Allison Lewis

The Project

Allison wrote this paper in Advanced Placement European History. The assignment presented Karl Marx as a doctor examining his patient, capitalism. The prompt read as follows: “In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx offered a diagnosis, prognosis and a prescription---in other words, an account of what he thought was wrong with capitalism, a prediction of what would happen if it were not treated, and a recommended course of treatment. How convincing do you find each of these three aspects of his argument? In your essay, use examples from European history prior to 1848.”

from her nomination....

"What I find most remarkable about this paper on the Communist Manifesto, aside from the fluid and confident argument, is the breadth of historical examples Allison employs so effectively in her evaluation of Marx's call for violent revolution. The assignment asks students to look back at the history Marx knew to understand his perspective. In her essay she moves from the German Peasants' War of 1525 through the French Revolution of 1789, into the evolving platforms of 19th-century British political parties and back again to France in 1848. She responded to the prompt with scholarly diligence as well as creative analysis.."

Katherine Hanson, History Teacher

Allison Lewis '09
Capitalism: Dr. Marx's Diagnosis, Prognosis, and Prescription

Allison Lewis
AP European History
Spring 2008
pdf version


Capitalism: Dr. Marx's Diagnosis, Prognosis, and Prescription

If Karl Marx’s words had never been taken seriously, the world would be a better and also worse place. As a political theorist Marx failed, his theory of communism having been thoroughly disproved in the late twentieth century. That being said, as a historian Marx succeeded. He has created the new way we look at history today: through the lens of class conflict. As much as Marx was wrong about communism, I think that he was right about capitalism in many ways. When Marx published “The Communist Manifesto” in 1848, pro-capitalist liberals were blocking socialist reforms every chance they got. Capitalism, especially in the late nineteenth century, did create extreme wealth disparities. In that sense I do agree with Marx’s diagnosis – the injustices created by capitalism and perpetrated on the poor by the upper classes were wrong. That being said, Marx was incorrect in where he thought the world was going and his prescription of communism turned out to be worse than the disease.

Marx blames capitalism and the bourgeoisie for every social and political problem in the mid 1800’s, which is an extreme over-simplification; but his diagnosis that capitalism left behind the majority of urban workers and therefore the majority of the population in industrialized countries was correct. Marx also makes the point that “the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway” (Manifesto, 5). While defending free trade when it benefited them to, the bourgeoisie would reverse their position if protections could help them. They systematically denied protections that would help the poor, but in Britain in 1815 enacted the Corn Laws which were specifically designed to make the rich richer by prohibiting the importation of foreign grain (History of Western Society, 773). These laws were pushed through Parliament for the sole benefit the landed aristocracy who controlled Parliament as the Tory party, whom Marx would have considered to be part of the larger “bourgeois” class. The Corn Laws were passed when grain prices fell in England after the Napoleonic Wars and cheap grain could be imported from Eastern Europe. During the wars the aristocracy in England had increased the land they used for farming, thereby increasing their income in the form of rent. The lower classes protested these laws, and Parliament’s only response was to crack down harder by suspending the right to protest and habeas corpus in 1817 and enact further restrictions with the Six Acts. The Tory party in Britain, which represented the interests of the bourgeoisie, perfectly illustrates Marx’s point that the bourgeoisie held “exclusive political sway” and would use it for their own benefit.

