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Karl Marx and Communism

Karl Marx and Communism

“Marx did not combat wealth, nor did he praise poverty. He hated capitalism, not for its accumulation of wealth, but for its oligarchical character; he hated it because in this system wealth means political power in the sense of power over other men. Labour power is made a commodity; that means that men must sell themselves on the market. Marx hated the system because it resembled slavery.”1

Karl Marx was a seminal 19th-century European thinker. He analyzed the unequal conditions under 19th-century capitalism and forecasted historical development that he perceived to lead toward Communism. Marx's works had a tremendous impact on the developments in the 19th and 20th centuries: from inspiring political parties to revolutions in Russia, China, and beyond.

Karl Marx and Communism: Definition

Communism is a key ideology of the Modern period the end goal of which was to establish an egalitarian, classless society based on communal sharing without a state and without private property. In turn, Marxism is the collected body of work and its principal theories by Karl Marx that inspired this ideology.

Karl Marx and Communism Karl Marx in 1875 StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Karl Marx in 1875

Karl Marx: Biography

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was an economist, political theorist, and philosopher of Jewish-German descent. Marx is considered one of the most significant thinkers in the history of Western thought. His theories served as a foundation for revolutions around the world.

Born in Trier, Germany, Marx experienced anti-Semitism early on, as his father was pressured to convert to Protestantism. The young thinker chose to focus on the fields of philosophy and law in his studies as he attended the universities in Berlin, Bonn, and Jena.

Prior to settling in London, England, Marx resided in both Brussels and Paris. However, his political views and activist pursuits had him expelled from those cities. In addition to being his home base in exile, London also played a significant role in shaping Marx's worldview. The philosopher analyzed the socioeconomic conditions and the unequal relationship between the working class and big business by observing the appalling conditions of unrestrained capitalism during the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840; 1870-1914) was a period of introducing mass industrial production, urbanization, and various infrastructural developments, such as the railway, in Europe and the United States.

In his youth, Marx also read the works of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and was influenced by them. One of the most important aspects of Hegel’s work for Marx was his dialectics.

Hegel's dialectical process involves the merging of opposites, a thesis and an antithesis, to form a synthesis (a dialectical triad). Then the process repeats producing more complex results. In Hegel's view, this process is the basis of historical progress.

Later, Marx and his colleague, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), adapted Hegelian ideas to their own philosophical system. As a result, Marxian dialectic materialism pertained to real-world conditions. In turn, Marx and Engles viewed historical progress by thinking about class struggle. Marx examined these questions in his seminal works such as The Capital (1867-1883) and The Communist Manifesto (1848).

Did you know?

Child labor, a feature of unrestrained capitalism, was a global problem and remains an issue in some areas in the 21st century. It was only in 1938 that the U.S. put limits on child employment through the Labor Standards Act.

Karl Marx and Communism Child labor StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - Girls aged 6-10 working in the oyster industry, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911/12, no known copyright restrictions

Karl Marx and Communism: Summary

There are two key aspects to Marx's work:

Summary
  1. Unequal socioeconomic relations under capitalism
  • The first aspect of Marx's philosophy is his analysis of existent socioeconomic relations under capitalism. In Marx's view, capitalism is not just an economic system, but one that presupposes unequal relations between the working class and Capital (big business or industrialists). Big business benefits by exploiting the working class and using the fruits of its labor.
  • Marx also examined the role of the middle class (petite bourgeoisie) which expanded with the Industrial Revolution.
  • Marx's analysis of social relations is still relevant in the 21st century.
  1. Communism as a historical forecast
  • The second aspect of Marx's work is his historical predictions. Marx believed that history was defined by class struggle and moving linearly toward an end. All of history was defined by exploitation in Marx's view.
  • That end was Communism: the conditions when the state erodes in a classless, egalitarian society based on cooperation and sharing resources and property. Communism was to be achieved through a social revolution that would happen in industrially advanced countries.
  • However, Marx was vague about the way this revolution was to occur (violently or non-violently). This vagueness caused issues for his followers.
  • In contrast to Marx's prediction, revolutions occurred through violent means in largely agrarian, rather than industrial, countries like Russia and China. Instead of arriving at a stateless society, the new post-revolutionary state became stronger, centralized, and more bureaucratic.

