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Wong, Jason

Social Studies 10a

Nicolas Prevelakis
November 13, 2007
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Politics and Popular Culture in Historical Materialism

In this essay I discuss the nature of Karl Marx’s historical materialism and

evaluate his philosophy in terms of modern day examples. While Marx was right

about many things, including the tendency of capitalists to exploit workers in his time

and to this day, I argue that he did not adequately take into account the political and

cultural influences on human history in his materialist conception of history. Instead,

he emphasized economic conditions which motivate change in human history.

Throughout the essay I use several examples to support the importance of political

and culture influences on the development of society, such as stock options,

psychology, political aspirations, etc. In the end I use China as an example to show

the complexity of politics, culture, and economics in historical developments to both

prove certain aspects of Marx’s philosophy, and disprove other aspects of Marx’s

historical materialism.

During the 19th century, laborers worked in squalid conditions for subsistence

wages. A great question of that time was how society would react to labor

exploitation, and what political processes would be devised to ensure that the poor

were taken care of. To this day, in many places such as parts of China and Africa, this

question still exists. The conditions of extreme labor exploitation led Karl Marx (1818

to 1883), a political philosopher whose methodological study of history, economics

and philosophy influenced his understanding of human society, to the conception of

historical materialism. An important tenet of historical materialism invokes the role of

economics in the development of human society. Human history, he believed, is

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shaped by the methodology and quantity of goods and commodities that humans are

able to produce. The rise of China and the growth of popular culture in the United

States show, however, that his use of historical materialism and reliance on economic

circumstances, particularly the conditions of the laborer, to explain the inevitable rise

of communism from capitalism is fundamentally flawed. While people in general are

motivated by their economic condition to seek improvement, historical evidence has

shown that the economic condition of mankind is one of several factors that influence


Marx’s materialist conception of history is that human history is a linear

development between human societies and modes of production. Marx derives his

authority in being able to forecast the future rise of communism based on the

predictable nature of linear history. A basic premise in historical materialism involves

the tension between social classes. To establish this tension, Marx begins with the

basic idea that humans create commodities and their means of subsistence through a

combination of nature and human labor, which he defines as the mode of production.

Marx observes that the division of labor, however, is unequal—which results in the

division of social classes. Inherent conflict exists between the economic base and the

social superstructure of society when the modes of production develop more rapidly

than changes to the relations of production. Finally, the superstructure of society

evolves when an emerging class overcomes the dominant class and creates a new

social superstructure to fit these changes in production.

Following Marx’s theory, there have been several historical stages of economic

development which have led to new superstructures of society: tribal society, ancient

society, feudalism, and capitalism. Marx states that each superstructure was adapted

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to fit the new economic conditions of that time. In Marx’s theory of socio-economics,

capitalism divides human labor between the work force and those who own the means

of production. Those who own the means of production have acquired the role of

masters, and those who provide human labor serve as slaves. The relationship

between master and slave is shaped by the capitalist social superstructure that keeps

order in society and allows the current economic condition to persist. The capitalist

superstructure, Marx asserts, will fall when the next reforms to modes of production

are made.

According to Marx, inherent contradictions within the capitalist system will

result in capitalism’s downfall. In his A Contribution to the Critique of Political

Economy, Marx states that “The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic

form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual

antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions

of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create

also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism.”1 Therefore, the rise of

communism from capitalism, according to Marx, is inevitable because of inherent

tensions within the rules of capitalist society itself, not of the people who comprise

capitalist society. Furthermore, in The German Ideology, Marx states that millions of

“excluded” proletariats and communists will, in time, lead a revolution in which to force

their inclusion into society.2 This is problematic because it is based on a faulty

This quote is derived from a Marxist online database of Marx’s writings. The website sources K.
Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977
Marx, Karl The German Ideology Norton The Marx Engels Reader, Second Edition Page 168
reads “Thus if millions of proletarians feel by no means contented with their living conditions, if their
“existence” does not in the least correspond to their “essence,” then, according to the passage
quoted, this is an unavoidable misfortune, which must be borne quietly. The millions of proletarians
and communists, however, think differently and will prove this in time, when they bring their
“existence” into harmony with their “essence” in a practical way, by means of a revolution.”

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assumption. First, Marx assumes that proletariats are excluded from society and that

their interests are mutually excludable from those of the “bourgeoisie” and the

capitalist. Such an assumption underemphasizes and neglects the role of political,

cultural, and other incidental and/or spontaneous events in human history that do not

necessarily arise from economic conditions.

Marx’s idea that the proletariats are excluded from society and that their

interests are mutually excludable from those of the capitalist can be explored in part

six of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, where Marx discusses how capitalists exploit workers

through unpaid labor and conceal exploitation under the guise of paying wages. In

effect, once the laborer is hired by the capitalist for a period of time, the worker no

longer owns his labor-power. Marx states that “as soon as his labour actually begins,

it has already ceased to belong to him; it can therefore no longer be sold by him.

Labour is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but it has no value

itself.”3 In this manner, the capitalist can exploit the worker by deriving more value

from his laborer during the working day than the capitalist pays the worker.

As the value of labour is only an irrational expression for the value of labour-power, it follows
of course that the value of labour must always be less than its value-product, for the
capitalist always makes labour-power work longer than is necessary for the reproduction of
its own value. In the above example, the value of the labour-power that functions through 12
hours is 3 shillings, which requires 6 hours for its reproduction. The value which the labour-
power produces is however 6 shillings, because it in fact functions during 12 hours, and its
value-product depends, not on its own value, but on the length of time it is in action.4
In this example, the capitalist pays three shillings for an entire day’s labor that creates

six shillings worth of value. To Marx, the idea that labor-value could create six

shillings of wealth and yet only be worth three shillings is an absurd contradiction

within the modes of production in capitalist society. Marx continues to argue in

subsequent chapters that the surplus profits of the capitalist who underpays their

Marx, Karl Capital, Volume One Penguin Classics Part 6 Chapter 19 Page 677
Marx, Karl Capital, Volume One Penguin Classics Part 6 Chapter 19 Page 679 to 680

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laborers is used to maintain worker-laborer versus owner-operator class relations that

are perpetuated in a cycle of capital accumulation, re-investment, and under-payment

for labor services.

Modern theories on economics and modern examples conflict with the Marxist

view of labor exploitation and capital accumulation. First of all, Marx’s theories on the

exploitation of laborers would lead us to believe that capitalism will predominantly

breed two classes in modern society and that their interests conflict: the low-paid

worker class and a smaller upper-echelon of individuals who own the means of

production. In the United States, this does not seem to be the case. Most households

currently occupy a decidedly middle area of the income spectrum. Marx doesn’t take

into account United States government policy that enhances its middle class, and the

rise of a white-collar professional class that was a relatively smaller sector of his 19th

Century European experience. Furthermore, Marx doesn’t take into the account the

benefits of capitalist re-investment into society. By raising the amount of goods and

commodities available to consumers and by increasing efficiency and productivity

through new inventions or new production methodologies, the innovative capitalist is

able to raise the living standard of everyone in society. In essence, as the saying

goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. There are also many examples of rich capitalists

such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Rockefeller, and Warren Buffett, who re-invested their

riches not only in capital development, but also directly in society itself.

In fact, the interests of a company’s success and a company’s workforce can

be intertwined in many ways. Most directly, the interests of a company and its

workforce can be merged through employee stock options. A real-life example of this

can be seen in the case of Bonnie Brown, who was Google’s in-house masseuse but

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who is now a multi-millionaire because of her Google stock options5. Therefore, the

benefits of increased corporate profit and efficiency do not have to be monopolized by

an elite class that excludes the proletariat. Furthermore, most workers in the United

