Karl Marx

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the most influential of all socialist thinkers and the creator of a system of thought called Marxism. He helped organize the international socialist movement. His ideas motivated radical political activists who joined his call to overthrow capitalism. Marxism argued that all events in history are caused by economic forces, especially class conflict between owners and workers. Marx depicted the inevitable evolution from feudalism to capitalism (which happened, he argued, during the French Revolution), to socialism, which was about to happen as soon as the workers got organized. Many intellectuals accepted Marx's "scientific" analysis and prediction. In recent decades there has been little interest in Marx among economists or historians, who nearly unanimously conclude his analysis was faulty and his predictions were wrong[1], but there is much more among critics of literature, especially in university English departments.


Personal Life

Karl Heinrich Marx was born into a happy, wealthy middle-class home in the Rhineland city of Trier, in Germany. On both sides of his family, he came from a long line of Jewish rabbis; but his father Heinrich Marx (1782-1838), an intellectual and highly respected lawyer, had his family converted to Lutheranism in 1824 when young Marx was six. Intellectually and culturally, Marx was Protestant, not Jewish. Marx received a good classical education; at age 17, he spent a year in the University of Bonn's law faculty and soaked up its cultural romanticism. At age 18 he became engaged to aristocratic Jenny von Westphalen (1814-1881), daughter of Baron von Westphalen, a prominent member of Trier society, granddaughter of a famous general, and also descended from Scottish nobility. She interested Marx in romantic literature and in the socialist Saint-Simonian movement.

Intellectual roots

In 1836 Marx transferred to the University of Berlin, at the time the foremost scholarly center in the world. He abandoned his superficial romanticism and came under the influence of the philosophy of the recently deceased G. W. F. Hegel. which dominated German thought. Lectures were less important than long conversations with Young Hegelian intellectuals, notably Bruno Bauer; they sought to use Hegelianism to battle the German religious, political, and philosophical status quo. After completing his doctoral thesis (which dealt with the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus), Marx at first hoped to obtain teaching post. When Bauer was dismissed for unorthodoxy in 1842, Marx turned to journalism and began writing for the Rheinische Zeitung, an opposition daily backed by liberal Rhenish industrialists. He soon became its editor, but the paper was closed by the authorities in May 1843, following an expose by Marx of the miserable poverty of farm workers in the Moselle vinyards, a piece of work that led him, as his friend Friedrich Engels later said, "from pure politics to economic relationships and so to socialism."

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity strongly influenced Marx, who responded with "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. Introduction (1843-44), which includes his famous line that "religion is the opium of the masses." Marx wanted freedom from religion, claiming there would no longer be a need for it once socialism succeeded.

In 1843, Marx married Jenny von Westphalen and composed a lengthy manuscript definitely rejecting Hegel's apologia for contemporary German politics. Unemployable in Germany, Marx decided to emigrate to Paris.

Paris and Brussels

In [[[Paris]], Marx discovered a hothouse of innumerable socialist sects. A proposed journal collapsed, and he plunged into a program of exhaustive reading in politics, history and economics. In 1844 Marx composed a series of treatises known as the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" or "Paris Manuscripts," in which he finally espoused "communism". He began a lifelong friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Engels, whose father was a partner in a cotton firm in the English city of Manchester. Engels supplied Marx with a practical knowledge of the daily workings of capitalism, as well as generous cash subsidies and the one firm intellectual friendship that lasted until death.

On expulsion from Paris in the autumn of 1844, Marx settled (for the next three years) in Brussels, renewing his study of economics. He visited England, with Engels as his guide, and in London met the leaders of the League of the Just, a semi-clandestine club of emigre German artisans. In Brussels Marx founded a network of correspondence committees to keep German, French, and English communists and socialists informed about each other's ideas and activities and to introduce some theoretical unity into the movement.

He devoured the works of economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, the comte de Saint-Simon, and many others. He rejected the individualistic radicalism of Pierre Joseph Proudhon and attacked him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), an early attempt to systematize his own thought.

By 1847 the League of the Just was conscious of a need for a more firm theoretical foundation. Marx and Engels were approached and proved eager to help. During two long congresses in London, Marx's ideas were accepted in principle by the organization, now renamed the Communist League, and Marx was commissioned to set them down in writing.

Communist Manifesto

The classic "Communist Manifesto" by Marx and Engles called for the working classes to rise in rebellion. Eric Hobsbawm has argued there was a "triumphal march" of capitalism after the European revolutions of 1848-49, which proves that Marx and Engels were completely wrong in their prognosis of the rapid intensification of class conflict and the destruction of capitalism. From 1848-49 onward the European bourgeoisie implemented successfully various reforms that insured their hegemony and confounded the prognosis of the "Manifesto".

