Maoist Rebel News Does Not Understand Marx

Maoist Rebel News and Muke had a debate on whether or not the Soviet Union was socialist. During this debate they had the following exchange:

MRN: Marx doesn’t necessarily stand against the existence of profit inside of socialism because Marx didn’t actually write very much about what socialism is, he wrote more about what communism is than what socialism is.

Muke: . . . Marx says quite specifically almost in the critique of the gotha programme, one of the few places where he does talk about lower phase and higher phase communism, which, by the way he never made a distinction between socialism and communism.

MRN: socialism, communism are two different things

Muke: Well for Marx they’re not, he never made that distinction. There’s only lower phase communism and there’s

MRN: That’s not true

Muke: Really? Where does he?

MRN: Mode of production of socialism is transitory period between the two.

Muke: Um… No. He never said that.

MRN: Do you want a quote?

Muke: I’d love a quote

MRN: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Muke: Yer so that’s from part 4 or 3 of critique of the Gotha? At no point does he use the term socialist there. I totally admit that there is a transitionary period between capitalism and lower phase communism and that is the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx never said that this phase was socialism. That’s something Lenin introduced himself.

MRN: Even if that were true, that its something which Lenin invented, which I don’t believe is true, it would be an irrelevant point.

After the debate Maoist Rebel News wrote a blog post in which he said,

Communism and Socialism are not the same things. His assertion that they are, is totally false. While Marx did not specifically theorize both of these stages of development, it is clear he was referring to two different things.

Communism is a stateless classless society, while he specifically says, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875))

This is clearly differentiating between two things. One cannot have a state and not have a state at the same time. This is referring to two different periods of development. The state is part of the development towards communism.

He continues,

Finally, I will deal with the very core of Xexizy’s argument, which relies on one hugely incorrect idea: communism and socialism are the same things. This claim essentially erases the transitory period between capitalism and communism even if Xexizy claims he doesn’t. He has done so by refusing to acknowledge them as two different things. Essentially, if the society doesn’t conform to the end result of communism, then, therefore, it is capitalism. Such a transformation cannot be carried out instantaneously, this is utopian anarchist garbage. A transitory period in which perfection does not exist is necessary. A building under construction is still a building even if you want to nitpick that it is not the final product. This almost a Nirvana fallacy. If we take him at his word that they are the same, then a higher and lower stage doesn’t exist according to him. He would do well to study quantity into quality as well.

Maoist Rebel New’s view can be summarized as follows: Muke is wrong to think that Marx does not distinguish between socialism and communism because if communism is a stateless society and if Marx advocates a revolutionary state during the transition from capitalism to communism then there must be a mode of production in-between capitalism and communism which has a state. A mode of production cannot after all simultaneously be stateless and have a state. The mode of production which contains the dictatorship of the proletariat is socialism. Given this, Marx holds that the achievement of communism is a three step process during which society transitions from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production and from the socialist mode of production to the communist mode of production.

In arguing this Maoist Rebel News is operating on the false assumption that the only way to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to fully fledged communism is through the notion of an intermediary mode of production called socialism. Marx himself, as Muke correctly pointed out, did not distinguish between socialism and communism. Marx instead held that there was a single mode of production – communism – at two different moments of its development: communism during its phase of becoming, when it is arising out of capitalism and contains the dictatorship of the proletariat, and communism during its phase of being, when it is stateless. To explain what this means I will have to explain a) how Marx thinks about society, b) what Marx thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and c) what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. I shall discuss each in turn. Before I do so its important to note that the ideas presented here do not stem entirely from my own original research but are rather largely based on the ideas presented by the Marxist theorist Michael Lebowitz in his books The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, which I highly recommend.

