In this essay, I present a wide range of political ideas and arguments to demonstrate the reasons why Marx and Engels argued that class antagonisms cannot be eliminated through political reforms (Marx and Engels, 2008). The political ideas presented in this essay are aligned with interpretations and conceptualization of modern political philosophy by different authors. The main focus of the essay is on the political thoughts of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, especially as presented in the book “The Communist Manifesto”. Through this essay, new interpretations of both social and political philosophy will be made possible. The essay begins with an overview of Marxism followed by a critical interpretation of the argument that political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonisms.
Marxism is a theoretical framework that seeks to interpret social conflict in the context of underlying political forces within the society (Doveton, 1994). It seeks to explain the social and political factors that promote and sustain class distinctions, divisions and conflicts within the society (Hobsbawm, 2011). Notably, capitalism is the central argument of Marxism. It is argued to have the most significant influence on class divisions (Doveton, 1994). Hampsher-Monk (1992) indicates that Marxism is applied in analyzing societal conflicts and associated class relations. It is also useful in understanding transformation within the society. Marxism is traced back to mid to late 19th Century (Hobsbawm, 2011). It was postulated in the works and philosophical views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The two philosophers sought to understand class struggles within the society and how they are influenced by developments in capitalism or private ownership (Hampsher-Monk, 1992). In the following sections, I present a critique and justification of the argument that class antagonisms cannot be eliminated through political reforms, as suggested by Marx and Engels.
Marx and Engels (2008) argue that class antagonisms cannot be eradicated through political reform mainly because these antagonisms are integrated into the basic structural components of the society. The authors specifically argue that as long as wage laborers have “no means of production of their own,” class antagonism will continue to be experienced (p. 79). According to Edwards and Townshend (2002) Marx and Engels aimed at illustrating that means of production leads to the establishment of class boundaries. Hobsbawm (2011) explains that since production is an integral part of society, it will be impossible to eliminate the resultant class antagonisms. Notably, it is the imbalance in the means of production between the bourgeoisie and wage laborers that sustains class antagonism (McLellan, 1999). Marx and Engels (2008) assert that the bourgeoisie have the power to exploit wage laborers. Therefore, class antagonism will be experienced as long as the bourgeoisie have power over the poor. However, Hamilton (2001) argues that change in the economic structures of the society will contribute positively towards the elimination of class antagonisms. This argument is associated similar philosophical viewpoints which demonstrate that economic structures give the bourgeoisie the power to exploit wage laborers (Miliband, 2011).
According to Marx and Engels (2008), political reforms should be designed and implemented with a view of improving the living standards of wage laborers or the exploited class. However, political reforms do not change the fact that wage laborers are powerless and subject to the economic exploitation of the bourgeoisie. It is therefore reasonable to argue that political reforms do not play the role of eliminating the class divisions existing within the society. Marx maintained that conservative socialists, who advocate for political reforms, are generally misguided (Doveton, 1994). Edwards and Townshend (2002) explain that conservative socialists do not appreciate the fact that class struggle is a fundamental part of history, which cannot be altered. On the basis of these arguments, it is notable that class struggles are inevitable and unavoidable. However, the argument that class struggles cannot be eliminated is limited to capitalism. For instance, Marx and Engels (2008) argue that it is the capitalist system that hinders the mitigation of class antagonisms. This argument leads to the question of whether or not political reforms that do not perpetuate capitalist interests contribute to the elimination of class antagonism.
Marx and Engels (2008) present a valid argument when they postulate that class antagonism will not be eliminated by political reforms. This is because they foresee and present a solution that will eliminate class antagonism, which is not related to changes in political policy. In doing so, the philosophers argue that class antagonism will lead to the overthrowing of the class system. Boucher and Kelly (2003) explain that as class struggle continues, the oppressed will turn against the bourgeoisie. This explanation makes sense as it is informed by historical uprisings by the oppressed proletariats against the bourgeoisie. According to Marx and Engels (2008), it is such uprisings that will eliminate class antagonism as they contribute to the establishment of a classless society. Therefore, political reforms are argued to be ineffective in eliminating class antagonism because they perpetuate the interests of the bourgeoisie instead of supporting the establishment of a classless society.
Regardless of political reforms, the society continues to divide into “two great hostile camps” (Marx and Engels, 2008, p. 80). This illustration indicates that political reforms are not effective solutions to the antagonism occurring between the bourgeoisie and the oppressed proletariats, as argued by Hampsher-Monk (1992). An in-depth look at Marxism reveals that class struggle has a long history. This struggle has common characteristics, such as the uprising of misrepresented classes against oppressors (Edwards and Townshend, 2002). Regardless of the historical revolutions advocating for proper representation of proletariats in political and economic policies, social oppression and associated class antagonism continue to worsen (McLellan, 1999). This reveals that the oppressed cannot rely on political reforms in their attempt to overcome social and economic inequality. Furthermore, Marx and Engels (2008) indicate that the establishment of the modern market and industry has led to the sinking of some members of the middle class to become proletariats. This means that the proletariat class is expanding, leading to the worsening of class antagonism. McLellan (1999) explains that the members of the middle class sink into the proletariat class when their capital is not sufficient enough to meet the demands of the modern market and industry.
