Magoosh GRE

Critically assess Marx’s concept of base and superstructure and their development in Marxist thought as part of a radical critique of modern and contemporary society.

| March 4, 2015


Like so many concepts that became incorporated into Marx’s critical worldview exploitation already existed as a loosely defined, generally applied and universal principle. Marx sharply specified the idea of exploitation (Shaikh 1990), defining it by its function within the ubiquitous model of social and political economy which became the focus of his powerful critique of contemporary society. It is this highly specified concept that will be covered within this essay, defined by its operational position within Marx’s model of society and in the critical assessments he and others have derived from this model.

The critical assessments did not end with Marx: The power of his argumentation is evidenced by its ongoing critical relevance: his Critique of Political economy is arguably as definitive, predictive and universal now as it was when Capital (Marx 1867) was published in 1967. After defining the concept of exploitation and its place within the critique of capitalism, the second objective of this essay is to consider the extent and relevance of its application in a modern context. This consideration will take into account the widespread theories which either confront or are defined by the application of Marx’s arguments to a modern context. The huge number of incidences in the modern world where social happenings reflect the progress and outcomes of exploitation as outlined by Marx and further to this, where such happenings can be predicted by Marx’s model, prove the power of this model. However the world has changed hugely and the application in the modern context does have limits, it was conceived a century and a half ago. These limits will also be assessed in order to reach a balanced conclusion regarding the effectiveness of a critique of modern society based on Marx’s original idea of exploitation.

The existence of a system where the rich benefit from the work of the poor had been self evident long before Marx, with slavery, feudalism and monarchic rule. This fact is unequivocal. At the time when Marx began writing this was seen as natural, necessary and just, despite liberal sentiments and powerful uprisings in Europe and America the poor as well as the rich generally accepted the status quo as a matter of course. Even Hegel, from whose work Marx derived his own theories, considered it necessary (Hegel 1821), though the scientific and logical purity of his motivations for this is a source of controversy (Tunick 2011). This inevitable characterisation of the political status quo was the source of a major theoretical divergence between Marx and his preceptor, as well as the source of the major debate which began his refinement of the concept of exploitation.

In fact the concept that would become exploitation was first handled by Marx in ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ (1844a; trans: MacLellan 1972) where Marx began to consider the universal nature of exploitation in the form of “A class with radical chains … a sphere of society having a universal character because of its universal suffering” (MacLellan 1972; pp. 73). The central position of the critique was that this kind of exploitation was not natural or justified by virtue of its necessity but a derivation of economic circumstances and therefore the ‘Philosophy of Right’ was equally unnatural and artificial. This belief would stay with Marx and eventually form the motivation for the Manifesto (Marx 1848) and the theoretical basis of Capital (Marx 1867), in turn leading to the revolutions which Marx inspired.

The realisation that the status quo is neither inevitable nor necessary has been as much a major precedent of recent revolutions just as Marx’s ideas preceded the revolutions that claimed him as their inciters (Michael-Matsas 2011). The originators of the various revolutions grouped under the name ‘the Arab Spring’ saw that there was ‘another way’, the social and mass media showed the artificial nature of their exploitation by giving the people a taste of the alternative of a free, uncorrupted labour market and full emancipation (Fayad, 2011). It would be a gross oversimplification to claim that the recognition of exploitation was the prime motivation for the revolutions, Fayad identifies a number of others contributing in different ways, human rights abuses being a major one, however it unequivocally played a part: In Egypt the revolution’s instigator is often identified as Asmaa Mafouz, who distributed a video pointing out that there was another way which was achievable, further she outlined how the ruling classes had become so corrupt and unjust that their people were starving and that there had to be a revolution (Kligman 2011).

Mafouz’s sense of immanence and inevitability is something else which Marx would have empathised with, in his 1844 critique he first identified the pervasive and unnatural exploitation of the Proletariat as inevitably resulting in revolution. The critique was a very basic summary of Marx’s concept of an economy based on exploitation for capital gain. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844b) he began to flesh out his model operationally, in so doing he further defined the concept of exploitation on which the capitalist system was based.

These manuscripts were the first publications where Marx identified the ironic aspect of exploitation which sharply defined it and differentiated his interpretation from more general ideas of exploitation. In nature the harder a man strives, the more he gains from the fruits of their labour, or his own surplus capital. However in his exploited position the surplus capital benefits his exploiter, who can use this surplus capital to increase his own position by building bigger factories and further dividing the labour so that the exploited have a smaller role which is less valuable and powerful, in other words “The more the worker exerts himself the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, the less belongs to him.” (MacLellan 1972; pp. 78). Here Marx’s critique goes beyond merely stating that the exploited situation of the proletariat is bad, one of his arguably most powerful critical assertions about social economics is that the work that keeps the proletariat alive also increases its oppression, allowing the exploiters to improve the institutions which exploit them. The workers work is turned to disenfranchise him.

