Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Marx Against the “Socialists”

Socialism, especially “democratic socialism,” is all the rage.  It was all the rage in the 1800s.  It was all the rage in the 1900s.  And it is all the rage in the 2000s, especially since 2008.  To paraphrase Aristotle, to speak falsely of something is to speak falsely of it; to speak truthfully of something is to speak truthfully of it.  Socialism has an identifiable genus, a core set of metaphysical assumptions, and a codified system of political-economic thought that stems directly from its metaphysical presuppositions.  Although Plato was right that we live in a dark, i.e. ignorant cave, it always seems that people gravitate to concepts they don’t really know—speaking about the shadows as if the real thing—when looking for something to attach themselves to.

Some people use the term socialist in a negative, deeply negative, way.  Others wear it as a badge of honor.  Most who wear the term socialism as a badge of honor have no idea what they’re talking about.  Especially those who point to the Scandinavian countries as socialist exemplars despite having very market-oriented social economies despite large welfare spending and high taxes that are returned to the taxpayer in the form of public services (from utilities to education).  Moreover, Karl Marx criticized the Gotha Program for being, essentially, liberal.  The Second Marxist International also condemned social democracy, “democrat socialism,” and the welfare economism of Eduard Bernstein (a father of the concept of social democracy) as insufficiently socialist, too accommodating to liberal capitalism, and subversive to the prospects of proletariat revolution.  But who needs such facts in an age when ignorance is the greatest virtue?

Socialism, in the most textbook and accepted definition, is the public (workers’) ownership of the means of economic production.  Not the State.  Not “welfare.”  Not universal healthcare.  Not having “greater equality.”  Socialism is where the individual person directly controls what they will produce, when they will produce, and how much they will produce.  When everyone controls what they will produce, when they will produce, and how much they will produce, all are free.

Metaphysically, socialism derives from the mechanical and materialistic understanding of the world.  Hence why socialism traditionally took on the moniker “scientific socialism” and is exceedingly economical in its outlook concerning life.  Since man is nothing more than matter, all life and all activities of man can be reduced to matter.  And material conflict, at least according to Marx, is what drives History forward.  Additionally, socialism understands nature as egalitarian (thus placing it firmly on the Left political tradition).

Historically speaking, there are multiple flavors of socialism.  We can identify three, but I wish to focus on the two that are relevant to today’s world and understanding of socialism.  The three schools are: Agrarian socialism; industrial (utopian) socialism; and revolutionary socialism.  The latter two is what concerns us.

Industrial and revolutionary socialism share the monistic materialist metaphysic as their foundation.  Above all, to be a socialist means to accept monistic materialism as the fundamental structural reality of the cosmos and of the human being.  To deny this is to fall outside of the socialist tradition.

Like fascism, socialism emerged in the exciting and chaotic intellectual climate of the 19th century.  As such, it was influenced by a series of intellectual movements culminating in the split between these two camps.  Socialism was influenced by the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, though it took Hegelian dialectics and historicism and dropped the idealism in favor of materialism.  Socialism was also influenced by the increasing urbanization and industrialization of society.  One of the core misconceptions about socialism is that it disdains capitalism.  In a perverse sense, socialism is exceedingly pro-capitalist; at least in the sense that the epoch of capitalism is a necessary historical development on the gradual road to socialism and, eventually, communism.  Lastly, socialism was influenced by the “discovery of History” (related to Hegel).

It is about History that industrial socialism and revolutionary socialism diverge.  Industrial socialism was influenced by the progressivist view of History.  “Progressivism,” in its philosophical and historicist foundation—not as a political slogan used today—understood History as a linear development toward a predestined end.  The “Idea of Progress” asserted the march from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from poverty to prosperity, and, most importantly, from slavery to freedom.  Man starts in unfreedom or slavery but becomes free as History marches toward its destination of total freedom and equality.

Industrial socialism understood the march of History in the linear tradition.  We were becoming freer, wealthier, and more peaceful over time.  This would culminate in the industrial, urban, prosperous, and free society as the “end of history.”  Industrial socialism envisions a peaceful transition into a sort of techno-urban utopia.

Here we see the metaphysics of materialism and mechanicalism fully visible.  Industrial socialism understands society, and the world, as essentially a factory.  Moreover, industrial socialism maintains that all class distinctions will be eroded as History advances and society converges to the economic equilibrium which will bring absolute equality to the people.  The process of change, or movement, to this utopian state is not born out of conflict but steady, gradual, linear advancement.  It’s like the construction to completion of the factory.

Revolutionary socialism is another matter entirely.  Marx was influenced by Hegel as many know even they’ve never read Marx or Hegel.  What fewer know is that Marx was influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  And the fundamental insights from Rousseau that Marx inherited were the views that political society, as it exists, was illegitimate, and that man began in a state of (primitive) freedom but had since fallen into slavery.  As Rousseau famously declares in the opening of his Social Contract, “man was born free but is found everywhere in chains.”

