Karl Marx (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Karl Marx was born in Trier, in the German Rhineland, in
1818. Although his family was Jewish they converted to Christianity so
that his father could pursue his career as a lawyer in the face of
Prussia’s anti-Jewish laws. A precocious schoolchild, Marx studied law
in Bonn and Berlin, and then wrote a PhD thesis in Philosophy,
comparing the views of Democritus and Epicurus. On completion of his
doctorate in 1841 Marx hoped for an academic job, but he had already
fallen in with too radical a group of thinkers and there was no real
prospect. Turning to journalism, Marx rapidly became involved in political
and social issues, and soon found himself having to consider communist
theory. Of his many early writings, four, in particular, stand
out. ‘Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,
Introduction’, and ‘On The Jewish Question’, were
both written in 1843 and published in the Deutsch-Französische
Jahrbücher. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,
written in Paris 1844, and the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ of
1845, remained unpublished in Marx’s lifetime.

The German Ideology, co-written with Engels in 1845, was
also unpublished but this is where we see Marx beginning to develop
his theory of history. The Communist Manifesto is perhaps
Marx’s most widely read work, even if it is not the best guide to his
thought. This was again jointly written with Engels and published with
a great sense of excitement as Marx returned to Germany from exile to
take part in the revolution of 1848. With the failure of the
revolution Marx moved to London where he remained for the rest of his
life. He now concentrated on the study of economics, producing, in
1859, his Contribution to a Critique of Political
. This is largely remembered for its Preface, in which
Marx sketches out what he calls ‘the guiding principles’
of his thought, on which many interpretations of historical
materialism are based. Marx’s main economic work is, of course,
Capital (Volume 1), published in 1867, although Volume 3,
edited by Engels, and published posthumously in 1894, contains much of
interest. Finally, the late pamphlet Critique of the Gotha
(1875) is an important source for Marx’s reflections on
the nature and organisation of communist society.

The works so far mentioned amount only to a small fragment of Marx’s
opus, which will eventually run to around 100 large volumes when his
collected works are completed. However the items selected above form
the most important core from the point of view of Marx’s connection
with philosophy, although other works, such as the 18th
Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
(1852), are often regarded as equally
important in assessing Marx’s analysis of concrete political
events. In what follows, I shall concentrate on those texts and issues
that have been given the greatest attention within the Anglo-American
philosophical literature.

The intellectual climate within which the young Marx worked was
dominated by the influence of Hegel, and the reaction to Hegel by a
group known as the Young Hegelians, who rejected what they regarded as
the conservative implications of Hegel’s work. The most significant of
these thinkers was Ludwig Feuerbach, who attempted to transform
Hegel’s metaphysics, and, thereby, provided a critique of Hegel’s
doctrine of religion and the state. A large portion of the
philosophical content of Marx’s works written in the early 1840s is a
record of his struggle to define his own position in reaction to that
of Hegel and Feuerbach and those of the other Young Hegelians.

2.1 ‘On The Jewish Question’

In this text Marx begins to make clear the distance between himself
and his radical liberal colleagues among the Young Hegelians; in
particular Bruno Bauer. Bauer had recently written against Jewish
emancipation, from an atheist perspective, arguing that the religion
of both Jews and Christians was a barrier to emancipation. In
responding to Bauer, Marx makes one of the most enduring arguments
from his early writings, by means of introducing a distinction between
political emancipation — essentially the grant of liberal rights
and liberties — and human emancipation. Marx’s reply to Bauer is
that political emancipation is perfectly compatible with the continued
existence of religion, as the contemporary example of the United
States demonstrates. However, pushing matters deeper, in an argument
reinvented by innumerable critics of liberalism, Marx argues that not
only is political emancipation insufficient to bring about human
emancipation, it is in some sense also a barrier. Liberal rights and
ideas of justice are premised on the idea that each of us needs
protection from other human beings who are a threat to our liberty and
security. Therefore liberal rights are rights of separation, designed
to protect us from such perceived threats. Freedom on such a view, is
freedom from interference. What this view overlooks is the
possibility — for Marx, the fact — that real freedom is to
be found positively in our relations with other people. It is to be
found in human community, not in isolation. Accordingly, insisting on
a regime of rights encourages us to view each other in ways that
undermine the possibility of the real freedom we may find in human
emancipation. Now we should be clear that Marx does not oppose
political emancipation, for he sees that liberalism is a great
improvement on the systems of feud and religious prejudice and
discrimination which existed in the Germany of his day. Nevertheless,
such politically emancipated liberalism must be transcended on the
route to genuine human emancipation. Unfortunately, Marx never tells
us what human emancipation is, although it is clear that it is closely
related to the idea of non-alienated labour, which we will explore

2.2 ‘Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction’

This work is home to Marx’s notorious remark that religion is the
‘opiate of the people’, a harmful, illusion-generating
painkiller, and it is here that Marx sets out his account of religion
in most detail. Just as importantly Marx here also considers the
question of how revolution might be achieved in Germany, and sets out
the role of the proletariat in bringing about the emancipation of
society as a whole.