States who have a retirement account, or who own a brokerage account, have (and

are currently) invested in corporations and are thereby directly affected by corporate

growth and profits. Secondly, and this is especially true in the modern state,

companies are increasingly competing for skilled employees. With the proliferation of

public schools and the increased availability of colleges since Marx’s time, access to

these jobs and demand for these skilled employees are at its highest at any point in

history. Thirdly, Marx doesn’t take into account the psychological relationship between

the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in instances where the proletariat’s goals may be

similar to that of the bourgeoisie. In some cases, a number of proletariats may come

to identify with the bourgeoisie and similarly desire the continuation of capitalism in the

hopes of one day owning the factory that he/she works in, which is possible in our fluid

society. These psychological implications are more complex than Marx details in his

philosophical texts. Finally, un-skilled employees are able to resort to unions and

government in order to address their needs so that they are not entirely excluded to

the degree that Marx implies. Companies may even offer perks and higher wages

preemptively in order to prevent their employees from organizing, such as in the case

of Starbucks. Workers are able to organize without resorting to revolutions in order to

get management and/or government to address their needs.

Marx would correctly point out, however, that even in light of these

circumstances there is still a vast income inequality between the richest members of


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society compared to that of the poorest members of society—and that this disparity is

increasing. Another counter-argument is that the excluded proletariat does exist, if not

within the same country such as that of the United States or Japan or England, then it

exists in other countries such as Bangladesh and Mexico. If there is to be a proletariat

revolution, however, it does not seem likely that the currently most advanced countries

such as Japan, United States, England, Germany, etc. are ready to move toward

communism. Their support would be necessary for a worldwide switch from

capitalism into communism. Furthermore, movements toward more democratic

governments have negated many of the needs of the proletariats to revolt. In this

case, Marx might have been right about the tendency of the capitalist to take

advantage of the lower classes and increase their wealth, but his solution may be too

extreme. United States and Western European history has shown this to be the case

(so far), because they have resorted to shaping social policy to help the proletariat

rather than switch from a capitalist society to a socialist society. These are the very

states that Marx believed would lead the change toward communism because of the

great labor exploitation of his time. Then again, it is true that there are companies that

are still known to be exploitative in their labor policies, a prominent example would be

Wal-Mart. Even in the case of Wal-Mart, however, the company has responded to

widespread negative criticisms and has started offering more perks and health care to

its workforce.

Marx argues on another level that the alienation of workers from society also

exists fundamentally when humans sell their labor and are consequently removed

from their labor-product. In conceding this point to Marx (some jobs are undeniably

dull), I would argue that the effects of worker alienation has been lessened through

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the development of popular culture since Marx’s time. While workers may be

alienated from their labor, after work and on weekends laborers have the opportunity

to pursue their hobbies and interests, or partake in social mass culture as an outlet for

creativity. Furthermore, especially in countries such as the United States, typically its

most impoverished citizens (excluding extreme examples), that is to say a great

majority of its citizens, earn a living that supports some luxury. That is to say, most

people have a television, access to a computer, access to books, and social clubs and

organizations, etc. that allow them to enjoy life and these luxuries negate some of the

need for revolution. Even citizens who cannot afford these luxuries in the United

States are able to access them through public services such as libraries, affordable

housing for the poor, social welfare, etc.

In his “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, Marx

states that it is the economic condition of man that determines man’s social

consciousness. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general

process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that

determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their

consciousness.”6 Considering this philosophy, the economic conditions of China

should not have led to the People’s Revolution in the 20th Century. Rather, the poor

economic conditions of the Chinese at the beginning of the 20th Century should

logically, in Marx’s linear historical development theory, first lead to capitalism and

then to communism. China, however, skips capitalism and moves right into

communism. How and why did this happen? There is a strong argument that political

influences helped China make the leap to capitalism. Even though the country has
This quote is derived from a Marxist online database of Marx’s writings. The website sources K.
Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977

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largely switched to a capitalist economy, the Communist Party is still the primary

political party of modern China. While this example may prove that Marx

underestimated the role that political aspirations of people such as Mao Zedong may

play in the making of human history; China’s failure as a communist state is evidence

supporting Marx’s theory that states need to move to a proper level of productive

capacity only available to capitalists, before successfully moving onto the communist

stage. Regardless, it has been shown that political and cultural influences, shaped in

part by popular culture, psychology, technology, etc. complicates Marx’s reliance on

economics as the driving factor behind the development of human history.