Marx’s diagnosis that the bourgeoisie would defend free trade until it benefited them and no one else to enact protections appears all too true, but his prognosis does not hold up. According to Marx, by 1848 history had brought the world to the point where "[the bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Manifesto, 20). Marx’s prognosis for capitalism was that even if nothing were done about it, there would be a revolution and capitalism would fall. He believed so wholeheartedly that the world was on the verge of a great revolution that he felt that reformers who favored incremental change were wrong, as they were only delaying the revolution. Marx felt that bourgeois reformers were only “desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society” (Manifesto, 43). However, reform efforts in Britain led by the bourgeoisie seem to have been very successful at helping the lower classes. In the early 1800’s the Tory party had dominated Parliament and only passed legislation to help themselves. By the 1820’s, however, Parliament had created better urban administration, more economic freedom, and even replaced the prohibition on grain imports with a heavy tariff (History of Western Civilization, 773). These were some of the incremental changes Marx would have hated, but even though they didn’t change a lot they opened the door for more middle-class involvement in politics. This helped strengthen the Whig party, which was more interested in helping industrial and urban interests. By 1832 the Whig party had managed to get popular and royal support to pass the Reform Bill against the protests of Tories and the aristocratic House of Lords. This brought more representation to urban areas and increased suffrage by 50%. Even though this still meant that only 12% of men in England and Ireland could vote, it at least showed that incremental reform could work. It was enough to convince a Tory prime minister to repeal the Corn Laws in 1845 and the Tory party to back the Ten Hours Act of 1847 to help factory workers. By the mid-1800’s the proletariat had become an important interest group capable of encouraging reform without resort to violent revolution. The dramatic change in Britain from 1815 to 1847 shows that incremental reform can be extremely successful in helping the proletariat. Few violent revolutions were ever as successful as those forty-two years of reform.

Though Marx makes the argument that the only prescription for capitalism is a revolution, prior radical revolutions had merely achieved the opposite: a swift return to conservativism. Marx argues that the bourgeoisie “has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade” (Manifesto, 6). Socialists believed in a “right to work” and were hostile to the capitalist idea that the market would dictate labor needs. Marx supported a society with government-owned factories where people could be assured of a job. After the 1848 revolution in France, Louis Blanc lobbied for government-sponsored cooperative workshops and got some of what he wanted, such as barebones national workshops. Bourgeois liberals and lower-class socialists in the Constituent Assembly clashed constantly and finally dropped Blanc, eliminating the working-class socialist voice. On May 15 urban workers tried to take over the Assembly and create a revolutionary socialist state, but they failed and bourgeois and upper-class representatives united to close the workshops. For three “June Days” the working poor of Paris revolted, but were crushed when once again the bourgeoisie and upper classes united against them in favor of stability. Much the same thing happened in both the Austrian and Prussian revolutions. The socialists and liberals would unite to topple the existing monarchy, but the bourgeoisie always chose stability over change as soon as the socialists began asserting a right to work and to universal suffrage. In the first French Revolution and the English Civil War, the Republic and the Interregnum respectively were quickly toppled in favor of restoration of the monarchy. Even Martin Luther, though he made a sudden break with religious authority, chose stability over sudden political reform. When peasants began revolting based on his words, he denounced their violent demand for more rights. Before 1848 the lower classes in Europe almost never got what they wanted through revolution. Though the poorest classes “have nothing to lose but their chains” (Manifesto, 52) all other classes from the petty-bourgeoisie up do have things to lose and radical revolution is worse to them than existing in a stable society no matter how bad. In the case of capitalism, the prescription – a radical revolution, would for many appear worse than the disease.

It is hard today to take an unbiased look at Marx’s diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription for capitalism. His theory has been used very differently than he could ever have imagined, as communism took hold in places where industrialization was something people had only heard of. Russia, China, Cuba, and many recently de-colonized African countries, and even today much of South America turns to communist or socialist policies not to destroy capitalism but to catch up with the capitalist, industrialized countries. It is hard to look at Marx theoretically because we know what happens when there is a communist revolution and he did not. Marx never explained how the tyrannical government of the first stage of communism can be removed form power so as to make way for the second stage of communism; in fact, Marx never really explained how a government that controls everything can be fairly run by the entire proletariat. In general Marx failed to account for human nature. The main problem with communism is that Marx thought industrialization paved the way for a communist revolution, while actually in the most industrialized countries people don’t want change. Even the poorest people are not willing to give up stability and the chance of material improvement in order to experiment with communism. It is only in dirt-poor places where people have no other options that they turn to communism. That said, if Marx is just looked at as a historian and political theorist, then his correct diagnosis of capitalism and his new way of looking at history through class struggles can be seen as important contributions.