With regard to religion, Marx fully accepted Feuerbach’s claim in
opposition to traditional theology that human beings had invented God
in their own image; indeed a view that long pre-dated
Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s distinctive contribution was to argue that
worshipping God diverted human beings from enjoying their own human
powers. While accepting much of Feuerbach’s account Marx’s criticizes
Feuerbach on the grounds that he has failed to understand why people
fall into religious alienation and so is unable to explain how it can
be transcended. Feuerbach’s view appears to be that belief in religion
is purely an intellectual error and can be corrected by
persuasion. Marx’s explanation is that religion is a response to
alienation in material life, and therefore cannot be removed until
human material life is emancipated, at which point religion will
wither away. Precisely what it is about material life that creates
religion is not set out with complete clarity. However, it seems that
at least two aspects of alienation are responsible. One is alienated
labour, which will be explored shortly. A second is the need for human
beings to assert their communal essence. Whether or not we explicitly
recognize it, human beings exist as a community, and what makes human
life possible is our mutual dependence on the vast network of social
and economic relations which engulf us all, even though this is rarely
acknowledged in our day-to-day life. Marx’s view appears to be that we
must, somehow or other, acknowledge our communal existence in our
institutions. At first it is ‘deviously acknowledged’ by
religion, which creates a false idea of a community in which we are
all equal in the eyes of God. After the post-Reformation fragmentation
of religion, where religion is no longer able to play the role even of
a fake community of equals, the state fills this need by offering us
the illusion of a community of citizens, all equal in the eyes of the
law. Interestingly, the political liberal state, which is needed to
manage the politics of religious diversity, takes on the role offered
by religion in earlier times of providing a form of illusory
community. But the state and religion will both be transcended when a
genuine community of social and economic equals is created.

Of course we are owed an answer to the question how such a society
could be created. It is interesting to read Marx here in the light of
his third Thesis on Feuerbach where he criticises an alternative
theory. The crude materialism of Robert Owen and others assumes that
human beings are fully determined by their material circumstances, and
therefore to bring about an emancipated society it is necessary and
sufficient to make the right changes to those material
circumstances. However, how are those circumstances to be changed? By
an enlightened philanthropist like Owen who can miraculously break
through the chain of determination which ties down everyone else?
Marx’s response, in both the Theses and the Critique, is that the
proletariat can break free only by their own self-transforming
action. Indeed if they do not create the revolution for themselves
— in alliance, of course, with the philosopher — they will not be
fit to receive it.

2.3 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts cover a wide
range of topics, including much interesting material on private
property and communism, and on money, as well as developing Marx’s
critique of Hegel. However, the manuscripts are best known for their
account of alienated labour. Here Marx famously depicts the worker
under capitalism as suffering from four types of alienated
labour. First, from the product, which as soon as it is created is
taken away from its producer. Second, in productive activity (work)
which is experienced as a torment. Third, from species-being, for
humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their truly human
powers. Finally, from other human beings, where the relation of
exchange replaces the satisfaction of mutual need. That these
categories overlap in some respects is not a surprise given Marx’s
remarkable methodological ambition in these writings. Essentially he
attempts to apply a Hegelian deduction of categories to economics,
trying to demonstrate that all the categories of bourgeois economics
— wages, rent, exchange, profit, etc. — are ultimately
derived from an analysis of the concept of alienation. Consequently
each category of alienated labour is supposed to be deducible from the
previous one. However, Marx gets no further than deducing categories
of alienated labour from each other. Quite possibly in the course of
writing he came to understand that a different methodology is required
for approaching economic issues. Nevertheless we are left with a very
rich text on the nature of alienated labour. The idea of
non-alienation has to be inferred from the negative, with the
assistance of one short passage at the end of the text ‘On James
Mill’ in which non-alienated labour is briefly described in
terms which emphasise both the immediate producer’s enjoyment of
production as a confirmation of his or her powers, and also the idea
that production is to meet the needs of others, thus confirming for
both parties our human essence as mutual dependence. Both sides of our
species essence are revealed here: our individual human powers and our
membership in the human community.

