Economic Update: The Contributions of Karl Marx - Part 1

Part 1 of 4

Professor Wolff takes a deeper look at the life and work of Karl Marx in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth. The full four-part series is available on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/economicupdate

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Transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Welcome to part one of a four-part series on the work and the contribution made by Karl Marx.

We do this now because it’s the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. But of course the real reason we do it is because we think that that work, that criticism of the capitalist economic system remains a source of important insights that can be useful for all of those, who want to make a better world out of the one we’re now living in and through.

Before I start, I have to acknowledge what, I’m sure, you all know that words like “Marx” and “Marxism”, “Socialism”, “Communism” and all that have been scare words for an awful lot of us for many years. The Cold War that erupted after 1945 and pretty much the whole time since has been a time when words like that were associated with scary “other countries”, scary “dangers” to various aspects of the way we live. And so they inspired a mixture of fear and anxiety. And the way that worked out for an awful lot of Americans and, indeed, people elsewhere too was a decision not to pay any attention to the work of Karl Marx, not to read it, not to think about it, and unfortunately, that meant we didn’t learn from it.

So, let me begin by explaining briefly what it is we can learn. Karl Marx was a critic of capitalism. He didn’t like the system and he basically thought that the human race could and should do better. And so he spent his adult life explaining and analyzing for all the rest of us, what it was that he found inadequate about capitalism, where exactly he thought we could and should do better and to present that as clearly and persuasively as, I think, he knew how.

Why should we pay attention to the critic? And well, the answer is simple. Critics have their perspective. It’s different from the perspective of people who like something. And the way an intelligent person goes about dealing with a difficult topic is to interrogate and to investigate what the people believe, who like it, but also what the people believe, who don’t like it. And then we draw our own conclusions. It’s a little bit like wanting to understand the family that lives up the road: mama, papa, and the two kids that they have. Even though we know one kid thinks it’s the greatest family there ever it was, and the other one thinks it’s a basket case of psychological dysfunction. If we’re going to study the family, we wouldn’t choose to talk to you one child—neither the one or the other. What we would do, if we were on this, would be to talk to both children: hear what they have to say, ask questions and then draw our own conclusions about that family making the best judgment we can.

Well, likewise, so it is with capitalism. We study in this country of the United States, but in other countries too, we have plenty of folks who help us study what’s good about it, what they like about it, what’s positive. But a well-rounded understanding, an honest engagement with the system, we live in, would require us to look at critics as well. And for the last 200 years, the leading critic has been called Marx, more than any other person. He’s as important on the side of criticizing capitalism as folks like Adam Smith, and Ricardo, and John Maynard Keynes are on the side of those, who think capitalism really is the best thing since sliced bread.

So, let’s jump right in. What motivated Karl Marx as a young man, growing up in the middle of the 19th century, as he did. Well, the answer is the goals of the French and American revolutions. He said so many times, he loved the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Brotherhood”. He loved the idea of the American Revolution—democracy. And he wanted those things to be realized in modern society, in the middle of the 19th century Europe, where he grew up and lived his life. But he lived at a time when he was becoming doubtful of a basic idea that had grown up since the French and American revolutions. And this idea was that we would get rid of the old systems of slavery and feudalism—masters and slaves, and lords and serfs—was now behind us, we would have a new world, the capitalist world, whether two players were employers and employees—no longer unfree slaves, no longer unfree serfs. And by having capitalism replace feudalism and slavery, we would usher in a world of liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy.

Well, Karl Marx coming 50 to 100 years later, says, “Well, we got the capitalism. Alright. But the promise that capitalism would mean and would deliver liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy… Well, it has not happened.” Karl Marx looked around the Europe of his time in the middle of the century and what he saw is pretty much what was written down, for example, in the novels of Charles Dickens. He saw an enormous gap between a relatively small part of the population, that was well-off, well-educated, literate, and comfortable. And on the other—a mass of workers in the industries and the factories, who were none of those things, who were poor, who were uneducated, who were illiterate, and who were suffering. And he felt the betrayal. It’s not too strong a word. Capitalism had betrayed, in his view, the promise that had led so many people, that he admired, to support the end of feudalism, and the end of slavery, and the welcome they all offered to a capitalism, because it promised liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy. And so he set himself a goal. What happened was the great question for him. Why did capitalism not bring the promise? Why had it failed to do that? And the research he undertook, which he then wrote up, is what we have now as a criticism of capitalism. Because what he basically discovered and wrote about was that capitalism not only wasn’t the vehicle for bringing to be into being liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, it was, in fact, an obstacle to realizing those lofty goals, which Marx never stopped saluting and making his goals as well.

