What is class struggle according to Karl Marx

According to Karl Marx, class struggle is the tension in society that exists due to societal antagonisms based on class interests. A class is a group of people who share common economic interests, and participate in collective action designed to advance those interests. Marx states that a class is a group with inherent propensities and interests which differ from those of other groups within society. It is these inherent propensities and interests that are the foundation of a fundamental antagonism between such groups.

Class struggle is the political pressure and economic hostility that is present in society due to the socio-economic antagonism among the societal classes. It is the battle between the two main classes of people, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie have control of capital and the means of production. The proletariat provides the labor that creates the actual value intrinsic to the production process. Marx postulates that throughout history there has been struggle between these two classes. Labor, or the proletariat, sees their best interest in the maximization of their earnings and benefits. Capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, believe their best interest is to maximize gain or profit, while reducing labor costs and overhead. This leads to a contradiction in the capitalist system and a clash of interest between capital and labor, even if individual members of either class do not understand the conflict taking place between them.

Marxist theory is often discussed in extremely abstract and broad fashion, rather than analyzing it through the lens of historical and dialectical materialism.

  • Historical materialism states that human societies and their cultural institutions are the product of collective economic activity. Marxists look for the universal processes and laws that direct nature and society rather than seeing history as the culmination of a series of isolated dates and facts.
  • Dialectical materialism states that political and historical events are the consequences of the conflict of social forces caused by the material needs of the people and can be analyzed as a succession of contradictions and their solutions.

Case and point: The connection between Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx and Joseph Weydemeyer. This relationship was recognized in part in the book: An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln.

During the United States Civil War, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and other European communists opposed the recognition of the confederate states by European powers. Marx welcomed the U.S. Civil War as a great bourgeois-democratic revolution and a step forward for humanity. He organized the European working class to support the victory of the Northern states because he understood that coerced labor was a threat to free labor, paving the way for poor working conditions, slave wages and the eventual destruction of the working class.

Marx and Engels followed the United States Civil War very closely. During the war period, Marx and Engels lived in England, having fled Germany following the failed 1848 democratic revolutions in Europe. In numerous articles and letters on the subject, they urged President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery, understanding that this approach improves the cause of organized labor and accelerate the advance toward the North’s military victory.

Before the civil war began, thousands of German Communists had immigrated to the United States. Many of the German immigrants were fleeing the oppression and turmoil that followed the defeat of the democratic revolutions in Europe. Many of the German Communists became active in the abolitionist movement and advocated for the victory of the North in the U.S. Civil War. Marx and Engels continually corresponded with many of their supporters and adherents in America during the Civil War. Especially notable was their correspondence with Joseph Wedemeyer.

Wedemyer was the first to publish the writings of Marx and Engels in the United States and he fought against slavery as a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. It was Joseph Weydemeyer who coined the phrase Dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a state in which the working class controls the political power, therefore becoming the dominant class.

As early as 1847, Marx vigorously opposing slavery, making the following powerful statement:

Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

Without slavery North America, the roost progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe out North America from the map of the world, and you will have anarchy — the complete decay of modern commerce and civilization. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.

Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of the peoples. Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.

Karl Marx,
The Poverty of Philosophy: A Reply to M. Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty,
New York, International Publishers, n.d., pages 94-5

The ideas of Karl Marx are based on the knowledge that inequality and suffering result from capitalism. Under capitalism, private business and corporations own the means of production. Owners are then free to exploit workers, who are forced to sell their labor for low wages. In essence, this is class struggle according to Karl Marx.

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the european nations, which the glove for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from spain, assumes giant dimensions in englands's anti Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium wars against China. . . .

Karl Marx,
Capital, tr. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling
(Chicago: C. H. Kerr & Co., 1909), Vol. I, p. 823

With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means of capitlistic accumulation. Read, e.g., the native annals of Commerce of the worthy A. Anderson. Here it is trumpeted forth as a triumph of English statecraft that at the peace of Ultrecht, England extored from the Spaniards by Asiento Treaty the privilege of being allowed to ply the Negro trade, until then only carried on between Africa and the English East Indies, between Africa and Spanish America as well. England thereby acquired the right of supplying Spanish America until 1743 with four thougsand eight hundred Negroes yearly. This threw, at the same time, an official cloak over British smuggling. Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. This was its method of primitive accululation. And, even to the present day Liverpool 'respectability' is the Pindar of the slave trade which . . . 'has coincided with that spirit of bold adventure which has characterised the trade of Liverpool and rapidly carried it to its present state of prosperity; has occasioned vast employment for shipping and sailors, and greatly augmented the demand for the manufacturers of the country.' Liverpool employed in the slave trade, in 1730, 15 ships; in 1751, 53; in 1760, 74; in 1770, 96; and in 1792, 132."

Karl Marx,
Capital, Vol I, p.832-33 Marx quotes
the work of Aiken (1795), p.339

"Tantae molis erat, to establish the 'eternal laws of Nature' of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform at one pole the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage-labourers, into 'free labouring poor,' that artificial product of moder society. If money, according to Augier, 'comes int the worl with a congenital blood-stain on one check,' capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."

Karl Marx,
Capital, Vol I, p.833-34



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