According to Boucher and Kelly (2003), the bourgeoisie manipulate political reform to revolutionize instruments and methods of production. Therefore, the constant change in political reform is designed to meet the interests of the bourgeoisie of surviving within the changing market of the modern industry, as argued by Hamilton (2001). As political reforms, including policies on production and ownership, are manipulated by the bourgeoisie, the interests of the oppressed are more and more misrepresented. This contributes to the worsening of social struggles and class antagonisms (Doveton, 1994). Marx and Engels (2008) argue that the “one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” of national reforms on methods of production and ownership continues to worsen class antagonism. From the Marxism point of view, production in the modern market and industry will overwhelm the bourgeoisie, as demonstrated by Cowling (1998). Hobsbawm (2011) explains that when the industrial society will be overwhelmed by production, proletariats will have an opportunity of revolting against their oppressors. This will result in the devastation of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the political reforms that favor oppressors are less likely to save them from the revolt of oppressed proletariats.
Marx and Engels (2008) point out that “as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases” (p. 87). This assertion is based on the realization that political reform on wage labor does not create property for oppressed proletariats. Instead, political reforms create capital, which leads to exploitation of wage labor (Edwards and Townshend, 2002). For this reason, political reform plays the role of worsening class antagonisms, which emanate from unfavorable wages, regardless of increase in work. Hampsher-Monk (1992) provides a clear illustration of class antagonism in the society by demonstrating that it is as a result of conflict between wage labor and capital and the political policies which sustain social conflict. Edwards and Townshend (2002) reveal that Marx believed that capital is beneficial only to the bourgeoisie. Avineri (1968) explains that Marx’s philosophical views on capital and wage are accurate as depicted by the fact that property ownership disproportionately favors the bourgeoisie. This is regardless of the fact that it is the oppressed proletariats that perform most work.
Marx and Engels (2008) present a wide range of solutions for the elimination of class antagonism; none of which are related to the political reforms of the communists. The goal of the solutions they provide is to demonstrate that oppressed proletariats need to take actions that will lead to a classless society instead of relying for political reforms. McLellan 1999) conducted a critical review of the political philosophy of Marx and Engels to indicate that class antagonism will be eliminated when proletariats will assume political power. Hampsher-Monk (1992) illustrates that in a classless society, the instruments of production are bestowed upon the state and not private owners or the bourgeoisie. Doveton (1994) explains that when the instruments of production are no longer in the hands of the bourgeoisie, exploitation of members of the lower class will be mitigated, leading to elimination of class antagonisms. Marx and Engels (2008) specifically postulated that class antagonism will be eliminated through fairness of wage. Therefore, class antagonism will be eliminated by the actions of the oppressed proletariats and not the political reforms of communists.
The philosophy of the state of nature by Thomas Hobbes can also be used to understand the Marxist view that political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonism. In accordance to Hobbes’ philosophy, all people need the same thing but are unable to get it due to scarcity (Warrender, 2000). For this reason, men become aggressively competitive against each other (Hobsbawm, 2011). According to Hampsher-Monk (1992), competition in the society is synonymous to the Marxist’s class antagonism. Notably, the bourgeoisie and proletariats are in constant competition for factors of production and ownership of property (Eagleton, 2002). However, unfair competition for scarce resources makes it impossible for proletariats to access them. Hamilton (2001) argues that the ability of the bourgeoisie to compete favorably against proletariats for political power contributes significantly to the resultant class antagonisms. From the perspective of Hobbes’s philosophy, it is argued that political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonism since it is the state of nature that man will compete for scarce resources (Sommerville, 1992). Boucher and Kelly (2003) explain that as long as competition for factors of production continues, class antagonism will exist within the society.
Hobbes also argued that men are evil by nature (Warrender, 2000). As a result, they cannot coexist or live peacefully. In this sense, class antagonism within the society can be attributed to the evil nature of the wealthy. Hamilton (2001) asserts that since political reforms cannot overcome the state of nature or the evil of men, they will not eliminate class antagonisms. Hobbes argued that it is when a common power exists that men are able experience peace (Sommerville, 1992). The role of this common power is to keep social classes together. In line with Marxism, the common power between proletariats and the bourgeoisie is the state (Edwards and Townshend, 2002). The problem is that this common power has been corrupted by the influence of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the political reforms of the state are unlikely to promote peace and eliminate class antagonism.
In accordance to Hobbes’ philosophy, all men are equal in the context of their state of nature (Warrender, 2000). Sommerville (1992) explains that Hobbes’ view of equality was informed by the realization that even the weakest can overcome the influence of the strongest. For example, proletariats can overcome the influence of the bourgeoisie on factors of production. However, proletariats need to form groups in order to overcome the oppression of the bourgeoisie (McLellan, 1999). Marx and Engels (2008) argued that the oppressed proletariats can stage a revolution against bourgeoisie, leading to the formation of a classless society and the elimination of class antagonism. According to Boucher and Kelly (2003), it is when equality is realized that oppression and class antagonism will come to an end. Marx and Engels (2008) rightfully argue that class antagonism cannot be eliminated by political reforms because the political class promotes inequality. The contribution of the political elites to class divisions and inequality illustrates why political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonism (Cowling, 1998).