Well, what does it mean to be a critic of capitalism? It means that he found in capitalism—and this is what we’re going to a study in our discussions in parts two, three, and four of this series—he found in capitalism the elements of a system that made it impossible to have liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy. He felt that capitalism blocked, prevented, thwarted whatever progress in those directions human beings had achieved. And that led him, of course, to the conclusion that in order to get closer to liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy, we had to go to a different kind of system, one that was fundamentally different from capitalism. And for reasons that he will explain and would explain to us, that was for him the tasks.

And to summarize in this first introductory presentation, what it was he found, it runs roughly like this. In the slavery we reject human beings were divided into two groups—masters and slaves. The wealth, the power, the cultural dominance was in the hands of the masters. The slaves, literally, were property of those other people. The society was shaped, governed, run by the masters. For the systems reproduction over time, masters wanted to stay masters. Masters wanted their children to be masters in turn. If you were born into that society as a slave, you were a slave and your children would be slaves. For Marx, this was an abhorrent system, and he rejected it.

The same applies to feudalism. There’re the two positions you could occupy, were either the lord owned and operated and ran and dominated much like the masters had in slavery, but the mass of other people weren’t the property of the lord. They were free, at least in relationship to what slaves had been, but they were serfs. You were born to a family of serfs you were ipso facto, a serf too. The two positions were a minority of lords, and a majority of serfs, like a minority of masters and the majority of slaves.

Now, here comes Marx’s punch line. “Capitalism” he said, “wasn’t successful in breaking out of that model—a few who dominate, a mass who don’t.” “All that capitalism did” he said, “was to replace the dichotomies of master–slave, lord–serf with a new one.” It was a different. And in that difference, there’s lots of important lessons. It was different, because what? The minority, which was still there, had a new name. They were called “employers” and the majority also had a new name, they were called “employees.” “But when you look closely at this system” Marx said, “it’s very much like the slavery and the feudalism, which it overthrew, because the dominant role in society is again played by the employers.” They control the politicians. They control the direction of social development. They make all the decisions in the workplace. They run the show. They dominated and the mass of people are subordinated. And so Marx said, “We have to ask how and why this system of employer–employee, which we call capitalism, was unable to realize the liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy that it had promised?” What is it about the relationship between the employer and the employee that reproduces a society bedeviled by instability, conflict, tension, inequality, the absence of fraternity, and a mockery of the notion of democracy? Starting right in the workplace, where all the power to decide what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, what to do with the profits is made by a tiny group of people at the top, whereas everybody, who works producing those very profits, has no say at all. That’s not democracy that is its opposite.

Lastly. Let me point out before we get into the nuts and bolts of what Marx’s contribution was in analyzing capitalism, because that’s what he did in his life. Let me make it clear one of the reasons, why it’s worth looking at his contributions.

Marx died in 1883, so roughly 140 years ago. That’s not very long in historical time. But in that relatively short period of 140 years, Marx’s ideas spread to every country on the face of this planet. People in the most completely different economic, political, and cultural conditions found enormous meaning in what Marx’s wrote. That’s why in every country, there are Marxist organizations, Marxist unions, Marxist newspapers, Marxist societies, Marxist political parties, and so on. For me, to be able to come before you and say, “Let’s look at what this man has to say” is simply to be able to say, “Here now to you, what has been effectively said to literally every people’s on this earth, if they all found meaning in it, my guess is, we can and we will do it, and that’s what this four-part series is intended to do.”

Well, we’ve come to the end of part one of these four parts. I hope you found it interesting and worthwhile, and that you will join with us in taking a look at the other parts as well. Toward that end, please be sure to visit patreon.com—that’s patreon.com/economicupdate—our regular radio and television program. There you will find the subsequent installments of this four-part series. And remember, we value our Patreon community—those of you that follow us in this way—that’s why we are producing special programs like this. And, of course, please remember also to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and on our websites: democracyatwork.info and rdwolff.com.

Thank you for your attention and let’s turn now to Part II.


Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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