Karl Marx (1818-1883)
OK let’s be clear: I trained as an historian. I know some 20th century history. I know how many people Mao (40+ million) and Stalin (30+ million) killed in the name of Marx. (Cf. Hitler 34 million) So I am no apologist for Communism or Marxism or unsympathetic to the people of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, North Korea who have suffered under the experiment of putting Marx into practice.
But I still want to ask if there is anything of value in his thinking that may help us with handling conflict. Indeed I hear Bond Traders in London and New York are reading Marx to better understand the economic crisis!
Something, apart from the pseudo-science, the historical determinism or other short cuts in our thinking, that would help in our understanding of complex realities?
- Society is Conflictual. Marx saw all advanced capitalist societies in conflictual terms, while imagining the possibility of a future society in which conflict had been transcended. Like Hegel, he was heavily focused on the historical development of societies. From our point of view, what is interesting are the links that he made between economic and intellectual life, which transformed the study of sociology and history. Of course, he had profound political impacts and many would see these extremely negatively as I note above. Nevertheless, there are some lessons in his approach that are extremely useful to our thinking about conflict, without embracing his teleology or his politics.
- History Plays Out via Conflict. Hegel devised an approach to history and linked it to the development of Mind on a dialectical basis: that is a development that worked through conflict and ended with overcoming of conflict. Marx built on this thinking, using Feuerbach’s insights that religion located man’s essence outside himself and that man had to relocate his essence at the center of the world. Marx was focusing on man’s existence in the world and in particular on his material being.
- The Economic Basis of History. To Marx it was not matters philosophical or religious that were the barrier to human freedom, but money. Modern society was the scene of human alienation and the promise of its overcoming. Freedom would be achieved when humanity can express itself through creative labor without an oppressive and expropriative social system. Alienation was above all a form of delusion about the world whose cure was a correct interpretation of reality. Marx was skeptical of contemporary human rationality, but thought that people would become more rational given a different society. Conflict would vary in society depending on how much contradiction and tension there was between existing productive relations and the society. Capitalism would develop the economy in such a way that the conflict between it and the society it supported would grow to breaking point.
- Up the Workers! Marx developed an analysis that saw the working class as playing the decisive role in overcoming this alienation and these contradictions. They would overcome not only their own alienation, but everyone else’s. This would actualize the real potential of humanity. Marx took Hegel’s dialectic and used it to identify the seeds of dissolution in contemporary society. Among his key insights were that economics is the chief form of human alienation and that the material force needed to liberate humanity from this alienation, and domination by money, is the working class. He read the English classical economists (including Adam Smith) extensively and in many ways his labor theory of value is of its time and of limited analytical value today.
- History is Class Struggle. From Marx’s point of view the conflicts of existing and previous societies were one long history of class struggle and so for Marx: ‘Communism is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between the existence and essence, objectification and self affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’
- Clear Insights into the Nature of Modern Capitalism. There is a modern Russian joke: ‘Marx lied about communism, but told the truth about capitalism’. Where your society has, as it has in the case of recent Russian history, seen a ten year drop in male life expectancy during the transition from communism to capitalism, there may be some grounds for such dark humor. We are not going to find the answer to societal conflict in communism or its approach. The experiment of forcible transition to communism has clearly historically failed, so we must seek elsewhere in Marx’s thought to see if any of his other insights can help us in a more limited way.
- The Point of Theories is to put them into Practice. His pragmatic approach, as encapsulated in this aphorism, is a starting point: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, is to change it’ That is a worthy aim for conflict theories. The profound conflicts over territory, religion, environment, and between socially dominant and subordinate groups or classes, do need some sort of much improved conflict methodology, but there also need to be some profound changes in the reality, in the distribution of resources and in the way the global economy impacts all levels of society. Marx’s insight is really powerful if it directs our attention to these aspects of the world.
- The Impact of Material Self Interest on How We See the World. Marx is also suggesting that consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness. How we frame conflict situations is very much based on our material self interest, where we are in the production system and whether we are in a dominant or subordinate social grouping. Marx shattered the assumption that our intellectual and religious lives were independent of economics. His insight into the economic basis of so much of our rationality is still true today. As Upton Sinclair said and as explains much of today’s Financial Services sector and the sub-prime mess: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand anything if his salary depends on not understanding it.’
