Religion - a Marxist View

Capitalism and Marx

The key thing for me is how Marx applied his philosophy derived from Hegel. As he said, philosophers understand the world – the key thing is to change it. In other words to apply your philosophy to your empirical observation to find a programme for change. In terms of observation Engels contributed a massive amount. His book “ the condition of the English working class” is an in depth observation of the abject squalor that existed in Manchester while surrounded by booming wealth of the capitalist class.

To start with dialectical materialism gives you an understanding that everything is part of a system, a system is part of another system as so on. A system is formed of opposing forces, in contradiction to each other but in equilibrium. However all equilibriums are unstable, so disturbances cause changes until a new equilibrium is established.

When people work they always produce a surplus over their individual needs. If they didn’t do this human society couldn’t exist. If every individual spent every waking hour producing only enough to keep themselves alive then society couldn’t exist. Humans therefore have to organise themselves into some kind of system to distribute this “ social “ surplus. A primitive hunting gathering society may only have enough surplus to maintain the young, but perhaps not enough for the old. But who decides this? Collectively, by evolution of rules, rituals and religion or other ways ?

As society evolved through various systems, class rule developed. This occurs when on group organises society and controls the distribution of the social surplus by taking control of the means by which that society produces everything they need. In a slave society, people are owned by a ruling class, in feudal society the land on which society produces is owned by a class of lords. In capitalism, capital, ie the means to erect factories etc is owned.

Capitalism is massively more productive than any previous system and therefore produces an enormous social surplus. The decisions on how to distribute this lies with the ruling class. How much of this surplus is used on social things and not profit depends on the equilibrium between the classes at a particular time and the needs of the capitalist state.

The class system is a system so it does comprise of forces opposing each other. The working class was the creation of capitalism – its means to produce and make profits. In creating this, they created a force capable of overthrowing and establishing a new equilibrium. In order to prevent this, a great part of the surplus is devoted to a massive state structure. Police, military courts etc also ideology aimed at convincing workers that the capitalist order is not only good but a law of nature. Also another contradiction- capitalism is complex, so it needs an education system for producers to work. That very same education system will also make people aware that they are being exploited.

Also the producing class will always oppose and try and defend against their rulers by one means or another. Sometimes slaves rise up. Sometimes feudal peasants rise up. Workers form unions, opposed and suppressed initially by the ruling class, but now adjusted to and incorporated into the system.

Capitalism is only the latest form of evolution of human society and just as capitalism overthrew feudalism – often violently eg the English Civil War, the French Revolution, it will succumb to its own contradictions be overthrown. Society will then organise itself differently and find a new system to distribute the social surplus – hopefully to benefit everyone and not have the majority of it creamed off into private hands.

Capitalism is different to others in that the system works by constantly revolutionising methods of production in order to defeat their own capitalist competitors. So capitalists have a joint interest in maintaining themselves against workers while at the same time destroying fellow capitalists. When this growth ceases because the world is saturated with capitalism it begins to eat itself. Social surpluses spent on public social products like health, education, prisons, military, utilities etc are taken over by themselves in a frantic attempt to keep up profits. Privatisation of health might produce profits in the short term but does not add to the social surplus. Thus capitalism is already in decline because in western countries it has already started to consume itself.


By rfzo47

Retired History teacher, Union activist, Union officer, Labour.

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