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In the following sentence, what is meant by 'works itself out'?

As the capitalist system works itself out and its nature becomes more clear, the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat becomes more and more marked.

Does to work something out here mean to understand something (the 3rd definition in this dictionary)?

Update 1:

Here is the same sentence in a whole paragraph:

Marx conceives the wage-earner and the capitalist in a sharp antithesis. He imagines that every man is, or must soon become, wholly the one or wholly the other. The wage-earner, who possesses nothing, is exploited by the capitalists, who possess everything. As the capitalist system works itself out and its nature becomes more clear, the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat becomes more and more marked. The two classes, since they have antagonistic interests, are forced into a class war which generates within the capitalist regime internal forces of disruption. The working men learn gradually to combine against their exploiters, first locally, then nationally, and at last internationally. When they have learned to combine internationally they must be victorious. They will then decree that all land and capital shall be owned in common; exploitation will cease; the tyranny of the owners of wealth will no longer be possible; there will no longer be any division of society into classes, and all men will be free.

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    I'd say probably a meaning like definition 5 or 6 was in Bertrand Russell's mind when he wrote Roads to Freedom in 1918. Something like 'evolves'. You should have mentioned the title and author. Commented May 13 at 10:01
  • The "reflexive voice" there is a somewhat informal / slangy usage. The capitalist system doesn't actually "work itself out" (and being an abstract concept, it certainly can't "understand itself"). In reality it's the unspecified agent people who will resolve outstanding flaws and inconsistencies in the system. It's definition #5 in your link: if a problem or complicated situation works out, it gradually gets better or gets solved. Commented May 13 at 10:24
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    Apadana, when you ask a question about a sentence quoted from a book it's usual to identify the book, both from courtesy and so that people know what type of book it is and how long ago it was written. This can help with answering the question. Commented May 13 at 10:47
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    Don't be so literal! I myself wrote resolve outstanding flaws and inconsistencies off the top of my head before finding and linking to the dictionary definition gradually gets better or gets solved. Think of it as evolves towards stability if you like. But leave the politics out of it. I thought you were only concerned with the curiously reflexive syntax - the basic meaning should be clear enough. Commented May 13 at 11:07
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    Apadana, you misunderstand @FumbleFingers. He is not saying that Marx expected that the capitalist system would 'get better', rather that it would 'work itself out' (resolve its flaws and contradictions) and become more nakedly, clearly, unambiguously, obviously itself. Thus, as Russell, put it, 'the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat [would become] more and more marked'. Commented May 13 at 11:51

2 Answers 2

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With works itself out Russell is referring to the process envisioned by Marx whereby "every man is, or must soon become, wholly the one or wholly the other", wage-earner or capitalist, and commence the class war. One could paraphrase works itself out as "progresses towards its inevitable end-state".

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  • Now that a few native English speakers have mentioned that work sth out doesn't mean understand here, I won't insist on my early guess. But since the author says 'its nature becomes more clear', I thought that he is saying that as a result of being understood, its nature becomes more clear.
    – apadana
    Commented May 13 at 11:21
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    No, it’s more like “With its shape firming up, it becomes easier to make out its form.” Commented May 13 at 11:33
  • This is a reflexive construction, "work itself out", which has a different meaning than "work something out". That said, underlying the Marxian view as summarized by Russell is a development towards the clarity of simplicity (every man ... must soon become the one or the other), towards a world without complex strife and conflict , a world where "all land and capital shall be owned in common; exploitation will cease; the tyranny of the owners of wealth will no longer be possible; there will no longer be any division of society into classes, and all men will be free".
    – TimR
    Commented May 13 at 11:33
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This answer is offered as an addition to the useful comments already provided. the quoted sentence is:

As the capitalist system works itself out and its nature becomes more clear, the opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat becomes more and more marked.

It's worth noting that there are two clauses linked by and: "As X and Y happen, the result will be Z." Often in this setting the meaning of one part of the sentence is clarified or defined by another part of the sentence, and I think that's what has happened here. In effect the writer is saying that the capitalist system "working itself out" will have the effect of "making its nature more clear." The second clause defines the first clause. The capitalist system will do more and more what is predicted by a standard capitalist model, and by that exact process show its true nature.

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    Nice answer -- gets to the point, answers the question, and provides a rule of thumb for similar situations.
    – EllieK
    Commented May 13 at 15:53

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