The political philosophy of John Locke can also be used to demonstrate that Marx and Engels were right in their argument that political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonism. Locke disagreed with Hobbes by postulating that the natural state men or humanity is generally good (Tully and Skinner, 1993). Notably, Locke did not believe that men are evil by nature (Locke and Wootton, 1993). His philosophy maintains that there exist natural rights for all people, such as property ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of worship. Regardless of this, Locke agreed with other philosophers by postulating that the wealthy often get to hold power (Tully and Skinner, 1993). This would be attributed to the fact that during his time, the wealthy were more educated than the rest of the society. In the context of Locke’s political philosophy, it is argued that the wealthy or holders of political power violate the natural rights proletariats, such as ownership of property (McLellan, 1999). It is therefore the violation of these rights that leads to class antagonism. Hamilton (2001) comments on Marxism and argues that the bourgeoisie represent the wealthy or holders of political power. Therefore, the political reforms that are implemented by the holders of political power are less likely to advocate for the natural rights of the poor. This means that Marx and Engels were right in their argument that political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonisms.
Locke believed in the state of nature and natural laws (Locke and Wootton, 1993). He postulated that human beings cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of inflicting judgment on others. This is due to the natural nature of man to be unfair to others (Tully and Skinner, 1993). Therefore, Locke advocated for the creation of the government which will ensure that one individual does not have too much power over others. However, Locke did not consider that the government and its policies would be influenced by the wealthy (Locke and Wootton, 1993). Doveton (1994) argues that the Marxist view of class divisions is associated with the influence of the bourgeoisie on the government and its policies. Therefore, the political power of the bourgeoisie and the ruling class makes it impossible to eliminate class antagonism. Boucher and Kelly (2003) explain that the political policies developed and implemented by ruling class are biased against the oppressed proletariats, which worsens class antagonism.
In accordance to the philosophy of utilitarianism, as postulated by John Stuart Mill, it is impossible to guarantee that everyone will be happy (Fitzpatrick, 2006). However, it is possible to reduce pain and maximize pleasure. Mill’s utilitarianism can be used to understand the class antagonism that characterizes the society. Hamilton (2001) demonstrates that class antagonism is caused by violation of the law of utilitarianism. For instance, instead of minimizing pain, the ruling class increases it by oppressing the poor, as was noted by Marx and Engels (2008). The slavery the wealthy impose on the poor illustrates how the violation of the law of utilitarianism contributes to class struggles. Marx and Engels (2008) specifically noted that class struggles between “freemen and slave” and “oppressor and oppressed” depict the historical divisions within the society (p. 79). Doveton (1994) explains that the failure of political reforms to mitigate the oppression of the poor demonstrates that these policies cannot eliminate the class antagonism or struggles existing between freemen and slaves. In line with Mill’s political philosophy, it is argued that class antagonism will be overcome through the minimization of oppression, as postulated by Mill (Fitzpatrick, 2006).
The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also applicable in understanding why political reforms cannot eliminate struggles between upper and lower classes of the society. Rousseau emphasized that freedom is necessary for a peaceful society (Rousseau and Gourevitch, 1997). His philosophy of “general will” was significantly influenced by the postulates of John Locke. Rousseau argued that man is obliged to abide by the laws he makes. He also suggested that all societal downfalls, including class divisions and struggles, were as a result of enslavement. According to Rousseau, “the people” should have the power of making laws (Rousseau and Gourevitch, 1997). In this sense, Rousseau suggests that when the power of making laws is entrusted on the wealthy, the interests of the people will not be served, leading to class divisions. Notably, Marx and Engels (2008) associated political power and the creation of laws and political reforms to the bourgeoisie. Boucher and Kelly (2003) assert that the bourgeoisie influences the creation of laws and political reforms with a goal of ensuring that they serve their interests, such as private ownership of property. Therefore, class struggles cannot be eliminated by political reforms as the majority, including oppressed proletariats, do not participate the formulation of legal and policy frameworks.
In conclusion, class antagonisms cannot be eradicated through political reform because social struggles are integrated into the basic structural components of the society, as suggested by Marx and Engels (2008). The historical oppression against wage workers and unfavorable laws or political policies indicates the challenge the society faces in eliminating class antagonism. As long as the wealthy form the ruling class and influence the formulation of laws and policies on property ownership, oppression against proletariats and the associated class antagonism will continue to be experienced by the society. However, a critical view of Marxism and related political philosophies indicates that there is still hope for the elimination of class antagonism. Notably, the solutions philosophers suggest for the mitigation of class antagonism are not related to political reforms. From the Marxist point of view, class antagonism will come to an end through the creation of a classless society. Similar philosophical views indicate that class antagonism will be mitigated when the power of formulation of laws and political policies is bestowed upon the people.
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