Perhaps no name in philosophy elicits as impassioned a response as that of Karl Marx. Unlike the majority of theorists whose reach rarely extends past the sphere of academic interest, Marx is routinely cited as an inspiration for entire wars and revolutions. Nearly 150 years after his death, he remains a vivid part of the cultural lexicon from East to West and is held up as both a political hero and villain around the world. His enduring theoretical contribution is to assert that society develops on a material basis: it is not abstract ideas but tools, machines, and other concrete means of production — and, crucially, who gets to own them — that supplies the engine of history. By applying this principle to capitalism, Marx documented its rise and prophesied its eventual fall and replacement with a system more conducive to human flourishing.
Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5th, 1818 in Trier, Germany, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia. He was the third of nine children parented by his mother Henriette Pressburg, a Dutch Jewish woman from a prosperous business family, and his father Heinrich Marx, a secular Jewish lawyer who dropped the name Hirschel and converted to Christianity in order to practice law in anti-semitic Prussia. Heinrich, an Enlightenment man interested in the philosophy of Kant and Voltaire, homeschooled Marx until the latter was 12 years old. Thereafter, Marx attended Trier High School, which taught humanism and classical liberalism and was consequently subject to police raids and mandated reforms by the local conservative government. This was the first of many instances of censorship Marx endured throughout his life.
Once Marx completed high school, he enrolled at the University of Bonn at the age of 17. He joined the Poets Club of political radicals as well as a drinking society. His grades were initially high but began to falter, which prompted Heinrich to transfer Karl to the more disciplined University of Berlin. There, his professors exposed him to Hegelian ideas such as the rational development of history and the “social question.” Marx subsequently joined a group called the Young Hegelians that employed Hegel’s dialectic to critique the Prussian church and political system on the grounds that they violated Hegel’s ideals of freedom and reason. These experiences informed Marx’s own critiques of religion and capitalism.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1841, Marx considered becoming an academic, but Germany’s opposition to Left Hegelianism left Marx virtually unemployable in that regard. As an alternative, Marx turned to radical journalism — a line of work that he remained in throughout his life. In 1843, Marx married his longtime love interest Jenny von Westphalen, an educated and politically conscious baroness of the ruling class who broke off her engagement with a young aristocrat to be with Marx. They had seven children together and supported each other’s activism. The periodic shutdown of Marx’s radical publications forced the pair to relocate multiple times between Germany, France, and Belgium before eventually settling in England.
Besides Jenny, Marx’s closest relationship was with the German philosopher and activist Friedrich Engels. The two met for the first time in Germany in 1842 but were initially unimpressed with each other. After having read more of each other’s works, however, they met again at the Parisian chess center Café de la Régence in 1844 and struck up a close friendship. Engels contributed to many of Marx’s works as co-writer, editor, and even financier during Marx’s frequent bouts of poverty. The two also participated in political organizations together, including the Communist League, which they founded, and the International Workingmen’s Association, commonly known as the First International. When Marx died of lung complications in 1883, it was Engels that led the funeral proceedings. In his speech, Engels assured the small audience of grievers that “[Marx’s] name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.” Much of why this assurance has come to pass is thanks to Engels’ efforts.
Marxian thought begins with Marx’s theory of history known as “historical materialism,” which is essentially an inversion of the Hegelian dialectic. According to Hegel, our society develops as human reason demonstrates that our ideas about ourselves and the world are incomplete. These ideas are negated by contradictory information and then recontextualized in a new, more accommodating synthesis. A famous example is Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, which demonstrates that:
- We believe ourselves to be subjects whose being is constituted by our own self-consciousness.
- But when we encounter the other, i.e. a separate consciousness that regards us as an object, our subjectivity is negated.
- We are thus not solely self-sufficient, but socially constituted beings.
Marx applauded the Hegelian dialectic’s critical methodology but disagreed with how it was used. He argued that it is not contradictions in thought but in actual human relations that drives human development. In an oft-quoted line from the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The process of conflict and resolution between the oppressor and the oppressed, between owners and laborers, is said to be the chief motor of social change.
Periodically, there arises a contradiction between what a society can produce and what it actually does, due to the means of production being kept by a ruling class whose interests clash with those of the rest of society. For instance, the ruling class may block production, even of staple goods, if the products cannot be adequately paid for, or if the relations required to increase production threaten the existing power structure. When production is held hostage by the ruling class for long enough, the “fetters” placed on it are eventually “burst asunder” by the working class and the economic system is overthrown and replaced. This was the case in feudalism’s transition to capitalism, when the means of production were liberated from the grip of lords and monarchs and placed into the hands of any (usually white, propertied, male) individual enterprising enough to purchase and maintain them.
As a further critique of Hegel’s idealism, Marx suggested that by restricting his dialectic to the realm of ideas, Hegel had attempted to explain what is secondary without first explaining what is primary. According to Marx, it is the economy — the world of people and physical things and their productive relations — that forms society’s base. Everything else — science, culture, religion, morality, philosophy, art, fashion, etc. — is built up in response to and on top of this base as a social superstructure. Engels summarized this principle in his aforementioned speech at Marx’s funeral:
“Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”
A central concept in Marxian thought is ideology, or the set of assumptions held by a given society. Marx held that while the tenants of an ideology are often presented timeless, self-evident truths, they are actually historically contingent, economically motivated beliefs that a ruling class spreads in order to safeguard its wealth and power. These ideals are rarely questioned, but instead accepted as almost natural laws. Yet upon reflection, it is clear that they did not exist from the beginning of time, but rather arose in tandem with a particular class that promoted them to advance its interests. The modern state, which in Marxian analysis exists to enforce class inequality, legislated private property and other ideological tenets into law to guarantee the capitalist class’s enrichment.
By pulling back the invisible cloak of ideology, Marx may begin his critique of capitalism. The starting point is his labor theory of value, which states that the value of a commodity is a function of the amount of labor entailed in producing it. With this theoretical foundation, Marx explains that profit, or surplus value is generated by undercompensating workers for their labor in a process known as exploitation.
Marx demonstrates that exploitation is made possible by capitalism’s relations of production. Under capitalism, society is divided into two classes: capitalist and worker — or, as Marx terms it, bourgeoisie and proletariat. The capitalist class owns the capital, i.e. the resources used generate additional wealth, such as factories, land, machines, tools, and money. The working class lacks capital and is therefore forced to sell its labor to avoid starvation and homelessness.
This dynamic, wherein workers do not own what they produce but instead undersell the fruits of their labor to the capitalist class, is responsible for a psychosocial malady that Marx terms alienation. Alienation is a worker’s feeling of estrangement that, according to Marx, is experienced in four forms under capitalism:
- Alienation from what the worker produces, which is never retained but always given up for a subsistence wage.
- Alienation from the self, as the worker labors not for themself but for the sake of the capitalist.
- Alienation from species-essence, as the worker is not engaged in life-affirming, creative labor, but mechanical, monotonous labor.
- Alienation from others and the world, both because the worker is taught to view people and nature as mere objects of production and because the worker is constantly reminded of what they lack by the lavish lifestyle of the capitalist class.
Alienation is connected to another salient psychosocial concept in Marxian thought: commodity fetishism. Under capitalism, capital is pursued above all else. Relations among things take precedence over relationships among people, and products appear to have a life of their own, independent of the human labor that gives birth to them. A situation arises where human beings are no longer recognized as individual subjects deserving of respect but faceless objects that exist for the sole purpose of accumulating capital. This perspective, taken to its logical conclusion, causes the capitalist class to treat workers as expendable goods that are abandoned as soon as they are no longer useful.
In addition to its negative psychosocial effects, Marx draws attention to capitalism’s economic flaws. Firstly, because the capitalist class can pay workers a fixed wage divorced from the real value of their labor, the capitalist class enriches itself while the working class struggles to stay financially afloat despite working harder and harder. Secondly, because competitive tactics such as economies of scale and predatory pricing allow large corporations to drive small shops out of business, capitalism begets mergers and acquisitions that lead to an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands. Finally, because capitalism requires endless growth to reproduce itself, the capitalist class is forced to produce evermore commodities to increase sales and yet pay workers as little as possible—or eliminate their jobs altogether in favor of automation—to minimize costs. But without sufficient wages, the working class cannot consume the capitalist class’s surfeit of goods, and capitalism experiences a “crisis of overproduction.” At this point, society must either transition away from capitalism or endure social collapse.
Importantly, Marx saw capitalism’s decadent trajectory not as the result of a handful of evil individuals corrupting an otherwise noble system but of a system that is itself rotten and necessarily entails exploitation, alienation, poverty, inequality, and instability. Marx does acknowledge that capitalism is an improvement over slavery and feudalism and deserves credit for advancing technology, science, medicine, and reason. Yet in the final analysis capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system whose contradictions demand a resolution in the form of revolution.
Marx was reluctant to outline the specifics of a post-revolutionary society, maintaining that such a job is best left to the revolutionary proletariat given its unique historical role. However, Marx does remark that whatever the details of post-capitalist society may be, the system must offer its citizens real freedom. Under capitalism, freedom is limited to voting for one of two candidates handpicked by the capitalist state parties. And regardless of the party in control, most people remain economically unfree, spending the majority of their time and energy laboring for someone else in exchange for scant wages that hardly satisfy capitalism’s exorbitant cost of living. In this light, Marx views his project as emancipatory: by retooling our economy to serve “the happiness of men” rather than “the possession of wealth,” we will at last liberate ourselves from alienated labor and gain real control over our lives.
Marx suggests that this retooling will not only eliminate poverty and affirm the self but improve human relations. When production and distribution are finally deployed to satisfy human needs, humans will lose the incentive to exploit one another for material gain and may begin treating one another as ends in themselves. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx provocatively asks, “How can I live virtuously if I do not live?” By leveraging modern technology to ensure that every person has the ability to live a dignified life, Marx maintains that human virtue will shine through in an unprecedented way.