Who was Karl Marx?

Karl Marx was a German economist, sociologist and philosopher. He was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier – which was then part of the Prussian Rhineland – and died in London on 14 March 1883.


Marx became interested in communism – the theory that the means of production ought to be owned in common and managed for the public good – after starting a career as a radical journalist in the early 1840s. He proceeded to become the foremost advocate of communism in 19th-century Europe and became famous chiefly through his association with the Paris Commune (1871) – a socialist working-class uprising against the French government that lasted two months.

The 19th-century political and social theorist Karl Marx; co-author (with Friedrich Engels) of The Communist Manifesto (1848). (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

After the continental revolutions of 1848 – a series of republican revolts against European monarchies, in Sicily, France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire – Marx was forced into exile as a result of his political beliefs. He moved to London (where he would remain for the rest of his life) and spent much of his time studying in the British Museum Reading Room. He lived in relative obscurity and, for many years, considerable poverty, subsisting chiefly on regular contributions from his life-long intellectual partner, Friedrich Engels, who was employed at his father's cotton-spinning factory in Manchester.

Marx’s best-known work is the Communist Manifesto (1848), which he wrote with Engels. The work predicts the final overthrow of the capitalist system, detailing how workers will one day rise up to seize the means of production. However, Marx’s most impressive study is arguably Capital (1867), which explores the origins, development and inner workings of the capitalist system.

Communist monument depicting the two authors of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in Fuxing Park, Shanghai, China.
A monument depicting Karl Marx and his life-long intellectual partner Friedrich Engels in Fuxing Park, Shanghai, China. (Photo by Patrick Donovan via Getty Images)

What did Karl Marx believe?

To understand the basics of Marx’s beliefs, it is important to recognise what was going on in Europe during the 19th century. During this period a new factory system was introduced that increasingly concentrated the workforce (the “industrial proletariat”) into poorly-paid, dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Poverty was rife in the new urban slums.

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Marx believed that as more and more workers were pushed down into poverty, they would eventually rise up against their bosses. Socialist propagandists would then convince the workforce that production for human need (rather than profit) was preferable. They would persuade the proletariat to try to overthrow the system, Marx thought.

After this imagined revolution – which Marx in his early years assumed would be violent – a phase termed the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would ensue, in which an elected, working-class government would begin to manage the economy. The means of production, banks, transportation and land would all become publicly owned, and a central plan would be devised to ensure that the goods produced matched the needs of the population.

After a lengthy period of development – which would perhaps last for generations – the “state” would cease to exist as an alien organisation possessing a will and interest separate from that of the general population. Eventually a "communist society" would be achieved, in which most forms of coercion and exploitation (such as using the labour of others without fair reward) would end.

How did Karl Marx develop his ideas?

Marx built on the analyses of a number of earlier socialist writers – most notably Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon – who had from around 1815 onwards contended that capitalism needed to be replaced by a system based on common ownership and/or management. By 1845 Marx became convinced that capitalism – that is, an economic and political system based on competition in the market and increasing technological advancement – was vulnerable to a process of recurring cyclical crises, in which wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few.

Many of Karl Marx's chief writings were not published during his lifetime. Contemporary readers often begin with two of his works: the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, and the German Ideology of 1845-6 – both of which were only released in full in 1932 by researchers in the Soviet Union and were not widely discussed until the 1960s. The fact that neither of these two early works were published by Marx raises questions about whether he regarded their formulations as inadequate or immature. He developed themes from both, however, in later works.

In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the "alienation" of the worker from the process of production; from his or her own product; from other workers; and from "species being" – a communal self-consciousness that provides the basis of sociability. He also theorises that dividing labour into minute, repetitive tasks prevents workers from achieving an "all-round" development of their intellectual capabilities. This, Marx claims, drives workers apart from one another by making them competitors, therefore undermining the natural solidarity of "species being".

Richard Evans. (Photo by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine)

In the German Ideology, Marx appears to abandon the concept of "species being" in favour of a more historical account of capitalism as the latest "mode of production". He also now saw the solidarity that workers achieved through their collaboration at work. This, he thought, was evidence of the sociability that would foreshadow a new society. At this stage, Marx saw capitalism as playing a largely progressive role in eradicating feudalism [the dominant social system in medieval Europe], and raising the prospect of popular sovereignty, though limited by bourgeois rule.