Marx’s View of Society

For Marx society is a totality, or as he sometimes calls it, an organic system, composed of parts which come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts which form the whole are not separate independent entities but rather co-exist with one another, mutually determine one another, co-define one another and support, constrain or damage one another. This perspective can be seen in the Poverty of Philosophy where Marx writes that an organic system is one “in which all the elements co-exist simultaneously and support one another”. (Marx and Engels 1976, 167) Marx similarly claims in the Grundrisse that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality” in which “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments”, as is “the case with every organic whole.” (Marx 1993, 99-100)

On this view, to understand one part of society you have to understand how it is related to other parts of society and visa versa. You cannot, for example, understand racism in isolation from the rest of society because racism permeates different aspects of society, such as how black women are depicted on television. To understand racism, you therefore have to understand the relations between racism and other parts of society, such as patriarchy and television. Likewise, you cannot fully understand what patriarchy or television are in our society unless you understand how they are related to racism. Crucially the relations that stand between different parts of society themselves constitute what these different parts are. It’s not just that there are relations between racism and patriarchy but that part of what racism is, is its relations with patriarchy and part of what patriarchy is, is its relations with racism. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.

Given this framework, Marx holds that we must think about economic systems as totalities composed of parts that presuppose one another because each part is constituted through its relations with all the other parts. This perspective can be seen throughout Marx’s work. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that,

 in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system. (Marx 1993, 278)

Marx similarly writes in Wage Labour and Capital that,

 capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other. (Marx 2000, 283)

Capitalism is therefore reproduced in so far as a chain of interlocking parts, which presuppose one another, continually create the necessary social relations that not only stand between each part but in addition constitute them. For Marx one of the prime examples of this was the process whereby capitalism continually reproduces the division between capitalists and workers. As Marx writes in Capital Volume I,

The capitalist relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. (Marx 1990, 874)

This process of reproduction begins with capitalists who own the means of production and seek to make profits, and workers, who do not own means of production and so must, in order to reproduce themselves, sell their labour to a capitalist in exchange for a wage. As a result, a worker enters the labour market and competes with other workers for jobs. Once a worker has a job they engage in labour under the direction of a capitalist, who in turn appropriates the products produced by the worker. The capitalist proceeds to sell these products as commodities and pays the worker less than the value that they produce. The worker uses up their wage to buy commodities and thereby reproduce themselves, while the capitalist re-invests their profits in the business and is thereby able to keep earning profits. The cycle then begins again with a worker needing a wage to reproduce themselves and a capitalist needing workers to make profits from.

This narrative can be seen in the Grundrisse where Marx writes that,

 the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. . . the worker produces himself as labour capacity, as well as the capital confronting him, while at the same time the capitalist produces himself as capital as well as the living labour capacity confronting him. Each reproduces itself, by reproducing its other, its negation. The capitalist produces labour as alien; labour produces the product as alien. The capitalist produces the worker, and the worker the capitalist etc. (Marx 1993, 458)

Marx likewise writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

 Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternative rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer. (Marx 1990, 723-4)

For capitalism to be a dominant mode of production is therefore for every economic relation to presuppose every other in its capitalist form, such as the economic relation of selling labour power presupposing the existence of a labour market which in turn presupposes production for profit, the private ownership of the means of production by capitalists, and workers having nothing to sell but their labour power.

Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Society has of course not always been capitalist. Rather, capitalism became the dominant mode of production by displacing a previous economic system – feudalism – in which a very different set of economic relations presupposed one another. To understand the development of capitalism is therefore to understand how it came to establish the chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. From now I will refer to this process as an economy developing its own foundations.

