Karl Marx

Western Philosophy
19th-century philosophy
Karl Marx
Name: Karl Marx
Birth: May 5, 1818 (Trier, Germany)
Death: March 14, 1883 (London, England)
School/tradition: Marxism
Main interests: Politics, Economics, class struggle
Notable ideas: Co-founder of Marxism (with Engels), alienation and exploitation of the worker, The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, historical materialism
Influences: Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Stirner, Smith, Ricardo, Rousseau, Goethe, Fourier
Influenced: Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Che Guevara, Sartre, Debord, Frankfurt School, Negri, more...

Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818, Trier, Germany – March 14, 1883, London) was a German philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary. Marx addressed a wide range of issues; he is most famous for his analysis of history, summed up in the opening line of the introduction to the Communist Manifesto (1848): "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marx believed that the capitalism would be replaced by communism.

Marx was both a scholar and a political activist. Sometimes, he argued that his analysis of capitalism revealed that capitalism was destined to end because of unsolvable problems within capitalism:

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable. [1]

Other times, he argued that capitalism would end through the organized actions of an international working class:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. (from The German Ideology)

While Marx was a relatively obscure figure in his own lifetime, his ideas began to exert a major influence on workers' movements shortly after his death. This influence was given added impetus by the victory of the Marxist Bolsheviks in the Russian October Revolution, and there are few parts of the world which were not significantly touched by Marxian ideas in the course of the twentieth century. The relation of Marx to "Marxism" is a point of controversy. While some argue that his ideas are discredited , Marxism is still very much influential in academic and political circles. Marxism continues to be the official ideology in some countries in the world such as North Korea. In his book "Marx's Das Capital" (2006), biographer Francis Wheen reiterates David McLellan's observation that since Marx's ideas had not triumphed in the West "..it had not been turned into an official ideology and is thus the object of serious study unimpeded by government controls.".




Karl Marx was born as the third child of seven children of a Jewish family in Trier, in the Rhineland region of Germany. His father Heinrich (1777-1838), who had descended from a long line of rabbis, converted to Christianity, despite his many deistic tendencies and his admiration of such Enlightenment figures as Voltaire and Rousseau. Marx's father was actually born Herschel Mordechai, but when the Prussian authorities would not allow him to continue practising law as a Jew, he joined the official denomination of the Prussian state, Lutheranism, which accorded him advantages, as one of a small minority of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic region. His mother was Henrietta (née Presborck; 1788-1863); his siblings were Sophie, Hermann, Henriette, Louise (m. Juta), Emilie and Caroline. The Marx household hosted many visiting intellectuals.



Marx was educated at home until the age of thirteen. After graduating from the Trier Gymnasium, Marx enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1835 at the age of 17 to study law, where he joined the Trier Tavern Club drinking society and at one point served as its president; his grades suffered as a result. Marx was interested in studying philosophy and literature, but his father would not allow it because he did not believe that his son would be able to comfortably support himself in the future as a scholar. The following year, his father forced him to transfer to the far more serious and academically oriented Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin. During this period, Marx wrote many poems and essays concerning life, using the theological language acquired from his liberal, deistic father, such as "the Deity," but also absorbed the atheistic philosophy of the Young Hegelians who were prominent in Berlin at the time. Marx earned a doctorate in 1841 with a thesis titled The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, but he had to submit his dissertation to the University of Jena as he was warned that his reputation among the faculty as a Young Hegelian radical would lead to a poor reception in Berlin.

The younger Karl Marx.
The younger Karl Marx.

Marx and the Young Hegelians

The Left, or Young Hegelians, consisted of a group of philosophers and journalists circling around Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer opposing their teacher Hegel. Despite their criticism of Hegel's metaphysical assumptions, they made use of Hegel's dialectical method, separated from its theological content, as a powerful weapon for the critique of established religion and politics. Some members of this circle drew an analogy between post-Aristotelian philosophy and post-Hegelian philosophy. One of them, Max Stirner, turned critically against both Feuerbach and Bauer in his book "Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum" (1845, The Ego and Its Own), calling these atheists in all seriousness "pious people." Marx, at that time a follower of Feuerbach, was deeply impressed by the work and abandoned Feuerbachian materialism and accomplished what recent authors have denoted as an "epistemological break." He developed the basic concept of historical materialism against Stirner in his book "Die Deutsche Ideologie" (1846, The German Ideology), which he did not publish. [2] Another link to the Young Hegelians was Moses Hess, with whom Marx eventually disagreed, yet to whom he owed many of his insights into the relationship between state, society and religion.