Karl Marx and Communism Theory

There are several important aspects to Marx's theories, including:

  • a stateless society with communal ownership
  • accumulation of wealth
  • class struggle
  • means of production
  • the misery of the proletariat
  • global revolution

Karl Marx and Communism: Private Property

Marx believed that private property is an aspect of unequal social relations throughout history and, especially, under capitalism. He predicted that an eventual erosion of the state would occur after a social revolution. In a new egalitarian society, property would be shared.

Karl Marx and Communism: Class Struggle

Karl Marx viewed history as one of class struggle even before the rise of capitalism in Early Modern Europe. Class struggle is the unequal relationship between the laborers and those at the top of the social hierarchy in which the latter exploit the former. Capitalism is a mere stage in this linear historical trajectory.

Terminology

TermDefinition
ProletariatThe urban working class.
Capital"Capital" sometimes refers to wealth. Other times, it refers to industrialists, or what we term "big business" today.
Means of productionThe means and methods which use labor to produce products on a mass scale. According to Marx, the means of production belong to the ruling elite but should belong to the proletariat.
Bourgeoisie (petite bourgeoisie)The bourgeoisie is the middle class which does not represent the interests of the working class.
OligarchyA small, privileged, and wealthy group of people that control business and politics.

Capitalism

Capitalism is typically defined as an economic system controlled by private interests and driven by market forces. Capitalism developed alongside the Industrial Revolution when European and American societies moved away from agrarian and craft-based economies to mass-scale manufacturing. However, in Marx's view, capitalism is not simply an economic system but one of the unequal relations between the producers and those who control the means of production. For this reason, the goal of Marx's revolutionary ideas was for the workers (producers) to control the means of production.

Accumulation

Marx argued that, over time, wealth is accumulated in fewer and fewer hands. This aspect of prediction is accurate. However, some countries introduced a legal framework to challenge monopolization.

Misery

In Marx's view, the capitalist exploitation of the proletariat increased the suffering (misery) of the latter by using the following:

  • long working hours
  • low wages
  • unemployment

This suffering was supposed to spill over into a social revolution.

However, historians point out that the gradual introduction of labor rights codified into law improved the working conditions in the late 19th-early 20th century. As a result, revolutions did not occur in industrially developed countries, but rather, in their agrarian counterparts.

Global Revolution

This social revolution was to be global in nature, according to Marx. He and his colleague, Engels, also suggested that the revolution might start in the colonies rather than in Europe itself. After all, the colonial conditions were even worse than those of the European working class.

Marxist ideas are linked to anti-imperialism. For example, Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution of 1917 considered Britain to be a capitalist, colonial country that exploited not just the British proletariat but the world at large. Later, the process of decolonization of Asia, Africa, and Latin America often occurred in the framework of left-wing political movements inspired by Marxism.

Withering Away of the State

The disappearance of the state is a crucial feature of Marx's historical forecast:

  1. Proletarian misery boils over and leads to a revolution
  2. The working class establishes the so-called dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat
  3. Eventually, the state withers away, and an egalitarian, classless society emerges

Karl Marx and Communism: World History

Marx believed that revolutions could start in industrialized countries of Western Europe and sweep the rest of the world. Instead, for many reasons, such as the improvements in labor conditions, a revolution did not take place. They occurred in largely agrarian countries like Russia, China, Cuba, and North Korea. However, Marx left affected political movements and thought in Europe, nonetheless.

Political Movements and Parties

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was one of the first and the largest political parties to be inspired by the work of Karl Marx. It was established in 1863 and remained influential into the early 20th century. By the middle of the 20th century, the SPD stopped strictly adhering to Marxist ideology and became a mainstream left-wing entity.

Karl Marx and Communism Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin StudySmarterFig. 3 - Raise the Flag of Marx, Engels,Lenin, and Stalin Higher, Soviet poster by Gustav Gustav Klucis (Klutsis), 1936

Russia

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), the father of the Russian Revolution, and his Bolshevik allies overthrew the provisional government in 1917 power since the abdication of the Tsar earlier that year. The revolution was successful for many reasons such as the discontent with World War I. Lenin followed Marxist ideas and was an intellectual in his own right.

Russia was the first successful example of a Marx-inspired revolution. However, it was also a largely agrarian society, which industrialized after the revolution starting in 1928 contrary to Marx's forecast. At the same time, Russia—as the newly established Soviet Union—consolidated and centralized state power at the same time. Instead of Marx's erosion of the state, a powerful, bureaucratic state arose. Finally, in the 1930s, the Soviet Union turned inward focusing on what its leadership called socialism in one country rather than a global revolution as Marx predicted.

