Is capitalism a means to an end?

Karl Marx (1818 to 1883): thinker for more humanity

Karl Marx would be 200 years old in May. He was the first to comprehensively analyze the system of capitalism. In addition to the economic perspective, he introduced an individual, anthropological perspective and showed that capitalism alienates people.

Painting by the philosopher, economist, social theorist and protagonist of the labor movement around 1920. Photo: picture alliance

The theory of Karl Marx was powerful: the many terms and contents that have determined our thinking and are still decisive: the importance of work, the alienation of people in capitalism, added value, exploitation: some of Marx's ideas have become common property. "The ruling thoughts are always the thoughts of the rulers". The decisive contribution of Marx was that he was the first to comprehensively analyze the system of capitalism. This is an economic analysis. But Marx did not stop there. He introduced an individual, anthropological perspective and showed that capitalism alienates people in various dimensions. These two perspectives have been evaluated differently in the history of the reception of Marx's work to date. The anthropological perspective was completely negated by "dogmatic Marxism / Stalinism".

Work and alienation

The young Marx developed his image of man in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1). Man is the working being, producing himself through his work. The person who becomes objectified through work is faced with a decisive obstacle: alienation. For Marx, alienation means "that man does not experience himself in his appropriation of the world as the author, but that the world (nature, others and himself) remain alien to him". (2). The wage worker, who has to offer and sell his labor as a commodity on the labor market, cannot objectify himself in the product of his labor - capital - because capital is an alien power that rules him.

This alienation of the worker from the product of his labor is the first form of alienation underlying all others. From the fact that the worker cannot look at himself in the product of his labor, it follows that the activity of producing itself also becomes alien to him. Work, the actual human mode of existence, therefore becomes a mere means for maintaining biological existence in the worker. It follows that man is alienated from himself. This in turn results in the ultimate form of alienation, the alienated relationships between people, that is, people are only a means to an end. The abolition of alienation and the appropriation of human nature by man can only be achieved by abolishing wage labor. This requires a socialist revolution and communism. In capitalism, labor activity is inverted into forced, alienated, and senseless labor (2). The transformation of alienated senseless work into productive free labor is Marx’s central orientation, not better wages, nor is his decisive criticism of capitalism the unjust distribution of wealth.

Economic Analysis

Marx wanted to show the development laws of capitalist society with scientific precision - in contrast to the utopian socialists, who morally condemned capitalist society and opposed it with an ideal - and from them to derive the necessity of the origin of a new, socialist social order (3). The constant added value wage labor leads to capital accumulation. The competing profit striving of the capitalists requires a constantly growing industrialization and division of labor. As a result of the increasing share of “constant capital” (material resources) in total capital (variable capital = wage capital), the rate of profit falls. Small and medium-sized enterprises become unable to compete and are absorbed by large enterprises (concentration of capital). The productivity of work increases, the partial work becomes easier and cheaper and there is a growing army of unemployed, which increases the competition among the job seekers. This leads to the impoverishment of the worker. Mass production repeatedly leads to overproduction crises, which are becoming increasingly severe. The contradiction is that with increasing wealth of the society the misery of the masses increases and it comes to crises especially in times when a lot is produced. According to Marx, this is due to the fact that the productive forces developed under industrial capitalism have outgrown the production relations (property relations) of bourgeois capitalist society and have come into opposition to them. The relations of production have increasingly become the fetters of further development. The character of the productive forces is social and to this they owe their size, but the way of appropriating the products is still a private one.

According to Marx, this contradiction is eliminated by the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. The epoch of capitalism was necessary for the enormous increase in the productivity of labor. Only after the capitalist relations of production have become fetters from the developmental conditions of production does the proletarian-socialist revolution have a chance of success and world-historical meaning. Marx conceived human history as the history of class struggles in which two classes are always hostile to one another.

Marx ’life in poverty

Marx was not only a theorist, he was also active as a journalist and politician as a revolutionary. He urged caution in political actions. He was affected by poverty in English exile and had to fight for his existence and that of his family for many years: Had he been a contemporary researcher, he might have had a professorship at a university, a secure income and a good framework for his research. Then his work would look different today, it would not be as incomplete as nephew (4) interprets it. An inconsistency: his friend Friedrich Engels supported him financially, but not in the way he could have afforded it. Poverty and disease consume Marx and his wife Jenny. Four out of seven children died early in childhood in the 1850s.

Polarizing interpretation

Opinions differed and differed on the interpretation of Marx. For some he was and is a god, in the extreme, laws and dogmas were made out of his teachings, for others he was a criminal or the author of crimes. Millions of crimes have been committed in the name of communism and Marxism, but not in the sense of Marx, as Courtois and others have extensively described in retrospect (5). Marx himself spoke out against the dogmatization of his analyzes.

Contrary to other voices, a continuity in the thinking of Marx can be assumed, which leads from his early to the later writings, also to his main work "Das Kapital". Opinions also differ on the question of whether Marx should be seen primarily as a historical figure of the 19th century and whether his messages were also intended for this century and less or not for the 21st century. Some voices claim that with his analysis of the unleashed system of capitalism he predicted the globalized world of our day up to and including the financial crisis, as in the “Communist Manifesto” (6).

Fromm compared Marx and Freud and highlighted Marx as the more important thinker (7). The sociologist Norbert Elias, on the other hand, emphasized Freud and devalued Marx in relation to him.

Marx went down in history as the first major critic of capitalism. Over the past few decades capitalism has eroded the moral and social rules of social coexistence. Many people have materially benefited from the capitalist production of goods and could and can live with it. They are not impoverished, as Marx prophesied. But the capitalist systems threaten human survival, for example with man-made climate change.

With the forms of alienation, Marx also described what kind of dressing the “I” had to experience in late capitalist society in order for it to meet the requirements necessary for the system to function as smoothly as possible: “Being determines consciousness.” But He has also shown that this is not a fixed law of nature, but rather changeable: people are the actors in their history. For Marx, the main goal was the creation of non-alienated relationships and the free activity of all people. In the social formation that follows capitalism, socialism, man should be able to realize his true needs.

According to Marx, a departure from theory and certainties can be established and a replacement by the pragmatic demands of the present. Nephew sees him as the unfinished one that offers a large area for projections. Marx can thus be seen as a philosopher of freedom and a thinker for more humanity who enables a fundamentally different, “better” future. Joachim Koch

Literature on the Internet:

Marx, Karl: Economic-philosophical manuscripts from 1844. In: Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW) Volume 40, 465-588. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag 1985.
Fromm, Erich: The image of man in Marx. Berlin: Ullstein Verlag 1982.
Marx, Karl: Capital. Critique of Political Economy. First volume. In: Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW) Volume 23, 1–956. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag 1975.
Nephew, Jürgen: Marx. The unfinished. Bielefeld: Bertelsmann Verlag 2017.
Courtois, Stéphane, et al .: The Black Book of Communism. Bielefeld: C. Bertelsmann Verlag 1998.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich: Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). In: Marx-Engels study edition Volume III, 59–87. Published by Iring Fetscher. Berlin:
S. Fischer Verlag 1976.
Fromm, Erich: Beyond the illusions. The meaning of Marx and Freud. Reinbek: Rowohlt Verlag 1984.
Steinfeld, Thomas: Lord of the Ghosts. The thoughts of Karl Marx. Berlin: Carl Hanser Verlag 2017.