Towards the end of October 1843, Marx arrived in Paris, France. There, on August 28, 1844, at the Café de la Régence on the Place du Palais he began the most important friendship of his life, and one of the most important in history – he met Friedrich Engels. Engels had come to Paris specifically to see Marx, whom he had met only briefly at the office of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842. [3] He came to show Marx what would turn out to be perhaps Engel's greatest work, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.[4] Paris at this time was the home and headquarters to armies of German, British, Polish, and Italian revolutionaries. Marx, for his part, had come to Paris to work with Arnold Ruge, another revolutionary from Germany, on the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher .[5]

After the failure of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marx, living on the rue Vaneau, wrote for the most radical of all German newspapers in Paris, indeed in Europe, the Vorwärts, established and run by the secret society called League of the Just. Marx's topics were generally on the Jewish question and Hegel. When not writing, Marx studied the history of the French Revolution and read Proudhon[6] He also spent considerable time studying a side of life he had never been acquainted with before -- a large urban proletariat.

[Hitherto exposed mainly to university towns...] Marx's sudden espousal of the proletarian cause can be directly attributed (as can that of other early German communists such as Weitling*) to his first hand contacts with socialists intellectuals [and books] in France.

*Author of the first book on communism in German, Humanity as it is and as it should be, published in Paris in 1838.[7]

He re-evaluated his relationship with Bauer and the Young Hegelians, and wrote On the Jewish Question, which was mostly a critique of current notions of civil rights and political emancipation, which also includes several critical references to Judaism as well as Christianity from an atheistic standpoint. Engels, a committed communist, kindled Marx's interest in the situation of the working class and guided Marx's interest in economics. Marx became a communist and set down his views in a series of writings known as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which remained unpublished until the 1930s. In the Manuscripts, Marx outlined a humanist conception of communism, influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach and based on a contrast between the alienated nature of labor under capitalism and a communist society in which human beings freely developed their nature in cooperative production.

In January 1845,after the Vorwärts expressed its hearty approval regarding the assassination attempt on the life of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, Marx, among many others,were ordered to leave Paris. He and Engels moved on to Brussels, Belgium.

Marx devoted himself to an intensive study of history and elaborated on his idea of historical materialism, particularly in a manuscript (published posthumously as The German Ideology), the basic thesis of which was that "the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production." Marx traced the history of the various modes of production and predicted the collapse of the present one -- industrial capitalism -- and its replacement by communism. This was the first major work of what scholars consider to be his later phase, abandoning the Feuerbach-influenced humanism of his earlier work.

Next, Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), a response to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty and a critique of French socialist thought. These works laid the foundation for Marx and Engels' most famous work, The Communist Manifesto, first published on February 21, 1848, as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by Marx and Engels.

Later that year, Europe experienced tremendous revolutionary upheaval. Marx was arrested and expelled from Belgium; in the meantime a radical movement had seized power from King Louis Philippe in France, and invited Marx to return to Paris, where he witnessed the revolutionary June Insurrection (Revolutions of 1848 in France) first hand.

When this collapsed in 1849, Marx moved back to Cologne and started the Neue Rheinische Zeitung ("New Rhenish Newspaper"). During its existence he was put on trial twice, on February 7, 1849 because of a press misdemeanour, and on the 8th charged with incitement to armed rebellion. Both times he was acquitted. The paper was soon suppressed and Marx returned to Paris, but was forced out again. This time he sought refuge in London in May 1849 where he was to remain for the rest of his life.



In 1855, the Marx family suffered a blow with the death of their son, Edgar, from tuberculosis.[8] Meanwhile, Marx's major work on political economy made slow progress. By 1857 he had produced a gigantic 800 page manuscript on capital, landed property, wage labour, the state, foreign trade and the world market. This work however was not published until 1941, under the title Grundrisse. In the early 1860s he worked on composing three large volumes, Theories of Surplus Value, which discussed the theoreticians of political economy, particularly Adam Smith and David Ricardo. During this period, Marx championed the Union cause in the American Civil War. In 1867, well behind schedule, the first volume of Capital was published, a work which analyzed the capitalist process of production. Here, Marx elaborated his labor theory of value and his conception of surplus value and exploitation which he argued would ultimately lead to a falling rate of profit and the collapse of industrial capitalism. Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life and were published posthumously by Engels. In 1859, Marx was able to publish Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, his first serious economic work.

