Marxist Class Struggle: Its Background, History, Significance, and Relevance

[Posted 24 June 2020 - Anthony Hui - Introduction to Political Philosophy]


Marxist Class Struggle: Its Background, History, Significance, and Relevance

With Personal Commentary 


The Industrial Revolution was a historical period from the 1760’s to the 1840’s that originated in England and spread to the rest of Europe and eventually the United States. For nearly a century, it brought forth significant economic, political, and social upheavals that would altogether impact not only its immediate era but also pave the way towards the existing systems we have today. Bearing this in mind, the Industrial Revolution had a lasting effect on manufacturing because it brought key advancements towards increasing a country’s industrial output and productivity. This was often through a combination of implementing the wholly new factory system over the Middle Ages’ artisan and crafts system, along with the use of novel and innovative mechanical machines like the cotton gin, spinning jenny, steam engine, crop reaper, and more. During this time, Europe’s use of this combination allowed for an effective and efficient production of refined goods from a seemingly endless source of raw materials. As a result, the Industrial Revolution had the historically significant effect of economic productivity and advancement for these countries, which is not only evident in the European countries’ rise in GDP and wealth but also their growing economic presence in an international stage. However, despite these benefits, the Industrial Revolution had many negative consequences and tolls that have social and political significance. This was because there was a social expense on the working person who operated and participated in this industrialized factory-based system. For instance, with aims to achieve the goal of upwards economic mobility, many people travelled from their farms in the countryside to the sprawling and polluted city, which was dominated by the massive factories and workhouses with the goal of high industrial output and capitalistic profit. Yet, the lives of those in the urban cities were not an easy one, as many ordinary workers had to work hard for a meager wage and their conditions of living were poor and unsanitary.

One particular political philosopher who lived during the Industrial Revolution and observed the worker’s marginalization, strife, and hardships was the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883). He resided in London, England and was interested in the social, political, and economic effects and ramifications of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Throughout his life, he witnessed the suffering and pain that was inflicted on the everyday factory and mine workers, who usually worked in scant conditions that were dangerous and detrimental, as they suffered injuries like lung disease, burns, and severed fingers and even death. With these empirical observations, Marx developed a critical perspective on the Industrial Revolution that would ultimately shape his political philosophy. He was particularly critical of a novel and innovative practice used by factories—the assembly line. During this era, the assembly line essentially defined mass manufacturing and served as an effective means towards industrialization. This was because unlike the slow and arduous artisan-based production, where a single person would make and produce goods, the mechanized assembly line allowed for a single person to do the same repetitive process in the entire production chain. Thus, the individual was considered to be a “cog” in the “wheel” of industry. Marx understood the inherent benefit of this system, in which a greater number of things could be produced; yet he was critical because of two key reasons. Firstly, the worker was not given a “living wage” but a “subsistence wage” by the factory owners, which allowed them just enough money to live by and nothing more. This would have significant ramifications as the wage difference between the laborious worker and the profiteering factory owner, along with the lack of economic mobility for the former, would contribute to class conflict. Secondly, Marx argued that the assembly line did away with any possibility for workers to get satisfaction or arete from their job (Marx was influenced by Greek philosophy including the idea of Arete from Plato). Thus, he concluded that the satisfaction of arete was replaced by the misery of alienation. This idea of a worker’s satisfaction, and lack thereof or alienation, in such a capitalistic and industrial society would also serve as a catalyst for class conflict. Ultimately, these two conclusions from the Industrial Revolution, drawn from empirical observations throughout his life, shaped his political philosophy on Class Struggle, a notion that would be forever embodied in Marxism. All in all, Marx realized that in his time’s capitalistic European society, there would always be two classes—an upper class dominating with their power that stemmed from their wealth and factory ownership and the lower working class who bore the brunt of industry and labor—that would eventually culminate in a class war or “struggle,” with important political and historical significance.