In later years, Marx shifted away from the possibility of eliminating “alienation” and moved towards the view that increasing mechanisation [the rise of work involving machinery] would offer much more free time for the working classes. However, as in 1844, he regarded the ‘mutilated’ personality of workers as being as a key result of capitalism. “They mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine,” he wrote in Capital (1867).

How responsible was Karl Marx for the spread of communism, including the rise of Stalinism, during the 20th century?

There were many varieties of Marxism on offer by the early 20th century, the most prominent of which was associated with the leading working-class party in Europe, the Social Democrats Party (SPD) in Germany. These so-called "revisionists" – notably Eduard Bernstein of the SPD – disagreed with much of what Karl Marx had proposed, including the notion that capitalism would produce a final great revolutionary catastrophe. Instead, the SPD thought, the system might be reformed gradually and peacefully through the ballot.

In Russia, meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 insisted on a revolutionary interpretation of Marx's ideas. The Bolsheviks were a tiny party in Russia led by Vladimir Lenin, whose goal was to overthrow the Provisional Government and set up a government for the proletariat (workforce). Lenin insisted that a dedicated conspiratorial group could attain political power. But in order to maintain it, authority would need to remain within the hands of a small group within the party, and then possibly even in the hands of one dictator.

View of a large crowd assembled in Red Square, with Bolshevik leaders Joseph Stalin (right) and Leon Trotsky standing on a podium, during the Russian Revolution, Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
View of a large crowd watching Bolshevik leaders Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky standing on a podium during the Russian Revolution. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marx himself had never endorsed such a strategy – he remained a democrat throughout his life, insisting that leaders should be elected, recallable, and paid no more than an average worker's wage. Despite this, Lenin claimed that his system was still democratic, naming it "democratic centralism" to indicate that decision-making involved consulting the masses, but thereafter flowed from the top down.

After Lenin's death in 1924, Josef Stalin rose quickly to power. During the 1930s, while holding the position of secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin set about purging Russia of anyone he considered a threat. More than 750,000 people were murdered and many millions more were incarcerated under the Gulag’s forced labour prison system. The total number of those who died is not known, but it is thought it may have exceeded 20 million.

Many more died in China after Mao Tzedong's revolution of 1949, including as many as 46 million during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-61), which was an attempt to create a vast decentralised industrial programme based on steel production.

Marx’s theories can be held at least partly accountable for some of these disasters, but not for ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ as such.

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi.

What makes Karl Marx important or relevant today?

Marx was, as much as anything else, a prophet and visionary who gave hope to millions that a life of endless, exhausting, exploited toil was not the inevitable lot of most of humanity. He was essentially a utopian thinker (though he disliked the term) who posited the ideal of a future good life, and then demanded that humanity seek this end.

Today, Karl Marx remains the most prominent of all modern thinkers to suggest that capitalism is a historically-limited phase of development, and to contend that a vastly more humane system of production and distribution might replace it. Despite the shortcomings noted above, Marx is a focal point for current discussions about humanity's future development.

The greatest problem facing humanity this century is arguably environmental collapse. Here, curiously, Marx has perhaps failed to see that a proletarian revolution might give rise to a bourgeois one, where the workers come to define themselves as consumers. Marx envisioned a communist system in which high levels of industrial production would ensure a good standard of living for the entire population. His theory did not account for the issues of scarcity of resources and overpopulation; indeed they were not relevant to his epoch. However, what Marx did shrewdly observe was that those who profit from the existing system would resist any fundamental change to it – even if it jeopardised the lives of future generations to come. The rationale of capitalism lies in the maximisation of profit: no other ends can modify this aim. But the survival of humanity, Marx realised, clearly indicates that other strategies must be adopted if we are to avoid the worst form of dystopian future. Here Marx offers, if not comfort, at least inspiration.

Gregory Claeys is Professor of the History of Political Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Marx and Marxism (Penguin Books, 2018).


This article was first published by History Extra in May 2018