Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Marx


Parallels: Contemporary Critiques of Capitalist Society, Politics and Education

No contemporary author is a clone of Marx and Engels, nor do most identify with the label "Marxist." However, there are strands in thought of many critics of capitalist society which closely parallel those of Marx and Engels and thus show how their thought might be applied to important issues in our own time. The method of looking at the "superstructure" of society from the point of the "base," for instance, is still very popular among critics of our economic and political system.

Like Marx and Engels, Amitai Etzioni criticizes liberal democracy for not living up to its own principles. For Etzioni, American democracy might sound good "on paper," but when we look at how it actually operates, the influence of wealth, and the collective wealth of PACs overwhelms the democracy and turns it into a "plutocracy." Some analysts even see this problem not just in our modern politics but going all the way back to the founding. They claim that men like Washington, Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton represented an elite who made a constitution to protect its own property and class. Unlike Marx and Engels, many of these critics of the American system are not set upon revolution, but reform. They have come to appreciate some of the values of liberalism, and so they wish to purify that liberalism from the corrosive affects of wealth.

Alfie Kohn is a popular education theorist, and another example of a contemporary thinker with some relation to the theory of Marx and Engels. In No Contest, he delves into the dynamics of the workplace in the same way he does America's schools. In other books he has argued that giving students grades and such incentives as gold stars actually creates a disincentive to hard work, because it takes away from students the intrinsic value of learning. Students do not study because they are curious but because they must have the A. Kohn parallels Marx's and Engels' attitude toward money "incentives" in the work place and their affect on productivity and worker satisfaction. Remember that Marx and Engels saw the wage-pay system as an unnatural, punitive and oppressive one in which people worked in order to avoid bad things such as getting their checks docked or getting fired. Workers in such a system would come to see themselves as alienated "wage-slaves," and would find no enjoyment in their work. Kohn argues that such incentives as salaries, raises, and bonuses function in a similar way to lower the morale and incentive of the workers. The message they receive is that the only reason for working is to make money. But, like Marx and Engels, Kohn believes that people can find much more satisfaction from their work, and are better motivated by their own sense of pride and responsibility for what they do. In effect, Kohn is following Marx and Engels in their conclusion that the worker in a capitalist system is "alienated" from his or her labor, and that many of our current relationships reflect a "cash nexus," and little more.


You can now see why Marxism is not a "thing of the past." We may not have revolutionaries stirring up factory revolts and working for the final upheaval to usher in full communism. However, we do still have critics of liberalism and capitalism. Indeed, the Marxist outlook has arguably always been more useful for pointing out the flaws of capitalism and liberal democracy than it has been in coming up with viable solutions. Below we will look at some related issues.


Imagine a university course without grades-since it is simply too hard to imagine an entire university without grades. Some students may have even experienced such a course, although virtually all universities still have to issue some kind of report of success or failure. Many of them have a Pass/Fail option that students may take on some of their courses. If it is still difficult to imagine such a course, it might be because you have been brainwashed by the prevailing capitalist culture to believe that all work must be done for some tangible, external reward. You may very well see your entire education in this light. When taking a class and doing the assignments, do you think primarily in terms of achieving the grade you need or desire for your particular goals. Do you decide how much course work and studying you are going do to on that basis? Have you ever said to your instructor, or at least thought, "what do I need to know for the exam?" If so, then Prof. Alfie Kohn would say that you have already had much stolen from you.

If all along, from kindergarten through college, you had been taught without grades, would your outlook be different? Would you want to know more about a particular subject you are studying this semester, even though it is not assigned and you will receive no more benefits from doing the extra work? Would you ask your professors for leads on where you could obtain more information about your particular interests? Would you stay up at night because the sheer enjoyment of reading a great novel or treatise was overriding your need for sleep? In other words, if there had been no grades, would you be more curious? Remember that you were, as a small child, extremely curious about everything. Learning was not work, it was play. All children are like this at first, and then something happens. Is that something grades (and standardized tests)?

Some students manage to make it all the way to the university with their curiosity fully intact, and they actually do some of the things suggested above, including asking for more information even though it is not required. However, these students are rare, and those who see studying as a sort of job are much more common. Critics of the current system, like Alfie Kohn, suggest that we have to overhaul of our education process, starting all the way back in kindergarten, so that the natural curiosity of students will not be crushed by "punitive" grading systems and standardized testing. They believe that everyone is capable of sustaining this curiosity and achieving genuine pleasure over the course of a lifetime from learning. But if kids perform just for the grade or just to score on the test, they will see education as a chore instead of an adventure.

Supporters of the grading system claim that human nature is such that if most people were not motivated by positive and negative incentives, they would not work. Just as they are skeptical about the incentive to work in the wage-free communist world, so they are skeptical that any student-grade school, high school, or college-would learn as much without grades. Yes, people can be motivated by curiosity, but most human beings need this added incentive. Implicitly, they deny that the enthusiasm for learning undoubtedly displayed by the toddler is possible for the older child or adult because the toddler's enthusiasm is partly a product of naivete. Advocates of the tradition system would deny that the grading system kills intellectual curiosity when it exists. So they would also argue that it is possible to develop intellectual curiosity within the grading system, for those who are capable of this form of motivation.


Marx and Engels noticed that religion thrived in America, where the state was prohibited from sponsoring a religion or setting up an official church. In "On the Jewish Question," Marx concluded that liberal freedom was not true freedom because it did not liberate people from the fetters of religion, but actually encouraged what he considered superstition. Even today, the debate rages on about the social utility of religion.

