Marxism is an alarming idea for many who firmly believe that capitalism inherently squelches the stagnation and corruption of so-called socialist countries.
Before we get too judgemental, however, we should remember that no one knows just what Marxism really is because Karl Marx is difficult to read, and some say a bit unsystematic.
One can hardly blame Marx for this. To expect him to write like a contemporary policymaker would be foolish. History must be taken (and appreciated) within context. Norms and expectations vary from place to place, from time to time. And to demand that a temporal or geographical “foreigner” should think and write like us is silly and unfair.
Quite a few thinkers have tried to ‘clean up’ Marx’s weighty tomes by providing the clarity or analytical rigor which they say is lacking in his corpus.
We have countless biased interpretations and implementations of those biases.
At the level of theory, Marxism has been adapted to include political and economic phenomena that Marx didn’t adequately address, partly because they were nonexistent when he wrote.
But hold it.
What do we mean by the forces and relations of production?
These terms come from a leading interpretation of Marx’s ideas by G. A. Cohen:
- The relations of production are the social aspects of production in a given society (usually the legal or brute-force methods of exploiting labor, extracting surplus and maintaining dominance of the few over the many).
- The forces of production are the way a society actually produces goods and services. The forces of production are raw materials, tools, technology, and the knowledge of how to organize labor power and use available tools and assets.¹
Some thinkers equate economics with the forces of production but Cohen and others believe that economics belongs to the relations of production.
In both the so-called Third World and the G7, Marx’s analysis doesn’t account for modern forms of corruption. As noted above, we can’t really blame Marx for this. He’s no fool. Marx does mention political corruption as it existed in his day.
The next time some political conservative or religious fundamentalist cries out about the horrors of Marxism, remember that they’re talking about their interpretation of Marx. Not so much about Marx, himself.
And they probably don’t even know it.
¹ For example, a capitalist can own a thousand jackhammers but they are useless if she or he doesn’t know how to hire and organize people with sufficient knowledge about operating and servicing jackhammers.
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