Karl Marx (May 5, 1818 - March 14, 1883) was an influential political philosopher and social theorist[?]. Although Marx addressed many issues in his career as a journalist and philosopher, he is most famous for his analysis of history in terms of class conflict, summed up in his assertion that, "The interests of capitalists and wage-laborers are diametrically opposed to each other." (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch08.htm)
Early Life Marx was born into a progressive Jewish family in Trier, Germany. His father Herschel was a lawyer. As advancement opportunites for Jews were rather limited in early 19th century Prussia and they were not extremely religious, Herschel decided to change his name to Heinrich and convert the family to the Prussian state religion of Lutheranism, after which his legal career prospered. The Marx family was very liberal and the Marx household hosted many visiting intellectuals and artists through Karl's early life.
Education Marx received outstanding marks in gymnasium, the approximate equivalent of high school. His senior thesis (which anticipated his later development of a social analysis of religion, although in a way that emphasized social functions rather than economic and political inequality) was a treatise on "Religion: The Glue That Binds Society Together", for which he won a prize.
Marx enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1833 to study law, at his father's behest. Bonn was a notorious party school, and Marx did poorly as he spent most of his time singing songs in beer halls. The next year, his father made him transfer to the far more serious and academically oriented University of Berlin. There, his interests turned to philosophy, much to his father's dismay, and he joined the circle of students and young professors known as the "Young Hegelians", led by Bruno Bauer. Some members of this circle drew an analogy between post-Aristotelian philosophy and post-Hegelian philosophy.
Georg Hegel had just recently died in 1831, and during his lifetime was an extremely influential figure at the University and in German academia in general. The Hegelian establishment (known as the Right Hegelians[?]) in place at the University maintained that the series of historical dialectics had been completed, and that Prussian society as it existed was the culmination of all social development to date, with an extensive civil service system, good universities, industrialization, and high employment. The Young Hegelians with whom Marx was associated believed that there were still further dialectical changes to come, and that the Prussian society of the time was far from perfect as it still contained pockets of poverty, government censorship was in place, and non-Lutherans suffered from religious discrimination.
Marx was warned not to submit his doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin, as it would certainly be poorly received there due to his reputation as a Young Hegelian radical. Marx instead submitted his dissertation, which compared the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus, to the University of Jena[?] in 1840, where it was accepted.
Career When his mentor Bauer was dismissed from the philosophy faculty in 1842, Marx abandoned philosophy for journalism and went on to edit the Rheinische Zeitung[?], a radical German newspaper. After the newspaper was later shut in 1843, in part due to Marx's conflicts with government censors, Marx returned to philosophy, turned to political activism, and worked as a free-lance journalist.
Marx first moved to France, where he re-evaluated his relationship withe Bauer and the Young Hegelians, and wrote "On the Jewish Question," mostly a critique[?] of current notions of civil-rights and political emancipation. It was in Paris that he met and began working with his life-long collaborator Friedrich Engels, who called Marx's attention to the situation of the working class, and guided Marx's interest in economics. After he was forced to leave Paris for his writings, he and Engels moved to Brussels.
There they co-wrote The German Ideology, a critique of the philosophy of Hegel and the Young Hegelians, and then Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy[?], a critique of French socialist thought. These works lay the foundation for Marx and Engels' most famous work, The Communist Manifesto, first published on February 21, 1848, which was commissioned by the Communist League[?] (formerly, the League of the Just), an organization of German emigrés whom Marx had met 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 to London. In 1852 Marx wrote his famous pamphlet The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which he analyzed Napoleon III's take over of France. In 1864 Marx organized the International Workingmen's Association, later called the First International, as a base for continued political activism[?]. This organization collapsed in 1872 in part because of the fall of the Paris Commune, and in part because many members turned to Mikhail Bakunin's anarchism. In London Marx also dedicated himself to historical and theoretical works, the most famous of which is the multivolume Das Kapital (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy), the first volume of which was published in 1867.
Influences on Marx's Philosophy In general, Marx's thought has been influenced by two often contradictory elements: determinism and activism. On the one hand, Marx believed that he could study history and society scientifically, and derive laws that explain and predict the course of history and the outcome of social conflicts[?]. Consequently, some followers of Marx conclude that a communist revolution is inevitable. On the other hand, Marx famously asserted that "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it," and dedicated himself to trying to change the world. Consequently, some followers of Marx conclude that dedicated revolutionaries must organize social change[?].
Marx's theory, sometimes called "scientific socialism" or "dialectical materialism" or "historical materialism" is based on Hegel's claim that history occurs through a dialectic, or clash, of opposing forces. Hegel was a philosophical idealist who believed that we live in a world of appearances, and true reality is an ideal. Marx accepted this notion of the dialectic, but rejected Hegel's idealism. In this he was influenced by 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. 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.
The other important contribution to Marx's revision of Hegelianism was Engels's book, The Condition of the English Working Class, which led Marx to conceive of the historical dialectic in terms of class conflict, and to see the modern working class as the most progressive force for revolution.
Marx's Philosophy 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:
Although "labor power" for Marx is human nature, he 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, like land and natural resources, labor, and technology, that are necessary for the production of material goods, and the social relations of production, in other words, the social 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 the relations of production (for example, we develop a new technology, and only later do we develop laws to regulate that technology). For Marx this lag is a major source of conflict.
Marx understood the "social relations of production[?]" to comprise not only relations among individuals, but between or among groups of people, or classes. As a scientist and materialist, Marx did not understand classes 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[?].
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 terms of the problem of alienation. As with the dialectic, 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 tems of commodity fetishism, in which people come to believe that it is the very things that they produce that are powerful, and the sources of power and creativity, rather than people themselves. He argued that when this happens, people begin to mediate all their relationships among themselves and with others through commodities.
Commodity fetishism is an example of what Marx and Engels called false consciousness, which is closely related to their understanding of ideology. By ideology they 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 wrong; 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. For example, although the belief that the things people produce are actually more productive than the people who produced them is literally absurd, it does reflect the fact (according to Marx and Engels) that people under capitalism are alienated from their own labor-power. Another example of this sort of analysis is Marx's understanding of religion, summed up in a passage from the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right:"
Marx argued that this alienation of labor power (and resulting commodity fetishism) is precisely 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 sell their own labor because they no longer possessed their own land or tools necessary to produce. A person sells his/her labor-power when he/she accepts compensation in return for whatever work he/she does in a given period of time (in other words, he/she is not selling the product of their labor, but his/her capacity to work). In return for selling his/her labor power he/she receive money which allows them to survive. The person who must sell his/her labor power to live is a "proletarian." The person who buys the labor power, generally someone who does own the land and technology to produce, is a "capitalist" or "bourgeois." (NOTE: Marx considered this an objective[?] description of capitalism, distinct from any one of a variety of ideological claims of or about capitalism).
Marx distinguished capitalists from merchants. 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 hope to capture the difference between these two markets. According to Marx, capitalists, on the other hand, take advantage of the difference between the labor market and the market for whatever commodity is produced by the capitalist. Marx observed that in practically every successful industry the price for labor was lower than the price of the manufactured good. Marx called this difference "surplus value" and argued that this surplus value was in fact the source of a capitalist's profit.
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 believed 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 recesion or depression in which certain sectors of the economy would collapse. Marx understood 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 empowerment of the capitalist class and the impoverishment of the proletariate. Finally, he believed that were the proletariate to 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.
Influence The body of work of Marx and of Marx and Engels 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 (although before he died Marx declared that he was not a "Marxist"). 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. Essentially, people use the word "Marxist" to describe those who rely on Marx's conceptual language (e.g. mode of production, class, commodity fetishism) to undertand capitalist and other societies, or to describe those who believe that a worker's revolution is the only means to a communist society.
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 ascendence of Vladimir Lenin's leadership of the communist movement, embodied in the "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 world-wide communist revolution would be possible, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had to dedicate itself to building socialism in their own country.
At this time, Leon Trotsky left the Soviet Union and in 1934 founded the competing "Fourth International." Some followers of Trotsky argued that Stalin had created a bureaucratic state[?] rather than a socialist state[?].
In the 1920s and '30s, a group of dissident Marxists at the Frankfurt School in Germany, among them Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, espoused Critical Theory (unrelated to Critical philosophy), which offered a non- Bolshevist critique of contemporary capitalism. Other influential non-Bolshevik Marxists at that time include Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, and Rosa Luxemburg.
Contemporary Criticisms Marxian theory has been criticized from numerous points of view. Many proponents of capitalism have argued that capitalism in fact is ultimately a more effective means of generating and redistributing wealth than socialism or communism, and that the gulf between rich and poor that concerned Marx and Engels was a temporary phenomenon. Some suggest that greed and the need to acquire material wealth is an inherent component of human behavior, and is not caused by the adoption of capitalism or any other specific economic system (although economic anthropologists have questioned this assertion), and that different economic systems reflect different social responses to this fact. Economists generally reject his use of the "labor theory of value," although such critics generally overlook Marx's distinction between value and price.
Marx has also been criticized from the left. Evolutionary Socialists reject his claim that socialism can be accomplished only through class conflict and violent revolution. Others argue that class is not the most fundamental inequality in history, and call attention to patriarchy or race. Some today question the theoretical and historical validity of "class" as an analytic construct or as a political actor. In this line, some question Marx's reliance on 19th century notions that linked science with the idea of "progress" (see social evolution). Many observe that capitalism has changed much since Marx's time, and that class diffferences and relationships are much more complex -- citing as one example the fact that much corporate stock in the United States is owned by workers through pension funds. (see post-structuralism and postmodernism for discussions of two movements generally aligned with the left that are critical of Marx and Marxism.)
Contemporary supporters of Marx argue most generally that Marx was correct that human behavior reflects determinate historical and social conditions (and is therefore changing and cannot be understood in terms of some universal "human nature"). More specifically, they argue his analysis of commodities is still useful and that alienation is still a problem. Some argue that capitalism does not exist as an independent system in any one country, and that one must analyze it as a global system. They further argue that when examined as a global system, capitalism is still organizing and exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor that first caught Marx's attention when he read Engels' book on England.
External links E-texts of some of Karl Marx's works: