Karl Marx
(1818-1883)

Karl Marx was communism's most zealous intellectual advocate. His comprehensive writings on the subject laid the foundation for later political leaders, notably V. I. Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, to impose communism on over twenty countries.

Marx was born in Trier, Prussia (now Germany), in 1818. He studied philosophy at universities in Bonn and Berlin, earning his doctorate in Jena at the age of twenty-three. His early radicalism, first as a member of the Young Hegelians, then as editor of a newspaper suppressed for its derisive social and political content, preempted any career aspirations in academia and forced him to flee to Paris in 1843. It was then that Marx cemented his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels. In 1849 Marx moved to London, where he continued to study and write, drawing heavily upon works by David Ricardo and Adam Smith. Marx died in London in 1883 in somewhat impoverished surroundings, never having held a job in England and relying on Engels for financial support.

In 1848, Marx and Engels coauthored their most famous work, "The Communist Manifesto". A call to arms for the proletariat—"Workers of the world, unite!"—the manifesto set down the principles on which communism was to evolve. Marx held that history was a series of class struggles between owners of capital (capitalists) and workers (the proletariat). As wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists, he thought, the ranks of an increasingly dissatisfied proletariat would swell, leading to bloody revolution and eventually a classless society.

Marx wrote extensively about the economic causes of this process in Das Kapital, with volume one published in 1867 and the later two volumes, heavily edited by Engels, published posthumously in 1885 and 1894. Marx predicted the demise of capitalism. He didn't say just when capitalism would expire, but he did explain why and how. According to Marx, capitalism had to be replaced because the evolution of society's institutions is a natural and inevitable process of history. This evolution takes place as a result of class struggle--the struggle of lower socioeconomic classes over the material fruits of production.

According to Marx, all history can be explained by the conflict between opposing forces, thesis and antithesis. Out of this conflict change emerges through synthesis. Marx contended that the direction of social change is determined by such concrete things as machinery This philosophy of the inevitability of change resulting from the struggle of opposites and determined by concrete realities rather than ideas is called dialectical materialism. It is the basic philosophy of communism.

Capitalism itself is the product of the struggle between lords and serfs in feudal society and between guild masters and journeymen in pre-capitalistic society. The evolution into capitalism, instead of some other form of social contract, was due to the arrival of machines and the factory system. This synthesis in turn created two new contending forces: the capitalist class or bourgeoisie, which owns the means of production, and the wage workers or proletariat class, which has to sell its labor to survive.

Marx seized on the labor theory of value to explain why labor is the source of all surplus value (profit) which is appropriated by the capitalists and invested in more machinery. This increasing accumulation of capital equipment, according to Marx, results in increasing output with a smaller labor force. As a result, the workers do not have enough purchasing power to remove from the market all of the goods produced by the increasing stock of capital, and cyclical depressions of increasing severity will eventually lead to a revolution.

Marx expected the new synthesis to be socialism. He believed that its organizations would grow out of the conditions of the time, and that a government by the working class would subsequently give way to a communal society operating under the slogan: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

It has become fashionable to think that Karl Marx was not mainly an economist but instead had integrated various disciplines—economics, sociology, political science, history, and so on. But Mark Blaug, a noted historian of economic thought, points out that Marx wrote "no more than a dozen pages on the concept of social class, the theory of the state, and the materialist conception of history." Marx, writes Blaug, wrote "literally 10,000 pages on economics pure and simple."

He was a masterful economist and his rigorous analysis of capitalism in Capital is testament to the twenty years of scholarship that led up to its completion. Business cycles, the labor theory of value, decreasing rates of profit, and increasing concentration of wealth were key components of Marx's economic thought. His comprehensive treatment of capitalism stands in stark contrast, however, to his treatment of socialism and communism, which Marx handled only superficially. He declined to speculate on how those two economic systems would actually operate.

 

Selected Works

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. 1867. Reprint. 1976.

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I Charles H. Kerr and Co., Frederick Engels, ed. 1906.
Also, 1909: Vol. II and Vol. III.

Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 1858. Reprint. 1970.

"Manifesto of the Communist Party." 1848. Reprinted in Marx: The Revolutions of 1848. 1973.

"Wages, Price and Profits." 1865. Reprinted in Marx-Engels Selected Works, vol. 2. 1969.

 

excerpt from Das Kapital

 

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