One of the most interesting classes I’ve taken at my university thus far was a classical political theory course I had in the past Fall. The class periods were mostly comprised of hour long conversations between the students and the instructor regarding the excerpts from the classical (and the neoclassical) literature featured in the textbook – for example, the works of John Stuart Mill, Robert Owen, and Adam Smith; and onward to neoclassical thinkers such as Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and John Rawls (whom I heartily disliked).

For the term paper in the class, students were to craft an essay critically analyzing the works of a classical theorist of our choosing. For my own amusement, I chose to analyze (in a fairly critical fashion) the works of Karl Marx.

For your own reading pleasure, here is an excerpt from my term paper discussing the Marxian concept of “historical materialism” and the concept of the State – with  in-text citations left in place and everything. In writing this essay, I drew a great deal of inspiration from the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.


Materialism and the State

Let us revisit Marx’s own words within his Critique of Political Economy explaining materialist thought and the origin of the State:

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, which is the real foundation on top of which arises a legal and political superstructure to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” (Marx, Critique of Political Economy)

In a nutshell, Marx is saying that the “relations of production” comprise the “economic structure” of a society, and it is from this foundation upon which the State is formed. And what are the “relations of production”, exactly? Marx seems to use it in the context of his work as a “definite stage” within the “development of their material forces of production” (Marx, Critique of Political Economy). But this is no clear definition as to the direct meaning of neither the phrase “relations of production” nor “material forces of production”. Conceptually, Marx is likely describing advances in technology with these terminologies. Marx wrote in other writings that in acquiring “new productive forces”, social relations in a society change, and thus, a new historical epoch of production is reached (Morrison 2006). Stating this in layman’s terms, “material forces of production” and “new productive forces” (technology) shape the economic base, which in turn determines the “legal and political superstructure” (the State), which in turn shapes and molds “social consciousness” (ideas, culture, etc). The logical conclusion to be drawn here is that the level of technology during a given time determines the shape of society.

Where does technology come from in the first place? Technology certainly isn’t endowed upon us by divine Providence. Marx doesn’t seem to provide an answer in his work. If technology is admitted to have come from human consciousness, then what becomes of Marx’s material-oriented “dialectic theory of history” which subsequently fuels his conception of the State? If this is true, the entire Marxian premise is shattered. For ideas and inventions are not material; they are mental processes. In this sense, technology, while taking a material form, may be considered as embodied thoughts or ideas. These technologies would likely require some form of investment as well to be brought into material life, which would subsequently require the presence of a division of labor and specialization of function – a market. If the “material forces of production” are driven by the ideas of man, would that not make the State reflective of the ideas of mankind as well? This would implicate that ideas are the correct causal mechanism for human development – from ideas, everything originates; including innovations, inventions, and culture.

One more thing that ought to be mentioned here is the concept of private property. Marx argued that the concept of “private property rights” stems from the concept of the State, merely reflecting the interest of those who own the means of production.

Of course, private property rights are essential in a capitalist market economy – investments in capital goods are not made where property rights are unstable and contracts are not well enforced. If one accepts the argument that technology and the legal “superstructure” are truly reflective of innovation, a conscious process within the mind, then it logically follows that private property rights are a consequence of human ideas as well.