China

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 by the revolutionary leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Mao was inspired both by Marx and by the successful revolution in Russia. Maoism was the Chinese variant of a Marxist-inspired doctrine specific to that country's conditions. Similar to Russia, China was a largely agrarian country. And, like Russia, China developed a strong, centralized state led by the Communist Party contrary to Marx's forecast.

Karl Marx and Communism Student demonstrations in France in 1968 StudySmarter

Fig. 4 - Student protests in France in 1968 with posters featuring Mao, Lenin, and Marx

Karl Marx and Communism - Key Takeaways

  • Marx was a 19th-century European thinker critical of capitalism. He adapted Hegelian dialectic to his own system, examined social relations under capitalism, and forecasted a global revolution leading to Communism (an egalitarian stateless society).

  • Communism became one of the key ideologies of the Modern period.

  • Marx's methodology of examining social conditions was generally accurate, but his historical predictions were erroneous.

  • Marx's theoretic body of work (Marxism) inspired political parties, movements, and revolutions in some countries like Russia and China.


References

  1. Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton: Princeton Classics, Kindle edition, 2020, p. 405.
  2. Fig. 2: “Josie, six year old, Bertha, six years old, Sophie, 10 years old, all shuck regularly” (https://www.loc.gov/resource/nclc.00991/), by Lewis Wickes Hine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Hine), digitized by the Library of Congress, no known copyright restrictions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Karl Marx and Communism

Communism is an ideology of the Modern period. Its ideas arose from the theoretic work developed by the 19th-century European thinker Karl Marx. Marx both analyzed the socioeconomic inequalities under capitalism and forecast the end of a linear, historical process leading to a social revolution by the working class. In his view, this revolution was to ultimately lead to a stateless, classless society based on communal sharing.

Karl Marx was born in Germany but lived in exile in London, England for much of his life. He witnessed the negative features of unrestrained capitalism linked to the Industrial Revolution. These included poor working conditions, long hours, lack of safety, and child labor among others. Marx's criticism of unequal social relations under capitalism was not only theoretic but also empirical.

By analyzing the inequalities under the economic system of capitalism, Karl Marx's sought to end the suffering of the 19th century's working class. Marx's ultimate ideological goal, however, was to bring about a social revolution that would first lead to the dictatorship proletariat, its control of the means of production, and the eventual withering away of the state.

Marx envisioned a classless, stateless society based on the communal sharing of the means of production, its products, and property.

Marxism is the sum total of Karl Marx's theories expressed in his body of work. Marxism informs the ideology of Communism the ideal of which is a classless, stateless society that owns the means of production.

Final Karl Marx and Communism Quiz

Question

In Marx's view, history is defined by____.

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Answer

Class struggle

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Question

Which was one of the first major political parties directly inspired by Marx?

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Answer

Social Democratic Party of Germany

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Question

What did Marx predict would ultimately happen to the state?

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Answer

Marx predicted that the state would gradually wither away under Communism. However, in those places where successful Marx-inspired revolutions occurred, the state became more powerful and centralized.

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Question

Why was Marx's work historically significant?

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Answer

Karl Marx's analysis of the inequalities under capitalism provides a detailed methodology for examing social relations to this day. His forecast about the eventual establishment of Communism inspired political parties and even revolutions around the world.

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Question

Fill in the blank:

_______ is Marxism adapted to apply to China's specifics named after the revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. 


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Answer

Maoism 

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Question

Which European philosopher had the greatest impact on Marx's thought?

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Answer

Hegel

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Question

Where did the first Marx-inspired successful revolution occur?

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Answer

Russia

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Question

Marx wanted the working class to own____.

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Answer

The means of production

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Question

What is another term for the "working class"?

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Answer

Proletariat

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Question

TRUE OR FALSE: Vladimir Lenin was Karl Marx's colleague and co-author.

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Answer

False

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Question

TRUE OR FALSE: After 1928, the Soviet Union sought a global revolution as envisioned by Marx.

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Answer

False

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Question

Why did Marx-inspired revolutions NOT take place in industrialized Western Europe?

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Answer

Marx-inspired revolutions did not take place in industrial countries of Western Europe, in part, due to the gradual improvement of working conditions and the introduction of labor rights.

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