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Essay: Karl Marx and Mary Wollstonecraft: The Fight Against Inequality

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Although written over 150 years apart, both Karl Marx and Mary Wollstonecraft’s books, The Communist Manifesto and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, respectively, shed light on the implications and dangers of different forms of inequality. For Marx and his co-author Frederick Engels, it was the abuse of the proletariat, the laborers, at the hands of the bourgeoisie, the capitalists. For Mary Wollstonecraft, sexual inequality, specifically the systematic subordination of women by men, was of utmost importance. While differing in subject and reasoning, Marx and Wollstonecraft propose similar ideas of revolution and societal change to fix these flawed institutions in hopes of advancing mankind for the greater good.

When Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, they were living in a world of complete capitalism. Rising from feudalism, capitalism began when industry took over, urbanization increased, and manufacturing systems were put into place. Slowly, their world was filled with this modern market that seemingly had a hold on every aspect of society. According to Marx, this system creates a divide in the people, as they become either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie; this divide is historically inevitable, as there has always been class antagonism, where there must a winner and a loser (Marx 1948, 9). This is one of the reasons people rejected Marx’s theory of communism, because history has served as testament that there has always been class inequality, whether among serfs and lords, or kings and peasants, and therefore validating this way of life. However, this inequality is not something that Marx can accept, solely because of history, nor is it a sufficient social order. It involves “…naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation [of the laborers]” (Marx 1948, 11), and only benefits the capitalists, who live in luxury because of their successful abuse of the lower class. This accusatory and disruptive ideology was little shocking to the public, who found no fundamental issues with capitalism worthy of uprooting their entire society. Marx argues that this is because the people don’t understand the true severity of capitalism’s power in their lives (Marx 1948, 25). People also believe that without a social hierarchy, both the lower class and the upper class would have nothing to strive for, because the lower class wouldn’t be competing with the upper class, and the upper class wouldn’t be competing amongst themselves. According to the public, if private property was removed, like the Manifesto suggests, then people would stop working. However, according to Marx (1948, 24-25) if this was true, that the people would no longer work and therefore become indolent, then the bourgeoisie system, where those at the top hardly work but have everything, would have failed. However, it boomed. Marx counters these ideas of losing private property, claiming that the proletariat never really had said property in the first place

(Marx 1948, 28), and they only own themselves and their ability to work, while the bourgeoisie own everything else, therefore it wouldn’t really be a loss in the first place. Ultimately, The Communist Manifesto was written in hopes of mobilizing the working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie, for their own potential to thrive. The conflict between the two parties is almost like a civil war, where the majority of people are suffering, and few are succeeding. This despair and conflict is Marx’s biggest argument for the removal of illegitimate social inequality, so no one is under the command of another, or depends on the other for economic stability. Once this is done, he believes, mankind will be at their best.

Like Marx, Wollstonecraft believes there are issues in the foundation of society, however, hers are not among classes but between sexes. An interesting parallel is set up between Marx and Wollstonecraft, because they both describe a system where one party rules over a subordinate party, and they both fight for the dismantling of the system which allows for such obvious abuse of power and dominance. Wollstonecraft believes that women should have equal opportunities and be raised the same way as men. History is her biggest opponent, not unlike Marx, in that no one seems to fight the subordination of half the population. A big reason people believe that inequality seems natural stems from the Bible, which claims that Eve came from Adam’s rib, which was interpreted as woman being a literal part of man, therefore lesser than (Wollstonecraft 1996, 25). However, if theological reasoning was the only basis for the legitimacy of this claim, Wollstonecraft would have easily disputed it when she argues that God never makes mistakes, and would not create a human without reason, knowing that it could impact their ability to reach heaven, among other consequences (Wollstonecraft 1996, 14). She believed this so much that she titled her work after it: vindication meaning blamelessness in the eyes of God. Another contributing factor to this gender inequality is the fact that women have never had equal opportunities as men, and could not prove themselves, because they weren’t evaluated at the same level. This idea is what fuels Wollstonecraft’s main argument, that women should be educated as men are. She adds that if you “[l]et their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale” (Wollstonecraft 1996, 34) it makes a more compelling argument, but until then, there’s no proof that men are more intelligent or mentally capable than women. This lack of education has had extreme impacts on women because they are raised only concerning themselves with materialistic learning, how to do their most important job as a wife and mother, and trivial things like practicing on dolls, dressing them like it’s the most important skill they can learn (Wollstonecraft 1996, 41). Women are brought up thinking their greatest aspiration in life is to be in a household, but if their reason isn’t developed enough, then they cannot fulfill this duty, nor can they adequately prepare their sons to be smart and accomplished men (Wollstonecraft 1996, 64). As soon as the world understands that women need to be just as educated as men to give back to society, there will be a chance for equality, and a chance for a brighter future.

These two books represent groundbreaking, daring ideas, that required a lot of bravery and argument to be released into the public. They have some pretty striking comparisons, for example, the proletariat and the woman are at a clear disadvantage, but once they harness their power, they will undoubtedly succeed, according to Marx and Wollstonecraft. Both authors compare the two social groups to soldiers at different points (Wollstonecraft 1996, 16), explaining how they respond to commands with routine obedience (Marx 1948, 16). Likewise, “communism acts in contradiction to all past historical experience” (Marx 1948, 29) in the same way that gender equality was an unheard of concept at the time of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. However, they did differ as well. Marx claimed that families were based simply on private gain, rather than love (Marx 1948, 26) and that the proletariat’s lack of family ties is more practical. Wollstonecraft sees family as a very important part of life, but she thinks that friendship is preferable in a marriage than love and lust, because eventually appearances change (Wollstonecraft 1996, 74). Ability to mobilize is also a big difference. Marx claims that the proletariat is the majority (Marx 1948, 22) and therefore has some level of executive power, and could defeat the bourgeoisie, while women make up only half the population, and at the time that Wollstonecraft was writing her book, women had no political power, and wouldn’t for over a hundred years. Of course the two movements could not be exactly the same, as they took place in very different time periods, as well as within different social groups, but the overall theme of global improvement, and self improvement stand out. Marx and Wollstonecraft both fought for what they believed was true equality, and today their work is known around the world as works that kindle and entice ideas of social change.

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