Through history since Marx increasing technology, emancipation and suffrage in certain parts of the world has meant that the universal norm of exploitation identified by Marx has changed its nature. Since the time of The Manuscripts and Capital the world has seen huge numbers exploited in the way that Marx outlined, the Holocaust (Beams, 2010) and the ‘Great leap forward’ (Teiwes & Sun 1999) being the most infamous and absolute in history. Each case is unique and each spawned misdirected criticism of the Marxist agenda: The word misdirected shouldn’t be read as an proposition that the Marxist model is unequivocal, merely that these popular critical case studies of its application in the formation of the modern world are misguided as outlined below in the case of the holocaust.

The holocaust was seen by numerous political and social theorists as an indication of Marxism’s lack of predictive and effective power, or as Enzo Traverzo (1999) argued: “This history [of the holocaust] shows both the ambiguity of the Enlightenment and its heirs, including Marxism, and the extreme forms of barbarism that modern civilization can take.” Pp. 5 The argument lodged to back this statement is that Marx’s notoriously predictive model had entirely failed to predict the inhumanity of the holocaust and further to this, that the revolutions predicted by Marx were either absent or has merely resulted in an empty, exploitative form of modernity. This fairly unilateral criticism of the Marxist system by a former Marxist was found wanting by many of its own critics, including the author himself who in a later preamble called the critique “harsh” though he stood by it and maintained its basis on the holocaust as the “acid test” of Marxist theory (2001).

Many subsequent critics of the argument went far beyond this qualification, Beams (2010) summarised these views into a flaw in the understanding of both modernity and Marxism, particularly Marxist exploitation. As far as modernity is concerned the concept was seen as vaguely and superficially outlined as a basis for criticising one of the most clearly and integrated social models in history. More poignantly the very idea that the Holocaust is the anathema of Marxist prediction is based on a narrow interpretation of its central idea of exploitation and the other ideas associated with it. The ‘modern’ issues of race and colonial desire are identified by Traverzo as the motivations for the holocaust, not capitalist exploitation for financial reasons. However in his 1844 Critique (1844a) and in Capital (1867) Marx notes the wide array of forms that exploitation can take, from feudalism to slavery.

Given that the Jews under Hitler were put to work in work camps then killed when their work was no longer needed a Marxist reading of this event was seen as almost obvious, not least by Trotsky who wrote “In the epoch of its rise, capitalism took the Jewish people out of the ghetto and utilized them as an instrument in its commercial expansion. Today decaying capitalism is striving to squeeze the Jewish people from all its pores” (1970: pp. 29). Trotsky saw modern anti-Semitism as merely a twist on the Marxist model, a new form of Marx’s exploitation for which a restatement of Marx’s original consideration of ‘The Jewish Question’ was needed. Traverzo meanwhile was deemed a disillusioned radical who expected the revolution too soon by Beams whose commentary should be qualified as a socialist one commissioned by the Fourth International. Despite the criticism it seems that Traverzo had identified a serious limit to the application of the Marxist model, the holocaust stretches the idea of exploitation even if it does not break it.

More recently racism and Marx-style exploitation have once gone hand in hand in South Africa where Nelson Mandela purports to be a student of Marx (Eagleton 2011), an accurate number cannot be given to the number of cases in the world today where this similar exploitation is practiced. Eaglton and others acknowledge that nation as well as race has become a widespread basis for exploitation once again, the critical issue here is that geographical detachment reduces the visibility of exploitation. If one looks at the UK in isolation a true proletariat of people who have become disenfranchised working commodities might be hard to see, not least because of the socialist based welfare state. However if the study is widened to include the foreign national suppliers who meet the UK’s resource demands the picture is quite different. These inequalities define the contemporary international context politically, socially and economically, insofar as the brief consideration of this assessment has summarised them they appear to critically fit with Marx’s concepts of exploitation and capital. However a hugely popular political solution to the inequalities diverges from the Marx model hugely in its forecast: Neoliberalism, notably a restatement of the principles from which Marx’s theory originated and ultimately split with (Marx 1844b), requires no conceptual revolution and no destitute and dehumanised proletariat to precede it. This is advantageous and comforting in both a theoretical and practical sense, however its critical validity is frequently questioned with reference to Marx. This debate has coloured contemporary critical thinking about Marxism more than almost anything else since the end of the cold war.