It is important to understand that for Marx alienation is not merely
a matter of subjective feeling, or confusion. The bridge between
Marx’s early analysis of alienation and his later social theory is the
idea that the alienated individual is ‘a plaything of alien
forces’, albeit alien forces which are themselves a product of
human action. In our daily lives we take decisions that have
unintended consequences, which then combine to create large-scale
social forces which may have an utterly unpredicted, and highly damaging, effect. In Marx’s
view the institutions of capitalism — themselves the
consequences of human behaviour — come back to structure our
future behaviour, determining the possibilities of our action. For
example, for as long as a capitalist intends to stay in business he
must exploit his workers to the legal limit. Whether or not wracked by
guilt the capitalist must act as a ruthless exploiter. Similarly the
worker must take the best job on offer; there is simply no other sane
option. But by doing this we reinforce the very structures that
oppress us. The urge to transcend this condition, and to take
collective control of our destiny — whatever that would mean in
practice — is one of the motivating and sustaining elements of
Marx’s social analysis.

2.4 ‘Theses on Feuerbach’

The Theses on Feuerbach contain one of Marx’s most memorable remarks:
“the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is
to change it” (thesis 11). However the eleven theses as a whole
provide, in the compass of a couple of pages, a remarkable digest of
Marx’s reaction to the philosophy of his day. Several of these have
been touched on already (for example, the discussions of religion in
theses 4, 6 and 7, and revolution in thesis 3) so here I will
concentrate only on the first, most overtly philosophical, thesis.

In the first thesis Marx states his objections to ‘all hitherto
existing’ materialism and idealism. Materialism is complimented
for understanding the physical reality of the world, but is criticised
for ignoring the active role of the human subject in creating the
world we perceive. Idealism, at least as developed by Hegel,
understands the active nature of the human subject, but confines it to
thought or contemplation: the world is created through the categories
we impose upon it. Marx combines the insights of both traditions to
propose a view in which human beings do indeed create — or at
least transform — the world they find themselves in, but this
transformation happens not in thought but through actual material
activity; not through the imposition of sublime concepts but through
the sweat of their brow, with picks and shovels. This historical
version of materialism, which transcends and thus rejects all existing
philosophical thought, is the foundation of Marx’s later theory of
history. As Marx puts it in the 1844 Manuscripts, ‘Industry is
the real historical relationship of nature … to
man’. This thought, derived from reflection on the history of
philosophy, together with his experience of social and economic
realities, as a journalist, sets the agenda for all Marx’s future

Capital Volume 1 begins with an analysis of the idea of
commodity production. A commodity is defined as a useful external
object, produced for exchange on a market. Thus two necessary
conditions for commodity production are the existence of a market, in
which exchange can take place, and a social division of labour, in
which different people produce different products, without which there
would be no motivation for exchange. Marx suggests that commodities
have both use-value — a use, in other words — and an
exchange-value — initially to be understood as their price. Use
value can easily be understood, so Marx says, but he insists that
exchange value is a puzzling phenomenon, and relative exchange values
need to be explained. Why does a quantity of one commodity exchange
for a given quantity of another commodity? His explanation is in terms
of the labour input required to produce the commodity, or rather, the
socially necessary labour, which is labour exerted at the average
level of intensity and productivity for that branch of activity within
the economy. Thus the labour theory of value asserts that the value of
a commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour
time required to produce it. Marx provides a two stage argument for
the labour theory of value. The first stage is to argue that if two
objects can be compared in the sense of being put on either side of an
equals sign, then there must be a ‘third thing of identical
magnitude in both of them’ to which they are both reducible. As
commodities can be exchanged against each other, there must, Marx
argues, be a third thing that they have in common. This then motivates
the second stage, which is a search for the appropriate ‘third
thing’, which is labour in Marx’s view, as the only plausible
common element. Both steps of the argument are, of course, highly

Capitalism is distinctive, Marx argues, in that it involves not
merely the exchange of commodities, but the advancement of capital, in
the form of money, with the purpose of generating profit through the
purchase of commodities and their transformation into other
commodities which can command a higher price, and thus yield a profit.
Marx claims that no previous theorist has been able adequately to
explain how capitalism as a whole can make a profit. Marx’s own
solution relies on the idea of exploitation of the worker. In setting
up conditions of production the capitalist purchases the worker’s
labour power — his ability to labour — for the day. The
cost of this commodity is determined in the same way as the cost of
every other; i.e. in terms of the amount of socially necessary labour
power required to produce it. In this case the value of a day’s
labour power is the value of the commodities necessary to keep the
worker alive for a day. Suppose that such commodities take four hours
to produce. Thus the first four hours of the working day is spent on
producing value equivalent to the value of the wages the worker will be
paid. This is known as necessary labour. Any work the worker does
above this is known as surplus labour, producing surplus value for the
capitalist. Surplus value, according to Marx, is the source of all
profit. In Marx’s analysis labour power is the only commodity which
can produce more value than it is worth, and for this reason it is
known as variable capital. Other commodities simply pass their value
on to the finished commodities, but do not create any extra
value. They are known as constant capital. Profit, then, is the result
of the labour performed by the worker beyond that necessary to create
the value of his or her wages. This is the surplus value theory of

