Mises Daily Articles
Individualism and the Industrial Revolution
[Marxism Unmasked (2006)]
Liberals stressed the importance of the individual. The 19th-century liberals already considered the development of the individual the most important thing. "Individual and individualism" was the progressive and liberal slogan. Reactionaries had already attacked this position at the beginning of the 19th century.
The rationalists and liberals of the 18th century pointed out that what was needed was good laws. Ancient customs that could not be justified by rationality should be abandoned. The only justification for a law was whether or not it was liable to promote the public social welfare. In many countries the liberals and rationalists asked for written constitutions, the codification of laws, and for new laws which would permit the development of the faculties of every individual.
A reaction to this idea developed, especially in Germany where the jurist and legal historian Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779–1861) was active. Savigny declared that laws cannot be written by men; laws are developed in some mystical way by the soul of the whole unit. It isn't the individual that thinks — it is the nation or a social entity which uses the individual only for the expression of its own thoughts. This idea was very much emphasized by Marx and the Marxists. In this regard the Marxists were not followers of Hegel, whose main idea of historical evolution was an evolution toward freedom of the individual.
From the viewpoint of Marx and Engels, the individual was a negligible thing in the eyes of the nation. Marx and Engels denied that the individual played a role in historical evolution. According to them, history goes its own way. The material productive forces go their own way, developing independently of the wills of individuals. And historical events come with the inevitability of a law of nature. The material productive forces work like a director in an opera; they must have a substitute available in case of a problem, as the opera director must have a substitute if the singer gets sick. According to this idea, Napoleon and Dante, for instance, were unimportant — if they had not appeared to take their own special place in history, someone else would have appeared on stage to fill their shoes.
To understand certain words, you must understand the German language. From the 17th century on, considerable effort was spent in fighting the use of Latin words and in eliminating them from the German language. In many cases a foreign word remained although there was also a German expression with the same meaning. The two words began as synonyms, but in the course of history, they acquired different meanings. For instance, take the word Umwälzung, the literal German translation of the Latin word revolution. In the Latin word there was no sense of fighting. Thus, there evolved two meanings for the word "revolution" — one by violence, and the other meaning a gradual revolution like the "Industrial Revolution." However, Marx uses the German word Revolution not only for violent revolutions such as the French or Russian revolutions, but also for the gradual Industrial Revolution.
Incidentally, the term Industrial Revolution was introduced by Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883). Marxists say that "What furthers the overthrow of capitalism is not revolution — look at the Industrial Revolution."
Marx assigned a special meaning to slavery, serfdom, and other systems of bondage. It was necessary, he said, for the workers to be free in order for the exploiter to exploit them. This idea came from the interpretation he gave to the situation of the feudal lord who had to care for his workers even when they weren't working. Marx interpreted the liberal changes that developed as freeing the exploiter of the responsibility for the lives of the workers. Marx didn't see that the liberal movement was directed at the abolition of inequality under law, as between serf and lord.
Karl Marx believed that capital accumulation was an obstacle. In his eyes, the only explanation for wealth accumulation was that somebody had robbed somebody else. For Karl Marx the whole Industrial Revolution simply consisted of the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists. According to him, the situation of the workers became worse with the coming of capitalism. The difference between their situation and that of slaves and serfs was only that the capitalist had no obligation to care for workers who were no longer exploitable, while the lord was bound to care for slaves and serfs. This is another of the insoluble contradictions in the Marxian system. Yet it is accepted by many economists today without realizing of what this contradiction consists.
According to Marx, capitalism is a necessary and inevitable stage in the history of mankind leading men from primitive conditions to the millennium of socialism. If capitalism is a necessary and inevitable step on the road to socialism, then one cannot consistently claim, from the point of view of Marx, that what the capitalist does is ethically and morally bad. Therefore, why does Marx attack the capitalists?
Marx says part of production is appropriated by the capitalists and withheld from the workers. According to Marx, this is very bad. The consequence is that the workers are no longer in a position to consume the whole production produced. A part of what they have produced, therefore, remains unconsumed; there is "underconsumption." For this reason, because there is underconsumption, economic depressions occur regularly. This is the Marxian underconsumption theory of depressions. Yet Marx contradicts this theory elsewhere.
Marxian writers do not explain why production proceeds from simpler to more and more complicated methods.
Nor did Marx mention the following fact: About 1700, the population of Great Britain was about 5.5 million; by the middle of 1700, the population was 6.5 million, about 500,000 of whom were simply destitute. The whole economic system had produced a "surplus" population. The surplus population problem appeared earlier in Great Britain than on continental Europe. This happened, first of all, because Great Britain was an island and so was not subject to invasion by foreign armies, which helped to reduce the populations in Europe. The wars in Great Britain were civil wars, which were bad, but they stopped. And then this outlet for the surplus population disappeared, so the numbers of surplus people grew. In Europe the situation was different; for one thing, the opportunity to work in agriculture was more favorable than in England.
