L. Mises, Class Conflict and Revolutionary Socialism

[…] The fundamental concept of the Communist Manifesto (1848) was that of “class” and “class conflict.” But Marx didn’t say what a “class” was. Marx died in 1883, 35 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. In those 35 years he published many volumes, but in not one of them did he say what he meant by the term “class.”After Marx’s death, Friedrich Engels published the unfinished manuscript of the third volume of Marx’s Das Kapital. Engels said this manuscript, on which Marx had stopped work, many years before he died, had been found in Marx’s desk after his death. In one three-page chapter in that volume, Marx tells us what a “class” was not. But you may search through all his writings to learn what a “class” was without ever finding out. In fact, “classes” don’t exist in nature. It is our thinking—our arranging in categories—that constructs classes in our minds. The question is not whether social classes exist in the sense of Karl Marx; the question is whether we can use the concept of social classes in the way in which Karl Marx meant it. We can’t.

Marx did not see that the problem of the “interest” of an individual, or of a class, cannot be solved simply by referring to the fact that there is such an interest and that men must act according to their interests. Two questions must be asked: (1) Toward what ultimate ends do these “interests” lead people? (2) What methods do they want to apply in order to reach these ends?

The First International was a small group of people, a committee of a few men in London, friends and enemies of Karl Marx. Someone suggested that they cooperate with the British labor-union movement. In 1865, Karl Marx read at the meeting of the International Committee, a paper, Value, Price, and Profit, one of his few writings originally written in English. In this paper, he pointed out that the methods of the union movement were very bad and must be changed. Paraphrasing:“The unions want to improve the fate of the workers within the framework of the capitalist system—this is hopeless and useless. Within the framework of the capitalist system there is no possibility of improving the state of the workers. The best the union could achieve in this way would be some short-term success. The unions must abandon this ‘conservative’ policy; they must adopt the revolutionary policy. They must fight for the abolition of the wage society as such and work for the coming of socialism.” Marx didn’t have the courage to publish this paper during his lifetime; it was published only after his death by one of his daughters. He didn’t want to antagonize the labor unions; he still had hopes they would abandon their theory.

Here is an obvious conflict of opinions among the proletarians themselves concerning the right means to use. The proletarian unions and Marx disagreed as to what was in the “interest” of the proletarians. Marx said that the “interest” of a class was obvious—there could be no doubt about it—everyone would know it. Then here comes a man who doesn’t belong to this proletarian class at all, a writer and a lawyer who tells the unions they were wrong. “This is bad policy,” he said. “You must radically change your policy.” Here the whole idea of the class breaks down, the idea that an individual may sometimes err but that a class as a whole can never err.

Criticisms of Marxian doctrines have always been superficial. They haven’t pointed out how Marx contradicted himself and how he failed to explain his ideas. Böhm-Bawerk’s critique was good but he didn’t cover the entire system. Critics of Marx didn’t even discover Karl Marx’s most manifest contradictions.

Marx believed in the “iron law of wages.” He accepted that as the fundamental basis of his economic doctrine. He didn’t like the German term for this law, the “brazen” law of wages, about which Ferdinand Lassalle [1825–1864] had published a pamphlet. Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle were not friends; they were competitors, very serious competitors. Marx said Lassalle’s only contribution was the term itself, the “brazen” law of wages. And what was more, the term, was borrowed, borrowed from the dictionary and from Goethe.

The “iron law of wages” still survives in many textbooks, in the minds of politicians, and consequently in many of our laws. According to the “iron law of wages,” the wage rate is determined by the amount of food and other necessities required for the preservation and reproduction of life, to support the workers’ children until they can themselves work in the factories. If wage rates rise above this, the number of workers would increase and the increased number of workers would bring wage rates down again. Wages cannot drop below this point because there would then develop a shortage of labor. This law considers the worker to be some kind of microbe or rodent without free choice or free will.

If you think it is absolutely impossible under the capitalist system for wages to deviate from this rate, how then can you still talk, as Marx did, about the progressive impoverishment of the workers as being inevitable? There is an insoluble contradiction between the Marxian idea of the iron law of wage rates, according to which wages will remain at a point at which they are sufficient to support the progeny of workers until they can themselves become workers, and his philosophy of history, which maintains that the workers will be more and more impoverished until they are driven to open rebellion, thus bringing about socialism. Of course, both doctrines are untenable. Even 50 years ago the leading socialist writers were forced to resort to other elaborate schemes in the attempt to support their theories. What is amazing is that, during the century since Marx’s writings, no one has pointed out this contradiction. And this contradiction is not the only contradiction in Marx.

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