Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand” ~ Karl Marx
Karl Marx (1818–1883) is best known not as a philosopher but as a revolutionary, whose works inspired the foundation of many communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is hard to think of many who have had as much influence in the creation of the modern world.
Trained as a philosopher, Marx turned away from philosophy in his mid-twenties, towards economics and politics. However, in addition to his overtly philosophical early work, his later writings have many points of contact with contemporary philosophical debates, especially in the philosophy of history and the social sciences, and in moral and political philosophy.
Historical materialism — Marx’s theory of history — is centered around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power. Marx sees the historical process as proceeding through a necessary series of modes of production, characterized by class struggle, culminating in communism. Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism is based on his version of the labour theory of value, and includes the analysis of capitalist profit as the extraction of surplus value from the exploited proletariat. The analysis of history and economics come together in Marx’s prediction of the inevitable economic breakdown of capitalism, to be replaced by communism. However Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal.
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”
Karl Marx’s comprehensive writings on communism laid the foundation for later political leaders, notably V. I. Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, to impose this way on life on more than twenty countries.
Marx was born in Trier, Prussia (now Germany), in 1818. He studied philosophy at universities in Bonn and Berlin, earning his doctorate in Jena at the age of twenty-three. His early radicalism, first as a member of the Young Hegelians, then as editor of a newspaper suppressed for its derisive social and political content, preempted any career aspirations in academia and forced him to flee to Paris in 1843. It was then that Marx cemented his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels. In 1849 Marx moved to London, where he continued to study and write, drawing heavily on works by David Ricardo and Adam Smith. Marx died in London in 1883 in somewhat impoverished surroundings. Most of his adult life, he relied on Engels for financial support.
At the request of the Communist League, Marx and Engels coauthored their most famous work, “The Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848. A call to arms for the proletariat —“Workers of the world, unite!”— the manifesto set down the principles on which communism was to evolve. Marx held that history was a series of class struggles between owners of capital (capitalists) and workers (the proletariat). As wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists, he thought, the ranks of an increasingly dissatisfied proletariat would swell, leading to bloody revolution and eventually a classless society.
It has become fashionable to think that Karl Marx was not mainly an economist but instead integrated various disciplines —economics, sociology, political science, history, and so on — into his philosophy. But Mark Blaug, a noted historian of economic thought, points out that Marx wrote “no more than a dozen pages on the concept of social class, the theory of the state, and the materialist conception of history” while he wrote “literally 10,000 pages on economics pure and simple.”
According to Marx, capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. Communism was the inevitable end to the process of evolution begun with feudalism and passing through capitalism and socialism. Marx wrote extensively about the economic causes of this process in Capital (Das Capital). Volume one was published in 1867 and the later two volumes, heavily edited by Engels, were published posthumously in 1885 and 1894.
The labor theory of value, decreasing rates of profit, and increasing concentration of wealth are key components of Marx’s economic thought. His comprehensive treatment of capitalism stands in stark contrast, however, to his treatment of socialism and communism, which Marx handled only superficially. He declined to speculate on how those two economic systems would operate.