In the Grundrisse Marx conceptualized an economy developing its own foundations as follows,

This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development. (Marx 1993, 278)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between two different moments: when an organic system is in the “process of becoming” a totality and when an organic system is a “totality” or, to use the language Marx uses later in the Grundrisse, is “being”, rather than “becoming”. What exactly Marx means by this can be seen in his discussion of the development of capitalism. When capitalism was in the phase of becoming it established new social relations within and in reaction to the previous organic system, feudalism. He writes that,

It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property. (Marx 1993, 278)

This can be seen in continental Europe which suffered,

not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.(Marx 1990, 91)

According to Marx when capitalism was becoming it rested on parts from the previous economic system but once it had reached the phase of being and developed its own foundations it rested on parts that it creates itself as an economic system. This perspective can be seen in the Grundrisse where he writes that a capitalist bringing “values into circulation which he created with his own labour”, as opposed to that of a wage labourer, belongs to capitalism’s “historic presuppositions, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” In a similar fashion, “the flight of serfs to the cities is one of the historic conditions and presuppositions of urbanism” but “is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities”. It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.” Given this, “[t]he conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming.” Such conditions and presuppositions of the becoming of capitalism “disappear as real capital arises” and capital “itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.” (Marx 1993, 459)

Importantly, not all of the parts which acted as preconditions for the becoming of capitalism disappeared once capitalism reached the phase of being. Some parts that were once preconditions for its becoming were transformed into aspects of its being that it itself produces. To return to the earlier example, in order for capitalism to develop it was necessary for a division between capitalist and worker to be established. Once capitalism had reached the phase of being this division was continuously reproduced by capitalism itself. Marx states this explicitly in the Grundrisse, where he writes

capital creates its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process. These presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions for its becoming – and hence could not spring from its actions as capital – now appear as results of its own realisation, reality, as posited by it – not as conditions of its arising but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth. (Marx 1993, 460)

To become an organic system is therefore to undergo a process of development whereby the foundational parts of the system come to be produced by the system itself, rather than its foundation still resting on historical parts inherited from a previous organic system. For Marx one of the main foundational parts created during the becoming of capitalism was a working class who not only reproduce capitalism but also view capitalist social relations as an inevitable and natural part of life. Marx writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, training and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. (Marx 1990, 899)

The creation of a working class which meets the needs of capitalism as an organic system did not occur automatically. Instead, capitalism emerged out of a previous organic system, feudalism, in which workers did not look upon the requirements of capitalist production as “self-evident natural laws”. Instead, due to the education, training and habits they experienced under feudalism they considered the sale of their labour to a capitalist as unnatural. Given this,

Centuries are required before the ‘free’ worker, owing to the greater development of the capitalist mode of production, makes a voluntary agreement, i.e. is compelled by social conditions to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to labour, in return for the price of his customary means of subsistence, to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Marx 1990, 382)

In other words, during its phase of becoming capitalism had yet to develop its own foundations and so lacked the interlocking chain of parts which through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” force people to be wage labourers. As a result, during its phase of becoming capitalism relied upon what Lebowitz terms the capitalist mode of regulation in order to make people conform to the needs of capitalism. This capitalist mode of regulation was the state. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state. (Marx 1990, p382)

State violence was used to discipline the working class, remove alternatives to selling labour to a capitalist and crush working class resistance to the development of capitalism. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

during the historical genesis of capitalist production. . . [t]he rising bourgeoise needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. (Marx 1990, 899-900)

A few pages later Marx refers to,

the forcible creation of a class of free and rightless proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into-wage labourers, the disgraceful proceedings of the state which employed police methods to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour . . . (Marx 1990, 905)

Marx on the Transition from Capitalism to Communism

With Marx’s views on society and on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in mind we can now turn to what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx writes,

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. (Marx 2000, 614)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between communist society when “it has developed on its own foundations” and communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” and is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. What Marx means by this can be understood by re-phrasing what Marx said about capitalism as an organic system so that it refers to communism. Re-phrasing Marx quotes in this way is a standard practice among Marx specialists, such as Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros. Doing so is not anachronistic in this case since Marx explicitly says that the conceptual points he makes about capitalism as an organic system are “the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)

According to Marx, communism has “developed on its own foundations” when “every economic relation presupposes every other in its communist economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition”. That is to say, it is composed of a chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. Communism’s development into an organic system with its own foundations “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.” It must come to create “its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process” such that “it no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” It must in short become self-reproducing.