The old economic system in England couldn't cope with the surplus population. The surplus people were mostly very bad people — beggars and robbers and thieves and prostitutes. They were supported by various institutions, the poor laws,1 and the charity of the communities. Some were impressed into the army and navy for service abroad. There were also superfluous people in agriculture. The existing system of guilds and other monopolies in the processing industries made the expansion of industry impossible.
In those precapitalist ages, there was a sharp division between the classes of society who could afford new shoes and new clothes, and those who could not. The processing industries produced by and large for the upper classes. Those who could not afford new clothes wore hand-me-downs. There was then a very considerable trade in secondhand clothes — a trade which disappeared almost completely when modern industry began to produce also for the lower classes. If capitalism had not provided the means of sustenance for these "surplus" people, they would have died from starvation. Smallpox accounted for many deaths in precapitalist times; it has now been practically wiped out. Improvements in medicine are also a product of capitalism.
What Marx called the great catastrophe of the Industrial Revolution was not a catastrophe at all; it brought about a tremendous improvement in the conditions of the people. Many survived who wouldn't have survived otherwise. It is not true, as Marx said, that the improvements in technology are available only to the exploiters and that the masses are living in a state much worse than on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Everything the Marxists say about exploitation is absolutely wrong! Lies! In fact, capitalism made it possible for many persons to survive who wouldn't have otherwise. And today many people, or most people, live at a much higher standard of living than that at which their ancestors lived 100 or 200 years ago.
During the 18th century, there appeared a number of eminent authors — the best known was Adam Smith (1723–1790) — who pleaded for freedom of trade. And they argued against monopoly, against the guilds, and against privileges given by the king and Parliament. Secondly, some ingenious individuals, almost without any savings and capital, began to organize starving paupers for production, not in factories but outside the factories, and not for the upper classes only. These newly organized producers began to make simple goods precisely for the great masses. This was the great change that took place; this was the Industrial Revolution. And this Industrial Revolution made more food and other goods available so that the population rose. Nobody saw less of what really was going on than Karl Marx. By the eve of the Second World War, the population had increased so much that there were 60 million Englishmen.
You can't compare the United States with England. The United States began almost as a country of modern capitalism. But we may say by and large that out of eight people living today in the countries of Western civilization, seven are alive only because of the Industrial Revolution. Are you personally sure that you are the one out of eight who would have lived even in the absence of the Industrial Revolution? If you are not sure, stop and consider the consequences of the Industrial Revolution.
The interpretation given by Marx to the Industrial Revolution is applied also to the interpretation of the "superstructure." Marx said the "material productive forces," the tools and machines, produce the "production relations," the social structure, property rights, and so forth, which produce the "superstructure," the philosophy, art, and religion. The "superstructure," said Marx, depends on the class situation of the individuals, i.e., whether he is a poet, painter, and so on. Marx interpreted everything that happened in the spiritual life of the nation from this point of view. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was called a philosopher of the owners of common stock and bonds. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was called the philosopher of big business. For every change in ideology, for every change in music, art, novel writing, play writing, the Marxians had an immediate interpretation. Every new book was explained by the "superstructure" of that particular day. Every book was assigned an adjective — "bourgeois" or "proletarian." The bourgeoisie were considered an undifferentiated reactionary mass.
Don't think it is possible for a man to practice all his life a certain ideology without believing in it. The use of the term "mature capitalism" shows how fully persons, who don't think of themselves as Marxian in any way, have been influenced by Marx. Mr. and Mrs. Hammond, in fact almost all historians, have accepted the Marxian interpretation of the Industrial Revolution.2 The one exception is Ashton.3
Karl Marx, in the second part of his career, was not an interventionist; he was in favor of laissez-faire. Because he expected the breakdown of capitalism and the substitution of socialism to come from the full maturity of capitalism, he was in favor of letting capitalism develop. In this regard he was, in his writings and in his books, a supporter of economic freedom.
Marx believed that interventionist measures were unfavorable because they delayed the coming of socialism. Labor unions recommended interventions and, therefore, Marx was opposed to them. Labor unions don't produce anything anyway and it would have been impossible to raise wage rates if producers had not actually produced more.
Marx claimed interventions hurt the interests of the workers. The German socialists voted against [Otto von] Bismarck's social reforms that he instituted circa 1881 (Marx died in 1883). And in this country the Communists were against the New Deal. Of course, the real reason for their opposition to the government in power was very different. No opposition party wants to assign so much power to another party. In drafting socialist programs, everybody assumes tacitly that he himself will be the planner or the dictator, or that the planner or dictator will be intellectually completely dependent on him and that the planner or dictator will be his handyman. No one wants to be a single member in the planning scheme of somebody else.
These ideas of planning go back to Plato's treatise on the form of the commonwealth. Plato was very outspoken. He planned a system ruled exclusively by philosophers. He wanted to eliminate all individual rights and decisions. Nobody should go anywhere, rest, sleep, eat, drink, wash, unless he was told to do so. Plato wanted to reduce persons to the status of pawns in his plan. What is needed is a dictator who appoints a philosopher as a kind of prime minister or president of the central board of production management. The program of all such consistent socialists — Plato and Hitler, for instance — planned also for the production of future socialists, the breeding and education of future members of society.