Revolution of 1848

Just as soon as the "Communist Manifesto" appeared, the middle classes and intellwectuals of Europe rose in rebellion. The first of the revolutions of 1848, broke out in Paris. Marx rushed back to Paris at the invitation of the liberal provisional government that had replaced the government of King Louis Philippe. By March 1848, the revolution had reached Prussia, and in Berlin King Frederick William IV had been compelled to grant an elected parliament, a free press, and the convening of an assembly to draw up a new constitution. Marx hurried to Cologne (part of Prussia), and resumed his journalistic activities, concentrating his energies on a new paper, the "Neue Rheinische Zeitungvineyards," which under his editorship favored an alliance between the German workers' movement and the more progressive elements of the middle class. By autumn, 1848, the revolution had been defeated in France and in the Austrian Empire. Marx still favored such an alliance and refused to support separate working-class candidates in elections. Not until April 1849, a month before the final collapse of the revolution in Germany, did he change tactics and advocate separate working-class political action. But it was far too late. Marx returned once again to Paris, expecting the revolution to succeed there; it did not and he was expelled in July 1849. Marx returned to London to begin his long exile.


The early years in [[London\\ were characterized by grinding poverty, due quite as much to Marx's inability to manage his finances as to their inadequacy. Three of his six children died. Three of his daughters reached maturity, as did an illegitimate son borne by the Marx family servant, a son whose true parentage remained a secret until after Engels' death. In 1856 a small legacy enabled Marx to move into a more adequate house, but what he conceived to be the necessity of keeping up appearances soon renewed his financial difficulties. Not until 1864 did the death of his mother and a legacy from an old Communist comrade, bring him substantial relief. But as Marx's pecuniary worries receded, his health deteriorated; he was plagued by boils from head to foot. Despite these difficulties, Marx enjoyed a very warm home life. He loved to play with his children, and the week regularly culminated with a Sunday picnic accompanied by singing and recitations from Shakespeare.

Marx rejoined the Communist League and resumed his journalistic activities. But the study of economics had convinced him that "a new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis," an economic crisis.

Marx's views


Initially, Marx's attitudes were marked by Russophobia, pronounced anti-Pan-Slavism, and assessments of Russia as an outpost of European reaction and counterrevolution, and even as the head of a conspiracy to block the world revolution. With time, however, Marx came to consider Russia as the country in which the outbreak of the revolution was most likely. In his research for successive volumes of Capital, he read Russian theoretical works by, among others, Vasili Bervi-Flerovski and A. I. Koshelev. Marx's attitudes to the anticipated peasant revolution in Russia remained ambivalent; to a certain degree he feared its occurrence, suspecting that it could take on an "Asiatic" hue.[2]

Civil society

Hungarian scholar László Tüto has argued that Marx believed that the bourgeois revolutions meant the worldwide historical liberation of the individual from the hierarchies of traditional societies. However, this liberation carried its own price. On the one hand, civil society and the state separated from each other in the bourgeois system, and as a result the individual became intrinsically split into a private person and a citizen of a state, two forms of existence that became opposed to each other. On the other hand, the economic freedom of private persons as members of civil society could only survive in the service of the spontaneous mechanisms of the market, that is, if people made themselves the tools of the tangible powers of the economy: goods, money, and capital. After the decline of freely competitive capitalism (into monopoly capitalism) this economic freedom was pushed into the background because of the property hierarchies. Freely competitive capitalism was characterized by the basic tendency of revolutionizing the means of production, and Marx concluded that the continuation of this tendency could only be ensured by going beyond the capitalist system to a socialist environment for civil society.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

The "dictatorship of the proletariat" was introduced by Marx and Engels, and later used by V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin to justify their murderous totalitarian rule. They controlled the Communist party in the Soviet Union in the name of the proletariat (which had no voice.) Marx and Engels believed in the need for such a dictatorship during the transition to communism following the takeover by the proletariat. They envisaged some undefined form of absolute sovereignty of the people in a radical democratic state based on universal and equal suffrage. Supposedly the dictatorship would allow the proletariat to abolish bureaucracy and private ownership of the means of production, using force and repressive or dictatorial methods to overcome the inevitable resistance by the bourgeoisie. Lenin, however, saw the concept in terms of a dictatorship exercised not by a democratically chosen majority but by a vanguard minority revolutionary party; he eventually accepted the need for a state bureaucracy, and his more extreme opposition to the bourgeoisie led him to favor their exclusion and disenfranchisement to the benefit of the urban working class.


Marx's theory of alienation was often employed to criticize religious, political, and economic divisions. However, the fact that it was basically about individuals and could only with great difficulty be applied to society made it a misleading tool when used in sociology.