In order to do so communism must pass through a “process of becoming” in which it arises out of capitalism and so initially exists in “its embryonic state”. During this phase it is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. That is to say, during its phase of becoming the foundation of communism rests on parts inherited from capitalism. This results in communist society initially being “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” For Marx one of the primary evils communism would inherent from capitalism is people being paid with labour vouchers per amount of labour performed, rather than receiving freely according to need. Marx holds that “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” (Marx 2000, 615) As communism develops into a phase of being and establishes its own foundations these defects are removed. Marx writes,

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx 2000, 615)

Communism will not of course develop its own foundations overnight. As a result, during its phase of becoming communism requires a communist mode of regulation which enables it to subordinate “all elements of society to itself” and create out of society “the organs which it still lacks”. For Marx the communist mode of regulation was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx writes,

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. (Marx 2000, 611)

Maoist Rebel News has read this passage as Marx describing a distinct mode of production called socialism. He has done so because he cannot see how a mode of production can simultaneously have a state and be stateless. If it is stateless it is communism, so if there is a state it cannot be communism and must be something else, namely socialism. This reading of Marx ignores his views on the being and becoming of an organic system. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a component of the becoming of communism which enables it to develop its own foundations and reach the phase of being. Once communism has developed into a phase of being the dictatorship of the proletariat will be dissolved. It is therefore a “historic presuppositions of communism, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.”

Given this, there is no contradiction between saying that communism is a stateless society and saying that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a presupposition for the becoming of communism that is suspended in the being of communism and so is not a component of communism as an organic system which has developed its own foundations. It belongs to the “history of its formation” but not the “the real system of the mode of production ruled by it”. There is therefore no need to do as Maoist Rebel News has done and posit a distinct mode of production called socialism. Marx’s conceptual system enables us to simultaneously view communism as a stateless society and hold that a state will exist within communist society as it is emerging out of capitalist society.


Maoist Rebel News is, as I have shown, wrong to think that Marx posited a distinct intermediary mode of production called socialism. His error in part arises from his failure to understand the basic concepts through which Marx thinks about society, such as Marx’s notion of an organic system or his distinction between being and becoming or his views on how an economy becomes self-reproducing. This failure to understand Marx’s conceptual system is unfortunately widespread online. Internet Marxists consistently fail to read Marx on his own terms but instead read Marx through the lens constructed by later thinkers, such as Kautsky or Lenin. They are less concerned with understanding Marx himself and more concerned with perpetuating orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation. Marxism is, to re-phrase Marx, “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded readings of Marx, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” If Marxism is to remain relevant it must engage in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1843) and this includes a ruthless critique of those Marxists who have failed to understand Marx and spread only mis-information and stale theory.


Marx, Karl. 1843. Marx to Ruge, September.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. 1976. Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6.  London: Laurence and Wishart.

Marx and Engels Were Not Egalitarians

Marx and Engels are often depicted as egalitarians by people on the right. In reality Marx and Engels rejected equality as a social ideal and as a permanent yardstick against which social arrangements should be judged. This can be seen in Marx and Engel’s reaction to the programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany.

In March 1875 Engels complained in a letter that the programme mistakenly advocated “[t]he elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”. For Engels, the goal of total social equality was impossible and represented the ambitions of an under-developed form of socialism. He wrote,

As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated. The living conditions of Alpine dwellers will always be different from those of the plainsmen. The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept deriving from the old “liberty, equality, fraternity,” a concept which was justified in that, in its own time and place, it signified a phase of development, but which, like all the one-sided ideas of earlier socialist schools, ought now to be superseded, since they produce nothing but mental confusion, and more accurate ways of presenting the matter have been discovered. (Engels 1875)

According to Raymond Geuss in ‘Philosophy and Real Politics’ Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. (Geuss 2008, 76-80) Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.

Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions. (Marx, 1875)

If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”.  (Marx 1991, 959) As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. (Marx 1990, 739) In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. (Marx 1993, 162, 158) Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.


Geuss, Raymond. 2008. Philosophy and Real Politics. Princeton University Press.

Engels, Frederick. 1875. Engels to August Bebel in Zwickau.

Marx. Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme,

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume I. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume III. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.

What Is False Consciousness?

Marxists like to talk about ‘false consciousness’. But what exactly is it? The term false consciousness was used by Friedrich Engels in his 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. Engels writes,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. (Engels 1893)

His example of false consciousness is people thinking of the history of ideas as a succession of abstract thinkers producing thoughts independently of the society in which they lived and overcoming previous generations of thinkers with better thoughts. Such a view is a form of false consciousness since it ignores that the history of ideas is bound up with the history of society. Thinkers live in societies and so their thoughts change as society changes. Indeed, the very idea that the history of ideas is a history of great men with great thoughts who live outside of history is itself a product of a particular kind of society. Someone who ascribed to this view of history would therefore have false consciousness in two senses. Firstly, they would have a false view of the history of ideas. Second, they would have a false view about how they came to hold the views they do.

Building on Engels, we can hold that false consciousness refers to consciousness which is false or inappropriate in a general sense. Lorna Finlayson distinguishes between five different kinds of false consciousness in her book ‘An Introduction to Feminism’. These are,

1. A false belief about the world. For example, a worker who thinks capitalism doesn’t oppress them or a misogynist who thinks women are innately bad at maths.
2. An inaccurate representation of the world. For example, a woman who looks in the mirror and sees herself as ugly and larger than she actually is.
3. An emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation. For example, a victim of abuse who blames themselves for their abuse and venerates their abuser.
4. The failure to notice a relevant truth. For example, a white person who doesn’t notice racism and thinks they live in a “post-racial’ society, or a man who doesn’t notice the reproductive labour that women perform.
5. The failure to experience a certain emotional state. For example, a capitalist who doesn’t feel empathy for their employees or a trans-person who doesn’t love themselves because of internalised transphobia. (Finlayson 2016, 15-17)

A further distinction can be drawn between mere false-consciousness and ideological false consciousness. False-consciousness is not necessarily political since I am technically experiencing false consciousness when I think it is Wednesday but it is in fact Thursday as I have a false belief about the world. But the kind of false consciousness which Marxists are interested in is false consciousness which is produced by particular power relations and is therefore inherently political. This is ideological false consciousness, which refers to false consciousness whose existence and character is explained by its tendency to promote the interests of one social group over another. (Finlayson 2016, 18)

An example of ideological false consciousness is patriarchal ideology, which consists of the distorted ways of seeing, feeling and relating to the world which exist and have the character they do because of their tendency to further the interests of men, who are dominant, over women, who are subordinate. (Finlayson 2016, 18, 21) For example, the idea that women are naturally best suited to child care contributes to a situation in which women do the majority of child care and are expected to by people of all genders. This idea helps reproduce patriarchal gender roles and patriarchy’s gendered division of labour by ensuring that people think this arrangement is natural and should exist and by producing people who judge the worth of women relative to their success at being mothers. This in turn leads women to feel compelled to do the majority of childcare so that both others and themselves do not judge them as failing to be good women. The fact that this idea reproduces patriarchy in turn explains why the idea exists and permeates patriarchal culture. After all, young girls are taught these ideas as children in order to prepare them for an adulthood in which it is assumed that they will be mothers and wives.

One important feature of false-consciousness so understood is that it affects both the oppressor and the oppressed. In the case of patriarchy, for example, people of all genders possess patriarchal false-consciousness, although it takes different forms depending on sex, gender, race, class, the country you live in, the culture you grew up in and so on. (Finlayson 2016, 21) One of the most startling examples of this in the modern world is women who make their living on youtube by attacking feminists and validating the misogyny of their majority male audience. Since women are just as much subject to patriarchal ideology as men we should keep in mind that just because a women does or thinks something does not automatically mean that it is furthering the emancipation of women or that it reflects an accurate understanding of gender relations in our society.

In a similar fashion, both workers and capitalists experience capitalist false consciousness. A worker may falsely believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, while a capitalist may falsely believe they have earned their wealth through their own hard work, when in reality they have exploited the labour of others. Marx himself thought that the English philosopher and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham suffered from capitalist false consciousness. In Capital Volume 1, Marx describes Bentham as “that soberly pedantic and heavy-footed oracle of the ‘common sense’ of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.” (Marx 1990, 758) He continues in a footnote, “[w]ith the dryest naiveté he assumes that the modern petty bourgeois, especially the English petty bourgeois, is the normal man. Whatever is useful to this peculiar kind of normal man, and to his world, is useful in and for itself. He applies this yardstick to the past, the present and the future. . . I should call Mr Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.” (Marx 1990, 758-9, note 51)

False consciousness is thus not a patronising idea about the benighted masses suffering under delusions consciously created by a conspiracy of capitalists. In reality, the capitalists and their ideologues are subject to a vast amount of false-consciousness themselves, as can be seen when one reads fortune magazine or neo-classical economics or when one watches interviews with silicon valley entrepreneurs talking about why they are successful.


Engels, Friedrich. 1893. Engels to Franz Mehring.

Finlayson, Lorna. 2016. An Introduction to Feminism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx. Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.

When Kautsky Met Marx

Kaul Kautsky met Marx in 1881. At the time Kautsky was a journalist in the German social democratic movement. He would after Marx’s death become its most influential theorist. Kautsky was nervous upon meeting Marx. He’d heard many stories of Marx’s temper and was afraid of embarrassing himself in front of his hero. This fear came true when Kautsky said to Marx that young socialists were “ardently awaiting the speedy appearance of the second volume of Capital”. To which Marx replied curtly, “me too”. When Kautsky later asked whether it was time to publish Marx’s complete works, Marx responded that they would first have to be completely written.

They nonetheless, from Kautsky’s point of view, had a lively conversation on a variety of interesting topics. As a result, Kautsky left “highly satisfied” and this “feeling grew even stronger” with each visit. Kautsky remarked that Marx’s goodness “made as strong an impression on me as the enormous compass of his knowledge and the sharpness of his mind. Even the few hours that I spent with Marx were sufficient to make me clearly conscious of the force of this mighty personality which overpowered at the same time as it enchanted.”

Marx had a very different view of Kautsky. In a letter to his daughter Jenny from April 1881, he described Kautsky as “a small minded mediocrity, too clever by half, industrious in a certain way, busying himself with statistics from which he does not derive anything intelligent, belonging by nature to the tribe of Philistines.” (McLellan 1981, 153-6)

Kautsky met his hero. But his hero did not like him.


McLellan, David, ed. 1981. Karl Marx: Interviews and Recollections. Barnes and Noble Books.

Marx Believed in Human Nature

It is commonly thought that Karl Marx rejected the idea of human nature. As I will show, this is false. What Marx rejected was the idea that there is such a thing as an abstract eternal human essence which exists outside of society. Rejecting a specific conception of human nature is not however the same is rejecting human nature in and of itself. Marx in fact has his own particular conception of human nature.

Marx holds that there are certain characteristics which, except in cases of pathology, all humans across all societies have in common. These are things like the fact that humans need food, water and sleep to survive, that humans reproduce through sex, that humans have brains and so on.