Here we need to know what the definition of “revolution” meant in its historical context.  Revolution has become synonymous with progressive, linear, and grand social transformation.  That is not what revolution meant in its historical basis.  Revolution means to revolve.  “To turn back.”  Revolutionary socialism, in orthodox Marxism, is influenced by the cyclical (revolutionary) view of History rather than the progressivist view.  Man starts in freedom.  Man moves into unfreedom (slavery of various sorts).  Man ends in freedom.  The cycle is complete.

According to Marx, History has five distinct stages (six if you include the natural state of pre-history).  Man begins in a non-historical (non-dialectical) state of primitive communism where each control how they will live their lives free from any forced imposition from others to dictate how to live their lives (like Rousseau’s state of nature in his Discourse on Inequality) because there is no sexual division of labor.[1]  History begins with the emergence of property (a form of material control) and the coercion to protect property ownership in the form of the State which is rooted in the sexual division of labor between man and woman.

Marx, properly speaking, is an anti-Statist because Marx views the State not as a liberating force as liberals do but a constrictive force that entrenches hierarchy, division, and inequality.  The first stage of History, then, is Slavery.  The second stage of History is Feudalism.  The third stage of History is capitalism.  The fourth stage of History is socialism.   With the final stage of History, the “end of history,” being communism (which is, essentially, the return to the state of freedom experienced in a crude way during the pre-historical epoch of primitive communism).

In this final stage man enjoys leisure, and therefore happiness, as the result of technological advancement and the eradication of class, economic, and sexual distinctions which are the codifications of economic division.  Here is the main difference between end-stage communism and primitive communism: Man labored, freely and equally, in primitive communism.  But man could not enjoy the fruits of his labor which meant he could not enjoy the fruit of his freedom because he spent most of his time laboring—thus, males began to divide labor between themselves and females which begat the economic dialectic.  In the end of history, with the benefits of technology and the ease of labor that comes with technology, man can enjoy the fruit of his labor and the fruit of his condition of freedom.  He controls, entirely, when he works, how he works, what he produces, and how and when (and how much) he consumes. Furthermore, in this movement of the dialectic, the sexual division between men and women dissipates as the sexes return to an equilibrium of economic choice and action.

However, revolutionary socialism’s main enemy is not so much “capitalism” but the State.  The State, in Marxist theory, always supports the minority class.  In the age of slavery, the State benefits the slaveholders.  In the age of feudalism, the State benefits the aristocrats, the nobles, the manor lords.  In the age of capitalism, the State benefits the capitalist, or bourgeois, class.  Furthermore, the new competition and economic productivity and “opportunities” offered in the capitalist era leads to the petite bourgeoisie to be supporters of the State though the State is not supporters of them (these would be today’s small business owners, entrepreneurs, independent lawyers, and small level craftsmen, etc.)  In the age of socialism, the State has been seized by the working-class, leading to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” where the instruments and force of the State guards the interests of the working-class against the counterrevolutionary movements that have been displaced by the proletariat revolution.  In revolutionary socialism the State is not interested in wealth redistribution because the State is preoccupied defending the interests of the working class from the reactionary capitalists and other displaced former leaders of society seeking—in vain—to recapture their power and privilege.  When this threat subsides the State, no longer serving a purpose, withers away into non-existence as the people begin to redistribute economic goods and productivity.

Socialism, in both its industrial and revolutionary form, are also not really concerned with the redistribution of wealth, per se.  What socialism is truly interested in achieving is the redistribution of the means of economic production.  Until “the people,” or “the worker” controls, without coercion from others (i.e. “bosses”) or the State, the means of economic production and can decide for themselves their hours of work and level of produced goods, they will not yet again be free as they were in the age of primitive communism.

Moreover, socialism rejects the primacy of capital in economic decision making and activity.  Marx declared that capital would cease to have any functionary value in a truly working-class society since all things are produced and consumed without compensation or need for payment.  Hence the rise of “certificates” certifying what one has produced and what, based on his productivity, one can consume.  Marx’s “classless society” is not one in which all receive the same amount of money—capital—for their work.  Marx’s “classless society” is one in which all people control their labor and the fruits to receive from their labor.  If one decides to labor more than another, he will have more certificates to enjoy from a consumeristic standpoint but enjoy less leisure time because of his increased work.  If one decides to labor less, he will have less certificates to enjoy from a consumeristic standpoint but enjoy greater leisure time because of the fewer hours worked.  As Marx wrote:

What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor-time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.[2]

The modern “socialist” idea of an egalitarian society sharing in capital prosperity is not socialism.  It never has been.  It never will.  That idea is called social democracy.  And it was condemned as a variation of liberalism by socialists and Marxists during the Second International (1889-1916).  Most socialists speak falsely of socialism, which means they are not really socialists despite whatever label they wish to—ignorantly—describe themselves as.  Most contemporary people who claim to be socialist are more a mix of industrial socialist progressivism mixed with left-liberalism where capital still reigns supreme as the arbiter of economic activity and well-being. They are, as the Second International condemned them as, social democrats—who are just a variation of the species of liberal.