The Communist Manifesto was expressed in terms the 21st century calls globalization. It argued that it was the "historic mission" of the capitalist bourgeoisie to establish markets throughout the world and that four lessons could be drawn from this fact: members of the proletariat do not share the same nationality as the bourgeoisie, the proletarian "globalization" will in fact supercede that of the bourgeoisie, exploitation and class warfare will destroy the national barriers between members of the proletariat, and the proletariat has a duty to overthrow the ruling classes in each nation.


Marx saw "primitive" socialist thought as a fundamentally moral movement with no base in practical science. Marx's solution was to create an analysis of society on his principle of dialectical materialism.


The dialectical method which was employed by Marx was developed by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Though concepts of dialectics had existed in philosophical theory since Plato, Hegel systematized the idea more thoroughly than any previous thinker. For Hegel, reality is a reflection of the unfolding of Absolute Spirit, roughly meaning knowledge. Thus Hegel saw the contradictions of Enlightenment philosophy (such as between subject and object, mind and nature, etc) as phases in the development of Absolute spirit. These contradictions would be resolved dialectically through the progress of Absolute Spirit.

Marx argued that Hegel's dialectic was upside down. Instead of being based in human knowledge, the dialectical contradictions were based in human social reality. For Marx, the contradiction between subject and object in philosophy was a reflection of the actual contradiction between workers and employers under capitalism. The difference between the ideal spirit and reality translates into Marx's view that man had become alienated from his true nature. Man had been created different from animals: he is creative, this is essential to his nature. However, in modern days, man is just automatically producing: he works to earn his wage, but has no tie to the product of his labor at all. This is the alienation from his true nature.

Means of production

The necessity for material sustenance gives rise to an imperfect means of production, which changes as the internal contradictions of thesis and antithesis work themselves out. A key feature of Marx's theory was his contention that competition for resources splits society into mutually antagonistic classes ("The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.") whilst the operation of the dialectic serves to continually reduce the numbers of classes until, in the Industrial Age, society was almost wholly split between "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat".


Capitalism, according to Marx, is just one system in a long series of economic systems in the world. He held that a so-called "capitalist society" had strong internal contradictions. In the development of capitalism, capital would be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. [3] The difference in income between the poorest and richest would always increase. Through economic crises, the poor laborers could be inflamed to believe that the system would always be disadvantageous to them.

Das Kapital (Capital) seeks to explain that the "bourgeoisie" make profits by exploitation of the "proletariat." The exploitation arises when the value of the goods produced by workers is much more than the wages paid, thus creating "surplus value" over and above the value of the wages advanced. Marx sought to agitate class envy by alleging that the competition amongst the bourgeoisie forced them to exploit their workers as much as possible. If an individual bourgeois refused to continue the "exploitation" he would soon be forced into bankruptcy or be taken over by someone who would. The result is persistent low wages among the proletariat who, eventually, would rebel and replace the existing capitalist system with a socialist/communist system.


It's important to note, however, that Marx never argued in any sustained fashion that socialism was inevitable: he knew there are too many factors in history to make a prediction possible. He did not have a clear idea about what the next stage after capitalism would be. The increasing concentration, he thought, would facilitate a communist system. In that system, however, man also would have to eliminate his "alienation." One possibility, which Marx imagined, was complete mechanization of production, so that any man could do any job[4]. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx went into greater detail about how this revolution would unfold. He also advocated for mass-murder and terror, even specifically telling Frederick Engels in correspondences to each other: “There is only one way of shortening, simplifying, and concentrating the bloodthirsty death-throes of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new--revolutionary terror. . . . [...] Once we are at the helm, we shall be obliged to reenact the year 1793 [the Reign of Terror]. [...] We are pitiless and we ask no pity from you. When our time comes, we shall not conceal terrorism with hypocritical phrases. . . The vengeance of the people will break forth with such ferocity that not even the year 1793 enables us to envisage it. . . .”[5]

Critique of Marxists

Mikhail Bakunin observed how rather than discussion of issues, the tried and tested method of leftism and Marxism was spread through the art of character assassination, [6] close associates of Marx were adept in the art of

cowardly, odious and perfidious insinuations. They seldom make open accusation, but they insinuate, saying they "have heard - it is said - it may not be true, but', and then they hurl the most abominable calumnies in your face.

Views on Religion

Marx's view on religion is mostly based on Ludwig Feuerbach's ideas[7], and his feelings toward the subject are not entirely clear. Marx is considered very controversial in religious circles for his statement, "Religion...is the opiate of the masses," yet he also stated that religion is "the heart of a heartless world." This was written in his 1843 work "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" and expresses Marx's belief that religion offers a false palliative to assuage the suffering of "the oppressed." He also stated in the 10 Planks of Communism that one of the necessary requirements for Communism was abolishing religion alongside the family. He also made some poems dedicated to Satan, which caused some to think he was a Satanist instead of an Atheist. During the Russian Revolution, the Russian Communist Party was highly critical of religion (likely seeing it as a threat to their Marxist agenda) and, after taking over, sought to destroy all forms of it.