- We Can Control Economic Forces. Marx at his best is trying to teach us that the economic forces of our world are not something that we should take as given, as something over and above us, alienating us from each other and from the products of our work, but something we can collectively politically impact if we choose. As we wrestle with the inevitable conflicts and dilemmas of the global economy, we need to bear this in mind. No conflict model or theory can simply impose itself on the world. The extent to which we can take any model on board may be determined by our material interests and our view of the world may be significantly shaped by this. For an approach to conflict to be successful, it has to find a way to help us look beyond the current surface of reality and see what is happening at deeper structural levels in society. The idea that we should only look after our own interests, is itself a social construct that may need to be challenged. Ultimately our approach has to be reflective: the users of the approach begin to use it to find out their real underlying interests and one of their underlying interests is to be able to get real about the way the world is and avoid what might be called conflict surprises: wars, terrorism, economic crashes, and environmental catastrophes. They may need to get real about collective interests, rather than simply individual interests.
- Economics determines society and society determines economics. There has been considerable debate about whether Marx was a strict economic determinist and this has always surprised me. The word dialectic according to the Oxford English Dictionary means among other things: ‘Pertaining to discourse or discussion; the art of critical examination into the truth of an opinion; the existence of opposing forces, tendencies etc.,’ For me this has always carried the implication of dialogue; so it has always seemed clear that a dialectical relationship means a two way influence. The material conditions or relations of production help determine our thinking, but our thinking in turn determines our material conditions or relations of production. Who would doubt that the shift in economic thinking in the 1980s led to major changes in the world economy through de-regulation and reduced trade barriers; or that in turn the changes in the world economy have changed our economic thinking towards greater faith in markets? Why obsess as to which is dominant? They interact and this mutual interaction is for me the key to such thinking: how do we make the dialogue or dialectical interaction between some of the contradictory forces of religion, class, territory, environment work in a way that preserves us; that prevents us destroying each other. That is the context for the Conflict Model and Marx is an influence on it.
In summary, thinking about Marx and about the current state of the global economic system, we can echo what the Chinese Prime Minister Cho En Lai, who famously said of the French Revolution in 1972, and say of globalization: ‘It is too early to say’ We can ask this of the extreme individualist, de-regulated global economy, that has really only been around for about 20 years: is it sustainable? As Marx predicted, and as in some ways its greatest fan, capitalism has achieved huge strides in human wealth and has utterly transformed societies globally to a point where the starting point for any change is radically different from Marx’s time. But it is also too early to say if we have the right balance between individual and collective interests, or whether we need to create new institutions, or use different strategies to address issues such as environmental and climate problems, territorial clashes, religious wars and the shifts in economic power and manufacturing. And what of the new hybrid State Capitalism that is driving China to new positions of world power?
And to learn something from Marx, when we try to get real in a conflict situation, it is vital we recognize the distorting filters or lenses of economic and other self interest and correct for them as much as possible. But his view of human nature seems in retrospect to be way too optimistic. It is not as malleable as he thought, self interest is strong and new interests and desires emerge all the time, sometimes created by the market economy. The drive for social dominance by elites seems ever present in all the developed societies we can study. No society has succeeded in abolishing the ruler/ruled distinction or avoided special privileges for the rulers. So bringing harmony and resolving conflict is unlikely to be achieved without coercion, and coercion was not Marx’s way to end human alienation.
Now that Communism is so discredited, we are at risk of losing sight of everything of value that Marx had to say. His most interesting work is in the field of class conflict. But even more important than that, are his use of the Hegelian dialectic and its application to the forces that drive historical change. The concept that history proceeds from Thesis to Antithesis to Synthesis. Marx tied this powerfully to changes in the economic basis of society and this is a very powerful tool for use in conflict work and in dilemma analysis. It shows powerfully how self interests can distort our take on reality, so that our model suggests that, as we get clear on our self interests we check very thoroughly to ensure that they have not given us self-serving delusions about the situation facing us. This is not to say that Marx’s forecasts for the future were accurate; merely that he provides some useful tools for reconfiguring how we think about it.
Footnote: Someone once said I was either trained by Jesuits or Marxists, and indeed once upon a time I did read five of Marx’s books and have read at least five rigorous critiques of his work, starting with Karl Popper, and a few more sympathetic commentaries, though I cannot really find a reputable current advocate. Peter Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction is an adequate brief account. But I am a million miles from the approach of Jesuits or Marxists and hate elites of any form deciding our destiny. I was trained by reading these folk very critically, by contesting them 🙂