[1] Cf. The German Ideology. In The German Ideology, never published in Marx’s lifetime, Marx states that the sexual division of labor is the origin of inequality and the beginning of economic competition which led to the class dialectic between male and female which destroyed original equality and eventually mutated and gave way to the five traditional epochs of history associated with Marxian History: Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism.

[2] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, § 1.


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  1. Thank you for this! I never thought in a critical manner about what it means that people call themselves socialists. Again, ignorance of political history is the order of the day and (though I never advocated for socialism) I was no exception in this respect.


    1. I think it annoys us political philosophers the most! 😛

      Politics is so clearly a cause for anti-intellectualism, when all one becomes is, as Aristotle says, the “man of action” (i.e. the modern emotional political activist who lives for nothing else but this). So, in time, this breeds a generation of emotionally-laced activists who haven’t read a darn thing but spout the language of inherited political propaganda. It is always good to go back to the sources, though, to see where people really fall. For all the talk of “socialism,” which the Left indulges in, and the Right too in condemning welfare capitalists as “socialists,” the fact remains — if you’re an authentic socialist in the socialist tradition (which I would not consider myself though being trained in political philosophy know extraordinarily well) — what goes by the name socialism today is still just a variation of tamed social capitalism: social democracy. Which the Marxists long ago condemned as capitalistic, which it, of course, is.

      I deal enough with socialist theory to know a socialist when I meet one or hear one. There are some genuine socialist publications I read. But in the mainstream, can’t say I know an actual socialist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was in a conversation yesterday with someone and it occurred to me that the relation between professor and student is, in some way, reflective of our political situation and therefore they likely both express a larger Zeitgeist. He made the comment that in the past, a professor set the curriculum but now he is beholden to please the students, who are seen as his paying customers. I laughed because if the students were qualified to set their own curricula, then they wouldn’t be students in the first place. Education prepares a student to set his own curriculum. No one is saying a person should have to go through education except as a conditional if he wants to qualify himself to make such decisions. Still, it is ultimately the money, and not necessarily the merit, which does the speaking. A further influence in this direction is the democratic-egalitarian impulse. This struck me as a parallel to the political context. What do you think of this?

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      2. It’s tough to know, given cross cultural and institutional differences. But I would tend to agree; though I’ve been fortunate here in the UK to be studying with Sir Roger Scruton free from the screeds and screams of various students, my experience at my undergrad college and at Yale was more broadly the snow-flake, kumbaya, and leftwing talking points education. I personally do see institutional education as a largely leftwing tool; notwithstanding one can still find and receive a good education. For instance, I was introducing the Symposium to students a few weeks ago and was focusing on the Greek myths, the violence of the gods, and how this is necessary to understand the context and backdrop of Plato’s dialogue. I was able to freely talk and not get in trouble but largely only because of the crop of students I was with (who were all greatly immersed in my 90 minute talk).

        My experience at Yale, a “premier” institution, was this: Most of the “top” and “celebrated” students were woefully ignorant and academically pathetic; they were celebrated because they spoke the big words of contemporary nonsense and were socially and politically active for all the right causes on campus. But if you wanted to have a meaningful, deep, and rigorous conversation with them on an intellectual topic they were far far behind. So yes, I do think there is a zeitgeist of the egalitarian and democratic impulse which has taken over the university much to its detriment. But I’ve also tended to find, though sometimes only in small numbers, students seriously intent on learning and understanding the great books and concepts, and I’ve never not obliged to help them out when they’ve appeared or requested it. I consider part of my writing – not merely here but in my paid professional columns – to do precisely that.

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  2. Given this analysis of the genealogy of socialism, as it were, would you say that you are for or against those left-liberal, industrial socialist progressives? Do you see more more merit in their bastardized socialism, or the socialism postulated by Marx?

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    1. Neither, actually, as I don’t regard myself as any kind of leftist. My main protestations, however, as a philosopher and political philosopher, that these “socialists” are not, in any philosophical or traditional manner, socialist. The Second International’s condemnation of social democracy and even “democratic socialism” had to do with, rightly in my view, seeing what the left-wing of liberalism as promoting was just a form of soft capitalism despite the language of regulation, increased taxes, or better welfare. But given the two as the only two options, I’d fall more in line with Marx or the utopian socialists (Simon and Fourier, et al.). But if we’re going to confront “fake news,” well, that includes a bunch of people claiming to be socialists when they so clearly are not.

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