3.10 Karl Marx

Ideologies of Change

Mayal, John Jabez Edwin. "Karl Marx." Before August 24, 1865.
Mayal, John Jabez Edwin. “Karl Marx.” Before August 24, 1865. Wikimedia. March 13, 2018.

In the end, the most influential socialist was a German: Karl Marx. Socialists embraced the ideals of Karl Marx who turned socialism and its sister theory, communism, into something new that is more appropriately termed Marxism. As Marx ruminated over the course of his lifetime, his ideas grew more radical and more divisive. Additionally, Marx disliked the idealism of the utopians and possibly all men. To him, the human world was one in which humans had little agency.

Marx was born in 1818 in the Rhineland, the son of Jewish parents who had converted to Lutheranism (out of necessity – Marx’s father was a lawyer in conservative, staunchly Lutheran Prussia). He was a passionate and brilliant student of philosophy who came to believe that philosophy was only important if it led to practical change – he wrote “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”2

A journalist as a young man, Marx became an avowed socialist by the 1840s and penned (along with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels) the nineteenth century’s most famous and influential socialist work, The Communist Manifesto. Exiled to Great Britain in the aftermath of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, Marx devoted himself to a detailed analysis of the endogenous tendencies of capitalist economics, ultimately producing three enormous volumes entitled, simply, Capital. The first was published in 1867, with the other two edited from notes and published by Engels after Marx’s death. It is worthwhile to consider Marx’s theories in detail because of their profound influence: by the middle of the twentieth century, fully a third of the world was governed by communist states that were at least nominally “Marxist” in their political and economic policies.

All of history, according to Marx, is the history of class struggle. From ancient pharaohs to feudal kings and their nobles, classes of the rich and powerful had always abused and exploited classes of the poor and weak. The world had moved on into a new phase following the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, however, one that to Marx simplified that ongoing struggle from many competing classes to just two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The bourgeoisie were the rising middle classes, the owners of factories and businesses, the bankers, and all of those with direct control over industrial production. The proletariat was the industrial working class. Before this, the classes of workers in the pre-modern era generally had direct access to their livelihood: a small parcel of land, access to the common lands, the tools of their trade in the case of artisans. They had, in Marx’s language, some kind of protected access to “the means of production,” which could mean anything from some land, a plow, and an ox to a workshop stocked with a carpenter’s tools. In the modern era, however, those rights and those tools were systematically taken away. The common lands were closed off and replaced with commercial farms. Artisans were rendered obsolete by the growth of industry. Peasants were pushed off the land or owned plots so small their children had to look for work in the cities. The net effect was, generally, that the class of workers who had “nothing to sell but their labor,” the proletariat, grew.

At the same time, the people who did own property, “the bourgeoisie,” were under pressure themselves. In the climate of the new capitalism, of unregulated markets and cutthroat competition, it was terribly easy to fall behind and go out of business. Thus, former members of the bourgeoisie lost out and became proletarians themselves. The net effect was that the proletariat grew and every other conceivable class (including peasants, the owners of small shops, etc.) shrank.

Meanwhile, industry produced more and more products. Every year saw improvements in efficiency and economy in production, arriving at a terrific glut of products available for purchase. Eventually, there was simply too much out there and not enough people who could afford to buy it, as one of the things about the proletariat, one of their forms of “alienation,” was their inability to buy the very things they made. This resulted in a “crisis of overproduction” and a massive economic collapse. This would be unthinkable in a pre-modern economy, where the essential problem a society faced was the scarcity of goods. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, however, products need consumers more than consumers need products. In the midst of one of these collapses, Marx wrote, the members of the proletariat could realize their common interests in seizing the unprecedented wealth that industrialism had made possible and using it for the common good. Instead of a handful of super-rich expropriators, everyone could share in material comfort and freedom from scarcity, something that had never been possible before. That vision of revolution was very powerful to the young Marx, who wrote that, given the inherent tendencies of capitalism, revolution was inevitable.

In turn, revolutions did happen, most spectacularly in 1848, which Marx initially greeted with elation only to watch in horror as the revolutionary momentum ebbed and conservatives regained the initiative. Subsequently, as he devoted himself to the analysis of capitalism’s inherent characteristics rather than revolutionary propaganda, Marx became more circumspect. With staggering erudition, he tried to make sense of an economic system that somehow repeatedly destroyed itself and yet regrew stronger, faster, and more violent with every business cycle.

In historical hindsight, Marx was really writing about what would happen if capitalism was allowed to run completely rampant, as it did in the first century of the Industrial Revolution. The hellish mills, the starving workers, and the destitution and anguish of the factory towns were all part of nineteenth-century European capitalism. Everything that could contain those factors, primarily in the form of concessions to workers and state intervention in the economy, had not happened on a large scale when Marx was writing – trade unions themselves were outlawed in most states until the middle of the century. In turn, none of the factors that might mitigate capitalism’s destructive tendencies were financially beneficial to any individual capitalist, so Marx saw no reason that they would ever come about on a large scale in states controlled by moneyed interests.

To Marx, revolution seemed not only possible but probable in the 1840s, when he was first writing about philosophy and economics. After the revolutions of 1848 failed (see 
The Revolutions of 1848
), however, he shifted his attention away from revolution and towards the inner working of capitalism itself. In fact, he rarely wrote about revolution at all after 1850; his great work Capital is instead a vast and incredibly detailed study of how England’s capitalist economy worked and what it did to the people “within” it. To boil it down to a very simple level, Marx never described in adequate detail when the material conditions for a socialist revolution were possible. Across the vast breadth of his books and correspondence, Marx (and his collaborator Friedrich Engels) argued that each nation would have to reach a critical threshold in which industrialism was mature, the proletariat was large and self-aware, and the bourgeoisie was using increasingly harsh political tactics to try to keep the proletariat in check. There would have to be, and according to Marxism there always would be, a major economic crisis caused by overproduction. At that point, somehow, the proletariat could rise up and take over. In some of his writings, Marx indicated that the proletariat would revolt spontaneously, without guidance from anyone else. Sometimes, such as in the second section of his early work The Communist Manifesto, Marx alluded to the existence of a political party, the communists, who would work to help coordinate and aid the proletariat in the revolutionary process. The bottom line is, however, that Marx was very good at critiquing the internal laws of the free market in capitalism, and in pointing out many of its problems, but he had no tactical guide to revolutionary politics. And, finally, toward the end of his life, Marx himself was increasingly worried that socialists, including self-styled Marxists, would try to stage a revolution “too early” and it would fail or result in disaster. In sum, Marx did not leave a clear picture of what socialists were supposed to do, politically, nor did he describe how a socialist state would work if a revolution was successful. This only mattered historically because socialist revolutions were successful, and those nations had to try to figure out how to govern in a socialistic way.


  1. Karl Marx, “Thesis Eleven,” 1845, at Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm. image


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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