Critiquing Marxism: The Role of Ideas in History

By Mason Mohon | USA

Ideas make or break a state of things. The status quo only perpetuates itself because popular opinion is in favor of it. We saw many instances of ideas shaping the state of things in American history alone. When the colonists decided that they were fed up with a monarchist society, they revolted, and it only took a small minority. They held close the ideas of the enlightenment, which gave them the drive to gain independence. In the South in the 1850’s a minority of “Fire Eaters” pushed so strongly against the American Union that they got many major states to secede, culminating in a war. They managed this by showing the pressure the Northern states had begun to put on Southern slavery. Most people in America are contented with a Democratic-Republican government, so there is no radical opposition to the status-quo as there was in those times. Recent history in America alone shows that ideas are what change societies and these ideas are held by the individuals.

The specificity of how this change occurs, though, is not clear. The German philosopher and economist Karl Marx argued that societal change and historical development occurred with the advancement of the material productive forces of society. Once they had advanced, the next step could be achieved. In stark opposition, the Pioneering Austrian economist and sociologist Ludwig von Mises argued that historical development and societal change was done through individuals. Along with their action, which was backed up by their ideas about the world. In the Misesian view, ideas were the driving force of society. In Marx’s view, the productive forces were what defined society.

The first part to be examined is an excerpt from Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their subsistence men enter into determined and necessary relation with each other which are independent of their wills – production-relations which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces… It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing production-relations… Then comes the epoch of social revolution.

Marx argues that society advances when the material productive forces (the means of production, which includes tools and resources) come into contradiction with the production-relations (the place society has determined for a person) that is when society may advance and reach its next level. Marx states that these relations do not spring from the consciousness of men, but rather the consciousness of men stems from the society, for he did state that “It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence but on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness.” Marx states that a man’s ideas are shaped by the world around him and are the result of the influences upon him, rather than them being his own. Furthermore, Marx states the man’s entire consciousness is not his own, but rather should be accredited to the world around him.

Marx described an example of this being the transition from feudalism to industrialism in The Communist Manifesto, where he describes the feudal state of things. He states that the bourgeois built themselves upon the feudal system. Then eventually, the feudal structure had become incompatible to produce in the same way that it had with its current level of production-forces. The result was that “In their places stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted to it.” Because of this, Marx argues that the bourgeois class has a particular sway in the ideas of society, and hence, they can bend what is true, resulting in economics seeming to always work in their favor. This essentially just supplies Marx with a historical example of his theory in action.

Mises stood in opposition to this. His theory was that ideas were the driving force of humanity and its progress. Beginning with the action axiom, the statement that man acts, Mises deduced that man acts based on ideas that compel him to act, whether it is to merely quench thirst or hunger, or if it is to start a business or paint a painting. On a broader scale, though, these ideas could change everything, causing societies to change their entire course. In revolutionary America, it was the ideas of John Locke and the layman spread through Thomas Paine, who were both individuals, that resulted in the societal change and transition to a new type of government. Mises went as far as to say on page 184 of Human Action that “There is no other means of preventing social disintegration and of safeguarding the steady improvement of human conditions than those of reason.” In Mises’ view, it is reason, logic, and thought that is responsible for the upkeep of humanity.

The issue with the Marxist view is that it starts with society, and says that the individuals are shaped because of its existence. While a group or society most likely will influence the members of it, this does not mean it is the sole shaper of the people within. Society starts with the individual, for the individual is the one who acts and creates the society. Societies are made of individuals, and without them they are nothing. Individuals can exist without society, and hence, individuals are the basic building blocks of society. The must be the focus of where the trends of society come from, and in result, they are the focus of where the change comes from. As Robert Murphy said in his book Choice, “sharing… economic deductions with the masses [is] a moral duty because the fate of civilization itself rested on teaching enough people the truth.” In the Misesian view, society and its changes are shaped by the advancement of ideas which spread to what popular opinion is, not a vaguely defined material productive force and its clash with production-relations.