For Marx one of the most important of these common characteristics is that humans have consciousness. With this consciousness humans think about themselves, other people, and the world in which they live. They make plans for the future and reflect on past events. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or rather, he is a conscious being, i.e. his own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being. (Marx 1992, 328)

One of the most important forms consciousness takes is humans consciously using their capacities in a creative self-directed manner in order to satisfy their desires for certain states of affairs, such as no longer being hungry or making a beautiful statue. In volume 1 of Capital Marx writes,

A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cells in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change in the form of the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of, determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it. This subordination is no momentary act. Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work. (Marx 1990, 284)

Labour so understood is for Marx “an exclusively human characteristic” which “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 284, 290) Or as Marx puts it in volume 3 of Capital, human beings must “wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life. . .and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)

Since these common characteristics are constant across all human beings (excluding cases of pathology) they must stem from certain basic facts about human biology. It is this human biology, alongside nature itself, which are the starting points for human activity and so the parameters in which it occurs. As Marx and Engels write,

we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself — geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men. (Marx & Engels 1968, First Premises of Materialist Method)

Crucially, these “natural bases” – human nature and the natural environment – are modified “in the course of history through the actions of men”. Hence Marx’s distinction between “human nature in general” and “human nature as historically modified in each epoch.” (Marx 1990, 759). Marx’s idea simply put then is that humans are all composed of the same fundamental raw materials but what these raw materials are shaped into differs across time and place. Importantly, the nature of the raw materials places definite limits on what they can be shaped into.

One of the main factors which modifies and develops the raw materials of human nature is society itself. This occurs because humans are social animals who are born into and live within societies. Human nature thus cannot be conceived of outside of society since it is always within and through society that human nature is expressed. Importantly, these societies differ hugely from one another and are themselves composed of diverse elements. Each individual human therefore experiences a particular historically specific social world which shapes them as people in distinct ways.

Let us take hunger. All humans experience hunger. However, humans always experience hunger through social relations and so people in different societies experience hunger differently. A human living in contemporary England is hungry for chips bought from their local chicken cottage. A human living in a Comanche society in the eighteenth century will, in contrast, be hungry for buffalo killed last hunting season. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse,

Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail, and tooth . . . (Marx 1993, 92)

The same point can be made with countless other examples. So, yes humans reproduce through sex but how they reproduce through sex differs across societies and within societies. There’s a fundamental difference between sexual reproduction within a protestant nuclear family and a hippie free love orgy during the 1960s. Both of these are in turn different to sexual reproduction within the bedroom of a 15th century Ming emperor. And so on.

Society is not the only thing which modifies humans. Individual humans also develop the raw materials of their physical brain and body as they engage in actions. On Marx’s view, when a human labours they not only change the natural world but also change themselves. For example, when I make a sandwich I not only change the natural world by slicing up bread and cheese, but also develop my sandwich making abilities. As Marx writes famously in volume 1 of Capital,

By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. (Marx 1887, The Labour Process or the Production of Use Values)

Through engaging in labour we also develop new wants, desires, and motivations. When I first eat a sandwich I’m merely trying to satisfy my need for food. But upon eating the sandwich, and realising I like the experience, I develop a new need for sandwiches in and of themselves. My sandwich based desires are in turn shaped by the development of my sandwich making skills. I may start off being perfectly content with a plain boring sandwich, but as my sandwich making powers grow I find myself becoming aware of new sandwich possibilities and wanting sandwiches with different ingredients, or sandwiches of different sizes, or sandwiches which are cut up in different ways. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the satisfaction of the first need. . . leads to new needs”. (Marx & Engels 1968, First Premises of Materialist Method)

In summary, Marx holds that there is such a thing as human nature but that this human nature is always mediated through society and so how human nature is expressed is different across and within societies. Thus, if we’re looking for things all humans have in common we can notice certain cross-cultural and trans-historical features. But we can also look at these same universal human features in a different light and notice the varied and distinct ways they exist within different societies at different moments in history. Marx lets us view humans as both unchanging and changing at the same time.


Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume 3. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992. Early Writings. London: Penguin

Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse. London: Penguin

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. 1968. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.