On one side of this debate we have those who claim that liberal democracy can hardly operate without a people who are substantially religious. They argue that democracy by definition requires a great deal of responsibility on the part of citizens. A self-ruling people must have self-restraint, and for the vast majority of people that self-restraint comes in the form of the morality taught to us by our religion. This is why George Washington called religion and morality the twin props of democracy. In other words, if the people do not have within them a sense of moderation and decency that leads them to regulate their own behavior, we will have to have a much bigger police force and state apparatus to control the people. If the state grows too large and too powerful in order to control the people, democracy is dead. The state will have the power and the reason to take away people's rights whenever it deems that they cannot handle those rights.

Those who argue along these lines indicate that, while government should not establish or sponsor any religion, government should not be hostile to religion because of its positive influence on citizenship. They tend to see no problem with religious symbolism in the public space, such as Madonna and Child postage stamps, "In God We Trust" on coinage, the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and city halls, or festive holiday displays in public parks. As long as it is not showing favoritism towards a particular sect, government is performing a positive function by reflecting the general religiosity of the people it serves and thus encouraging the virtues that aid democracy: honesty, trust, responsibility, and love of family.

On the other side we have those who do not see religion's influence on people as positive. Critics of the positive attitude toward religion tend to point out some of the problems that Marx and Engels saw. To borrow a phrase from Marx and Engels, they may claim that religion produces a sort of "false consciousness" in its adherents. For instance, because of the teachings of certain sects, women may believe that they should allow their husbands to lead instead of playing an equal role in the family and at work. These religious teachings run counter to the equality of all upon which our liberal democracy is based. Other religions may teach that abortion is morally wrong. The critics argue that this conclusion places an unequal burden on women and treats women's bodies as if they were the property of society or the state. Other critics do not like the moral message religion sends, which tends to be rather absolute-one way of life is moral and the other is immoral. They do not wish the government to reflect religious values because they believe that in doing so the government is making a value-judgement along with religion that certain ways of life are wrong and others right. This, in their opinion, violates the democratic value of individual freedom to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong-within the bounds of the law, of course. These critics wish that government played no role in advocating religiosity, even in the most generic sense, so that people would feel as free as possible to decide what religious path, if any, to take.

The American Founding

Perhaps partly because their ideas were so big, and surely because they have had such impact, America's founders have remained important and controversial figures in the American psyche. The question is, how should we think of them, and the founding itself, in our day and age? How we think about the founding reflects how we view our government today. Is it basically good, with a few kinks to be worked out? Or, is our government basically flawed, the product of the selfish interests of a few that still does not reflect the needs of the majority?

Those who see things the latter way tend to agree with Charles Beard, an intellectual from the early part of the 20th century, who saw the founding as basically flawed. Like Marx and Engels, Beard saw the founding generation as an elite class of wealthy, well educated citizens who made the constitution to suit their needs and desires. Their brand of liberalism, thought Beard, was liberalism for the few who could afford to exercise their freedoms and rights, who had the property to pursue happiness. Current critics of the founders see them as members not only of a propertied elite, but also of a racial and gender elite. These were rich, white males who, they claim, were not thinking about women and minorities when they wrote the constitution. Though Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," he must have literally meant men, and white men at that. Women could not vote. Blacks were slaves. Native Americans were treated as an inferior problem group that had to be contained and controlled in order to exploit what was originally theirs. These critics of the founding generation point out that in many states at the founding there were heavy property qualifications to vote, reflecting the elite view that only those who owned property were worthy of having a political voice because only they had a property "stake" in the operation of government.

Those who see the founding in this way tend to conclude that we should not revere the constitution as a document with some superior and timeless wisdom, but rather as a document created at a certain time for certain, often flawed, purposes. It can and should be changed and reinterpreted to reflect the current understanding of equality which we have obtained through the long and hard struggle of the civil rights and feminist movements. They may call for reforms that transform liberalism into a more egalitarian, even socialist, system in which the economic playing field is leveled by government so that everyone is truly equal.

On the other side of this debate, we have those who see the founding generation in a kinder light. For them, the founders were wise enough to come up with ideas that were bigger than they were. In other words, admirers of the founding generation admit that these men were flawed. Indeed, many of the founders owned slaves and did not treat women as their equals. However, due to the emergence of liberalism, there was at least some discussion-very rare in history--of women's rights and black emancipation. The feminist movement has its origins in liberalism, and one of its first prominent advocates was a male philosopher from the 19thcentury --John Stuart Mill. Those who defend the founders' contribution claim that their ideas have timeless value which transcends the imperfect times in which they were born. These ideas awakened the world to the idea of equality. Their logic that "all men are created equal" was applicable to women, blacks, Native Americans and others who had been long excluded. Indeed, there was nothing in their logic from the beginning that could exclude such people, since our very humanity was the basis upon which the founders built their doctrine of natural rights. Thomas Jefferson, though he owned slaves, knew and said that they were human beings. He knew and said that the time would come when slavery would no longer be tenable. So, from this perspective, the founders were indeed "ahead of their times," imperfect, but still possessing a powerful truth which has unfolded in American history until today when we enjoy a degree of equality never before seen. It follows that the constitution, for these admirers, is to be considered a document that should not be easily or constantly changed. They tend to think that the basic system of government it creates is a good one. The benefits of liberalism could be ruined if the government becomes too powerful and controlling in the name of a high level of economic equality.


Amitai Etzioni, Capital Corruption: The New Attack on American Democracy, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate