L. von Mises, The materialism of Karl Marx

Marx developed what he thought was a new system. According to his materialist interpretation of history, the “material productive forces” (this is an exact translation of the German) are the bases of everything. Each stage of the material productive forces corresponds to a definite stage of production relations. The material productive forces determine the production relations, that is, the type of ownership and property which exists in the world. And the production relations determine the superstructure. In the terminology of Marx, capitalism or feudalism are production relations. Each of these was necessarily produced by a particular stage of the material productive forces. In 1859, Karl Marx said a new stage of material productive forces would produce socialism.

But what are these material productive forces? Just as Marx never said what a “class” was, so he never said exactly what the “material productive forces” are. After looking through his writings we find that the material productive forces are the tools and machines. In one of his books [Misère de la philosophie—The Poverty of Philosophy], written in French in 1847, Marx said “the hand mill produces feudalism––the steam mill produces capitalism. ” He didn’t say it in this book, but in other writings he wrote that other machines will come which will produce socialism.

Marx tried hard to avoid the geographical interpretation of progress, because that had already been discredited. What he said was that “tools” were the basis of progress. Marx and [Friedrich] Engels [1820–1895] believed that new machines would be developed which would lead to socialism. They rejoiced at every new machine, thinking that meant socialism was just around the corner. In the French book of 1847, he criticized those who attached importance to the division of labor; he said the important thing was the tools.

We must not forget that tools don’t fall from heaven. They are the products of ideas. To explain ideas, Marx said the tools, the machines––the material productive forces––reflect themselves in the brains of men and in this way ideas come. But the tools and machines are themselves the product of ideas. Also, before there can be machines, there must be division of labor. And before there can be division of labor, definite ideas must be developed. The origin of these ideas cannot be explained by something which is possible only in a society, which is itself the product of ideas.

The term “material” fascinated people. To explain changes in ideas, changes in thoughts, changes in all those things which are the products of ideas, Marx reduced them to changes in technological ideas. In this he was not original. For example, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz [1821–1894] and Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886] interpreted history as the history of technology.

It is the task of history to explain why definite inventions were not put into practice by people who had all the physical knowledge required for their construction. Why, for instance, did the ancient Greeks, who had the technical knowledge, not develop railroads? As soon as a doctrine becomes popular, it is simplified in such a way as to be understood by the masses. Marx said everything depends on economic conditions. As he stated in his 1847 French book [The Poverty of Philosophy], he meant that the history of factories and tools developed independently.

According to Marx, the whole movement of human history appears as a corollary to the development of the material productive forces, the tools. With this development of tools, the construction of society changes and as a consequence everything else changes too. By everything else, he meant the superstructure. Marxian authors, writing after Marx, explained everything in the superstructure as due to definite changes in the production relations. And they explained everything in the production relations as due to changes in the tools and machines. This was a vulgarization, a simplification, of the Marxian doctrine for which Marx and Engels were not completely responsible. They created a lot of nonsense, but they are not responsible for all the nonsense today…

According to Marx, everybody is forced––by the material productive forces––to think in such a way that the result shows his class interests. You think in the way in which your “interests” force you to think; you think according to your class “interests. ” Your “interests” are something independent of your mind and your ideas. Your “interests” exist in the world apart from your ideas. Consequently, the production of your ideas is not truth. Before the appearance of Karl Marx, the notion of truth had no meaning for the whole historical period. What the thinking of the people produced in the past was always “ideology,” not truth…

Socialism was already defeated intellectually at the time Marx wrote. Marx answered his critics by saying that those who were in opposition were only “bourgeois. ” He said there was no need to defeat his opponents’ arguments, but only to unmask their bourgeois background. And as their doctrine was only bourgeois ideology, it was not necessary to deal with it. This would mean that no bourgeois could write anything in favor of socialism. Thus, all such writers were anxious to prove they were proletarians. It might be appropriate to mention at this time also that the ancestor of French socialism, Saint-Simon, was a descendant of a famous family of dukes and counts…

Nikolai Bukharin [1888–1938], a Communist author who lived in a Communist country, wrote a pamphlet in 1917, in which he said, we asked for freedom of the press, thought, and civil liberties in the past because we were in the opposition and needed these liberties to conquer. Now that we have conquered, there is no longer any need for such civil liberties. [Bukharin was tried and condemned to death in the Moscow Purge Trial of March 1938.] If Mr. Bukharin had been an American Communist, he would probably still be alive and free to write more pamphlets about why freedom is not necessary.