Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883) was a revolutionary activist, a prolific writer and Marxism's key ideologue. Trained as a philosopher, self-educated as a political economist, and an organizer of the International Workingmen's Association, Marx became interested in social change during his university studies. Upon receiving his doctorate in absentia from the University of Jena in 1841, Marx was hired as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a German newspaper. There he championed the rights of peasants against the Prussian government in an editorial column. This led to his opponents accusing Marx of being a "communist" and to his being ostracized. Marx left for Paris where he continued to suffer accusation from the Prussian and the French governments.
Marx developed his revolutionary theories over a period of four decades beginning in 1843. He formulated his theories with the intention to liberate wage workers or laborers from the capitalist societies of nineteenth century Europe. He maintained that in order to emancipate humanity from economic domination, a social revolution was needed. The envisioned result would transform the existing economic structures, and create a society in which property, particularly the means of production would no longer be held privately. Marx's theories were developed in close collaboration with Friedrich Engels. Together they included an explanation of human alienation and dialectical materialism. Marx and Engels' vision was a purely materialist interpretation of human nature and development within nature that called for revolution. It represented a materialist view of history, based on the dialectic, that supported Marx's theory of political economy and his call for revolution. The interpretation distinguished itself because of its theory of surplus value, which asserted that the wealth of capitalist societies originates solely from the exploitation of laborers.
Marx's analysis of history saw human development as occurring due to a series of class struggles between the ruling class, those who possess the means of production. To Marx, feudal lords, land owners and capitalists were pitted against the ruled working class. This claim is summed up in the opening line of The Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." Marx predicted the demise of capitalism through a workers' revolution that would lead to a utopian “classless society" where, according to Marx, “people work according to their ability and get according to their needs” and "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."
His vision and ideals inspired Vladimir Lenin. Lenin embraced Marx's vision, but made certain adjustments in Marxist theories and practice and orchestrated the first communist revolution. Marxism, as understood and implemented by Lenin resulted in totalitarian control. Lenin's interpretation of Marxism is usually referred to as Marxism-Leninism. Some argue that Lenin's views were inconsistent with Marx's view, however this is subject to debate. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, the largest of all twentieth century socialist empires in 1991, was preceded by the breakdown of Marxist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. This breakdown has been followed by radical reforms in other communist countries including China, Mongolia and Vietnam. The failure of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism was not primarily due to its misapplication by Lenin, Josef Stalin or others. It stemmed from the philosophical and scientific underpinnings of Marxism, including its militant atheism, its commitment to revolutionary violence, and its flawed economic theories.
Karl Heinrich Marx was the third of seven children in a Jewish family in Trier, Province of the Lower Rhine, in the Kingdom of Prussia. His father, Heinrich Marx (1777–1838), descended from a line of rabbis, converted to Christianity, despite a deistic tendency and admiration of Enlightenment intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Heinrich Marx was born Herschel Mordechai, son of Levy Mordechai (1743-1804) and wife Eva Lwow (1753-1823), but when the Christian Prussian authorities disallowed his law practice as a Jew, he converted to Lutheranism, the Prussian State's official Protestant religion, to gain advantage as member of the Lutheran minority in that predominantly Roman Catholic state. His mother was Henriette née Pressburg (1788–1863), also from a well connected family.
Marx's mother converted back to Judaism immediately after the death of her husband in 1835 and Marx clearly suffered some rejection in Prussian society because of his ethnic origins. This is most clearly seen in the fact that Marx's was so secretive in the courting of his future bride, Jenny von Westphalen.
Karl Marx was home-schooled until the age of 13 when he entered Trier Gymnasium. Just before he left Marx wrote an essay, The Union of Believers With Christ, which showed him to be a person with a deep and sensitive faith in God. He then enrolled, at age 17, to study law at the University of Bonn. Despite wanting to study philosophy and literature, his father disallowed it, believing Karl would be unable to support himself as a scholar. He joined the Trier Tavern Club and at one point served as its president but his grades suffered as a result. The next year, his father had him transfer to the rigorous Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. At that time, Marx wrote poems about life which Richard Wurmbrand suggested reveal him going through a spiritual crisis. An example of this is a verse from his play Oulanem
Hellish evaporations rise and fill my brains,
Until I will go mad and my heart will not change dramatically.
See this sword?
The King of darkness
sold it to me.
In a letter to his father, Marx describes the inner struggles he went through and why his interests turned to philosophy He joined the circle of students and young professors known as the "Young Hegelians", student philosophers and journalists orbiting Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, in opposition to G.W.F. Hegel, their teacher. For many of them, the so-called left-Hegelians, Hegel's dialectical method, separated from its theological content, provided 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. Another Young Hegelian, Max Stirner, applied Hegelian criticism and argued that stopping anywhere short of nihilistic egoism was mysticism. His views were not accepted by most of his colleagues; nevertheless, Stirner's book was the main reason Marx abandoned the Feuerbachian view and developed the basic concept of historical materialism.
In 1841, Marx earned a doctorate with the dissertation The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, but submitted it to the University of Jena, because his bad reputation as a Young Hegelian radical would hurt him in Berlin.
