Chapter Three – Communism, Karl Marx

Basic Definitions of Marxian Concepts

Basic Definitions of Marxian Concepts

There are many ways to understand the concepts listed below. The definitions have been contested time and again by Marxian scholars. These are basic definitions that I hope will help students encountering these terms for the first time.

Means of Production: What humans use to create a product or value (tools, raw materials, factories, mines, land, computers, rental buildings, etc.)

Relations of production and reproduction: Relations that people hold while producing and reproducing their lives. We produce when we make the stuff that we need to live, or to have fun. We reproduce while engaging in the tasks needed to keep our bodies and ourselves well. Under capitalism, most of us work for somebody else, or for a corporation that owns the means of production. We produce something as workers, from Facebook adds to chairs. We are workers or proletariats, in relation to the bourgeois who own the means of production, that is, Facebook or a factory that makes chairs. Reproductive relations, on the other hand, happen in the realm of education, healthcare, and the domestic. Most of us rely on a woman, or a low-paid worker to reproduce our lives (eat, be clothed, have children, have fun, access basic health care, etc.). Under capitalism, these two inextricably intertwined realms of production and reproduction are brutally and artificially separated from each other.

Class: A group that is structured around individual’s role in regard to the means of production. See “Classic Class roles” below. The bourgeoisie own the means of production, workers sell their capacity to labor, to produce value, and are compensated with wages. The wages are less than what the worker made. There is something discounted, a surplus value that is kept by the owner of the means of production.

Classic class roles: The bourgeoisie, that appropriates surplus (definition below) and the proletariat, who sell their labor-power (capacity to work) and produces surplus. Not to be confused with class in a sociological sense, as in a person working at a factory being a working class and a person working as a lawyer being middle class. For Marx there are only two main classes, the bourgeoisie, that owns the means of production and the proletariat who work for them. The proletariat includes everyone who does not own the means of production. Even high paid workers in the tech industry are considered proletariats.

Mode of production:  capitalism, feudalism, communism are the main modes of production analyzed by Marx. One mode is distinguished from the other according to who produces value and who appropriates value. Under capitalism, the worker produces value and the corporations (capitalists) appropriate that. By accumulating the wealth produced by the proletariats, corporations can run the world, against the best interests of the proletariats. Think of climate change. Think of the US response (or lack thereof) to the COVID-19 crisis.

Base (aka as Economic Base): the social relations in which we engage to create and produce materials for the market. Under capitalism, workers labor for the owners of means of production (corporations).

Superstructure: space of production of cultural processes, cultural products, institutions (legal, social, political), religions, etc.

Proletariats: those who have nothing to sell but their labor-power (their capacity to work).

Bourgeois: owners of the means of production who sell commodities produced by the proletariat).

Class Struggle: Social strife over access to material and discursive resources. As social class struggle against each other over their vested interests, society moves forward. Capitalism arises out of the struggle of the bourgeois against the nobles, who were making it difficult for the capitalist to increase their profit. This struggle led to the French and other bourgeois revolutions. Under capitalism, proletariats struggle against capitalists over appropriation of surplus value. The interest of capitalists and workers are fundamentally contrary. Contemporary class struggles include for example, global outsourcing of labor to discipline the local workforce. Workers respond with strikes, rallies, and occupations.

Rule of the Proletariat: (aka dictatorship of the proletariat) Bourgeois (liberal) state does not represent workers, who need to rule themselves. Unclear what Marx meant by dictatorship of the proletariat as he depicted liberal democracy as dictatorship of capital.

Surplus value: the proletariat (producer) makes commodities that are sold by the owner of the factory in the market. The producer receives not the full value of the commodity sold, but only what they need to reproduce themselves (wage). Surplus value is at the base of capitalist profit. All workers at corporations lose surplus value to their employers, regardless of how high their salaries are. There are ongoing debates in contemporary Marxist theory on whether reproductive work (giving birth, raising children, cleaning, educating, healing) should be understood as part of the production of that surplus value or not.

Professor Richard Wolff explains Surplus Value

Alienation: European peasants lost access to their own, collective means of production when they were expelled from the commons by the forces of capitalism toward the end of the Medieval Ages. Forced to work in factories, they had to sell their labor as they could no longer sustain themselves. Marx regarded labor as our life activity and as part of our human essence, concluding that when humans are forced to sell away our control over our own labor, our life-activity, we lose our essence. In his view, this explains the spiritual maladies at the base of capitalist societies.

Ideology: Ideas, conceptions, consciousness, all that is said, imagined, conceived. Includes politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc. “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production.” (Marx-Engels, The Civil War in France).

Private Property: Not to be confused with possessions, private property is used by Marx to describe the private ownership of means of production. If we own our home, it is our possession. If we own more than one house and we rent the second one, this second house is private property. This house or apartment produces value that the landlord appropriates, the rent money that the landlord extracts from their tenants.

Expropriation: Worker take-over of means of production. Because workers produce everything and are only paid a portion of the value they actually create, when they take-over factories during revolutions or at times of social strife, this action is described as an expropriation of the surplus value accumulated in the factory as a result of generations of workers’ surplus being appropriated by the capitalist or bourgeois class. Check out how Raúl Godoy explains the issue. He is a worker at Zanón (today FASINPAT), a formerly bankrupted ceramics factory in Argentina, now recovered by its workers.

Godoy was part of an insurrectionary movement against neoliberal anti corporate globalization. When Argentina’s economy tanked in the year 2001, after following economic plans imposed by International Financial Institutions, mostly the IMF, many owners of corporations proceeded to fraudulently bankrupt their business in order to cash on their investment and move that money elsewhere. Many workers tried to stop them from doing this by taking over the factories they were working at, starting production and commercialization on their own. The clip ends with Naomi Klein asking Mr. Zanón if he was going to get his factory back. In response, he smiled, confidently. He did not. Over twenty years later, the workers are still operating this factory, taking home a decent salary. There are over 10,000 people working at recovered factories in Argentina today.



Share This Book