One reason why Marx was so slow to publish Capital was that he was devoting his time and energy to the First International, to whose General Council he was elected at its inception in 1864. He was particularly active in preparing for the annual Congresses of the International and leading the struggle against the anarchist wing led by Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876). Although Marx won this contest, the transfer of the seat of the General Council from London to New York in 1872, which Marx supported, led to the decline of the International. The most important political event during the existence of the International was the Paris Commune of 1871 when the citizens of Paris rebelled against their government and held the city for two months. On the bloody suppression of this rebellion, Marx wrote one of his most famous pamphlets, The Civil War in France, an enthusiastic defense of the Commune.

During the last decade of his life, Marx's health declined and he was incapable of the sustained effort that had characterized his previous work. He did manage to comment substantially on contemporary politics, particularly in Germany and Russia. In Germany, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, he opposed the tendency of his followers Karl Liebknecht (1826-1900) and August Bebel (1840-1913) to compromise with the state socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle in the interests of a united socialist party. In his correspondence with Vera Zasulich, Marx contemplated the possibility of Russia's bypassing the capitalist stage of development and building communism on the basis of the common ownership of land characteristic of the village mir.


Family life

Karl Marx was married to Jenny von Westphalen, the educated daughter of a Prussian baron. Karl Marx's engagement to her was kept secret at first, and for several years was opposed by both the Marxes and Westphalens. Despite the objections, the two were married on June 19, 1843 in Kreuznacher Pauluskirche, Bad Kreuznach.

During the first half of the 1850s the Marx family lived in poverty in a three room flat in the Soho quarter of London. Marx and Jenny already had four children and three more were to follow. Of these only three survived to adulthood. Marx's major source of income at this time was Engels, who was drawing a steadily increasing income from the family business in Manchester. This was supplemented by weekly articles written as a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. Money from Engels allowed the family to move to somewhat more salubrious lodging in a new suburb on the then-outskirts of London. Marx generally lived a hand-to-mouth existence, forever at the limits of his resources, although this did extend to some spending on relatively bourgeois luxuries, which he felt were necessities for his wife and children given their social status and the mores of the time.

There is a disputed rumour that Marx was the father of Frederick Demuth, the son of Marx's housekeeper, Lenchen Demuth. It has been suggested that this rumour lacks any direct corroboration ([1]).

Marx's children by his wife were: Jenny Caroline (m. Longuet; 1844-1883); Jenny Laura (m. Lafargue; 1846-1911); Edgar (1847-1855); Henry Edward Guy ("Guido"; 1849-1850); Jenny Eveline Frances ("Franziska"; 1851-1852); Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855-1898); and one more who died before being named (July 1857).

Karl Marx Tomb in London.
Karl Marx Tomb in London.

Death and Legacy

Following the death of his wife Jenny in 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last two years of his life and eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him. He died on March 14, 1883, as a stateless person.[9] He was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, on 17 March, 1883. The message carved on Marx's tombstone is: "WORKERS OF ALL LANDS, UNITE", the final line of The Communist Manifesto. The tombstone was a monument built in 1954 by the Communist Party of Great Britain with a portrait bust by Laurence Bradshaw — Marx's original tomb was humbly adorned; only eleven people were present at his funeral[10]. In 1970, there was an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the monument [2].

Several of Marx's closest friends spoke at his funeral, including Karl Liebknecht and Friedrich Engels. Engels' speech included the words:

"On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep-but forever." [3]

Marx's daughter Eleanor became a socialist like her father and helped edit his works.

Nine people attended Marx's funeral. These were:


Marx's thought

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Class consciousness
Commodity fetishism
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Young Marx
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Surplus labour
Surplus value
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Wage labour
Capitalist mode of production
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Primitive accumulation of capital
Proletarian revolution
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World Revolution
Marxist philosophy
Historical materialism
Dialectical materialism
Analytical Marxism
Marxist autonomism
Marxist feminism
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As the American Marx scholar Hal Draper remarked, "there are few thinkers in modern history whose thought has been so badly misrepresented, by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike." The legacy of Marx's thought is bitterly contested between numerous tendencies who claim to be Marx's most accurate interpreters, including Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and libertarian Marxism.