During the 2,300 years since Plato, very little opposition has been registered to his ideas. Not even by Kant. The psychological bias in favor of socialism must be taken into consideration in discussing Marxian ideas. This is not limited to those who call themselves Marxian.
Marxians deny that there is such a thing as the search for knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone. But they are not consistent in this case either, for they say one of the purposes of the socialist state is to eliminate such a search for knowledge. It is an insult, they say, for persons to study things that are useless.
Now I want to discuss the meaning of the ideological distortion of truths. Class consciousness is not developed in the beginning, but it must inevitably come. Marx developed his doctrine of ideology because he realized he couldn't answer the criticisms raised against socialism. His answer was, "What you say is not true. It is only ideology. What a man thinks, so long as we do not have a classless society, is necessarily a class ideology — that is, it is based on a false consciousness." Without any further explanation, Marx assumed that such an ideology was useful to the class and to the members of the class that developed it. Such ideas had for their goal the pursuit of the aims of their class.
Marx and Engels appeared and developed the class ideas of the proletariat. Therefore, from this time on the doctrine of the bourgeoisie is absolutely useless. Perhaps one may say that the bourgeoisie needed this explanation to solve a bad conscience. But why should they have a bad conscience if their existence is necessary? And it is necessary, according to Marxian doctrine, for without the bourgeoisie, capitalism cannot develop. And until capitalism is "mature," there cannot be any socialism.
According to Marx, bourgeois economics, sometimes called "apologetics for bourgeois production," aided them, the bourgeoisie. The Marxians could have said that the thought the bourgeoisie gave to this bad bourgeois theory justified, in their eyes, as well as in the eyes of the exploited, the capitalist mode of production, thus making it possible for the system to exist. But this would have been a very un-Marxist explanation. First of all, according to Marxian doctrine, no justification is needed for the bourgeois system of production; the bourgeoisie exploit because it is their business to exploit, just as it is the business of the microbes to exploit. The bourgeoisie don't need any justification. Their class consciousness shows them that they have to do this; it is the capitalist's nature to exploit.
A Russian friend of Marx wrote him that the task of the socialists must be to help the bourgeoisie exploit better and Marx replied that that was not necessary. Marx then wrote a short note saying that Russia could reach socialism without going through the capitalist stage. The next morning he must have realized that, if he admitted that one country could skip one of the inevitable stages, this would destroy his whole theory. So he didn't send the note. Engels, who was not so bright, discovered this piece of paper in the desk of Karl Marx, copied it in his own handwriting, and sent his copy to Vera Zasulich (1849–1919), who was famous in Russia because she had attempted to assassinate the police commissioner in St. Petersburg and been acquitted by the jury — she had a good defense counsel. This woman published Marx's note, and it became one of the great assets of the Bolshevik Party.
The capitalist system is a system in which promotion is precisely according to merit. If people do not get ahead, there is bitterness in their minds. They are reluctant to admit that they do not advance because of their lack of intelligence. They take their lack of advancement out on society. Many blame society and turn to socialism.
This tendency is especially strong in the ranks of intellectuals. Because professionals treat each other as equals, the less capable professionals consider themselves "superior" to nonprofessionals and feel they deserve more recognition than they receive. Envy plays an important role. There is a philosophical predisposition among persons to be dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs. There is dissatisfaction, also, with political conditions. If you are dissatisfied, you ask what other kind of state can be considered.
Marx had "antitalent" — i.e., a lack of talent. He was influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach, especially by Feuerbach's critique of Christianity. Marx admitted that the exploitation doctrine was taken from an anonymous pamphlet published in the 1820s. His economics were distortions taken over from [David] Ricardo (1772–1823).4
Marx was economically ignorant; he didn't realize that there can be doubts concerning the best means of production to be applied. The big question is, how shall we use the available scarce factors of production. Marx assumed that what has to be done is obvious. He didn't realize that the future is always uncertain, that it is the job of every businessman to provide for the unknown future. In the capitalist system, the workers and technologists obey the entrepreneur. Under socialism, they will obey the socialist official. Marx didn't take into consideration the fact that there is a difference between saying what has to be done and doing what somebody else has said must be done. The socialist state is necessarily a police state.
The withering away of the state was just Marx's attempt to avoid answering the question about what would happen under socialism. Under socialism, the convicts will know that they are being punished for the benefit of the whole society.
 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, III (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, 1909), pp. 17, 530–677ff.
 Ibid., p. 696.
- 1. English legislation relating to public assistance for the poor, dating from the Elizabethan era and amended in 1834 in order to institute nationally supervised uniform relief.
- 2. J.L. and Barbara Hammond, authors of the trilogy The Village Labourer (1911), The Town Labourer (1917), and The Skilled Labourer (1919).
- 3. T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (London: Oxford University Press, 1998 [1948, 1961]).
- 4. On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London: John Murray, 1821 ).