Karl Marx is often labeled an anti-Semite or a "self-hating Jew" for statements such as, "Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist", "The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange", and "What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money."

It should be noted, that Marx was raised in the German Protestant culture, not in the Jewish culture of his ancestors. Furthermore, Marx's metaphorical use of Judaism and money was standard for intellectuals of his time, including Jews. Moses Hess, for example, self-consciously Jewish and proto-Zionist, used language almost exactly similar to Marx's in his "On the Money System." The equation of Judaism with money was standard for Marx's period, even by Jews.[8]

Anti-semitism did become a major force in Germany in the late 19th century, but all the leaders of that movement rejected Marx.

Academy Marx versus Public Marx

Marx in the academy and Marx in the public sphere are two different figures. It is an axiom within the academy that Marx in the public sphere is a vulgar misappropriation; even Marx once commented, "I am not a Marxist", referring to the treatment of his theory amongst his own contemporaries; this largely displays, at least, the freedom of interpretation intrinsic within Marx and the volatility of his content.

This misappropriation is likely largely a result of Marx's own Communist Manifesto and its popularity within post-war socialist activism in the US. The Communist Manifesto is only a drop in an ocean of Marx's work and theory, and not even the most relevant one. The complexity of Marx's work has actually enabled some contemporary theorists to find his work as a support of capitalism, while others interpret it as a trenchant critique of capitalism; and in fact it is both. Marx is actually very clear that capitalism is the most powerful mode of production available. What is debated is whether resistance to capitalism is intrinsic to itself, and whether the entire world marches inevitably towards capitalism.

Regardless of Marx's nuances and the usefulness of his theory for all perspectives of inquiry, even conservative ones, he continues to be misappropriated in the public. This is noticeable in the mildly anecdotal evidence that to even mention Marx is virtual political suicide. The academy refers to this phenomenon as the anti-intellectualism of the American public.

See Also


  1. http://www.economist.com/node/1489165
  2. Ewa Borowska, "Marx and Russia," Studies in East European Thought 2002 54(1-2): 87-103. ISSN: 0925-9392 Fulltext: Ebsco
  3. See his "Law of the Centralization of Capital".
  4. Marx, K. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Berlin
  5. https://www.facebook.com/373757305985421/photos/a.373910375970114.102939.373757305985421/819295658098248/?type=1
  6. Guy A. Aldred, Bakunin, Strickland Press, Glasgow, (1940).
  7. Feuerbachexhaustivereadingsemi-clandestineémigréEngelsintellectuals, L. The Essence of Christianity, New York, supersede1957
  8. [1]


  • Avineri, Shlomo. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1970) excerpt and text search
  • Berlin, Isaiah. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1963) online edition, excellent overview by leading non-Marxist scholar
  • Carver, Terrel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. 1992. 357 pp. excerpt and text search, streee on philosophy
  • Cohen, Gerald Allen, and G. A. Cohen. Karl Marx's Theory of History (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. 1985. 556 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Elster, Jon. An Introduction to Karl Marx (1986) excerpt and text search
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J., ed. Marxism in Marx's Day. 1982. 349 pp.
  • Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown. (3 vol. 1981, 2005). 1504 pp. covers Marx and all the Marxists excerpt and text search, by a leading conservative scholar; strong emphasis on philosophy
  • McLellan, David. Karl Marx: A Biography (4th ed. 2006)
  • Mehring, Franz. Marx: The Story of His Life (1918) online edition another online edition
  • Oakley, Allen. Marx's Critique of Political Economy: Intellectual Sources and Evolution. Vol. 1: 1844-1860. Vol. 2: 1861 to 1863. (1984-85). 266pp, 342 pp.
  • Rader, Melvin Miller. Marx's Interpretation of History. 1979. 242 pp.
  • White, James D. Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism. 1996. 416 pp.
  • Wurmbrand, Richard. Marx and Satan. 1986

Primary sources

  • The Portable Karl Marx edited by Eugene Kamenka (1983) excerpt and text search
  • Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: The Essential Writings (1986) ed. by Frederic L. Bender online edition
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto (1988) excerpt and text search
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto (1848) excerpt and text search
  • Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: The Essential Writings ed by Frederic L. Bender. (2nd ed. 1986) 516 pgs. online edition
  • Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy ed. by Martin Nicolaus (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1906), 865pp online ediition
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