Plum Asked:

Did Marx think that the Polynesians living on islands in the Pacific were part of history?

Why was Marx convinced that capitalism would fail? Why did Marxism fail instead?

Answer by Paul Fagan

When answering questions concerning Karl Marx it should be borne in mind that although many persons and publications may purport to expound his viewpoints, Marx’s actual thought on many situations may remain unknown. It may therefore be necessary to carefully extrapolate some of Marx’s definite opinions. And this is how I would attempt to answer your questions.

Polynesians would almost certainly be part of any historical process but their society, in Marx’s time, would not be considered by him to be at the same stage of development as the industrialised societies; which had reached a stage of ghastly capitalism that should be replaced.

With regard to Karl Marx’s conviction that capitalism would fail, Marx witnessed the means of production being privately owned but operated by employees. This inherent clash of interests in the arrangement would cause the status quo to be overthrown: a class of persons owning the means of production and protecting their interests would be pitted against an increasingly organised working class also protecting their interests; and this would inevitably result in workers revolting and taking power. After this, the aim of the workers would be to collectivise and control production; and such cooperation would eventually lead to a state of shared material abundance where work became desirable and not a necessity to survive. In the end, society would distribute resources by the maxim ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’

Two underlying causes of dissatisfaction may be expected to fuel the above process, namely exploitation and alienation. Exploitation may be identified when workers have been paid for less than the value of their work; which may be found to be irksome depending upon how much value they fail to gain. And alienation is manifested when, in order to earn a living, persons work in roles, or produce goods, that are of little use or interest to them. (The major events in Marx’s life that helped to forge his viewpoints are detailed, in a very readable manner, in Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx).

Now it should be noted that during the industrial revolution other commentators had their misgivings over society’s progression: Marx was not alone. For instance, Robert Owen felt that society must change course in order to maintain stability and suggested a communitarian way of avoiding capitalism’s pitfalls; whereby persons would live in communities owning the means of production to avoid exploitation and alienation.

With regards to the failure of Marxism, capitalism has proved to be malleable and tenacious; (Alan Ryan gave a view of Marx’s oversights in Property and Political Theory). For instance, persons are prepared to suffer alienation provided that it gives the material comforts of the modern world. Also, he noted that work is not purely an exploitative process: the amount of opportunities to socialise, offered by the workplace are numerous.

However, it should be noted that there are many who feel that Marxism has not failed. For instance, many political theorists feel that Marx has successfully provided the tools whereby modern capitalism may be criticised and its purported success gauged: tools such as historical materialism and class-based analyses. Furthermore, for many, Marxism has not yet been tried: not in the form that Marx prescribed. Certainly, the recent ‘credit crunch’ and subsequent recession has caused many to rethink their political viewpoints and seek other ideologies. Hence, some may await the time when the conditions are right, for Marxism to enjoy a resurgence in popularity.