Individualism and the Industrial Revolution
[Marxism Unmasked (2006)]
Liberals stressed the importance of the individual. The 19th-century liberals already considered the development of the individual the most important thing. “Individual and individualism” was the progressive and liberal slogan. Reactionaries had already attacked this position at the beginning of the 19th century.
The rationalists and liberals of the 18th century pointed out that what was needed was good laws. Ancient customs that could not be justified by rationality should be abandoned. The only justification for a law was whether or not it was liable to promote the public social welfare. In many countries the liberals and rationalists asked for written constitutions, the codification of laws, and for new laws which would permit the development of the faculties of every individual.
A reaction to this idea developed, especially in Germany where the jurist and legal historian Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779–1861) was active. Savigny declared that laws cannot be written by men; laws are developed in some mystical way by the soul of the whole unit. It isn’t the individual that thinks—it is the nation or a social entity which uses the individual only for the expression of its own thoughts. This idea was very much emphasized by Marx and the Marxists. In this regard the Marxists were not followers of Hegel, whose main idea of historical evolution was an evolution toward freedom of the individual.
From the viewpoint of Marx and Engels, the individual was a negligible thing in the eyes of the nation. Marx and Engels denied that the individual played a role in historical evolution. According to them, history goes its own way. The material productive forces go their own way, developing independently of the wills of individuals. And historical events come with the inevitability of a law of nature. The material productive forces work like a director in an opera; they must have a substitute available in case of a problem, as the opera director must have a substitute if the singer gets sick. According to this idea, Napoleon and Dante, for instance, were unimportant—if they had not appeared to take their own special place in history, someone else would have appeared on stage to fill their shoes.
To understand certain words, you must understand the German language. From the 17th century on, considerable effort was spent in fighting the use of Latin words and in eliminating them from the German language. In many cases a foreign word remained although there was also a German expression with the same meaning. The two words began as synonyms, but in the course of history, they acquired different meanings. For instance, take the word Umwälzung, the literal German translation of the Latin word revolution. In the Latin word there was no sense of fighting. Thus, there evolved two meanings for the word “revolution”—one by violence, and the other meaning a gradual revolution like the “Industrial Revolution.” However, Marx uses the German word Revolution not only for violent revolutions such as the French or Russian revolutions, but also for the gradual Industrial Revolution.
Incidentally, the term Industrial Revolution was introduced by Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883). Marxists say that “What furthers the overthrow of capitalism is not revolution—look at the Industrial Revolution.”
Marx assigned a special meaning to slavery, serfdom, and other systems of bondage. It was necessary, he said, for the workers to be free in order for the exploiter to exploit them. This idea came from the interpretation he gave to the situation of the feudal lord who had to care for his workers even when they weren’t working. Marx interpreted the liberal changes that developed as freeing the exploiter of the responsibility for the lives of the workers. Marx didn’t see that the liberal movement was directed at the abolition of inequality under law, as between serf and lord.
Karl Marx believed that capital accumulation was an obstacle. In his eyes, the only explanation for wealth accumulation was that somebody had robbed somebody else. For Karl Marx the whole Industrial Revolution simply consisted of the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists. According to him, the situation of the workers became worse with the coming of capitalism. The difference between their situation and that of slaves and serfs was only that the capitalist had no obligation to care for workers who were no longer exploitable, while the lord was bound to care for slaves and serfs. This is another of the insoluble contradictions in the Marxian system. Yet it is accepted by many economists today without realizing of what this contradiction consists.
According to Marx, capitalism is a necessary and inevitable stage in the history of mankind leading men from primitive conditions to the millennium of socialism. If capitalism is a necessary and inevitable step on the road to socialism, then one cannot consistently claim, from the point of view of Marx, that what the capitalist does is ethically and morally bad. Therefore, why does Marx attack the capitalists?
Marx says part of production is appropriated by the capitalists and withheld from the workers. According to Marx, this is very bad. The consequence is that the workers are no longer in a position to consume the whole production produced. A part of what they have produced, therefore, remains unconsumed; there is “underconsumption.” For this reason, becaus
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