Progress under capitalism


1.1 Materialisation of ‘History as Progress’

The writings of Karl Marx can be understood in a historic-philosophical context that is specifically post-Enlightenment in a number of ways. One of the ways is that Marx seems to still adhere to a kind of historical progressivism. The idea of progress was around long before the Enlightenment, but it gained greater momentum during that time. As a concept progress became bound up with the emancipation of mankind from subservience and superstition. It was a matter of the expansion of scientific knowledge for many. Condorcet and Kant proclaimed progress as a trajectory of increasing reflexive self-awareness, on a cultural and not just individual level. Kant went further to reference to a ‘hidden plan of nature’ to bring about ‘the sole state in which all of humanity’s natural capacities can be developed’.[1] Progress has been taken as an uninterruptible evolution in its historic guise; the idea took hold strongly as human interventions began finally to displace the fatalistic acceptance of providence. This adherence to history as progress has manifested itself in terms of political change, technological advancement and even moral questions.

It may be said that the materialist conception of history was a transformation of Hegel’s historicism as a necessary step in Marx’s development of an analysis of capitalism. In Hegel’s work we find its most emphatic version, since the real is rational and the rational is real all philosophy sets itself the task of revealing the gradual triumph of reason in all departments of cultured and social life.[2] In the subversion of Hegel’s diagnosis of the seamless unfolding of universal reason Marx invoked a materialist conception of history. In this schema, we might say, progress is taken as an emergent emancipation through the realisation of hitherto-suppressed human potentiality and the control of our natural environment.

The integral role of revolution and schism is an objective liberality to the historical process. This could be understood as progress in teleological terms: as a more or less vital journey onwards (from feudalism to capitalism) and upwards (socialism on from capitalism) to a universally redemptive end (communism). Whether or not this historicism should be taken as teleological is a matter which we will explore later. Before we go any further we must first clarify the full quote referred to in the title and its context in Marx’s project:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.[3]

This is an excerpt from a section of the Communist Manifesto focused on bourgeois and proletarians. The same section itself opens with the words “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” before elaborating that the modern bourgeois society had sprouted from the ruins of feudal society. That same burgeoning new order had failed to purge itself of the class struggle. In the place of the obliterated means to and forms of oppression the bourgeois epoch has only imposed its own. Yet the ambiguity in Marx’s analysis of capitalism is that he found revolutionary prospects in the universalization of the capitalist system, for he saw the obliteration of the old feudal order and the successive bourgeois liberal society as an advance upon what had existed before it.[4] He denoted the bourgeoisie as having played ‘a most revolutionary part’ in history in its capacities for rapid development, its rise hastened by the colonisation of America and exploitation of the East Indian and Chinese markets.[5] Marx attributes accomplishments to the bourgeoisie “far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.”[6] In this framework the bourgeoisie cannot exist without revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, in doing so the relations of society as a whole are transformed.

This revolution of the productive forces in its ability to bulldoze away all the old social conditions only to wipe away the new forms before they can become ossified. By these same processes the bourgeoisie circumvents barbarism and draws all countries into civilisation in its pursuit of greater expansion.[7] This same process of expansion and growth requires as a necessary part of itself the extraction and accumulation of surplus value from the constant toiling of the proletariat. Karl Marx was well aware of the immense cost of this progression, he spent much of his life in critical engagement with the structures of exploitation as well as in political movements looking to overturn those same structures. In Eagleton’s words Marx was neither a naïve progressivist nor a total pessimist about the world-historical situation in this sense.[8] It’s more like Marx saw historical progress as inseparably from its often horrific costs. The circumvention of immediate obstacles to greater advances had brought not just improvements but limitations to those steps forward.

1.2 Species-Being and Directionality

For Marx and Engels, capitalism was not only the most dynamic economic model after all of its predecessors it was also just another transient form of exploitation – it was not itself the culmination of all history as progress. The four progressive epochs, in Cohen’s terms, may be designated as 1) pre-class society in which there is no surplus, 2) pre-capitalist class society where there is a growing surplus, which is still less than the reasonably high surplus generated by 3) capitalist society; and finally the enormous material surplus of 4) post-class society.[9] Each stage in this sequence gradually, if not suddenly and violently, supersedes its predecessor only to give way to another stage. In the world-historical situation this process is dialectical in that every advance achieved comes with its own limitations. In his magnum opus Marx takes an aside to comment on his own use of dialectics:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.[10]

