Who is Karl Marx?
Karl Marx was a German philosopher, social scientist, and revolutionary whose contributions formed the basis of modern international communism.
Karl Marx was a German philosopher and revolutionary born to a Jewish family. His body of research, which forms the basis of Marxist theory, asserts that all human history is a product of class struggle. He argued that capitalism inevitably gives rise to a clash between the ruling class (who own the means of production) and the working class. According to Marx, this would ultimately lead to the working class overthrowing capitalism, seizing power, and setting up a classless society. Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto with lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels. His final publication, the three-volume Das Kapital, was hailed as the “Bible of the working class” and continues to influence economic, political, and social theory today. His ideas inspired revolutions in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere.
Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party were strongly influenced by Marxist ideology when setting up the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Lenin abolished private property and centralized all economic, social, and political power in the hands of the Communist Party. The Soviet Union never achieved Marx’s ideal of a purely communist country, but it put some of his theories to the test for nearly 70 years before collapsing in 1991.
Karl Marx is to communism what Elvis is to rock and roll…
Marx’s theories inspired the ideologies of communistic regimes around the world and led him to be known as the “Father of Communism,” just as Elvis’s musical legacy won him the title “King of Rock and Roll.”
Karl Marx was born in 1818 to a Jewish family in the German state of Prussia. The oldest surviving son of nine children, he was baptized at 6 years old but later became an atheist. During his student years at the University of Berlin, he joined a group called the Young Hegelians who were challenging the status quo in religion, philosophy, and politics. After graduating, he became editor of the liberal democratic newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, which the Prussian government suspended for being too radical.
Marx moved to Paris with his wife, Jenny, where he met his lifelong friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. The two later moved to Brussels, where they wrote The Communist Manifesto at the request of the newly formed Communist League in London. As revolutionary thought swept across Europe, Marx left Belgium before the government could expel him. He settled in London and worked as a journalist while developing his own economic theories on the side. During this period, he was often short on money and relied on Engels for financial support.
In 1867, he published the first volume of Das Kapital, his magnum opus, which explored the theory of capitalism and labor in great detail. The second and third volumes remained incomplete during his lifetime, and Engels later edited and published them. Marx withdrew from active politics in his final years, although his theories continued to influence socialist and communist movements across Europe. He died in 1883 of a lung abscess and was buried at London’s Highgate Cemetery.
Marx wasn’t just an academician – He was also a revolutionary. His opinions and activities got him expelled by the governments of Germany, France, and Belgium, and he spent much of his later life barely able to make ends meet. In 1864 he helped found the International Working Men’s Association in London, an organization that aimed to unite a number of communist, socialist, and anarchist groups.
Marx’s most important work is Das Kapital, which has been called the “Bible of the working class.” Over three volumes, including two published posthumously, Marx describes how capitalists earn profits through the exploitation of labor, which ultimately leads to the collapse of capitalism and workers seizing power.
Marx didn’t come up with the concept of class struggle on his own. Earlier theorists — including French historians in the context of the French Revolution of 1789 — discussed the idea. It was Marx, however, who linked class struggle to the path that human history took and described communism as its inevitable outcome. His research provided a theoretical foundation for communism as an actionable concept rather than an abstract ideal. According to Marx, communism wasn’t just necessary, but inevitable.
Marxism is a philosophical theory, as well as a social and economic one. Marxist theory is based upon the philosopher’s dialectical model of social analysis. This model states that every social system contains forces that create contradictions, which can only be resolved by bringing in a new and improved social system.
According to Marxist theory, history’s dialectical nature expresses itself in class struggle. There are two classes at war with each other in a capitalist society: the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production (like land and capital) and deploy them for profit, and the proletariat, who are the workers selling labor for wages.
Marx predicted that the working class would become aware of its exploitation and lack of control over the means of production. Eventually, workers would revolt against the bourgeoisie, taking over the means of production and setting up a classless society. There would be no need for any government — Workers would collectively own and control the means of production as equals. Goods would be produced and distributed based on the principle of, “From each according to ability; to each according to needs.”
Radical movements around the world have been inspired by Marxism, including revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Marxism isn’t just a theory — It’s an entire worldview that covers philosophy, sociology, and economics. Some commonly accepted features include that Marxist theory is:
1. Contextual, not general While Marx’s dialectical model and the concept of class struggle are universal ideas, the tenets of Marxism don’t apply the same way everywhere. Each application of the theory is different, depending on the place, time and other pre-existing factors.
2. Not an exact science Marxism is a practical and critical analysis of society as it exists. It’s based on precise knowledge that can be tested across different scenarios. In this sense, it’s an empirical theory.
3. Centered around capitalist society Marx’s central focus was capitalist society — its features, flaws, consequences, and ultimate evolution into a classless communist society. Marx’s dialectical theory of history describes capitalism as an essential stage in society’s progress before moving on to communism.
4. Focused on action and change Marxist theory isn’t just about analyzing society and noting down a few concepts. It emphasizes action — moving society from capitalism towards communism.
In 1847, the Communist League in London commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write The Communist Manifesto. In this pamphlet, Marx and Engels described how all human history was the outcome of class struggle, which could only lead to a working class revolution. Once this happened, capitalism would be gone forever, and workers would be the new rulers of the world, jointly owning and using the means of production for everyone’s benefit. It was this manifesto, published in 1848, that cemented Marx’s reputation as a hero of the working class. The last line of the manifesto — “Workers of all lands unite” — is etched on Marx’s grave at the London Highgate Cemetery.
Marx’s work didn’t stop after The Communist Manifesto. After moving to London, he continued expanding his economic and social theory. In 1867, he published the fruit of his research in the form of Das Kapital, his most significant work.
In Das Kapital, Marx describes how capitalism is motivated by the exploitation of labor, which gives rise to profits. The capitalist, as the owner of the means of production, finds it beneficial to replace some labor with machines (capital) that can work faster and more efficiently than humans. However, the more an owner invests in machines, the more costs go up, and the faster that profits from the machines start declining.
Marx argued that in order to keep earning profits, owners would need to exploit their workers by forcing them to do more for lower wages. As this goes on, Marx predicted that workers would ultimately revolt. Once capitalism collapsed, workers would hold all the political and economic power and distribute goods equitably. Classes, private ownership, and profits would no longer exist.
Communism is the bedrock of Marxist theory. According to Marx, communism was the only solution to the exploitation of the working class that capitalism encouraged. Marx didn’t come up with an exact vision of communism. In fact, he debunked the visions of earlier “utopian socialists” like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier as impractical. Overall, he saw communism as a classless society in which workers collectively owned and controlled the means of production, and there was no need for any kind of government.
For the most part, though, Marx believed that the institutions and workings of communism should be designed democratically by the workers themselves once they overthrew capitalism.
In capitalism, the means of production are privately controlled, and labor, goods, and capital are traded in markets. Capitalism, according to Karl Marx, was a self-destructive system. In Marxist theory, every human society would follow the same inevitable path of growth, in which capitalism was a stage.
During this stage, capitalists would exploit the working class for profit by paying them lower wages for more work. The capitalists would grow richer while the workers became poorer. As the class struggle intensified and workers became aware of their exploitation, Marx believed they would unite against the bourgeoisie — the property-owning middle class — and overthrow capitalism.
His theory stated that, once the workers’ revolution happened, everyone would own and control the means of production jointly — There would be no concept of profit, exploitation, or private ownership.
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