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
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
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
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
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.
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. 1867. Reprint.
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I Charles H.
Kerr and Co., Frederick Engels, ed. 1906.
Vol. II and
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 1858.
"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.