It appears to follow from this analysis that as industry becomes more
mechanised, using more constant capital and less variable capital, the
rate of profit ought to fall. For as a proportion less capital will be
advanced on labour, and only labour can create value. In
Capital Volume 3 Marx does indeed make the prediction that the
rate of profit will fall over time, and this is one of the factors
which leads to the downfall of capitalism. (However, as pointed out by
Marx’s able expositor Paul Sweezy in The Theory of Capitalist
, the analysis is problematic.) A further consequence
of this analysis is a difficulty for the theory that Marx did
recognise, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to meet also in
Capital Volume 3. It follows from the analysis so far that
labour intensive industries ought to have a higher rate of profit than
those which use less labour. Not only is this empirically false, it is
theoretically unacceptable. Accordingly, Marx argued that in real
economic life prices vary in a systematic way from values. Providing
the mathematics to explain this is known as the transformation
problem, and Marx’s own attempt suffers from technical
difficulties. Although there are known techniques for solving this
problem now (albeit with unwelcome side consequences), we should
recall that the labour theory of value was initially motivated as an
intuitively plausible theory of price. But when the connection between
price and value is rendered as indirect as it is in the final theory,
the intuitive motivation of the theory drains away. A further
objection is that Marx’s assertion that only labour can create surplus
value is unsupported by any argument or analysis, and can be argued to
be merely an artifact of the nature of his presentation. Any
commodity can be picked to play a similar role. Consequently with
equal justification one could set out a corn theory of value, arguing
that corn has the unique power of creating more value than it
costs. Formally this would be identical to the labour theory of
value. Nevertheless, the claims that somehow labour is responsible for
the creation of value, and that profit is the consequence of
exploitation, remain intuitively powerful, even if they are difficult
to establish in detail.

However, even if the labour
theory of value is considered discredited, there are elements of his theory that remain of
worth. The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, in An Essay on
Marxian Economics
, picked out two aspects of particular
note. First, Marx’s refusal to accept that capitalism involves a
harmony of interests between worker and capitalist, replacing this
with a class based analysis of the worker’s struggle for better wages
and conditions of work, versus the capitalist’s drive for ever greater
profits. Second, Marx’s denial that there is any long-run tendency to
equilibrium in the market, and his descriptions of mechanisms which
underlie the trade-cycle of boom and bust. Both provide a salutary
corrective to aspects of orthodox economic theory.

Marx did not set out his theory of history in great
detail. Accordingly, it has to be constructed from a variety of texts,
both those where he attempts to apply a theoretical analysis to past
and future historical events, and those of a more purely theoretical
nature. Of the latter, the 1859 Preface to A Critique of Political
has achieved canonical status. However, The German
, co-written with Engels in 1845, is a vital early source
in which Marx first sets out the basics of the outlook of historical
materialism. We shall briefly outline both texts, and then look at the
reconstruction of Marx’s theory of history in the hands of his
philosophically most influential recent exponent, G.A. Cohen, who
builds on the interpretation of the early Russian Marxist

We should, however, be aware that Cohen’s interpretation is not
universally accepted. Cohen provided his reconstruction of Marx partly
because he was frustrated with existing Hegelian-inspired
‘dialectical’ interpretations of Marx, and what he considered to be
the vagueness of the influential works of Louis Althusser, neither of
which, he felt, provided a rigorous account of Marx’s views. However,
some scholars believe that the interpretation that we shall focus on
is faulty precisely for its lack of attention to the dialectic. One
aspect of this criticism is that Cohen’s understanding has a
surprisingly small role for the concept of class struggle, which is
often felt to be central to Marx’s theory of history. Cohen’s
explanation for this is that the 1859 Preface, on which his
interpretation is based, does not give a prominent role to class
struggle, and indeed it is not explicitly mentioned. Yet this
reasoning is problematic for it is possible that Marx did not want to
write in a manner that would engage the concerns of the police censor,
and, indeed, a reader aware of the context may be able to detect an
implicit reference to class struggle through the inclusion of such
phrases as “then begins an era of social revolution,” and
“the ideological forms in which men become conscious of this
conflict and fight it out”. Hence it does not follow that Marx
himself thought that the concept of class struggle was relatively
unimportant. Furthermore, when A Critique of Political
was replaced by Capital, Marx made no attempt to
keep the 1859 Preface in print, and its content is reproduced
just as a very much abridged footnote
in Capital. Nevertheless we shall concentrate here on Cohen’s
interpretation as no other account has been set out with comparable
rigour, precision and detail.

