Very well the title is, partly, a trick – I do not intend to defend the general work of Karl Marx, I am simply going to, partly, defend one aspect of his thought. Specifically that 19th European century liberalism was, in part, an ideological cover for material interests – which were, at base, in contradiction with the general rhetoric of liberalism.
I do not accept the philosphy, history, economics or political ideas of Marxism – either the various positions of Karl Marx himself or the various mutant forms of Marxism (German, American and British Frankfurt School, Italian, American and British Gramsci school, the various French Schools and so on) that have emerged since his death. However, if Karl Marx said “I think it is noon” and the sun was at its highest point in the sky – I would not argue.
The rhetoric of 19th century European (it is more complex with British liberalism – due, perhaps, to an oddity in the English language – but I will not go into that here) liberalism is well known – freedom, rolling back the state, voluntary interaction and private property rights (and so on).
Yet the practice was very different. For example after the liberal constitutional revolution of 1830 France got a regime that proclaimed inself widly in favour of free enterprise and freedom generally but……..
Taxes on imports, and other state interventions, saturated France, and half the members of the French Parliament had direct connections with companies subsidized by the government.
The gap between the “ideological superstructure” of the regime and its base (its “economic base”) was vast and could fairly be described as a “contradiction”.
Nor was France an isolated case. For example, both German and Italian unification were central liberal causes passionately supported by liberals all over the world (including in Britain). Yet in both cases unification led, overall, to a state with HIGHER taxes and MORE regulations. The sour taste of German unification might be blamed upon Bismark (although German liberals were not noted for demanding independence for old low tax Kingdoms such as Hannover, or for denoucning Bismark’s persecution of Roman Catholics).
But “Bismark” can not be reason why Italian unification meant higher taxes and government spending than had been the case before, nor can it explain such things as introduction of conscription to Sicily or the persecution that led to such violence there (far more deaths than in the “liberation” of Sicily), or the language persecution that was subjected on places (such as Venenzia) where people did not speak “standard Italian” – i.e. Tuscan.
Before unification Italy, unlike Ireland, was not known as a huge source of immigrants to the United States – after unification it soon became a place of mass emmigration. A sad comment on the supposedly beautiful liberal unification.
And if Italy is not enough, what of Switzerland? Liberalism was forced on the Catholic Cantons in Switzerland by armed violence – and nor was it “just” the war of 1847, Cantons such as Appenzell, which had made no effort to leave the Swiss Confederation, were fined for the “crime” of not attacking Cantons who had tried to leave the “voluntary” Confederation (remember, unlike the United States, there is no slavery factor here – Cantons like Zug and Luzern were attacked simply for the “crime” of trying to leave the Confederation), the Jesuit Order was banned (so much for religious freedom) and elections in Cantons like Zug were rigged (by a liberal occupying elite) for DECADES.
So much for both the liberal claim to represent “freedom” and for the liberal claim to represent “democracy”. Direct democracy, the people voting themselves in a public open square, was always despised by liberals – but indirect “representative” democracy was rigged.
In Italy voting was also wildly suspect (and on a restricted franchise – after all one would not all those Catholic peasants voting, that would make things hard to rig) – with the various unification votes being by such big majorities as to be considered (even by the supporters of unification) obviously rigged. Such votes could also be rigged in reverse (and were) – for example Savoy and Nice were proclaimed to have voted to no longer be Italian and to want to join up with France (because that was the price N. III demanded for his aid). They were most likely better off with France – but the whole thing left a sour taste, at least to someone who was not so drunk with liberal rhetoric that they believed everything the rulers said (a rather odd form of liberalism – that depends on a total trust of everything that govenrment says, even if it contradicts what they said only yesterday).
How to explain all this?
How to explain the contrast between the endless talk of liberty, smaller less burdensome government, and constitutional self government, and the reality of persecution (religous persecution, language persecution and so on), bigger government (higher taxes, more government spending, more regulations) and ballot rigging and endless corruption in government.
Karl Marx had an explination.
His explination was that, whilst many liberals may be totally sincere in their talk, in reality (at bottom) liberalism is just ideological rhetoric for the material self interest of the owners of capital – capitalists (factory owners – and so on).
The capitalists needed bigger markets and would benefit from state favours – so liberals found themselves supporting unification.
If free trade benefitted the capitalists – then governments would end up supporting free trade (as they did in Britain) if it did not benefit the capitalists then governments would support protectionism – regardless of liberal rhetoric. Just as they did in early 19th century France.
And on and on, with later Marxists making adjustments – for example talking about the possibly different material interests of factory owners and bankers (industrial capitalism and finance capitalism) and how this might lead to conflicts.
And Marxists making the point that they could explain even the obsession of liberals with state education. Seemingly this was the most obvious contradiction of all – with liberals (going right back to “liberals” such as John Locke in the 17th century – i.e. before the word “liberal” was even used in political terms) denouncing the idea of state education as a way of destroying freedom of thought and diversity – of nipping them “in the bud” , and producing a drab mindset.
Yet, in practice, every liberal regime in the world set about building such a state education system – with the full active support of most liberal thinkers of the time, who seemed to forget about “freedom of thought” and “diversity of opinion” as soon as their political faction was in power. To the Marxist the solution of this problem was obivious – liberalism was (at base) just a false ideology to cover the interests of the capitalists , so OF COURSE the liberals created a state education system (or state examinations, as with the desire of J.S. Mill – Mill accepted private schools, but his desire for state examinations de facto castrated them) in order to spread their ideology of control over the masses – and if this contradicted their “freedom” talk, that was just another capitalist contradiction to be expossed.
Now I do not accept that liberalism is a cover for the material interests of factory owners (I do not even accept that “capitalists” have a unified material interest – or that, for example, factory owners will always have political views based on their material interest), for example ALL the great French economic writers (not just Bastiat, ALL of them) denounced the economic policies of the “liberal” French regime of 1830 to 1848 – the subsidies and the trade taxes.
Just as the great Italian liberal writers denounced the economic policies (the wasteful spending and so on) of the new Kingdom of Italy (with the German example it is more complicated – with the liberals splitting, and even the anti statist liberals falling into other forms of statism quite quickly).
Nor do I accept that governments are just tools of capitalists – for example the government of the Kindom of Italy followed many of the policies it did (such as forcing conscription on Sicily) for nationalistic reasons – not just to serve the interests of Turin factory owners in Piedmont, or Lombard bankers in Milan.
Lastly state education has never proved to be a good way of spreading ideological acceptance of “capitalism” – on the contrary (as John Locke and many others predicted) it produces a drab mindset that sees state action as the “natural” way to deal with any problem (after all if the state is good enough to control education….. and people are naturally unable to pay for or organize the education of their own children…..) the mass products of such places are not exactly naturallymore friendly to private property after they leave school and university than when they entered them (rather the reverse if anything) – even before statists infiltrate and take control of such things as teacher training (which they do with great ease in a near monopoly system).
However, I think I have said enough to show that Karl Marx had a case when he claimed that there seemed to be vast contradictions in liberalism – and why he was listened to, and why his explination seemed, to many, to be convincing.
Nor is this just a European story – for example the difference between liberal rhetoric and liberal reality in 19th century Latin America, and the case that material interests of wealthy farmers and other businessmen were at the base of this contradiction, is famous – but to examine (the truth and the falseness in the case against 19th century Latin American liberalism) would take a post on its own.