In his early critical thought as a student of Hegelian idealism Marx held a liberal view acknowledging the exploitation of the lower classes as a product of a society with less than perfect ideals. The natural progression from this premise in the eyes of the enlightenment thinkers is to suggest a refocusing of those ideals on the prospects of liberty and equality (Singer 1996). He then moved away from this idea, considering a revolution to be a necessary and inevitable part of the change of society (1844a, 1848). Society and critical though followed a similar route away from liberal ideals, partly as a result of Marx’s new critical construct, partly as a result of fascism and rampant nationalism. Hot and cold wars, reinterpretations and misinterpretations, Marx’s philosophies came into contention with the very liberal goals which had spawned them in the beginning. At the end of the historical cycle lies neoliberalism, where once again a refocusing of ideals to solve the problems of the oppressed and exploited is proposed.

This new form of liberalism is a far more highly politicised and globalised form. Recognising that idealism is global and institutional and needs a solution in kind (Kegley & Wittkopf 2001). This new school of thought continues the contention with Marxism based on its premise that exploitation is a product of ill-thinking rather than an inherent product of capitalism. However some critical ground has been given to the Marxists, in the acceptance that exploitation can be inherent within certain capitalist societies but is not inherent within capitalism itself, thus nothing but the destruction of that particular society through revolution can alleviate the problems of the exploited in such a maligned society (O’Connor 2010). Hegel’s (1821) assertion that freedom can only be achieved through maintaining sovereignty, and that all leaders can be brought around to the liberal way of thought no longer holds sway, western politics has taken the step that Marx took in his 1844 (a) critique of Hegel.

The practical implications of this critical change are evident in the policies of liberal interventionism, the most practical application of neoliberal theories and the most widely applied. It was neoliberalism that led the Blair government to put critical theory into practice and overthrow the incumbent sovereign powers in Afghanistan and Iraq (Plant 2008). It was also arguably liberal interventionism which led the world to support the Libyan rebels in their own revolution in the Arab spring. From a liberal interventionalist point of view revolution is still often, although not always, necessary to alleviate exploitation. The resultant ideal is not the type of society that Marx and Engels laid out in their Communist Manifesto (1867) but a capitalist society of liberty, fraternity and egality which the thinkers of the enlightenment would sympathise with. The end is still a purely liberal one, but the means have taken on some of Marx’s realist acknowledgement of the necessity of revolution.

In liberal interventionism neoliberalism came closer to a critical reunification with Marx’s philosophy, however one of neoliberalism central assertions puts it at odds with the manifesto. Where Hegel relied on sovereigns to do what is right, neoliberalism relies on capitalist states and the banking systems that support them. If we look at history the rapid spread of democracy and the all powerful ‘free market agenda’ since the cold war might be said to be evidence in favour of the efficacy and even the feasibility of this system (O’Connor 2010). However the recent economic crisis and the public feelings of being exploited for capitalist excess put an interesting twist on this argument. In the UK the labour party has moved away from the Liberal agenda of the third way and even the Conservatives pose ‘The Big Society’ as a solution. In China there are increasing calls for more evidence of community and in Japan the left is victorious. This could easily be seen as evidence of a resistance of capitalism in the face of a kind of modern exploitation by the banks.

In his consideration of exploitation Marx began with liberalism, considered the complexities of religion and human compulsion and arrived at his much vaunted Critical Appraisal of Political Economy (1867). It is interesting and somewhat coincidental that society has, since his considerations, gone through a very similar process. Admittedly this is only one reading of the history of exploitation and there are other equally valid readings. It largely ignores the spectre of communism and its misinterpretations, this is intentional in order to avoid the critical mistake of attributing to Marxism the flaws of tyranny; a mistake frequently made. A mistake which defined the resurgence of critical assessment of Marx by the neoliberals during and after the cold war. The mutual exclusivity of liberal and Marxist readings of exploitation in recent history are not necessary, although they are universal. Indeed it may emerge in the banking crisis that the purely capitalist solution to exploitation needs to incorporate Marxist consideration of exploitation’s cause in order to progress.


Beams, N (2010) Marxism and The Holocaust Lecture Transcript: International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)

Eagleton, T (2011) Why Marx Was Right Newhaven: Yale University Press

Fayad, M. (2011) The Arab Youth Revolution Paradigm: Rights, Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency The Arab World Geographer 14 (2) pp 116-121

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Plant, R (2008) ‘Blair’s Liberal Interventionism’ in. Beech, M. And Lee, S. Ten Years of New Labour. Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan.

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Tunick, M (1991) Hegel’s Justification of Hereditary Monarchy. Journal of the History of Political Thought. 12 (3) pp. 481-496


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