4.1 The German Ideology

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels contrast their new
materialist method with the idealism that had characterised previous
German thought. Accordingly, they take pains to set out the
‘premises of the materialist method’. They start, they
say, from ‘real human beings’, emphasising that human
beings are essentially productive, in that they must produce their
means of subsistence in order to satisfy their material needs. The
satisfaction of needs engenders new needs of both a material and
social kind, and forms of society arise corresponding to the state of
development of human productive forces. Material life determines, or
at least ‘conditions’ social life, and so the primary
direction of social explanation is from material production to social
forms, and thence to forms of consciousness. As the material means of
production develop, ‘modes of co-operation’ or economic
structures rise and fall, and eventually communism will become a real
possibility once the plight of the workers and their awareness of an
alternative motivates them sufficiently to become revolutionaries.

4.2 1859 Preface

In the sketch of The German Ideology, all the key elements
of historical materialism are present, even if the terminology is not
yet that of Marx’s more mature writings. Marx’s statement in 1859
Preface renders much the same view in sharper form. Cohen’s
reconstruction of Marx’s view in the Preface begins from what Cohen
calls the Development Thesis, which is pre-supposed, rather than
explicitly stated in the Preface. This is the thesis that the
productive forces tend to develop, in the sense of becoming more
powerful, over time. This states not that they always do develop, but
that there is a tendency for them to do so. The productive forces are
the means of production, together with productively applicable
knowledge: technology, in other words. The next thesis is the primacy
thesis, which has two aspects. The first states that the nature of the
economic structure is explained by the level of development of the
productive forces, and the second that the nature of the
superstructure — the political and legal institutions of
society— is explained by the nature of the economic
structure. The nature of a society’s ideology, which is to say the
religious, artistic, moral and philosophical beliefs contained within
society, is also explained in terms of its economic structure,
although this receives less emphasis in Cohen’s interpretation. Indeed
many activities may well combine aspects of both the superstructure
and ideology: a religion is constituted by both institutions and a set
of beliefs.

Revolution and epoch change is understood as the consequence of an
economic structure no longer being able to continue to develop the
forces of production. At this point the development of the productive
forces is said to be fettered, and, according to the theory once an
economic structure fetters development it will be revolutionised
— ‘burst asunder’ — and eventually replaced
with an economic structure better suited to preside over the continued
development of the forces of production.

In outline, then, the theory has a pleasing simplicity and power. It
seems plausible that human productive power develops over time, and
plausible too that economic structures exist for as long as they
develop the productive forces, but will be replaced when they are no
longer capable of doing this. Yet severe problems emerge when we
attempt to put more flesh on these bones.

4.3 Functional Explanation

Prior to Cohen’s work, historical materialism had not been regarded
as a coherent view within English-language political philosophy. The
antipathy is well summed up with the closing words of H.B. Acton’s
The Illusion of the Epoch: “Marxism is a philosophical
farrago”. One difficulty taken particularly seriously by Cohen
is an alleged inconsistency between the explanatory primacy of the
forces of production, and certain claims made elsewhere by Marx which
appear to give the economic structure primacy in explaining the
development of the productive forces. For example, in The
Communist Manifesto
Marx states that: ‘The bourgeoisie
cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of
production.’ This appears to give causal and explanatory primacy
to the economic structure — capitalism — which brings
about the development of the forces of production. Cohen accepts that,
on the surface at least, this generates a contradiction. Both the
economic structure and the development of the productive forces seem
to have explanatory priority over each other.

Unsatisfied by such vague resolutions as ‘determination in
the last instance’, or the idea of ‘dialectical’
connections, Cohen self-consciously attempts to apply the standards of
clarity and rigour of analytic philosophy to provide a reconstructed
version of historical materialism.

The key theoretical innovation is to appeal to the notion of
functional explanation (also sometimes called ‘consequence
explanation’). The essential move is cheerfully to admit that
the economic structure does indeed develop the productive forces, but
to add that this, according to the theory, is precisely why we have
capitalism (when we do). That is, if capitalism failed to develop the
productive forces it would disappear. And, indeed, this fits
beautifully with historical materialism. For Marx asserts that when an
economic structure fails to develop the productive forces — when
it ‘fetters’ the productive forces — it will be
revolutionised and the epoch will change. So the idea of
‘fettering’ becomes the counterpart to the theory of
functional explanation. Essentially fettering is what happens when the
economic structure becomes dysfunctional.