Marx's philosophy hinges on his view of human nature. Along with the Hegelian dialectic, Marx inherited a disdain for the notion of an underlying invariant human nature. Sometimes Marxists express their views by contrasting “nature” with “history”. Sometimes they use the phrase “existence precedes consciousness”. The point, in either case, is that who a person is, is determined by where and when he is — social context takes precedence over innate behavior; or, in other words, one of the main features of human nature is adaptability. Nevertheless, Marxian thought rests on the fundamental assumption that it is human nature to transform nature, and he calls this process of transformation "labour " and the capacity to transform nature labour power. For Marx, this is a natural capacity for a physical activity, but it is intimately tied to the active role of human consciousness:

Karl Marx
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.
Karl Marx
— (Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1)

Marx did not believe that all people worked the same way, or that how one works is entirely personal and individual. Instead, he argued that work is a social activity and that the conditions and forms under and through which people work are socially determined and change over time.

Marx's analysis of history is based on his distinction between the means / forces of production, literally those things, such as land, natural resources, and technology, that are necessary for the production of material goods, and the relations of production, in other words, the social and technical relationships people enter into as they acquire and use the means of production. Together these comprise the mode of production; Marx observed that within any given society the mode of production changes, and that European societies had progressed from a feudal mode of production to a capitalist mode of production. In general, Marx believed that the means of production change more rapidly than the relations of production (for example, we develop a new technology, such as the Internet, and only later do we develop laws to regulate that technology). For Marx this mismatch between (economic) base and (social) superstructure is a major source of social disruption and conflict.

Marx understood the "social relations of production" to comprise not only relations among individuals, but between or among groups of people, or classes. As a scientist and materialist, Marx did not understand classes as purely subjective (in other words, groups of people who consciously identified with one another). He sought to define classes in terms of objective criteria, such as their access to resources. For Marx, different classes have divergent interests, which is another source of social disruption and conflict. Conflict between social classes being something which is inherent in all human history:

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1.)

Marx was especially concerned with how people relate to that most fundamental resource of all, their own labour power. Marx wrote extensively about this in terms of the problem of alienation. As with the dialectic, Marx began with a Hegelian notion of alienation but developed a more materialist conception. For Marx, the possibility that one may give up ownership of one's own labour — one's capacity to transform the world — is tantamount to being alienated from one's own nature; it is a spiritual loss. Marx described this loss in terms of commodity fetishism, in which the things that people produce, commodities, appear to have a life and movement of their own to which humans and their behavior merely adapt. This disguises the fact that the exchange and circulation of commodities really are the product and reflection of social relationships among people. Under capitalism, social relationships of production, such as among workers or between workers and capitalists, are mediated through commodities, including labor, that are bought and sold on the market.

Commodity fetishism is an example of what Engels called false consciousness, which is closely related to the understanding of ideology. By ideology they meant ideas that reflect the interests of a particular class at a particular time in history, but which are presented as universal and eternal. Marx and Engels' point was not only that such beliefs are at best half-truths; they serve an important political function. Put another way, the control that one class exercises over the means of production includes not only the production of food or manufactured goods; it includes the production of ideas as well (this provides one possible explanation for why members of a subordinate class may hold ideas contrary to their own interests). Thus, while such ideas may be false, they also reveal in coded form some truth about political relations. For example, although the belief that the things people produce are actually more productive than the people who produce them is literally absurd, it does reflect the fact (according to Marx and Engels) that people under capitalism are alienated from their own labour-power. Another example of this sort of analysis is Marx's understanding of religion, summed up in a passage from the preface to his 1843 Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:

Karl Marx
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx

Whereas his Gymnasium senior thesis argued that the primary social function of religion was to promote solidarity, here Marx sees the social function as a way of expressing and coping with social inequality, thereby maintaining the status quo.


Political economy

Marx argued that this alienation of human work (and resulting commodity fetishism) is precisely the defining feature of capitalism. Prior to capitalism, markets existed in Europe where producers and merchants bought and sold commodities. According to Marx, a capitalist mode of production developed in Europe when labor itself became a commodity — when peasants became free to sell their own labor-power, and needed to do so because they no longer possessed their own land. People sell their labor-power when they accept compensation in return for whatever work they do in a given period of time (in other words, they are not selling the product of their labor, but their capacity to work). In return for selling their labor power they receive money, which allows them to survive. Those who must sell their labor power are "proletarians." The person who buys the labor power, generally someone who does own the land and technology to produce, is a "capitalist" or "bourgeoisie." The proletarians inevitably outnumber the capitalists.

Marx distinguished industrial capitalists from merchant capitalists. Merchants buy goods in one market and sell them in another. Since the laws of supply and demand operate within given markets, there is often a difference between the price of a commodity in one market and another. Merchants, then, practice arbitrage, and hope to capture the difference between these two markets. According to Marx, capitalists, on the other hand, take advantage of the difference between the labor market and the market for whatever commodity is produced by the capitalist. Marx observed that in practically every successful industry input unit-costs are lower than output unit-prices. Marx called the difference "surplus value" and argued that this surplus value had its source in surplus labour, the difference between what it costs to keep workers alive and what they can produce.

The capitalist mode of production is capable of tremendous growth because the capitalist can, and has an incentive to, reinvest profits in new technologies. Marx considered the capitalist class to be the most revolutionary in history, because it constantly revolutionized the means of production. But Marx argued that capitalism was prone to periodic crises. He suggested that over time, capitalists would invest more and more in new technologies, and less and less in labor. Since Marx believed that surplus value appropriated from labor is the source of profits, he concluded that the rate of profit would fall even as the economy grew. When the rate of profit falls below a certain point, the result would be a recession or depression in which certain sectors of the economy would collapse. Marx understood that during such a crisis the price of labor would also fall, and eventually make possible the investment in new technologies and the growth of new sectors of the economy.

Marx believed that this cycle of growth, collapse, and growth would be punctuated by increasingly severe crises. Moreover, he believed that the long-term consequence of this process was necessarily the enrichment and empowerment of the capitalist class and the impoverishment of the proletariat. He believed that were the proletariat to seize the means of production, they would encourage social relations that would benefit everyone equally, and a system of production less vulnerable to periodic crises. In general, Marx thought that peaceful negotiation of this problem was impracticable, and that a massive, well-organized and violent revolution would in general be required, because the ruling class would not give up power without violence. He theorized that to establish the socialist system, a dictatorship of the proletariat - a period where the needs of the working-class, not of capital, will be the common deciding factor - must be created on a temporary basis. As he wrote in his "Critique of the Gotha Program", "between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." [4] Yet he was aware of the possibility that in some countries, with strong democratic institutional structures (e.g. Britain, the US and the Netherlands) this transformation could occur through peaceful means, while in countries with a strong centralized state-oriented traditions, like France and Germany, the upheaval will have to be violent.


Influences on Marx's thought

Marx's thought was strongly influenced by:

Marx believed that he could study history and society scientifically and discern tendencies of history and the resulting outcome of social conflicts. Some followers of Marx concluded, therefore, that a communist revolution is inevitable. However, Marx famously asserted in the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach that "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it", and he clearly dedicated himself to trying to alter the world. Consequently, most followers of Marx are not fatalists, but activists who believe that revolutionaries must organize social change.

G.W.F. Hegel
G.W.F. Hegel

Marx's view of history, which came to be called historical materialism (controversially adapted as the philosophy of dialectical materialism by Engels and Lenin) is certainly influenced by Hegel's claim that reality (and history) should be viewed dialectically. Hegel believed that the direction of human history is characterized in the movement from the fragmentary toward the complete and the real (which was also a movement towards greater and greater rationality). Sometimes, Hegel explained, this progressive unfolding of the Absolute involves gradual, evolutionary accretion but at other times requires discontinuous, revolutionary leaps — episodal upheavals against the existing status quo. For example, Hegel strongly opposed slavery in the United States during his lifetime, and he envisioned a time when Christian nations would radically eliminate it from their civilization. While Marx accepted this broad conception of history, Hegel was an idealist, and Marx sought to rewrite dialectics in materialist terms. He wrote that Hegelianism stood the movement of reality on its head, and that it was necessary to set it upon its feet.

Marx's acceptance of this notion of materialist dialectics which rejected Hegel's idealism was greatly influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argued that God is really a creation of man and that the qualities people attribute to God are really qualities of humanity. Accordingly, Marx argued that it is the material world that is real and that our ideas of it are consequences, not causes, of the world. Thus, like Hegel and other philosophers, Marx distinguished between appearances and reality. But he did not believe that the material world hides from us the "real" world of the ideal; on the contrary, he thought that historically and socially specific ideology prevented people from seeing the material conditions of their lives clearly.

The other important contribution to Marx's revision of Hegelianism was Engels' book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, which led Marx to conceive of the historical dialectic in terms of class conflict and to see the modern working class as the most progressive force for revolution.


Marx's influence

See also: Marxism

Statue of Marx and Engels in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.
Statue of Marx and Engels in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

Marx and Engels' work covers a wide range of topics and presents a complex analysis of history and society in terms of class relations. Followers of Marx and Engels have drawn on this work to propose a grand, cohesive theoretical outlook dubbed Marxism. Nevertheless, there have been numerous debates among Marxists over how to interpret Marx's writings and how to apply his concepts to current events and conditions. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between "Marxism" and "what Marx believed"; for example, shortly before he died in 1883, Marx wrote a letter to the French workers' leader Jules Guesde, and to his own son-in-law Paul Lafargue, accusing them of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the value of reformist struggles; "if that is Marxism" — paraphrasing what Marx wrote — "then I am not a Marxist".

Essentially, people use the word "Marxist" to describe those who rely on Marx's conceptual language (e.g. "mode of production", "class", "commodity fetishism") to understand capitalist and other societies, or to describe those who believe that a workers' revolution as the only means to a communist society. Some, particularly in academic circles, who accept much of Marx's theory, but not all its implications, call themselves "Marxian" instead.

Six years after Marx's death, Engels and others founded the "Second International" as a base for continued political activism. This organization was far more successful than the First International had been, containing mass workers' parties, particularly the large and successful German Social Democratic Party, which was predominantly Marxist in outlook. This international collapsed in 1914, however, in part because some members turned to Edward Bernstein's "evolutionary" socialism, and in part because of divisions precipitated by World War I.

World War I also led to the Russian Revolution in which a left splinter of the Second International, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took power. The revolution dynamized workers around the world into setting up their own section of the Bolsheviks' "Third International". Lenin claimed to be both the philosophical and political heir to Marx, and developed a political program, called "Leninism" or "Bolshevism", which called for revolution organized and led by a centrally organized "Communist Party."

Marx believed that the communist revolution would take place in advanced industrial societies such as France, Germany and England, but Lenin argued that in the age of imperialism, and due to the "law of uneven development", where Russia had on the one hand, an antiquated agricultural society, but on the other hand, some of the most up-to-date industrial concerns, the "chain" might break at its weakest points, that is, in the so-called "backward" countries.

100 Ostmark note used in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 until re-unification with West Germany in 1990
100 Ostmark note used in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 until re-unification with West Germany in 1990

In China Mao Zedong also claimed to be an heir to Marx, but argued that peasants and not just workers could play a leading role in a Communist revolution in 3rd world countries still marked by feudalism whose majority of workers were peasants, not industrial workers. This was termed by Mao as the New Democratic Revolution. As a departure from Marx's understanding of the socialist revolution that maintained that the revolution must take place with countries that have already gone through the capitalist stage of development first and have produced the proletarian class as the majority, which is to carry out the revolutionary transformation of society into a socialist country and communist world. Marxism-Leninism as espoused by Mao came to be internationally known as Maoism.

Under Lenin, and increasingly after the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, the actions of the Soviet Union (and later of the People's Republic of China) came in many people's mind to be synonymous with Marxism, with its attendant suppression of the rights of individuals and workers in the name of the struggle against capitalism, including the execution of large numbers of people under Stalin, a fact which has been exploited for propaganda purposes by anti-Communists. However, there were throughout dissenting Marxist voices — Marxists of the old school of the Second International, the left communists who split off from the Third International shortly after its formation, and later Leon Trotsky and his followers, who set up a "Fourth International" in 1938 to compete with that of Stalin, claiming to represent true Bolshevism.

Statue of Marx and Engels in the Statue Park, Budapest.
Statue of Marx and Engels in the Statue Park, Budapest.

Coming from the Second International milieu, in the 1920s and '30s, a group of dissident Marxists founded the Institute for Social Research in Germany, among them Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse. As a group, these authors are often called the Frankfurt School. Their work is known as Critical Theory, a type of Marxist philosophy and cultural criticism heavily influenced by Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, and Max Weber.