In his co-authored book with Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Marx introduces the concept of Class Struggle. Here, he draws from his empirical observation of two opposing classes that compose the capitalistic society of the Industrial Revolution and specifically names them: the upper class is called the Bourgeois or a city-dweller in Old French and the working class is called the Proletariat, a Latin name for a Roman slave. He states that in his time amid the Industrial Revolution, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Caste 256). This excerpt underscores how class struggle occurs when two opposing sides of society are in a hostile relationship, which stems from the widening gap between the two classes and the alienation faced by the workers. Thus, Class Struggle during Marx’s time means conflict between the Bourgeoisie, who control the capital and means of production, and the Proletariat, who provide the labor and work. Furthermore, in a general and simpler sense, Class Struggle can be explained as a hostile and conflictual relationship between two broad classes: the oppressed and the oppressors. Marx notably writes about the historical trend by stating that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Caste 255). This means that throughout history, there is a constant fight in society between the oppressor (Bourgeoisie) and the oppressed (Proletariat) and therefore reinforces the tenet that Class Struggles have existed long before the Industrial Revolution. For instance, Marx gives Class Struggle relationships throughout history’s various civilizations, such as that between “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman [who became the] “oppressor and oppressed” [respectively, and] stood in constant opposition [and] carried on … a fight” (Caste 255). This excerpt serves to highlight the historical nature of Class Struggles in a variety of settings, from Ancient Greece with the Freeman and Slave, the Roman Empire with the Patrician and Plebeian, and the European Middle Ages with the Lord and Serf or Guild Master and Journeyman. This concept is further elaborated when Marx writes about the changes Class Struggle (between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat) underwent from the Medieval Ages’ Feudal Society to the Industrial Revolution’s Capitalist Society. Chronologically, Marx first states that “From the serfs of the middle ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed” (Caste 256). This emphasizes the relationship between the oppressed, who were the peasant serfs that also led to the rise of the burgher class, a rich and wealthy upper class that would serve as the first iteration of the Bourgeoisie in history. Marx also states that the “proletariat goes through various stages of development. When its birth began its struggle with the bourgeoisie,” which means that in Feudal Europe, it was the serfs and slaves who were being oppressed by the wealthy landowners and patricians, thus a Class Struggle from birth arose (Caste 260). Altogether, there is a Class Struggle between Feudal Europe’s serfs or peasants and their landowning lords, dukes, and other nobility. Soon after, Europe experiences trade and commerce via the Age of Exploration, which further strengthens and gives momentum to the Bourgeoisie foundation. Here, Marx writes “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground of the rising bourgeoisie” and that “the feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets,” and thus the Industrial Revolution’s “manufacturing system took its place” (Caste 256). This specific era between the Feudal Age and the Industrial Revolution is important because it ushers a new social change where Feudal Guilds could not provide for increasing markets from trade, and that the manufacturing middle class would take its place. But soon, the “markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising” so the existing manufacturing of the Feudal Age cannot keep up (Caste 256). Ultimately, this leads to the Industrial Revolution, where manufacturing “was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, [and] the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois” (Caste 256). The dawn of the Industrial Revolution brought forth a new social order and economic structure and therefore, a new Class Struggle. This was because of the capitalist society in place, which was composed of the factories that did the manufacturing and owned by the wealthy Bourgeoisie, who were private individuals and millionaires that owned industries in this capitalist society and solely interested in profit and wealth. In other words, a new social order was established where the Bourgeoisie became more powerful as they “increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the [feudal] middle ages” (Caste 256). Finally, the Bourgeoisie would employ the toiling Proletariat worker, who would produce the goods that would be sold for a profit. Essentially, Marx concludes that “the modern Bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, or a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange” and that “the modern Bourgeois society … has sprouted from the ruins of the feudal society, [and] has not done away with the class antagonisms. It has … established new classes, new conditions of oppression, [and] new forms of struggle in place of the old ones” (Caste 256). This is a highly important summary of Marx’s view on the historical development of the Bourgeoisie along with the idea that Class Struggle or the “antagonisms” between classes will always be remnant, whether it be in Medieval Europe or his time during the Industrial Revolution. This is further supported when he states “Hitherto every form of society has been based … on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes” which reference to how there would always be a Bourgeoisie and Proletariat class that would be in constant conflict, belligerence, and struggle regardless of time (Caste 262). Altogether with these two excerpts, Marx highlights how Class Struggle will be still present from the past to the present and will ultimately involve new forms of struggle and new classes of the oppressed and the oppressors. For his case amid the Industrial Revolution, Marx states that Proletariats composed of workers and peasants would eventually realize that the Bourgeoisie and their industrious factories could not actually exist without their labor; and that ultimately, they would revolt against the Bourgeoisie, taking over the factories and even the government, the latter manifested by the declaration of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This form of Class Struggle would bring historical and political significance because it led to the creation of new states like the Soviet Union, which during the October Revolution of 1917, saw the successful triumph of the Proletariat worker over the wealthy and powerful Bourgeoisie.

Marx’s life in the Industrial Revolution allowed him to critically analyze the positives and negatives of the era. As mentioned before, numerous European countries experienced rapid economic development where the countries’ overall wealth and GDP was boosted because of advanced technology and industrious technique. However, Marx was also able to witness the daily lives of the everyday and lower classed working person, who were not only men but also women and children. Thus, he came to many conclusions from such empirical observations. For instance, as stated before, he realized that in these capitalistic societies of Industrial Era Europe, there would be a Class Struggle between the oppressive Bourgeoisie of the wealthy and factory owners and the Proletariat working people. This would have political significance not only in theory, as many leaders adopted his tenets, but also in practice, as captured by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Of an equal importance, Marx also came to the conclusion that the Industrial Revolution brought about many problems that particularly negatively affected the Proletariat. Note that many of these problems were pressing to the Proletariat during those times but were, sadly, deemed normal and standard by society and by the Bourgeoisie and their factories and ownership. Luckily, in the present day, some of these problems seen by him are solved, whether partially or fully, through a variety of means. Particularly, for this essay, Marx saw problems that dealt with labor and work in the capitalist Industrial Age Europe. For historical context, during the Industrial Revolution and in England particularly, the workday could range from ten to sixteen hours for the factory worker and the use of child labor was prevalent, whether it be in the textile mills, iron foundries, or the coal mines, etc. Regarding the work day, Marx writes in his Das Kapital of 1867 that the reduction of work hours to eight hours was the best, stating that “By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production … not only produces a deterioration of human labor power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labor power itself” (Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 10: The Working Day). Thus, Marx argues that having a long ten to sixteen hour work day would not only be detrimental to the capitalist notion of production via industry but also the social strain that would affect the everyday worker, as he or she would suffer harsh physical conditions that can lead to “premature exhaustion” and even death. The second problem Marx saw with labor was regarding child labor, which he states in The Communist Manifesto, “10. … Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form” (Caste 268). Marx saw child labor as a problem of his time and was a strong critic of it which he even publicly spoke. For instance, in his Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association of 1864, he states that the “British industry, which, vampirelike, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood” (Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association). This vivid excerpt underscores Marx’s belief that the existing capitalist and industry-based system was a negative “vampirelike” institution that would take advantage and “run its machine” by considering the single child as a “cog in the wheel.” Furthermore, in his Das Kapital, Marx mentions how “A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any certificate of birth, [and] yesterday, in England, [was] the capitalised blood of children” (Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 10: The Working Day). This lucid quote emphasizes how capitalist societies such as the United States and England amid the Industrial Revolution heavily relied on the labor of the child, often forcing the child to work hard and put their blood, toils, and sweat to fulfill the profiteering desires of the Bourgeoisie. Altogether, these two vivid and jarring excerpts elucidate Marx’s philosophy that children should not contribute to production with their child factory labor that often entailed high working hours in a dangerous environment (e.g. British child miners with lung disease or American Lowell textile mill girls with accidents/injuries, etc.) but instead contribute through “free education for all children in public schools,” where an essential “combination of education with industrial production” would be far more beneficial to society (Caste 268). Bearing what Marx espoused in his original written texts regarding work hours, work week, and child labor—problems he believed plagued the Industrial Revolution—in mind, I personally believe they are still pertinent, pressing, and relevant around the world in a myriad of countries, but in vary degrees and scale. For instance, certain countries like Colombia have work weeks over 40 hours while some are 40 hours or less. Additionally, countries like South Korea and many European countries have drastically cut their weekly work hours over a short period of time, whereas countries like Mexico have remained stagnant with weekly work hours in the 40’s. Finally, some countries that are less developed do not have the means to regulate the work hour and day, which can lead to hardship and unfair treatment to the worker. Regarding child labor specifically, a CNN article published in 2013 titled “The 10 worst countries for child labor” identifies that “Eritrea, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Yemen as the 10 places where child labor is most prevalent” (CNN). These countries are rated as “extreme” in their child labor prevalence rank and a common theme is present because they are developing countries, some which experienced conflict and turmoil while others with poverty, overpopulation, and lack of education, etc. All in all, this statistic elucidates how the problem of child labor that Marx saw during his life in the Industrial Revolution is still a real and pressing problem today. This is because many children are still affected with workplace and bodily harm, much like the young coal miners and mill girls of the 19th century, and they toil hard in unsafe conditions with meager pay and a lack of basic human rights. With this negative real-world scenario in mind, I believe that the problem of child labor has been partially solved over time with history, but it is never solved because it is a fact that child labor is prevalent in some place in the world as mentioned before. The reason I believe this is because there have been considerable advancements regarding the implementation of practice of child labor. Overall, according to Our World In Data, a scientific online publication with affiliation with Oxford University, child labor rates as a whole has been decreasing over time. Much of this has stemmed from the progressive reforms and legislation that affected certain but not all countries throughout history and politics. With the case of the United States, I believe that the problem of child labor is fully solved via the combination of reforms and history from both the past and present. For instance, the protests towards reform in the early-mid 19th century Antebellum Era led by the Lowell Mill Girls and other reformers set a strong foundation for a mentality against child labor. Then, with the enactment of legislation and landmark rulings from the Supreme Court further pushed towards the ban and eradication of child labor. For instance, the earlier 1916 Keating-Owen Act set the legislative foundation towards child labor laws (though it would be nullified by Supreme Court’s ruling in Hammer v. Dagenhart two years later) and served as important precedent to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits minors and children as labor to this very day. All in all, I believe that the problem of child labor has, over time through reform and legislation, been completely solved in the United States today. Hence, I can say confidently that child labor in the United States is not prevalent compared to Marx’s time in the Industrial Revolution.

In a concluding manner, I firmly believe that the political philosophy, critiques, and ideas of Marx (and Engels in some), espoused eloquently in his notable works such as The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, smaller speeches, etc. are highly relevant to the world today. Broadly, I believe that his political and economic philosophy, famously referred to as Marxism, has impacted the government and political systems of the world historically and ultimately shaped countries and leaders of today. For instance, Marxism served as a foundational and ideological reference for the Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) who would establish a People’s Republic China. To this day, China is a Communist state with firm foundation and influence of Maoism or “Mao Zedong Thought,” a variant of Marxism-Leninism. I would like to note that Marxism influenced Maoism but there are some key differences, like Maoism’s emphasis on the agrarian peasant farmer as the backbone of the revolution (instead of the urban Proletariat working class), agricultural collectivization, and the shaping of a Chinese identity. Nevertheless, this notion of a political tradition with influences from Marxism is highly relevant today because it outlines the politics and government of the present-day China. Finally, Marxism had a direct historical and political impact into the creation and founding of the world’s first Communist State—the Soviet Union. This was because Marxism was an ideological foundation that was heeded by the Proletariats as they successfully revolted in the 1917 October Revolution. The Marxist notions of Class Struggle between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, and the former’s victory and the resulting “dictatorship of the proletariat” brought forth an entirely new political culture and government. More specifically, among others, the collectivization of industry, the conversion or otherwise execution of the Bourgeoisie, and a state-controlled command economy. Thus, I essentially believe that Marxism was successfully implemented into the Soviet Union, which in itself served as a beacon for Communism that would influence other countries through time; and in conclusion, I firmly believe overall that these country cases within political history elucidate the significance and lasting impacts of Marxist thought.


Source and Reference Texts:
  • Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto (I. Bourgeois and Proletarians; II. Proletarians and Communists; IV. Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties)
  • Marx: Das Kapital (Volume 1, Chapter 10: The Working Day)
  • Marx: Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association 


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