Now it is apparent that this renders historical materialism
consistent. Yet there is a question as to whether it is at too high a
price. For we must ask whether functional explanation is a coherent
methodological device. The problem is that we can ask what it is that
makes it the case that an economic structure will only persist for as
long as it develops the productive forces. Jon Elster has pressed this
criticism against Cohen very hard. If we were to argue that there is
an agent guiding history who has the purpose that the productive
forces should be developed as much as possible then it would make
sense that such an agent would intervene in history to carry out this
purpose by selecting the economic structures which do the best
job. However, it is clear that Marx makes no such metaphysical
assumptions. Elster is very critical — sometimes of Marx,
sometimes of Cohen — of the idea of appealing to
‘purposes’ in history without those being the purposes of

Cohen is well aware of this difficulty, but defends the use of
functional explanation by comparing its use in historical materialism
with its use in evolutionary biology. In contemporary biology it is
commonplace to explain the existence of the stripes of a tiger, or the
hollow bones of a bird, by pointing to the function of these
features. Here we have apparent purposes which are not the purposes of
anyone. The obvious counter, however, is that in evolutionary biology
we can provide a causal story to underpin these functional
explanations; a story involving chance variation and survival of the
fittest. Therefore these functional explanations are sustained by a
complex causal feedback loop in which dysfunctional elements tend to
be filtered out in competition with better functioning elements. Cohen
calls such background accounts ‘elaborations’ and he
concedes that functional explanations are in need of elaborations. But
he points out that standard causal explanations are equally in need of
elaborations. We might, for example, be satisfied with the explanation
that the vase broke because it was dropped on the floor, but a great
deal of further information is needed to explain why this explanation
works. Consequently, Cohen claims that we can be justified in offering
a functional explanation even when we are in ignorance of its
elaboration. Indeed, even in biology detailed causal elaborations of
functional explanations have been available only relatively
recently. Prior to Darwin, or arguably Lamark, the only candidate
causal elaboration was to appeal to God’s purposes. Darwin outlined a
very plausible mechanism, but having no genetic theory was not able to
elaborate it into a detailed account. Our knowledge remains incomplete
to this day. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that
birds have hollow bones in order to facilitate flight. Cohen’s point
is that the weight of evidence that organisms are adapted to their
environment would permit even a pre-Darwinian atheist to assert this
functional explanation with justification. Hence one can be justified
in offering a functional explanation even in absence of a candidate
elaboration: if there is sufficient weight of inductive evidence.

At this point the issue, then, divides into a theoretical question
and an empirical one. The empirical question is whether or not there
is evidence that forms of society exist only for as long as they
advance productive power, and are replaced by revolution when they
fail. Here, one must admit, the empirical record is patchy at best,
and there appear to have been long periods of stagnation, even
regression, when dysfunctional economic structures were not

The theoretical issue is whether a plausible elaborating explanation
is available to underpin Marxist functional explanations. Here there
is something of a dilemma. In the first instance it is tempting to try
to mimic the elaboration given in the Darwinian story, and appeal to
chance variations and survival of the fittest. In this case
‘fittest’ would mean ‘most able to preside over the
development of the productive forces’. Chance variation would be
a matter of people trying out new types of economic relations. On this
account new economic structures begin through experiment, but thrive
and persist through their success in developing the productive
forces. However the problem is that such an account would seem to
introduce a larger element of contingency than Marx seeks, for it is
essential to Marx’s thought that one should be able to predict the
eventual arrival of communism. Within Darwinian theory there is no
warrant for long-term predictions, for everything depends on the
contingencies of particular situations. A similar heavy element of
contingency would be inherited by a form of historical materialism
developed by analogy with evolutionary biology. The dilemma, then, is
that the best model for developing the theory makes predictions based
on the theory unsound, yet the whole point of the theory is
predictive. Hence one must either look for an alternative means of
producing elaborating explanation, or give up the predictive ambitions
of the theory.

4.4 Rationality

The driving force of history, in Cohen’s reconstruction of Marx, is
the development of the productive forces, the most important of which
is technology. But what is it that drives such development?
Ultimately, in Cohen’s account, it is human rationality. Human beings
have the ingenuity to apply themselves to develop means to address the
scarcity they find. This on the face of it seems very reasonable. Yet
there are difficulties. As Cohen himself acknowledges, societies do
not always do what would be rational for an individual to
do. Co-ordination problems may stand in our way, and there may be
structural barriers. Furthermore, it is relatively rare for those who
introduce new technologies to be motivated by the need to address
scarcity. Rather, under capitalism, the profit motive is the key. Of
course it might be argued that this is the social form that the
material need to address scarcity takes under capitalism. But still
one may raise the question whether the need to address scarcity always
has the influence that it appears to have taken on in modern
times. For example, a ruling class’s absolute determination to hold on
to power may have led to economically stagnant
societies. Alternatively, it might be thought that a society may put
religion or the protection of traditional ways of life ahead of
economic needs. This goes to the heart of Marx’s theory that man is an
essentially productive being and that the locus of interaction with
the world is industry. As Cohen himself later argued in essays such as
‘Reconsidering Historical Materialism’, the emphasis on production may appear
one-sided, and ignore other powerful elements in human nature. Such a
criticism chimes with a criticism from the previous section; that the
historical record may not, in fact, display the tendency to growth in
the productive forces assumed by the theory.

4.5 Alternative Interpretations

Many defenders of Marx will argue that the problems stated are
problems for Cohen’s interpretation of Marx, rather than for Marx
himself. It is possible to argue, for example, that Marx did not have
a general theory of history, but rather was a social scientist
observing and encouraging the transformation of capitalism into
communism as a singular event. And it is certainly true that when Marx
analyses a particular historical episode, as he does in the 18th
Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
, any idea of fitting events into a
fixed pattern of history seems very far from Marx’s mind. On other
views Marx did have a general theory of history but it is far more
flexible and less determinate than Cohen insists (Miller). And
finally, as noted, there are critics who believe that Cohen’s
interpretation is entirely wrong-headed (Sayers).

The issue of Marx and morality poses a conundrum. On reading Marx’s
works at all periods of his life, there appears to be the strongest
possible distaste towards bourgeois capitalist society, and an
undoubted endorsement of future communist society. Yet the terms of
this antipathy and endorsement are far from clear. Despite
expectations, Marx never says that capitalism is unjust. Neither does
he say that communism would be a just form of society. In fact he
takes pains to distance himself from those who engage in a discourse
of justice, and makes a conscious attempt to exclude direct moral
commentary in his own works. The puzzle is why this should be, given
the weight of indirect moral commentary one finds.

There are, initially, separate questions, concerning Marx’s attitude
to capitalism and to communism. There are also separate questions
concerning his attitude to ideas of justice, and to ideas of morality
more broadly concerned. This, then, generates four questions: (1) Did
Marx think capitalism unjust?; (2) did he think that capitalism could
be morally criticised on other grounds?; (3) did he think that
communism would be just? (4) did he think it could be morally approved
of on other grounds? These are the questions we shall consider in this

The initial argument that Marx must have thought that capitalism is
unjust is based on the observation that Marx argued that all
capitalist profit is ultimately derived from the exploitation of the
worker. Capitalism’s dirty secret is that it is not a realm of harmony
and mutual benefit but a system in which one class systematically
extracts profit from another. How could this fail to be unjust? Yet it
is notable that Marx never concludes this, and in Capital he
goes as far as to say that such exchange is ‘by no means an

Allen Wood has argued that Marx took this approach because his general
theoretical approach excludes any trans-epochal standpoint from which
one can comment on the justice of an economic system. Even though one
can criticize particular behaviour from within an economic structure
as unjust (and theft under capitalism would be an example) it is not
possible to criticise capitalism as a whole. This is a consequence of
Marx’s analysis of the role of ideas of justice from within historical
materialism. That is to say, juridical institutions are part of the
superstructure, and ideas of justice are ideological, and the role of
both the superstructure and ideology, in the functionalist reading of
historical materialism adopted here, is to stabilise the economic
structure. Consequently, to state that something is just under
capitalism is simply a judgement applied to those elements of the
system that will tend to have the effect of advancing
capitalism. According to Marx, in any society the ruling ideas are
those of the ruling class; the core of the theory of ideology.

Ziyad Husami, however, argues that Wood is mistaken, ignoring the
fact that for Marx ideas undergo a double determination in that the
ideas of the non-ruling class may be very different from those of the
ruling class. Of course it is the ideas of the ruling class that
receive attention and implementation, but this does not mean that
other ideas do not exist. Husami goes as far as to argue that members
of the proletariat under capitalism have an account of justice which
matches communism. From this privileged standpoint of the proletariat,
which is also Marx’s standpoint, capitalism is unjust, and so it
follows that Marx thought capitalism unjust.