The Frankfurt School broke with earlier Marxists, including Lenin and Bolshevism in several key ways. First, writing at the time of the ascendance of Stalinism and fascism, they had grave doubts as to the traditional Marxist concept of proletarian class consciousness. Second, unlike earlier Marxists, especially Lenin, they rejected economic determinism. While highly influential, their work has been criticized by both orthodox Marxists and some Marxists involved in political practice for divorcing Marxist theory from practical struggle and turning Marxism into a purely academic enterprise.

Influential Marxists of the same period include the Third International's Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, who along with the Frankfurt School are often known by the term Western Marxism.

In 1949 Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman founded Monthly Review, a journal and press, to provide an outlet for Marxist thought in the United States independent of the Communist Party.

In 1978, G. A. Cohen attempted to defend Marx's thought as a coherent and scientific theory of history by reconstructing it through the lens of analytic philosophy. This gave birth to Analytical Marxism, an academic movement which also included Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski and John Roemer. Bertell Ollman is another Anglophone champion of Marx within the academy, as is the Israeli Shlomo Avineri.

The following countries had governments at some point in the twentieth century who at least nominally adhered to Marxism (those in bold still do as of 2006): Albania, Afghanistan, Angola, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Ethiopia, Hungary, Laos, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam. In addition, the Indian states of Kerala and West Bengal have had Marxist governments.

Marxist political parties and movements have significantly declined since the fall of the Soviet Union, with some exceptions, perhaps most notably Nepal.

Marx was ranked #27 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

In July 2005 Marx was the surprise winner of the 'Greatest Philosopher of All Time' poll by listeners of the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time.[5]



Many proponents of capitalism have argued that capitalism is a more effective means of generating and redistributing wealth than socialism or communism, or that the gulf between rich and poor that concerned Marx and Engels was a temporary phenomenon. Some suggest that self-interest and the need to acquire capital is an inherent component of human behavior, and is not caused by the adoption of capitalism or any other specific economic system and that different economic systems reflect different social responses to this fact. The Austrian School of economics has criticized Marx's use of the labor theory of value. In addition, the political repression and economic problems of several historical Communist states have done much to destroy Marx's reputation in the Western world, particularly following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Soviet bureaucracy often invoked him in their propaganda. Although others argue that the former USSR was a variant of state capitalism whose collapse does not affect the veracity of Marxism, but vindicates it.

Marx has also been criticized from the Left. Some have argued that class is not the most fundamental inequality in history and call attention to patriarchy or race, as not being, as Marxists argue, dependent on class. Anarchists, on the other hand have always opposed Marxism, even its most libertarian forms, as being too authoritarian, and missing the basic necessity of rebellion against authority by concentrating on economic matters.

Some today question the theoretical and historical validity of "class" as an analytic construct or as a political actor. In this line, some question Marx's reliance on 19th century notions that linked science with the idea of "progress" (see social evolution). Many observe that capitalism has changed much since Marx's time, and that class differences and relationships are much more complex — citing as one example the fact that much corporate stock in the United States is owned by workers through pension funds. Critics of this analysis retort that the top 1% of stock owners still own nearly 50% of the nation's publicly traded company stocks.[6]

Still others criticize Marx from the perspective of philosophy of science. Karl Popper has criticized Marx's theories as he believed they were not falsifiable, which he argued would render some particular aspects of Marx’s historical and socio-political arguments unscientific, although Popper's falsifiability standard has itself always been controversial. Popper also criticised Marx for historicism, that is, a relativisation of truth to a particular historical period.

A common critique of Marx points out that the increasing class antagonisms he predicted never actually developed in the Western world following industrialization. Such a criticism would overlook the lengthy periods of "socialist" activism, labor unrest, and unionization that followed the industrial revolutions in Europe and the U.S. Widening economic inequalities within democratic societies tended to create forms of unrest which could over time be negotiated politically, and therefore many have proposed that a compromise state, "welfare capitalism" provided a needed balance between the efficiency of markets and their imperfections (since not all goods in actual markets are provided with a fair opportunity to compete in a way that would always reflect their potential values).

