patrician, serfs against barons, journeymen against guildsmen and proletariat against the capitalists.
The ruling class appropriates a disproportionate share of the social product and makes the legal, political and social institutions serve its class interests. It wants to preserve the existing order. The exploited class wants to change these institutions and develops a revolutionary outlook.
Nevertheless, the conflict between the ruling and exploited classes, the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat differs from all previous class conflicts because it is the final conflict. The inevitable victory of the proletariat will make the society classless where there can be no class conflict. It is the revolutionary conflict between classes which changes ownership relations and establishes new interest, new divisions of labor and, therefore, new classes.
It is the productive forces at the disposal of man which determine all his social relations. These relations give rise to definite interests which find expression in law. Every law protects a definite interest. The development of productive forces divides society into classes whose interests are not only different but antagonistic. In contemporary society, the struggle of the revolutionary working class, the proletariat, is causing the transition from one form of society to another i.e. from capitalism to communism.
Though not the first to discover the phenomenon of class struggle, Marx gave an exhaustive basis to class divisions and class struggles. Marx tried to prove that (1) the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) class struggle necessarily leads to dictatorship of the proletariat, and (3) this dictatorship is only transitory, leading ultimately to abolition of all classes and establishment of a classless society.
Marx believes that struggle in the modern period is simpler than earlier class struggles. This is because of greater polarization today compared to earlier times. The society, today, is getting split up into two great hostile camps of classes facing each other i.e. the capitalists and the proletariat.
The other non-capitalist classes like the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan and the peasant are conservative classes compared to the proletariat which is the only revolutionary class. They are getting more and more absorbed in the proletariat. The basis of division of classes of Marx is economic. A group of individuals become a class when they develop on attitude of conflict with other classes.
One of the greatest contributions of Marx has been his conception of the evolution of social classes and of the social struggle to which he gave precise form and importance - "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." The economically dominant classes have been keeping down and exploiting the other classes. Marx believed that at first the landed aristocrats were in possession of political power but later on they had to yield to the bourgeoisie i.e. the middle class people who remained in power for many centuries.
Marx saw the further development of this evolution growth in the direction of the domination of the proletariat. Out of feudalism came the capitalist bourgeoisie and out of the later arose the proletariat. The capitalists are creating, organizing and disciplining the proletariat and will be destroyed by the later.
The expropriators will be expropriated. "Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisies today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product." According to Marx, class struggle results in social change and progress.
This progress will culminate in the dictatorship of the proletariat which represents the highest social principle of progress and national ordering of society. After the dictatorship of the proletariat has been realized, the dynamics of class war would be followed by a classless society.
The Manifesto of Marx and Engels is not only a philosophy of victory but also a program of revolutionary action for the proletariat. In its second part, the Manifesto lays down that 'the first step in the revolution of the working class is the rise of the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.'
This would be done by democratic evolutionary political action. After this the proletariat will appropriate all capital and instruments of production. The program of action will include abolition of property in land and of the right of inheritance, nationalization of credit, of means of communication and transport, of factories and instruments of production etc. the program of action, thus, will be both evolutionary and revolutionary. It is evolutionary in its earlier stages of political action. It is revolutionary because it permits use of violence and armed revolutionary action and allows class war waged by the proletariat against the capitalists.
Marx was the first to interpret history in terms of class interests, attitudes and struggle but he has no warrant for asserting that these classes have always been economic classes. While reviewing the history of classes in earlier periods of human history, Marx concedes manifold gradations of social rank but coming to the modern period, he rigidly classifies men into two hostile classes i.e. capitalist and workers. This is not borne out by facts. Many workers are shareholders in industry and partake and profit; whereas a proletariat is defined as one whose means of livelihood depends entirely on the sale of his labor. Marx talks of class interests and class solidarity among the capitalists and the workers.
There cannot be much solidarity among capitalists including landlords and industrialists with divergent agricultural and industrial interests. Then again, the interests of capitalists, in one country may clash with those of the capitalists in another country. The same may hold true of workers of the two countries. In short, the Marxian class united by tradition, interest and political views and having the character and solidarity of a corporate personality, is a mere abstraction.
No doubt there are elements of truth in Marxian theory of class struggle but the theory does not properly stand in accordance to the facts of human history. Human development is as much a result of social cooperation as that of class struggle. The Marxian view that class struggle would result in the downfall of capitalism and supremacy of the proletariat is not based on any logical or scientific ground. There may be other alternatives to capitalism than communism.
The current economic crises differ from the Marx's interpretations of downfall of capitalism in certain important ways. First, the current economic crisis does not have its roots in class conflict alone. Moreover, the classes present in today's capitalist societies are not as rigidly defined as described by Marx. There are many social and economic classes in today's world and it is not easy to bifurcate society in two opposite classes that may be in clash with each other. No doubt there have been slogans in the recent protests in US suggesting that the clash between the rich and poor are getting wider, but the classes in discussion do not qualify to satisfy the criteria for being called as "Proletariat" and "Capitalist".
In fact, another important difference is in the expected outcome of the crisis and the protests that are going on. They, in no way, are going to result in downfall of capitalism – at least not in near future. Even the protesting people do not suggest that they are in the favor of any revolution that may result in the downfall of capitalism; they are more inclined towards reforms which they expect to get as a result of their demonstrations.
Yes, they seem to be realizing that accumulation of wealth in fewer hands is creating problems and making life difficult for most of the people, but they don't think that a proletariat revolution would solve the problem. Even many among the ruling elite think in a similar way. They believe that the slowing mobility within the economic classes is causing trouble and frustration and that can be managed through certain important measures. They, in a way, are against their class and in the favor of protests suggesting for amendments in the system.
Undoubtedly, the widening gulf between the rich and poor in such a way that makes one receiving all the benefits and the other being deprived of even basic needs is really a great problem and may give rise to frustration. However, the solution is not possible through proletariat revolution – at least not in near future. On the other hand it must not be forgotten that the capitalist system has to manage a certain level of economic stability for all the people, which is also their right; and they have the right to ask for them through protests and demonstrations.