There are many ways to interpret Marx. Many of them legitimate. But many “interpretations” seek to dismiss Marx by invoking anti-communist echo chamber rhetoric. I offer here eight claims that any credible interpretation of Marx or Marxism should consider. This is, of course, not to say that Marx was always correct (who is?). It is to say that he was either correct or made defensible claims more often than people realize. He remains worth heeding. (Regarding his insights, notice that all of the passages below, with the exception of the last one, were written more than 150 years ago.)
1-Marx did not simply dismiss capitalism. He was impressed by it. He argued that it has been the most productive system that the world has seen.
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.
2-Marx accurately predicted that capitalism would foster what is today referred to as globalization. He saw capitalism creating a world market in which countries would become increasingly interdependent.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. Manifesto of the Communist Party
3-Unlike earlier societies, which tended to conserve traditions and ways of life, capitalism thrives on inventing new and alternative ways of producing, which affect how we live. Technologies change our lives at an ever more rapid pace. Old products must make way for new ones (and those who make them). Although capitalists typically portray this an unalloyed good, it can be deeply unsettling, even if particular changes are positive. It can lead people to feel that their values and ways of life no longer have a place in the world. They are living deadwood. Also, employing new technologies and methods of production in the pursuit of profit for the few can lead to unanticipated consequences. (In our own times, no doubt Marx would point to climate change as a consequence unregulated capitalism.)
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. Manifesto of the Communist Party
4-Powerful companies, concentrations of wealth, and new methods of production make it increasingly difficult for independent professionals and middle-class merchants to maintain their status. They end up with the wrong skill set or working for companies that have put their kind out of business. In other words, Marx anticipated the Walmartification of capitalist societies.
The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Manifesto of the Communist Party
5-Marx did not seek the abolition of all property. He did not want the vast majority of people to have fewer material goods. He was not an anti-materialist utopian. He opposed what he often called private property, which referred to the vast amounts of property and concentrated wealth owned by capitalists, the bourgeoisie. As a matter of fact, at the end of the passage below, he and Engels derisively accuse capitalism of depriving people of their “self-earned property.”
The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.
Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Manifesto of the Communist Party
6-Marx thought that human beings have a natural inclination to feel connected to the objects that they have made or created. He called this the objectification of labor, by which he meant that we put something of ourselves into our work. When one cannot connect with one’s own creation, when one feels “external” to it, alienation results. It’s as if you were to sculpt a statue, then someone took it from you, and you were never allowed to see or touch it again. Marx argued that workers were in a comparable position in nineteenth century capitalist factories.
What, then, constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
7-Marx wanted us to be able to break free from the tyranny of the division of labor and long working days, which prevent individuals from developing different kinds of capacities and talents. We become servants to one kind of activity and other dimensions of our personalities are left undeveloped. In an aspirational passage, which he wrote as a young man, he framed his vision this way.
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. Marx, The German Ideology*
8-Marx was not a crude economic determinist. How people think and act matters. In a letter Engels wrote after Marx’s death, he emphasized the importance of economics, but he also tried to make it clear that Marx and he were misinterpreted, and it was partially their own fault. (Notice the pointed dig at Marxists at the end of the passage.)
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too…. “Engels to Bloch, 1890” **
*The German Ideology and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts were not published in Marx’s lifetime. The German Ideology was a Marx and Engels’ co-creation, but the quotation here is from a section that was in all likelihood written by Marx.
** Compare Engels’ remark with Marx’s comment below, as described in the Marx and Engels Archive. For those who assume that Marx always pressed for all or nothing in terms of revolutionary change, Marx’s “reformist” approach here contradicts this view.
Accusing Guesde and Lafargue of “revolutionary phrase-mongering” and of denying the value of reformist struggles, Marx made his famous remark that, if their politics represented Marxism, “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”)