Plausible though it may sound, Husami’s argument fails to account for
two related points. First, it cannot explain why Marx never described
capitalism as unjust, and second, it does not account for the distance
Marx wanted to place between his own scientific socialism, and that of
the utopian socialists who argued for the injustice of
capitalism. Hence one cannot avoid the conclusion that the
‘official’ view of Marx is that capitalism is not

Nevertheless, this leaves us with a puzzle. Much of Marx’s
description of capitalism — his use of the words
‘embezzlement’, ‘robbery’ and
‘exploitation’ — belie the official
account. Arguably, the only satisfactory way of understanding this
issue is, once more, from G.A. Cohen, who proposes that Marx believed
that capitalism was unjust, but did not believe that he believed it
was unjust (Cohen 1983). In other words, Marx, like so many of us, did not have
perfect knowledge of his own mind. In his explicit reflections on the
justice of capitalism he was able to maintain his official view. But
in less guarded moments his real view slips out, even if never in
explicit language. Such an interpretation is bound to be
controversial, but it makes good sense of the texts.

Whatever one concludes on the question of whether Marx thought
capitalism unjust, it is, nevertheless, obvious that Marx thought that
capitalism was not the best way for human beings to live. Points
made in his early writings remain present throughout his writings, if
no longer connected to an explicit theory of alienation. The worker
finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of
fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans

Does this amount to a moral criticism of capitalism or not? In the
absence of any special reason to argue otherwise, it simply seems
obvious that Marx’s critique is a moral one. Capitalism impedes human

Marx, though, once more refrained from making this explicit; he
seemed to show no interest in locating his criticism of capitalism in
any of the traditions of moral philosophy, or explaining how he was
generating a new tradition. There may have been two reasons for his
caution. The first was that while there were bad things about
capitalism, there is, from a world historical point of view, much good
about it too. For without capitalism, communism would not be
possible. Capitalism is to be transcended, not abolished, and this may
be difficult to convey in the terms of moral philosophy.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to return to the
contrast between scientific and utopian socialism. The utopians
appealed to universal ideas of truth and justice to defend their
proposed schemes, and their theory of transition was based on the idea
that appealing to moral sensibilities would be the best, perhaps only,
way of bringing about the new chosen society. Marx wanted to distance
himself from this tradition of utopian thought, and the key point of
distinction was to argue that the route to understanding the
possibilities of human emancipation lay in the analysis of historical
and social forces, not in morality. Hence, for Marx, any appeal to
morality was theoretically a backward step.

This leads us now to Marx’s assessment of communism. Would communism
be a just society? In considering Marx’s attitude to communism and
justice there are really only two viable possibilities: either he
thought that communism would be a just society or he thought that the
concept of justice would not apply: that communism would transcend

Communism is described by Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha
, as a society in which each person should contribute
according to their ability and receive according to their need. This
certainly sounds like a theory of justice, and could be adopted as
such. However it is possibly truer to Marx’s thought to say that this
is part of an account in which communism transcends justice, as Lukes
has argued.

If we start with the idea that the point of ideas of justice is to
resolve disputes, then a society without disputes would have no need
or place for justice. We can see this by reflecting upon Hume’s idea
of the circumstances of justice. Hume argued that if there was
enormous material abundance — if everyone could have whatever
they wanted without invading another’s share — we would never
have devised rules of justice. And, of course, Marx often suggested
that communism would be a society of such abundance. But Hume also
suggested that justice would not be needed in other circumstances; if
there were complete fellow-feeling between all human beings. Again
there would be no conflict and no need for justice. Of course, one can
argue whether either material abundance or human fellow-feeling to
this degree would be possible, but the point is that both arguments
give a clear sense in which communism transcends justice.

Nevertheless we remain with the question of whether Marx thought that
communism could be commended on other moral grounds. On
a broad understanding, in which morality, or perhaps better to say
ethics, is concerning with the idea of living well, it seems that
communism can be assessed favourably in this light. One compelling
argument is that Marx’s career simply makes no sense unless we can
attribute such a belief to him. But beyond this we can be brief in
that the considerations adduced in section 2 above apply again.
Communism clearly advances human flourishing, in Marx’s view. The only
reason for denying that, in Marx’s vision, it would amount to a good
society is a theoretical antipathy to the word ‘good’. And
here the main point is that, in Marx’s view, communism would not be
brought about by high-minded benefactors of humanity. Quite possibly
his determination to retain this point of difference between himself
and the Utopian socialists led him to disparage the importance of
morality to a degree that goes beyond the call of theoretical

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *