Marx, Karl (1818–1883)

views updated


Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the small German city of Trier in the Rhineland, then part of Prussia. He died in 1883 in London. His life thus spanned the better part of the nineteenth century, a time of rapid and profound economic, social, and political change in Western Europe and America. Philosophically, Marx can be seen as both the culmination of the tradition of German Idealism and its end. In this latter sense, and because most of his work consists of political, economic, and historical analysis, Marx has been taken as having moved beyond purely philosophical interests and investigations into the empirical realms of the social and historical sciences.

The primary goal of Marx's life and work, of course, was to facilitate the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system and to help give birth to the socialist society that he believed would inevitably follow the demise of capitalism. In the broadest sense, the project was to achieve the promise of human emancipation, a theme Marx inherited from Kant and Rousseau through German Idealism. Essential to this project was the understanding of the nature and limits of human reason, particularly as embodied in social institutions, a theme of critique also derived from Kant. Marx did not truly leave philosophy behind; he remained a philosopher whose project of liberation led him to increasingly empirical analyses of capitalist society and history. His central concerns are freedom, alienation, and critique, themes at the center of the tradition of German Idealism.


Marx came from a Jewish family with rabbinical roots on both his paternal and maternal sides. His father, however, broke with his family and converted to Lutheranism. Karl, his eldest son, was baptized in 1824. After a year studying law at the university in Bonn, Marx transferred to the university in Berlin to study philosophy. He received his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1841, but because of his close association with the radical Young Hegelians, he was unable to secure an academic appointment. Instead of pursuing a career in philosophy, he began to work as a journalist, the only career in which he ever earned any income. Increasingly engaged in the radical politics of the day, in 1843 he moved to Paris, the political heart of Europe, where he did his first serious work in the relatively new field of political economy as well as continuing his critical work on Hegel. This early work, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, unfinished and not published until 1932, is important to understanding the transformation of Marx the Young Hegelian philosopher into Marx the historical materialist. These manuscripts contain his most extended discussion of alienation, a discussion that helps shed light on how this concept was developed in his later writings, including Capital. It was also at this time that Marx established his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Frederick Engels.

While living in Brussels from 1845 to 1848, Marx made his final break with Hegel and the Young Hegelians, including Feuerbach. The two most important pieces of work from this period were the "Theses on Feuerbach" and The German Ideology (in collaboration with Engels). Neither was published in Marx's lifetime. These works are often regarded as the first statements of historical materialism and related ideas that would be further developed in Marx's mature thought. What is perhaps Marx's most famous writing, The Communist Manifesto, was written with Engels in 1848 at the request the Communist League, an association of revolutionary German workers headquartered in London. Soon after its publication, revolutionary activity burst out across Europe. Eager to participate, Marx went first to Paris and then Cologne, but within a year, as it became clear that the revolution would not succeed, he settled in London. He lived there for the rest of his life.

While not absenting himself entirely from politics, Marx spent the better part of the next fifteen years immersed in economic theory and history. In an effort to come to terms with recent events in France, he wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 18511852. Little else of note was published until the end of the decade, when he published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The preface to this work, often referred to as the "1859 Preface," contains his most famous succinct statement of historical materialism. Also during this period, he worked on manuscripts never published during his lifetime that have come to be known as the Grundrisse. These notebooks, which did not come to light until the middle of the twentieth century, are important for a number of reasons. They include what is the broadest outline of Marx's theoretical project, an early statement of the themes that became the focus of Capital, important points about Marx's method of working on texts, and insights into how Hegelian concepts such as alienation continued to be part of Marx's thinking.

In 1862 and 1863 Marx worked closely on the theories of political economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo in particular, writing manuscripts later published as Theories of Surplus Value. This work culminated in 1867 with the publication of the first volume of his magnum opus, Capital. Marx continued to work on the remaining parts of this manuscript, never finishing them to his satisfaction. Engels published them only after Marx's death: Volume 2 in 1885 and Volume 3 in 1894.

Marx returned to more active political involvements in the 1860s, becoming one of the leaders in the The International Working Men's Association, formed in 1864. He remained politically active for the rest of his life, becoming recognized as the leading theoretician of the European working-class movement. Among his later notable writings are The Civil War in France, written as an address to mark the demise of the Paris Commune in 1871, and "Marginal Notes on the Program of the German Workers' Party," popularly known as "Critique of the Gotha Program," written in 1875 in an attempt to help unify the two major factions of the German working-class movement. These two later works are important for comments on the nature of society and the state in postrevolutionary, socialist society, a topic about which Marx wrote very little.

Freedom, Alienation and Critique

Marx's philosophical views can be understood in terms of a series of central concepts: freedom, alienation and critique; historical materialism as a dialectical theory; the production of value and the problem of exploitation; and communism and the nature of a free society.

The chief good for Marx, as it was for Hegel, was freedom. For both, a fully free individual was autonomous, and this required rational understanding of and control over one's actions. Both Hegel and Marx appreciated that human emancipation, understood as autonomy, was a collective project. Individuals could be autonomous in the full sense only in a rational and free society. They differed concerning the conditions of a rational society and, in particular, whether the emerging commercial bourgeois society was rational and therefore yielded the conditions for human emancipation.

Marx followed Hegel in arguing that one major impediment to autonomy was a lack of understanding of one's self in relation to one's social world. Such a lack of understanding results in conditions of alienation wherein the individual is dominated to her detriment by states of affairs or objects that she has helped to produce but, in her misunderstanding, treats as independent of her. Conditions of alienation, the young Marx realized, undermined not only the possibility of freedom but created human misery and a sense of meaninglessness. Whereas Hegel analyzed alienation largely as a phenomenon of consciousness, Marx stressed the objective and social roots of alienation, locating its origins in the conditions of production and the nature of labor.

Part of the project of overcoming alienation, Marx realized, involved critiquephilosophical analysis that reveals the nature and sources of the alienation and that allows the individual to break through the veils of misunderstanding. Importantly, since the young Marx also realized that alienation was produced by the conditions of social existence, he grasped that until these conditions were understood and overcome, critique alone could not free the world of the destructive consequences of alienation. If the project of emancipation were to be carried to success, Marx recognized that he would have to understand the conditions that give rise to alienation and how those conditions could be changed.

Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is the theory Marx produced to explain the nature and sources of human alienation, oppression, and suffering and the possibility of attaining emancipation. In its fullest scope, historical materialism supplies an explanation of the central developments of human history, the series of stages of social development through which human societies have passed, and an account of the key dynamics determining the development of any given social formation. Marx's theory of capitalism is the most crucial and developed part of the overall theory of historical materialism.

The starting point of historical materialism is the claim that the central project of human history is the production and reproduction of material life. Humans exist within nature as creatures of needs that can only be satisfied through interaction with nature, that is, through labor. The necessity of labor is a manifestation of the fact that the human condition has been one of scarcity. While all animals are in a similar circumstance and must interact with nature to satisfy their needs, humans are distinguished because they have the capacity to develop tools, technology in the broad sense, that allow them to better satisfy their needs. With the development of technology, new needs were created as were the possibility of satisfying them. The production of ever more powerful technology and ways of putting it to use to satisfy an ever greater array of needs and wants, that is, the growth of human productive power, is for Marx the main theme of human history.

Human productive activity involves three elements: raw materials from nature, technology, and human labor. Marx referred to the first two factors, the natural resources and technology, as the means of production. Combined together, the three elements provide the productive power or, as it is more often called, the forces of production. The forces of production, to be put to use, must be organized in terms of some set or other of social relations that determines who has access to and control over the technology, the activity of labor and the product of the labor. Marx refers to these social relations of power as the relations of production. Typically, those who dominate the relations of production appropriate a disproportionate share of the product and dominate society. Two groups of people can be designated: those who dominate the relations of production and have power over the conditions of labor and the product and those who lack control. This division is the basis of Marx's theory of class and the inherently antagonistic class relations of the dominant ruling class and the subordinate workers class.

Historical materialism claims that the forces of production tend to develop in power over time. For any given level of the forces of production, there will be a set of relations of production in terms of which the existing forces can be best utilized and developed. That is, the relations of production that exist at any give point in history will tend to be those that are best suited to the further use and development of the existing forces of production. The existing forces of production together with the set of relations of production in terms of which they are organized form an economic structure that Marx calls a mode of production. Historical development proceeds through determinant stages characterized by the prevailing mode of production. According to Marx, there have been three modes of production prior to capitalism: the ancient slave mode of production characteristic of Greece and Rome, the feudal mode of production, and the Asiatic mode of production that is found in ancient India and China and that, unlike the modes of production found in Europe, does not develop beyond itself.

Within a mode of production, the forces of production continue to develop within the constraints of the existing relations of production. At some point in the development of the forces, the existing relations are no longer optimal to the continued use and development of the forces and the relations break down, allowing a new set of relations to emerge. These points of transition between old and new relations of production are considered revolutionary periods; such periods need not be violent and swift. Marx well understood that the transition from feudalism to capitalism took several centuries. With the emergence of a new mode of production and new relations of production, the nature of power relations within the economic order changes, and a new ruling class comes into being.

All modes of production, then, are made up of a dominant and a subservient class, with the members in the latter class far out numbering those in the former. Given the obvious disparities in power and freedom class society involves, one may ask why have they been as stable for as long as they have? According to historical materialism, the economic or class relations of a society form the basic institution of that society. The other principal institutions, including the political, legal, religious, and cultural, constitute what Marx calls the superstructure of society and justify and reinforce the economic relations. The superstructural institutions that tend to exist at any given point are those that help to stabilize the base. For Marx, just as the level of development of the forces of production determines and explains the nature of the existing relations of production, so the existing relations of production determine and explain the nature of the superstructural institutions.

Part of the superstructure of a society consists of what Marx terms the realm of consciousness; that is, the prevalent ideas and values in a society. As with other aspects of the superstructure, these ideas and values are explained in terms of their role in stabilizing class relations and the base. When such beliefs and values are produced and propagated by professionals (academics, religious authorities, cultural critics, and the like), Marx refers to them as the ideology of the society. As Marx famously states it: the ruling ideas of an age are the ideas of the ruling class, and they serve the interests of that class. Morality and religion are part of the ideological superstructure, according to Marx. Hence his well-known disdain for them.

Ideological beliefs are not necessarily false, although typically they are. But even when not false, they serve to limit or mislead understandingfor instance, by suggesting that a certain condition is natural and not socially constructed. Thus ideology creates false consciousness. Insofar as the members of the subordinate class accept the ideology of their society, they are misled about the nature of their actions, their society, and the role they play in creating it. In this way, ideological mystification is a major factor in the creation of the experience of alienation and the subsequent loss of freedom. Alienated conditions of existence, conditions that involve the domination of people by the reality they have produced but do not understand, are built into the nature of class society.

Theory of Exploitation

In all class societies, the ruling class dominates and exploits the labor of the subordinate class. Such exploitation is fairly evident in slave societies and in feudalism. Capitalism, however, presents a far more complex case. The wage laborer (to use Marx's terms, the proletarian who is a member of the proletariat, the class of wage laborers in capitalism) appears to voluntarily accept work and to be paid for each unit of labor (typically, the hourly wage). The focus of Marx's most sustained work was to unmask this ideological appearance and expose how and why the proletarian was exploited in a way at least as bad, and perhaps worse, than was the slave or serf. By explaining the nature of capitalist exploitation, Marx believed, he could explain the nature and limits of the capitalist mode of production and why it was doomed to be replaced by a socialist society.

Marx's theory of capitalist exploitation is complex; it is grounded on the crucial distinction between labor and labor power. The proletarian, hired by the capitalist, is paid for every hour of labor he performs. What he sells to the capitalist and what the capitalist buys is the capacity of the worker to labor for an agreed upon period of time, say, a ten hour day. During that period, the capitalist owns the worker's capacity to produce goods and can use that capacity in any way he wants. He can use it efficiently, making the worker work harder and produce more, or he can use it less efficiently. Since the capitalist already owns the other factors of production, the raw materials and machines and other technology, and now owns the labor that goes into producing the product, he owns all the factors of production and thus the entire product produced, which he then takes to the market to sell, hoping to return with profit.

Where does this profit come from? Marx asked. The answer resides in determining how commodities, goods produced to be sold in the market, get their prices. Marx used the labor theory of value, taken from Smith and Ricardo, to explain the nature of prices in terms of the labor necessary to produce the commodity. He extended the theory by treating labor power as a commodity that received a price, in this case called the wage, in the same way as other commodities. It is important to note here that human beings can produce under most circumstances more than they need to survive; they can produce a surplus. According to Marx's analysis, the wage (the price of labor power as a commodity) is determined by the value of what is necessary to keep the worker alive and able to work from day to day. The wage does not reflect the value of what the worker is able to produce, which includes both what is necessary and the surplus. Since in virtue of purchasing the worker's labor power and putting it to use as he wishes, the capitalist owns the entire product produced. The capitalist, that is, gets both the value of what is necessary for the worker to have in order to live and the surplus. The capitalist returns to the worker in the form of a wage, however, only the necessary value. He keeps the surplus, and it is this surplus that forms the basis of profit.

Marx noted that, according to the dominant values of capitalism, this exchange between capitalist and proletarian was neither unfair nor coercive. It is as fair and free as any other market exchange. Understanding morality as he did largely in its ideological function, Marx disdained moral critique and did not consider it important to morally condemn the exchange. What was important was to realize that through the process of exploitation, the worker produced, on the one hand, the wealth, privilege and power of the ruling class and, on the other, his own subordination, alienation and misery.

This analysis of the wage and profit is, one might say, Marx's microeconomics with a philosophical intent. His macroeconomic theory attempted to show how capitalism would, with increasing frequency, fall into various crises as the capitalists competing within the essentially anarchistic market struggled to maintain their profit. As this process continued, the misery of the workers would only increase as well. As the proletariat struggled against worsening misery, their political consciousness would be awakened by the ideologues of their class perspective, political activists and theorists like Marx and Engels. The dual movements, of the capitalists struggling to keep the system going and the workers struggling with increased understanding to overcome it, would eventually culminate in a revolution, ending capitalism and instituting a socialist society. In accordance with the general theory of historical materialism, a successful revolution would happen at or after the point when capitalism was no longer the mode of production best suited to allow optimal use and further development of the forces of production. At that point, socialism would be the best mode.

The dialectical nature of historical materialism is illustrated in the internal dynamics of capitalism and how they are claimed to lead to the overcoming of capitalism. As Marx used the concept, appropriated from Hegel, a theory is dialectical insofar as it reflects and captures a dialectical process in the world. Dialectical processes, typically organic processes, unfold according to a logic of internal development until the present stage of the object or being is fully realized, at which point, again according to the internal logic of development of the object or being, a new stage emerges from the crises and failures of the previous stage. The conditions for the appearance of a successor stage develop in and as a result of the internal developments of the previous stage. Thus the developing nature and struggles of capitalism give rise to a unified and self-conscious proletariat able to forge a new mode of production in its class interests, which happen to be, according to Marx, universal interests.


Marx wrote very little about the nature of the mode of production he predicted would displace capitalism. It is clear, though, that he thought human emancipation would be fully realized only in communism, the second stage of postcapitalist society. The first stage following the socialist revolution, referred to at times as socialism, would be dominated by the proletariathence the well known phrase, "the dictatorship of the proletariat." Socialism would eliminate the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation that accompanies private ownership. Technological progress would promote the accelerated development of the forces of production. At some future point, a level of productive forces would be attained that allowed humans to transcend scarcity and enter "the realm of abundance." Abundance refers to a condition in which all can satisfy their needs without depriving others of the satisfaction of needs and without having to spend the greater part of their time in undesirable, unfulfilling labor.

At this stage of human development, communism, all would be free to pursue truly human and creative activities that allowed each individual to fully realize himself or herself. Because all people would have equal access to the means of production, communism would be a classless society. Alienation and exploitation would be abolished. With conflicts over the distribution and fruits of labor eliminated or at least minimized, the primary source of social conflicts would likewise be eliminated, and there would be no need for state authority or for the distorting effects of ideology. There would be no further struggles of the sort that propelled the dialectic of history. Having provided the conditions for full human emancipation, communism would continue to allow optimal development of the forces of production. Hence, no mode of production beyond communism would be necessary or conceivable. Human life as a collective enterprise would gain a self-transparency that would allow humans for the first time to create with knowledge and intention their social fate. In this sense, Marx held that communism would be the end of history, or better perhaps, the beginning of truly human history.

See also Cosmopolitanism; Marxist Philosophy; Postcolonialism; Republicanism.


Avineri, Shlomo. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Ball, T. and J. Farr, eds. After Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Berlin, Sir Isaiah. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Brundey, Daniel. Marx's Attempt to Leave Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Buchanan, Allen. Marx and Justice. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Callinicos, Alex, ed. Marxist Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Callinicos, Alex. The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. London: Bookmarks, 1983.

Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Carver, Terrell. Marx's Social Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Cohen, G. A. History, Labour and Freedom: Themes from Marx. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Cohen, G. A. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Cohen, M., T. Nagel, and T. Scanlon, eds. Marx, Justice and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Draper, Hal. Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Monthly Review Press, 19771978.

Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Geras, Norman. Marx and Human Nature. London: New Left Books, 1983.

Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Little, Daniel. The Scientific Marx. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1986.

Lukes, Steven. Marxism and Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Pelican Marx Library. New York: Random House, 1977.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 2. Translated by David Fernbach. Pelican Marx Library. New York: Random House, 1981.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 3. Translated by David Fernbach. Pelican Marx Library. New York: Random House, 1981.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974.

Marx, Karl. Marx Engels Collected Works. New York: International Publishers, 1975.

Marx, Karl. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. Edited and translated by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Miller, Richard. Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Nielsen, Kai. Marxism and the Moral Point of View. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.

Peffer, R. G. Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Roemer, John, ed. Analytical Marxism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Schmidt, Alfred. The Concept of Nature in Marx. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Schmitt, Richard. Alienation and Freedom. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002.

Wheen, Francis. Karl Marx. London: Fourth Estate, 1999.

Wolff, Jonathan. Why Read Marx Today? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Wood, Allen W. Karl Marx. 2nd ed. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Wright, Eric Olin, Andrew Levine and Elliot Sober, Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History. London: Verso, 1992.

Lawrence H. Simon (2005)