From this we might be justified in concluding that Marx had abandoned his earlier stances as a Young Hegelian. Yet it may be said that Marx was really engaged in the materialisation of Hegel’s framework, to move it from the realm of ideas to the material. Marx goes on to add after this paragraph that it is the “mystifying side” of Hegel’s dialectic which he has long criticised and, less directly, it is that mystification which he seeks to get away from. Marx describes himself as the “pupil of that mighty thinker” before affirming the dialectic as ‘working’ in a manner not mystifying in its Hegelian form.[11] Famously Marx remarks “With [Hegel] it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”[12] He notes that the dialectic became the height of fashion in Germany insofar as its mysticism was effectively conservative as Hegel glorified the ‘existing state of things’. Towards the end of the 1873 preface Marx stresses that the dialectic in its rational form stands as an ‘abomination to bourgeoisdom’.[13] This is so as the dialectic, as he employs it, includes not just the comprehension and recognition of the current epoch but acknowledges its transience and its ‘inevitable breaking-up’. In short, the dialectic reveals the fluidity of society’s development and in doing so may function to destabilise its claims to an unchanging solidity.

If we are to take Lenin’s word and see Marxism as a body of thought in its consummative unity of English economics, French politics and German philosophy, then we may view this materialisation as a transformation of these key areas.[14] We may trace the emergence of this in Marx’s early work. In the Holy Family as part of comments on idealist conceptions of history Marx stresses “Just as according to old teleologists plants exist to be eaten by animals and animals by men, history exists in order to serve as the act of consumption of theoretical eating – proving. Man exists so that history may exist and history exists so that the proof of truths may exist.”[15] Noting that Hegel positions his own history, its speculative and esoteric elements, within an empiric and exoteric history, Marx goes on to write that the “history of mankind becomes the history of the abstract spirit of mankind, a spirit beyond all man!”[16] In this way we find Marx looking at the Hegelian framework as limited in its preoccupation with the ideational. It was this that would later lead Marx to embrace materialism over idealism. That isn’t to say the Hegelian strain in Marx ends at the dialectic.

As Alasdair MacIntyre observes, the importance of the concept of freedom runs from Hegel into Marx in that it is conceived in each as the overcoming of the limitations and constraints of one social order by hastening the arrival of a less limited order.[17] Hegel had written of freedom that “this very idea itself is the actuality of men – not something which they have, as men, but which they are.”[18] Marx saw human freedom as so essential that even the opponents of freedom realise it and furthermore “No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.”[19] Where Hegel interprets those limitations and constraints as primarily the limitations and constraints of a conceptual scheme Marx does not. It is this that distinguishes the materialists from the idealists. The social order is constituted not in ideational but in material form, its prevailing mode of production specifically. Its possibilities and limitations are constituted in the prevailing form of production in that social order.

As MacIntyre notes the forms of labour will vary in accordance with the available technologies, how labour is divided (if at all) and the consequent split of society into masters and labourers in turn producing classes.[20] The conflict between classes is inherent to the mode and relations of production, its contradictions and sudden twists a necessary consequence of the development of the productive forces. MacIntyre notes that the conceptual schemes with which people grasp their own society have a duality of roles: revealing the nature of that activity while at the same time concealing its true character.[21] The critique of concepts and the struggle to transform society are necessarily connected, albeit with variation on that relation over time. In the materialist conception of history Marx replaces the self-development of the Absolute Idea with the socio-economic history of class. In this way Marx transforms the Hegelian conception of individuality, finding its hindrances and advances (which Hegel attributes to conceptual schemes) only comprehensible as part of an analysis of class society.

Consciousness would not be understood in terms of a formative impetus on life, famously for Marx it is life that determines consciousness.[22] In this way the emphasis ought to be on the material conditions and economic formations which constitute the historical epoch. Naturally then Marx worked to demystify political economy. All the while Marx stressed that the mode of production known as capitalism has its own historicity, it is just as transient as the previous forms of society. Marx went as far as to deem the whole of, what we could call, history as ‘pre-history’, for it is only a record of one exploitative system after another: slavery, feudalism, capitalism.[23] Accordingly the only truly ‘historic’ act in Marx’s mind would be to break with this succession of variations on exploitation. To break with this long record of miserable toil would mean bringing into fruition an epoch wherein the possibilities of self-realisation are as unencumbered as possible. Notably sparse on this matter Marx did have this to say about the end of pre-history and what communism would look like:

Within communist society, the only society in which the original and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase, this development is determined precisely by the connection of individuals, a connection which consists partly in the economic prerequisites and partly in the necessary solidarity of the free development of all, and, finally, in the universal character of the activity of individuals on the basis of the existing productive forces.[24]

Wilde argues that Marx shares with Aristotle the view that the elements of human essence are sociality and rationality – the exercise of these capacities are what make us human.[25] Primarily Aristotle was concerned with the self-development of citizens, the refinement of virtue through practice, requiring the opportunity to contemplate truth to achieve eudaimonia. Marx saw more in human essence than just the capacity for reason, the distinction of humanity from other animals is in the capacity for productive creativity and mastery over nature. Species-being referring to the human capacity to transform the environment around them. The world can be shaped through the practical engagements of humankind, partly leading to greater and greater self-knowledge. In class society, human beings are left alienated from what we produce and thus cannot understand its species-being.[26] Furthermore, Wilde argues that, the directionality of historical development for Marx lies with the self-realisation of human essence – it is its telos – and only after the overthrow of capitalism can human beings find their social creativity realised in communism.[27]




2.3 The Limits of Emancipation

The historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that “the world transformed by capitalism which [Marx] described in 1848, in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognisably the world of the early twenty-first century.”[28] It was this prescience demonstrated the Manifesto – for the rising tide of neoliberal globalisation especially – which may lead us to conclude that the analysis of capitalism drafted by Marx and Engels can’t be dismissed easily even more 150 years since it was first written. At the time of writing, Marx and Engels attributed much greater industrial accomplishments to the capitalist system than were actually achieved. By 1850 the world produced no more than 71,000 tons of steel, with almost 70% being produced in Britain, and it had built less than 24,000 miles of railroads with two-thirds of these in Britain and the United States.[29] It was inaccurate of the possibilities of the world, if not most of Europe, in the nineteenth century and the globalisation of capitalism has only been achieved after a long and contorted journey. It is vital not to overlook the fact that Marx has definitely not been proven right in all of his predictions and expectations. Most infamously in the prediction that the capitalist system will, inevitably, produce its own ‘gravedigger’, in its creation of the proletariat and transformation of productive relations through a period of primitive accumulation, and driving the class struggle to a revolutionary conclusion.

The implications of the way Marx theorised of capitalism as a historically transient stage are huge. After all the breakdown of pre-capitalist formations of class society to give way to capitalist class society does not bring the process to a close. As each stage advances it brings with it limitations. This means that the transformative capacities of capitalism can be evaluated and not just described in historicist terms. This is where the distinction Marx made between political and human emancipation may have great relevance. Marx came to this distinction in his exchange with Bruno Bauer on the issue of Jewish emancipation. Bauer had taken the position that it was religion that was the barrier to emancipation. The Jews couldn’t be emancipated politically, e.g. granted rights, until they ceased to be Jews, given that the state should retain its secularity it cannot concede space to forms of identity to any religion. Instead Marx argues that the political emancipation of European Jewry is possible, compatible and preferable within a liberal framework to the religious-states of Europe at the time. As Jonathan Wolff notes, Marx makes a central contribution to the criticism of liberal societies in his distinction between political and human emancipation.[30] It’s on this distinction that Marx rests his argument writing that “The political emancipation of the Jew, the Christian, and religious man in general implies the emancipation of the state from Judaism, Christianity, and religion in general. The state as state emancipates itself from religion in the manner peculiar to its own nature by emancipating itself from the state religion, i.e. by not recognising, as a state, any religion, by affirming itself simply as a state. Political emancipation is not the completed and consistent form of religious emancipation because political emancipation is not the completed and consistent form of human emancipation.”[31]

Marx argues that the abolition of religion does not undo the ills of religion, nor is it an end-all solution to society’s problems. Secularism is not in itself emancipatory, while liberal societies offer political emancipation it is only to separate social groups into atomised individuals with sets of rights and liberties to protect them from others. In turn this serves to undermine the prospects of human emancipation; it puts up the barriers to solidarity. As Wolff notes, the right to private property leads men to limit their own freedom.[32] The continuing existence of religion is more than compatible in this liberal framework. He gestures to the United States as an example of a republic with a separation between church and state that has always had a large population of religiously observant citizens. As Wolff concludes, the major point is that we have to get beyond liberal society and abolish the gap between the state and civil society.[33] Political emancipation in the form of rights is not the end of all forms of oppression and certainly not of exploitation under capitalism. The bestowing of rights is not the means to solving the problem of alienation. For Marx it is only emancipation from the conditions of the market system which will answer that qualm.

Against human emancipation Marx contrasts its liberal precursor political emancipation as the “reduction of man, on the one hand to a member of civil society, an egoistic and independent individual, on the other hand to a citizen, a moral person.” As we have seen previously, these words may well presuppose an evaluative criterion in Marx’s thinking which holds human fulfilment and realisation in the highest of priorities. Liberalism falls short in its devotion to bourgeois freedom and the free-market, bringing with it new forms of unfreedom and servitude. Marx writes “The limitations of political emancipation are immediately evident in the fact that a state can liberate itself from a limitation without man himself being truly free of it and the state can be a free state without man himself being a free man.”[34] He advocates the emancipation of the Jews in political terms of rights, as that would be a significant step forward, while at the same time he has no illusions about the limitations which will come from this advance. This is all in line with the dialectic process by which freedom unfolds over time laid out in Hegel’s work.

We might just as well look at the steps made toward political emancipation of African-Americans may have made them citizens rather than slaves, but they are still enduring the alienating conditions of capitalism. The example of the abolition of slavery was one that Marx was familiar with. He and Engels were vocal supporters of Abraham Lincoln. The American Civil War as a struggle between pre-capitalist class society where there is a growing surplus and the forces of a burgeoning capitalist society. The war between the Union and the Confederacy is understood in terms of a struggle by the impulse of emergent capitalism towards industrialisation and away from agrarian formations. The preservation of the Union required the transformation of the forces and relations of production in conjunction with a victory over the secessionists. Marx believed the war would open the way toward the revolutionary path of free, self-owning labour, and eventually hasten the advent of a post-capitalist society. When Lincoln was re-elected Marx and Engels wrote to him “If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.”[35] Before going on to add that “the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.”[36]

Elsewhere, Engels elaborated “Once slavery, the greatest shackle on the political development of the United States, has been broken, the country is bound to receive an impetus from which it will acquire a different position in world history.”[37] Just as the American War of Independence initiated a period of middle-class ascendancy, Marx hoped, the Civil War would open a period of working-class ascendancy.[38] The abolition of slavery was framed in this way as a necessary step for the American working-class to attain ‘true freedom’ as well as to support the side of the European working-classes. Slavery was an obstacle to the furtherance of capitalism that had to be shaken off if capitalism were to be overcome. In Marx’s own words “this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.”[39] With all of this in light we might be justified in seeing Marx as an adherent to a form of historical progressivism. It should also be clear that this isn’t the end of the story.

Next: Moral objectivity in history

[1] Edgar, A; Sedgwick, P; Key Concepts in Cultural Theory (Routledge, 1999) pg.311-312

[2] Marx, K; Capital v.1 (1873 Preface | Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1906) pg.25-26

[3] Marx, K; The Manifesto of the Communist Party (The Revolutions of 1848 | Verso, 2010) pg.71

[4] Teschke, B; Marxism (The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, Oxford University Press) pg.163-170

[5] Marx, K; The Manifesto of the Communist Party (The Revolutions of 1848 | Verso, 2010) pg.68-71

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Eagleton, T; Is Marxism a Theodicy? (2010)

[9] Cohen, GA; Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford University Press, 2004 reprint) pg.197-201

[10] Marx, K; Capital v.1 (Preface, 1873 | Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1906) pg.25-26

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Callinicos, A; The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks Publications, 2010 reprint) pg.52

[15] Marx, K; The Holy Family (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.138-139

[16] Ibid. pg.144

[17] MacIntyre, A; A Short History of Ethics (Routledge, 1967) pg.210-214

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] MacIntyre, A; A Short History of Ethics (Routledge, 1967) pg.210-214

[22] Hobsbawm, E; On History (Abacus, 1997) pg.211

[23] Eagleton, T; Why Marx was Right (Yale University Press, 2011) pg.73

[24] Marx, K; The German Ideology (McLellan, D; Karl Marx: Selected Writings | Oxford University Press, 1977) pg.191

[25] Wilde, L; Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics (Nottingham Trent University, 1998) pg.32-35

[26] Edgar, A; Sedgwick, P; Key Concepts in Cultural Theory (Routledge, 1999) pg.309

[27] Wilde, L; Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics (Nottingham Trent University, 1998) pg.32-35

[28] Hobsbawm, E; On the Communist Manifesto (How to Change the World | Little Brown, 2011) pg.110-111

[29] Ibid.

[30] Wolff, J; Karl Marx entry, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

[31] Marx, K; On the Jewish Question, Marxists Internet Archive:

[32] Wolff, J; Karl Marx entry, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

[33] Ibid.

[34] Marx, K; On the Jewish Question, Marxists Internet Archive:

[35] Marx, K; Engels, F; Letters to America: 1848-1895 (International Publishers, New York; 1963) pg.65-66

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zaretsky, E; Why America Needs A Left (Polity, 2012) pg.56

[38] Marx, K; Engels, F; Letters to America: 1848-1895 (International Publishers, New York; 1963) pg.65-66

[39] Ibid.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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