Whether you agree or disagree with him it cannot be denied that Karl Marx is one of the most influential political philosophers in Human history. Besides the many states and theorists who have been inspired by his ideas, his analysis of capitalism laid the groundwork for much of our understanding of how capitalist economies function. He has also left an undeniable legacy of influence over the development of left wing politics and movements, even those who aren’t overtly Marxist. He was also one of the first to take a scientific method and use it to try and understand society and its development and is regarded as one of the fathers of sociology and social science.
The fall of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations in the early 1990s, the degeneration of most Communist states into obscene tyranny and the gradual adoption of capitalism by officially Communist countries like China, Cuba or Vietnam, has been seen by those on the right as proof that Marxism has failed. It is worth pointing out, however, that all these states represent a single branch of Marxist thought, that ofLeninism. Other branches have never been tried thanks to the early success of Lenin and his successors.
Even with this in mind the sheer dominance of capitalism in the world today can easily leave you wondering if Marx still has anything relevant to offer the modern world nearly two hundred years after his birth.
Who was Karl Marx?
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the German city of Trier, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia, to Heinrich Marx and Henrietta Pressburg. Though he was of Jewish ancestry his father had converted to Lutheranism in order escape anti-Semitic laws and though Marx’s mother remained a practicing Jew the Marx children were all raised Lutherans. Marx’s family were relatively wealthy thanks to his father’s career in law and the young Marx received an extensive humanist and liberal education.
In 1836 he started studying at the University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University of Berlin) but was forced to study law at his father’s insistence despite Marx’s early passion for philosophy. Despite this, Marx quickly became involved in the political and philosophical intellectual circles at the university and in the radical political movements bubbling beneath the surface of the profoundly conservative and reactionary Kingdom of Prussia. Young Marx developed a particular interest in the writings of the popular recently deceased German philosopher, GWF Hegel, and though he would later break with Hegel, Hegel’s influence can clearly be felt in Marx’s understanding of human nature and historical development.
Marx proved to be quite the polymath and drifted from law into studies of philosophy, literature, politics and even art history. After completing his study at Berlin he attempted to continue on to a PhD at Berlin. However, ultimately the conservative Berlin professors denied his radical thesis (for daring to suggest that philosophy and not theology should be primary) and he instead submitted it to the more liberal University of Jena which granted him his PhD in 1841.
He initially considered an academic career but was barred from this by the Prussian state’s growing hostility to the teaching of liberal and radical philosophy. Instead, he moved to Cologne in 1842 and entered journalism for which he earned notoriety as a radical political commentator. Marx’s notoriety would get him and the publications he wrote for into trouble and for many years Marx was forced to move about Europe as his publications were either banned or he himself exiled. From Cologne he moved to Paris in 1843 where he would eventually come to write for the only uncensored German language publication of the day, Vorwarts! (Forward). There he would meet his lifelong friend and fellow revolutionary, Friedrich Engels. Paris. too, would expel him on the request of the Prussian government forcing him to again move in 1845 but this time to Brussels.
Marx’s personal life saw him marry for love and, perhaps because of his radical leanings, quite above his station in life. His wife was Jenny von Westphalen, a well-educated baroness and childhood friend from lower Prussian aristocracy whose liberal father Ludwig was a liberal and also a good friend to Marx. Despite this, her relationship with Marx caused some degree of scandal due to his non-aristocratic birth and Jewish ancestry. However, they were in love and she broke off an engagement with a wealthy aristocrat in order to be with him and would follow him across Europe throughout her life, putting up with extreme poverty in order to support Marx’s work. They had seven children though only two survived Marx.
In Brussels, Marx joined a growing number of exiled socialists and radicals from around the continent including Engels who joined him a month later. Together this league of exiles formed the Communist League, the world’s first Marxist political party, in 1847 with Marx and Engels co-writing the Communist Manifesto (originally the Manifesto of the Communist Party) in 1848. Months later, the continent was rocked by waves of protests, uprisings and revolutions in the so called Year of Revolution 1848. Marx’s support for these revolutions and his existing radical writings led him to be expelled from Belgium. Adrift, he headed back to Cologne in hopes of fanning the flames of revolution in his native Germany.