While socioeconomic gaps between the bourgeoisie and proletariat remained, industrialization in countries such as the United States and Great Britain also saw the rise of a middle class not inclined to violent revolution, and of a welfare state that helped contain any revolutionary tendencies among the working class. While the economic devastation of the Great Depression broadened the appeal of Marxism in the developed world, future government safeguards and economic recovery led to a decline in its influence. In contrast, Marxism remained extremely influential in feudal and industrially underdeveloped societies such as Czarist Russia, where the Bolshevik Revolution was successful. [7] This problem with classical Marxist theory - that revolutions should be seen in less developed areas rather than within the most advanced capitalist ones - was known from the beginning of the 20th century, and much of the work of Vladimir Lenin and other Marxist and Marxian authors and theorists became dedicated to addressing it. In essence, Lenin argued, taking the theory from several other contemporary Marxist writers, that through imperialism the bourgeoisie of wealthy countries is using "superprofits" from the imperial colonies to effectively bribe the working class back home in order to appease it.

Critics argue that the Soviet Union's numerous internal failings and subsequent collapse were a direct result of the practical failings of Marxism. Most Marxists on the contrary claim that it was precisely the abandonment of Marxism in the Soviet Union that led to its demise. Marx saw more advanced modes of production as growing out of mature capitalism, and needing widespread education and democratic apparatuses to allow the eventual control of the state by the people themselves (and eventually, the "withering away of the state" under a truly mature communism) - only possible with a well educated and democratic populace. Marx did not appear to suggest that a stage of economic development could simply be skipped over, as the Soviet ideology implied. Rather, no nation should realistically be able to achieve socialism (let alone a mature communism) until it had developed a modern capitalist system, and mature communism was supposed to require a level of wealth and technology that would allow the basic material needs of all citizens to be produced with very little labor, on average, per person in a given time period. That achievement would then free people's time and energies to finally overcome the alienation that the pattern of technological revolutions had caused throughout history, in a giant arc in which societies developed from the "primitive communism" of small bands that had little or no structural inequality, through the great agrarian empires (usually involving slavery at one end and the richest monarchs at the other) which Marx considered to be the pinnacle of inequality, through feudalism and capitalism, in which greater amounts of equality were to be regained as masses of people became more equal to the "elites" of society, who would become less able to dominate others either through economics or ideology.

Others, like Avineri, have argued that it was the pre-capitalist structure of 1917 Russia, as well as the strong authoritarian traditions of the Russian state and its weak civil society, which pushed the Soviet revolution towards its repressive development.





 The sound file for President Kennedy's speech and comments on Marx and the prevention of Cold War


  1. Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848), The Communist Manifesto
  2. Several authors elucidated this for long neglected crucial turn in Marx' theoretical development, lastly Ernie Thomson: The Discovery of the Materialist Conception of History in the Writings of the Young Karl Marx, New York, The Edwin Mellen Press 2004; for a short account see Max Stirner in a nutshell
  3. Wheen, Francis Karl Marx: A Life, p. 75
  4. Mansel, Philip "Paris Between Empires", p.390 (St. Martin Press,NY) 2001
  5. Ibid.#2, P.389
  6. Ibid.#2 p.390.
  7. Sewell, William H.Jr.,Work and Revolution in France. The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848p.145 (Cambridge Press, 1980)
  8. McLellan, D. (1973) Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, Basingstoke: Macmillan, p. 274.
  9. Ibid, p. 451.
  10. Francis Wheen, "Introduction", Karl Marx: A Life, New York: Norton, 2002.?UNIQ132164943f3e0be7-HTMLCommentStripe2d374a5ea3136600000005

Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge, 1968)


See also


External links


Bibliography and online texts




Articles and entries

The works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Marx: Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), Notes on James Mill (1844), Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844), Theses on Feuerbach (1845), The Poverty of Philosophy (1845), Wage-Labor and Capital (1847), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Grundrisse (1857), Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Theories of Surplus Value, 3 volumes (1862), Value, Price and Profit (1865), Capital vol. 1 (1867), The Civil War in France (1871), Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), Notes on Wagner (1883)

Marx and Engels: The German Ideology (1845), The Holy Family (1845), Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Writings on the U.S. Civil War (1861), Capital, vol. 2 [posthumously, published by Engels] (1893), Capital, vol. 3 [posthumously, published by Engels] (1894)

Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1844), The Peasant War in Germany (1850), Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (1852), Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), Dialectics of Nature (1883), The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886)

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