“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. the point, however, is to change it”
— Karl Marx
Marx’s ideas have resonated with millions across the world: those who saw in our hazy future a better world. Marx was born in 1818 and for most of his life wrote on the problems he saw in the current system of production and proposed what he viewed as the next logical step in our mode of production. The effects of these works can not only be felt in the history of nations but also in philosophy, ushering in a wave of political and social thinkers who given us more tools with which we can critique the society we live in. Marx’s theories are much too complex to sum up in a few thousand words. However, the main themes in Marx and Engels writing can be split into either the “critiques of capitalism” and the “mechanism of socialism.”
Commodity production, wage labour, class society, private property, the means of production and the capitalist state, Marx laid these things as the basic building blocs of capitalism. Marx’s critiques would stem from observing how these building blocks interacted and the consequences that came from these interactions.
What first needs to be clarified before understanding commodity production, is the meaning of a commodity. In short a commodity is an article produced for the sole purpose to be sold on the market. In capitalism all things are produced to be sold on the market therefore all products are commodity, and all capitalist production is commodity production. Now you may be wondering how things can be produced without being a commodity. Since the defining feature of a commodity is that it needs to be sold on the market, anything which is produced for use and not to be sold is therefore not commodity. This mode of production is referred to as production for use.
Commodity production itself is not enough to understand capitalism, understanding the property relations under capitalism is another key in critiquing capitalism. The means of production can be defined broadly as all the tools, machinery, buildings and land needed to produce commodities or articles. For a system to transition from commodity production to full fledged capitalism the means of production must be owned by capitalist and those who use and produce must be turned into workers. This is a change in property relations, the worker no longer works for himself with his machinery or tools he produces commodities to be sold on a market and is given a wage.
Since the means of production are owned by the bourgeoisie and they do not actually interact with these to produce anything the worker must produce for the bourgeois. I believe Nikolai Bukharin’s “The ABC’s of communism” has one of the best summaries of the role of the worker under wage labour.
“ Under wage labour the man himself is neither bought nor sold. What is bought or sold is his power to labour not himself. The wage labourer is free in person. […] The worker is merely hired. It even appears the capitalist and worker were equal […] They (The capitalist) even assert they keep the workers alive because they give them employment.”
What is strange about this relationship is that the capitalist believes they are the one who are providing something to their worker by paying them and letting them work, while in reality the wage the worker is “paid” is a small percentage of what he produced through the privately owned means of production. This delusion of the capitalist is even more apparent when considering the role workers play in a company. If you remove the capitalist from the company the means of production still exist and production will continue with workers still able to create commodities, however if the workers are removed from the company the production of any goods or service grinds to a halt. This concept of wage labor emerged from the specific interaction between generalized commodity production and the evolution of the property relations the workers have with the means of production. This is why marx considers it an integral part of capitalism.
Since you now understand wage labour, commodity production and the means of production understanding class society should be easy. Class society is the effect that all these mechanism and relations of capitalism have on human society and its structure. The structure of a capitalist society can essentially be split into 2 tiers, the bourgeoisie and the working class. The bourgeoisie are the members of society who own the means of production and employ the working class to produce commodities using the privately owned means of production. In a marxist sense what determines a person’s class is their relationship with the means of production, not the level of income or the education of a person. This concept of class as completely removed from the “status” someone has in society may seem reductionist however there are tangible reasons why Marx’s definition is more applicable to our world.
What relationship someone has with the means of production defines their position in the economy. The working class is the productive force in the economy and are integral to how the economic system function, on the other hand the term “middle class” isn’t based on the role the “middle class” play in the economy, the middle class can comprise of small bourgeois to wealthy class members. Since the “middle class” or any liberal class distinction is not based on economic reality these terms can be shifted at the whim of a government to serve an agenda or divide the working class. However a definition of class based on property relationships is based on a material reality which can not be changed