Unfortunately, the revolution in Prussia failed and the power of the conservative monarchy was restored pushing Marx again into exile. He initially fled to Paris but he was not made welcome by the powers of the Second Republic and, with his wife pregnant with their fourth child and unable to live in either Germany or Belgium, he fled to London in the summer of 1849 where he spent the rest of his life.
Initially he and his family lived in extreme poverty and only survived thanks to the financial support his friend, Engels, who was sustained by his family’s business. Over the coming years Marx continued to write both as a journalist and an academic and also became involved in a number of socialist organisations around Europe. He spent much of his time continuing his studies and refining his ideas and, now living in the heart of the industrial revolution, he began his most fruitful period of economic study that would become the basis for much of his work. After some two decades of study and writing he published his magnum opus Das Kapital or Capital: Critique of Political Economy whose first volume was published in 1867. It was a sensation and quickly sold out bringing Marx worldwide acclaim and fuelling a renewed interest in his other works such as the manifesto. Sadly, volume two and three would remain unfinished and were only published and edited posthumously by his friend Engels.
The final decade of his life was marred by illness and an increasing inability for sustained work. Though often bedridden he remained an important figure in the world’s growing socialist movements and parties. His wife died in 1881 and he spent the final years of his life in poor health before succumbing to bronchitis 14th March 1883, aged 64, he was survived by two daughters. His friends pooled resources to afford a burial for him in Highgate Cemetery in London.
Marxism is the school of philosophy based on Marx’s works and ideas and is a complex and varied ideology with often wide differences in interpretation from theorist to theorist, ideologue to ideologue. Contrary to popular perception, Leninism (and its ideological descendants such as Stalinism or Trotskyism) is but one branch of Marxism – ultimately based on Lenin’s interpretation of Marxist theory, there are others who have taken different routes. Libertarian Marxism or Left Communism, for example, emphasises Marx’s anti-authoritarian and radical democratic undercurrents and reject the authoritarian nature of Leninism. This is to say nothing of the extensive academic Marxist literature that has continued Marx’s studies of economics and social history where he left off.
Naturally, a full in depth analysis of Marxism is beyond the scope of this article. Instead I will try to summarise Marx’s core ideas and attempt to show how they are still relevant to our world today. Marx was a firm believer in the scientific method and believed he could apply the principles of science to studying human society and economics. Unlike his predecessors, he rejected appeals to some mystical human spirit and instead studied real socio-economic relations and human action on the world. Furthermore, rather than appealing to emotion in his arguments they are based upon reasoned discourse, a dialectic, and material evidence. This has helped Marx’s writings to retain a degree of universality because they use, as much as possible, material evidence you can see in human society today.
At the heart of Marxist socio-economic theory is the simple observation that capitalism – and indeed all previous Human economic systems – function through the exploitation of the labour of one class by another. In other words, at the basic level, capitalism is based upon the capitalist class or bourgeoisie (the employer) exploiting the fruits of the labour of the proletariat or working class (the employees). This is still true today, even if we don’t always use the same language as Marx. Sure, in modern developed capitalist economies the majority don’t work in manufacturing or agriculture as they did in Marx’s time but they still produce products with their labour which are profited from by their employers. Just because these products are often made in offices or studios rather than, say, factories, doesn’t change the fundamental relationship of employer and employee, of bourgeoisie and proletariat, of worker and capitalist. Even professions where there is no obvious product, like teaching, still conform to this model, the product of the teacher’s labour which they sell to their employer (the school or university) being the education they provide the student.
Naturally, a system based on mass exploitation is not sustainable unless the exploiter is in a position of power. In Marxism, the capitalist class or the ruling class is dominant because it controls what Marx calls the means of production. This is the means through which goods, services and even ideas are created and distributed in a society. This gives the ruling elite power because they own the factories, machines, mines, farms and land in society and thus deny the lower class any ability to subsist on their own without using the products and services provided by the capitalist. With the exception of a few ‘off the grid’ individuals, the vast majority of us subsist on the capitalist’s food and water, are clothed by the capitalist and derive income from working in the capitalist’s businesses. Thus we are dependent upon them.
The capitalists also own the means through which ideas and values are created and spread allowing them to encourage the adoption of ideas that benefit their class rather than others. It is through this process that the workers are encouraged to adopt ideas that do not benefit them, for example: in wanting to maintain the status quo. The means through which the ruling class monopolises the production of ideas has changed somewhat since Marx’s day, in his time mass media was confined to newspapers and the church played a much bigger role in controlling society. In the modern world we can see how the ruling class owns the means of production of ideas through their ownership and domination of education (schools, universities etc) and mass media (TV, newspapers, film, music etc), though the digital revolution has begun to challenge this control through the ability of individuals to self-publish their own works without capitalist involvement and the unique power of the Internet in spreading information with limited elite control or oversight.
Marx argues that this system is destructive to the individual worker because it alienates them from the self by making them a mechanistic part of a stratified class based society, a cog in the machine, an object or tool rather than a person. It alienates the worker from the products of their labour, both physical and intellectual, and coerces them into producing a product, be it a manufactured product, an idea or a cup of coffee, for someone else, an occupation that yields wages for them but not profits. Marx’s theory of alienation can be difficult for some modern workers to appreciate in the west because many companies nowadays make some attempt to make up for this alienation either by paying more money in order to make up for the tedium, providing more comfortable working conditions or encouraging people to engage with their work and fellow employees. This is admittedly something Marx did not predict though it’s worth pointing out that this has come about largely through the work of socialist and other left wing campaigning over the past two centuries. However, in much of the rest of the world, the mechanistic cog in a machine ethos that Marx saw in 19th century Britain, is very much still in place. The sweat shops of Bangladesh being one example of the continuation of this alienating capitalist model.
Marx describes capitalism as an inherently unstable system, prone to cycles of boom and bust that inevitably harm the poorer classes more than the rich. It is Marx’s predictions for how capitalism will develop that are perhaps most important and prophetic for our modern times. Marx argues that capitalism will inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction for a number of reasons however chief among them is that the capitalist class always seeks greater profits and it does this primarily through reducing its costs by investing in labour and resource saving technologies rather than in more workers. He argues that over time capitalists will invest in ever more advanced technology that will gradually eliminate more and more workers from the system. The necessary workforce will shrink whilst the unemployed will grow. The capitalists’ profits will shrink too as the number of potential consumers for their products declines. The overall effect will see more and more wealth concentrated into a smaller and smaller group of people, to use a modern term, the 1%. The end process will be revolution, either from above as the state steps in or from below as the resentment and anger of the masses overflows. This will mark the end of the capitalist stage of human social development and the transition to a socialist and eventually communist society which, just as capitalism was an improvement over feudalism, will be vastly more equal and efficient than capitalism. Exactly what this ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ society would look like and when the revolution would come even Marx was unsure and has been much debated over by subsequent Marxists.
If we look to our own society today we can see that, despite living when industrial capitalism was still in its infancy, Marx was prophetic as this is precisely what we have seen over the past century of advancing technology and in particular in the past thirty years with the advent of the computer. New jobs have been created, but they have failed to completely replace those lost to automation and as this process accelerates futurists and economists alike warn that more jobs are set to be lost as artificial intelligence and automation advances further still. Indeed, even jobs we once thought would never be replaced by machines like driving or administration may one day be done solely by computer.
Karl Marx’s works are by no means perfect. Like many philosophers, his works can be dense and difficult to interpret or understand by the unfamiliar. Furthermore, many of the political references in his works have become obsolete, indeed some of the references in The Communist Manifesto, were obsolete in his own lifetime (as he himself would admit in later prefaces to the work). However, what is astonishing about Marx is how prophetic his vision was. In a time when railway was still a relative novelty, when newspapers were the only source of news, when much of society in Europe still lived in medieval villages as they had for thousands of years, he was able to study the emerging industrial society of his time and make observations and predictions that still hold true nearly two hundred years after his birth. Despite what neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologues would have us believe, Marx’s predictions remain not only accurate but potentially describe our own time.
Marx was wrong with regards to when the social revolution that finally transforms capitalism into something else would come. He could never have imagined how far technology had yet to go and how the capitalists would attempt to moderate their behaviour through concessions to worker’s rights. This has lengthened capitalism’s survival. However, I believe that we may very well be living in that transformative time now, that a new economy is emerging from this crisis of capitalism we see in the world today. One cannot look at the marvels of the digital revolution and its challenge to traditional modes of production and not question how capitalism can survive it. Those who thought Marx was dead with the fall of the Soviet Union may find he has the last laugh after all.
Michael is an aspiring writer and blogger based in Leeds UK. He writes on history, politics, religion, science and other topics