Please note that this blog is about Marx's philosophy, and not the philosophical ideology of
Marxism, nor the political ideology of communism. Both are arguably offshoots of Marx's philosophy that are in some significant senses distortions of what he may have been arguing.
Note also that I am not a Marxist, nor am I a philosopher who thinks Marx is correct on most things. My own view is that he is correct on a few key fundamentals about human labor and the economic system. Moreover, I think we can all learn a lot from Marx so long as we try to bracket the political associations made with his thought.
(One of my motivations for writing this blog is to provide some clarity against the backdrop of confusion and misunderstanding in the public sphere about Marx.)
So what can we learn from Marx?
Mythology or Marx?
You may think that the core of Marx's philosophy is about abolishing private property and trying to eliminate the class structure. These are key aspects of his thought, but they are not foundational to his philosophy—they are extrapolations he makes when trying to analyze and understand the manner in which wealth has been captured and controlled by a small percentage of the population.
In order to grasp how Marx can make these extrapolations, it is important to remember that he engaged with a great deal of economic thinking at his time, what we today call classical economic theory. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus are perhaps the most well-known of this group; and Marx himself avidly and keenly read Ricardo until finally disagreeing with him about the nature of value and ground rent.
What does this mean?
Marx did not start out with an agenda about communism, or what we think is communism today according to its historical and political instantiations (i.e. the former USSR, China, Cuba, etc.).
Instead, what was driving much of Marx's argument and debate with the classical thinkers was how the creation of value was being explained.
How Is Value Created?
There is a great exercise to demonstrate this controversy.
Imagine you are a carpenter who makes chairs and tables. Before you there is a tree, which happens to be available to you since it is on the land you own. You chop down the tree, cut the tree into pieces and planks that you can use to shape into furniture. After finishing the pieces of furniture, you sell them to a general store for $500 a piece. In turn, the general store sells them to its customers for $1000 a piece.
Here are some questions to ask:
what is the value of each piece of furniture?
how is that value created?
What is great about the general classical view of economics is that most theorists saw a direct and foundational relation between value and nature. Whatever end-product we create and to which we ascribe value is largely due to nature's provision of resources.
Thinkers like François Quesnay, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill took this insight very seriously. It means that we are beholden in some fundamental way to nature.
This plays out in a few different ways with respect to value in economics—very interesting ways. For our purposes, let's focus on one: there is general agreement that whatever humans do in terms of labor is really only possible due to the energy and resource nature provides for us to labor. Think of two key points:
nature provides food (agriculture, ranching, etc.) for us to labor
nature provides the very things we use (Marx called this material reality) in order to live
So there are at least two factors involved in the creation of value: nature and labor.
But that account in no way provides a specific way of working out how these two factors end up as prices in the market (in our example, $500 and $1000). In fact, when we try to provide some explanation as to how physical processes transforming things of nature into commodities to sell, we inevitably have to introduce non-natural or artificial terms.
For example, we might say the price of the furniture arises according to supply and demand. We might speculate on there being a dearth (i.e. scarcity) of furniture due to a lack of labor. We might estimate the cost someone is willing to pay based on marginal utility, or how much someone gains from the addition of an item; and we might therefore charge a higher price, knowing that a customer really only needs one table (and not an additional one).
Marx was extremely disastisfied with these kinds of explanations. For one, they moved too quickly from understanding the relation between humans and nature. So what did Marx propose?
The Transformation Problem The transformation problem is really a problem in two ways:
economists in general can't really explain what value is and how it translates or transforms into price (there are just so many factors in the transition from value to price); and
even if we focus on the creation of value where the human drive to work intersects with the use of nature, we don't really have an account of how human labor transforms things into value.
Marx attempts to resolve the second point; and he dismisses the first point since in resolving the second point, the first point becomes nonsensical. In other words, the first point is not a real problem, only one we have created through bad thinking.
What does Marx say?
To really grasp Marx's position, you have to try hard to refrain seeing anything we make (commodities) in terms of a price value, or what is exchange value. Instead, the human relation to nature is really and fundamentally one of use. We engage in transforming nature in order to live and self-actualize. So at rock bottom, the essence of value lies in the relation to use.
Hence, Marx emphasizes use-value as the real representation of value.
There are at least two consequences of this:
It bars or prohibits thinking about our relation to commodities in terms of exchange.
It means value really resides in how labor makes things.
Both consequences are problematic, and Marx spends a great deal of time showing why each point is compelling and then trying to provide an alternative vision of society.
Just a few more points before closing.
Trying to imagine a society based solely, even mostly on use-value becomes difficult. How do we acquire items we need but can't make? If we introduce some form of exchange, as Marx convincingly points out, this quickly devolves into a speculative, rent-seeking society.
Perhaps barter might work since we tend not to think of exchange value but exchange in kind. I don't think of a dollar price for an item I want, I just swap something I have for something I want.
But barter is cumbersome due to there needing to be "a double coincidence of wants" between the two people bartering. As well, bartering can easily lead to hoarding goods in order to advantage in trading.
This is why a system where there is no private property seems to be the only option in which use-value is appreciated and protected. The lack of private ownership means I can freely use what I need without having to exchange it.
But for such a system to work (and I don't think it can for many reasons), there have to be other kinds of side-constraints in place with regard to what counts as appropriate use of something when someone else may want to use the same thing or is using it. As we also know with non-private property, there tends to be a lack of care. I am by no means a libertarian, but one thing does ring true with private ownership: on the libertarian view there tends to be investment in the thing owned such that the owner is often (not always) motivated to take care of it.
But, of course, if all property were not private, then our psychology and behavior might change. One way to ensure this? Abolish property-owning classes.
Finally, Marx's attempt to provide a theory of value based solely on labor never really succeeded. The labor theory of value is a well-known artifact of economic history. It seems intuitively correct in trying to ascribe value by how much and how long we labor to make something. But then problems arise when you have differences, for example, in a respective skill; where it takes a less skilled person longer to make something than a person who has more skill. It is odd to think that the item made by the less skilled laborer has more value just because it took longer.
Marx also has to do a lot of "philosophical dancing" to disprove the theories of value offered by other thinkers, such as Ricardo's theory of ground rent. And Marx himself realized that instrumental to labor value is what is socially necessary for a society in order to survive. So he added a social dimension to the more naturalistic account he first entertained.
Concluding Thoughts Phew!!!!
If you are going to dismiss Marx's philosophy, first understand what is at its core and that with which he was seriously concerned.
Even though I am highly critical of Marx, I do genuinely believe he asked the right questions and provided important insights into the problems of speculation and economic injustice.
Todd Mei is former Associate Professor of Philosophy (University of Kent) who specializes in the philosophy of work, ethics, and classical economic theory. He is now a consultant for businesses and is a podcaster for Living Philosophy, a public series exploring ideas about life and the inspiring second-lives of people.