When his mentor, Bruno Bauer, was dismissed from Friedrich-Wilhelms' philosophy faculty in 1842, Marx abandoned philosophy for journalism and in 1842 was chosen to edit the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical Cologne newspaper. After the newspaper was shut down in 1843, to a large extent, due to Marx's conflicts with government censors, Marx returned to philosophy, turned to political activism, and made his living as a freelance journalist. Marx was soon forced into exile, something he would do often as a result of his views.
Marx first moved to Paris, where he re-evaluated his relationship with Bauer and the Young Hegelians, and wrote his Paris Manuscripts which serve as the fundamental underpinnings of the Communist Manifesto. In those manuscripts, Marx rejects the notion that the Prussian government, through its bureaucracy of civil servants, can serve as the vehicle for genuine social change. He also identified the proletariat rather than the Prussian civil servants as the vehicle through which change could occur. He saw that change as being effected through a social revolution. It was in Paris that he met and began working with his lifelong close friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, a committed communist, who kindled Marx's interest in the situation of the working class and guided Marx's interest in economics. After he was forced to leave Paris because of his writings, Marx and Engels moved to Brussels, Belgium.
There they co-wrote The German Ideology, a scathing criticism of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer, Hegel, and the Young Hegelians. Marx next wrote The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), 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. It had been commissioned by the Communist League (formerly, the League of the Just), an organization of German émigrés whom Marx had converted in London.
That year Europe experienced revolutionary upheaval; a working-class movement seized power from King Louis Philippe in France and invited Marx to return to Paris. When this government collapsed in 1849, Marx moved back to Cologne and restarted the Rheinische Zeitung, only to be swiftly expelled again.
In 1864, Marx organized the International Workingmen's Association, later called the First International, as a base for continued political activism. In his inaugural address, he purported to quote Gladstone's speech, to the effect that, "This intoxicating augmentation of wealth and power is entirely confined to classes of property." He repeated the citation in volume 1 of Capital. The discrepancy between Marx's quote and the Hansard version of the speech (which was well-known) was soon employed in an attempt to discredit the International. Marx attempted to rebut the accusations of dishonesty, but the allegation continued to resurface. Marx later gave as his source the newspaper the Morning Star.
Engels devoted a good deal of attention to the affair in the preface to the fourth edition of Capital—which still did not put the matter to rest. Engels claimed that it was not the Morning Star but the Times that Marx was following. Indeed, modern critics of Marx continue to invoke Marx's supposed misquotation as evidence of general dishonesty.
Karl Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, the educated daughter of a Prussian baron. Their seven year long engagement was kept secret, for being opposed by both families; they married on 19 June, 1843, in the Kreuznacher Pauluskirche, Bad Kreuznach.
The Marxes were poor in the first half of the 1850s, living in a three-room flat in Dean Street, Soho, London. Already, they had four children; three more followed; in all, only three saw adulthood. His principal source of income was Engels's subsidy, and income from weekly newspaper articles written as a New York Daily Tribune foreign correspondent. Inheritances from an uncle of Jenny, and her mother, who died in 1856, permitted the Marx family to move to healthier lodgings in Kentish Town, a new, London suburb. Despite the family's hand-to-mouth life, Marx provided his wife and children with the necessary bourgeois luxuries requisite to their social status and contemporary mores.
Marx's children with wife Jenny were: Jenny Caroline (m. Longuet; 1844–1883); Jenny Laura (m. Lafargue; 1845–1911); Edgar (1847–1855); Henry Edward Guy ("Guido"; 1849–1850); Jenny Eveline Frances ("Franziska"; 1851–1852); Jenny Julia Eleanor (1855–1898); and several who died before naming (July 1857). Marx may have also fathered Frederick Demuth by his housekeeper, Lenchen Demuth. This is disputed and not corroborated. Their daughter Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898), who was born in London, was a committed socialist who helped edit her father's works until she committed suicide.
From 1850 to 1864, Marx lived in poverty only taking a job once. He and his family were evicted from their apartment and several of his children died, his son, Guido, who Marx called “a sacrifice to bourgeois misery” and a daughter named Franziska. They were so poor that his wife had to borrow money for her coffin.
Frederich Engels was the one who gave Marx and his family money to survive on during these years. His only other source of money was his job as the European correspondent for The New York Tribune, writing editorials and columns analyzing everything in the “political universe.”
Marx was generally impoverished during the later period of his life, depending on financial contributions from close friend and fellow author, Friedrich Engels, to help with his family's living expenses and debts. Following the death of his wife Jenny in 1881, Marx died in London in 1883, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London. The message carved on Marx's tombstone—a monument built in 1954 by the Communist Party of Great Britain—is: "Workers of the world, unite!" Marx's original tomb was humbly adorned.
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. However, Marx was not only interested in studying history and social development. He famously asserted 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.
Marx's view of history, which came to be called the materialist interpretation of history (and which was developed further as the philosophy of dialectical materialism) is certainly influenced by Hegel's claim that reality (and history) should be viewed dialectically, through a clash of opposing forces. 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 the ancient institution of legal slavery that was practiced 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. (Hegel's philosophy remained and remains in direct opposition to Marxism on this key point.)
Marx's acceptance of this notion of materialist dialectics that rejected Hegel's idealism was greatly influenced by his study of 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. For example, the Holy Trinity was a human projection of the family (man, woman, and child) onto God. 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 ideologies prevented people from seeing the material conditions of their lives clearly.
According to Marx, the development of history is caused by the contradiction between the productive forces and the production relations of society. By "productive forces, "Marx is referring to the means of production and to the level of human technical understanding. By production relations, Marx is referring to class relations.
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, p. 182).
The notion of labor is fundamental in Marx's thought. Basically, Marx argued that it is human nature to transform nature, and he calls this process of transformation "labor" and the capacity to transform nature labor "power." For Marx, this is a natural capacity for a physical activity, but it is intimately tied to the human mind and human imagination:
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 (Capital, vol. 1, chap. 7, pt. 1).
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—the social context takes precedence over innate behavior; or, in other words, one of the main features of human nature is adaptability.
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 of production, literally those things, such as land, natural resources, and technology and know-how, 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 production relations (for example, a new technology develops, such as the Internet, and only later are the laws developed to regulate the new 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 social classes. As a 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.
Marx was especially concerned with how people relate to that most fundamental resource of all, their own labor power. Marx wrote extensively about this in his theory of alienation. 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 labor—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, which 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" Marx and Engels 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. According to Marx and Engels, people under capitalism are alienated from their own labor power. one example of this sort of analysis is found in Marx's understanding of religion, summed up in a passage from the Philosophy of Right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
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.
Marx argued that this alienation of human work (and resulting commodity fetishism) is 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 or the tools necessary to produce a living. 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 to live 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." (Marx considered this an objective description of capitalism, distinct from any one of a variety of ideological claims of or about capitalism.) The proletarians inevitably outnumber the capitalists.
Marx distinguished industrial capitalists from merchant capitalists. Merchants buy goods in one place and sell them in another; more precisely, they buy things 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, industrial capitalists, on the other hand, take advantage of the difference between the labor market and the market for whatever commodity is produced. 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 the exploitation of laborers, i.e., through paying them "survival wages" rather than what they were entitled to receive.
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 believed 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 argued that if the proletariat would 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" .
Marx saw evil originating in in social relations, or social structure, rather than in human beings. As such, he failed to foresee the selfishness of those in the working class, who after seizing "the means of production" would develop a totalitarian system.
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 political and economic philosophy 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 (and it is important to distinguish between "Marxism" and "what Marx believed." Essentially, people use the word "Marxist" to describe those who rely on Marx's conceptual language (e.g. means of production, class, commodity) to understand capitalist and other societies, or to describe those who believe that a workers' revolution is the only means to a communist society. Marxism has influenced Christian thought, too, especially liberation theology, which argues in favor of God's special concern for, or bias towards, the poor and advocates that when the poor become conscious of their exploitation, they will then be empowered to demand and achieve their rights. Liberation theologians do not necessarily support violence as part of this process, although many have.
Six years after Marx's death, Engels and others founded the "Second International" as a base for continued political activism. This organization collapsed in 1914, 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 and the consequent ascendance of Vladimir Lenin's leadership of the communist movement, embodied in the "Comintern" or "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.
After Lenin's death, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, seized control of the Party and state apparatus. He argued that before a worldwide communist revolution would be possible, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had to dedicate itself to building communism in its own country. People who have not seriously studied Lenin's writings and the brutality of his rule argue that it was Stalin's Soviet Union and its policies that undermined the concept of Marxism in the Western world. However, the collapse of communism stemmed from its underpinnings as well as from its application beginning with Lenin. For many years, especially after the Second World War during the Cold War period, Marxism was popularly equated with Stalin's communism, which was a totalitarianism that disregarded civil rights.
In 1929, Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union and in 1938 founded the competing "Fourth International." Some followers of Trotsky argued that Stalin had created a bureaucratic state rather than a socialist state.
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. This resonated with Lenin's views in What is to be done? and in the strategy of the Bolshevik revolution which reached out to three constituencies: Laborers, Peasants, and Soldiers, promising the laborers "bread," the peasants "land," and the soldiers "peace." This was a departure from Marx's own view of revolution, which focused exclusively on the urban proletariat. Marx believed revolution would take place in advanced industrial societies such as France, Germany, and England.
In the 1920s and 1930s, 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, indebted to Marxist philosophy and the 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, because of Stalinism and fascism, they had grave doubts about 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 Marxists for divorcing Marxist theory from practical struggle and turning Marxism into a purely academic enterprise.
Other influential non-Bolshevik Marxists at that time include Georg Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, and Antonio Gramsci, who along with the Frankfurt School are often known by the term "Western Marxism." Henryk Grossman, who elaborated the mathematical basis of Marx's "law of capitalist breakdown," was another affiliate of the Frankfurt School. Also prominent during this period was the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.
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 of the United States of America.
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 included Jon Elster, Adam Przeworski, and John Roemer.
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