History of Literature

Karl Marx


Karl Marx

German philosopher
in full Karl Heinrich Marx

born May 5, 1818, Trier, Rhine province, Prussia [Germany]
died March 14, 1883, London

revolutionary, sociologist, historian, and economist. He published (with Friedrich Engels) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848), commonly known as The Communist Manifesto, the most celebrated pamphlet in the history of the socialist movement. He also was the author of the movement’s most important book, Das Kapital. These writings and others by Marx and Engels form the basis of the body of thought and belief known as Marxism.

See the articles socialism and Communism for full treatment of those ideologies.

Early years
Karl Heinrich Marx was the oldest surviving boy of nine children. His father, Heinrich, a successful lawyer, was a man of the Enlightenment, devoted to Kant and Voltaire, who took part in agitations for a constitution in Prussia. His mother, born Henrietta Pressburg, was from Holland. Both parents were Jewish and were descended from a long line of rabbis, but, a year or so before Karl was born, his father—probably because his professional career required it—was baptized in the Evangelical Established Church. Karl was baptized when he was six years old. Although as a youth Karl was influenced less by religion than by the critical, sometimes radical social policies of the Enlightenment, his Jewish background exposed him to prejudice and discrimination that may have led him to question the role of religion in society and contributed to his desire for social change.

Marx was educated from 1830 to 1835 at the high school in Trier. Suspected of harbouring liberal teachers and pupils, the school was under police surveillance. Marx’s writings during this period exhibited a spirit of Christian devotion and a longing for self-sacrifice on behalf of humanity. In October 1835 he matriculated at the University of Bonn. The courses he attended were exclusively in the humanities, in such subjects as Greek and Roman mythology and the history of art. He participated in customary student activities, fought a duel, and spent a day in jail for being drunk and disorderly. He presided at the Tavern Club, which was at odds with the more aristocratic student associations, and joined a poets’ club that included some political activists. A politically rebellious student culture was, indeed, part of life at Bonn. Many students had been arrested; some were still being expelled in Marx’s time, particularly as a result of an effort by students to disrupt a session of the Federal Diet at Frankfurt. Marx, however, left Bonn after a year and in October 1836 enrolled at the University of Berlin to study law and philosophy.

Marx’s crucial experience at Berlin was his introduction to Hegel’s philosophy, regnant there, and his adherence to the Young Hegelians. At first he felt a repugnance toward Hegel’s doctrines; when Marx fell sick it was partially, as he wrote his father, “from intense vexation at having to make an idol of a view I detested.” The Hegelian pressure in the revolutionary student culture was powerful, however, and Marx joined a society called the Doctor Club, whose members were intensely involved in the new literary and philosophical movement. Their chief figure was Bruno Bauer, a young lecturer in theology, who was developing the idea that the Christian Gospels were a record not of history but of human fantasies arising from emotional needs and that Jesus had not been a historical person. Marx enrolled in a course of lectures given by Bauer on the prophet Isaiah. Bauer taught that a new social catastrophe “more tremendous” than that of the advent of Christianity was in the making. The Young Hegelians began moving rapidly toward atheism and also talked vaguely of political action.

The Prussian government, fearful of the subversion latent in the Young Hegelians, soon undertook to drive them from the universities. Bauer was dismissed from his post in 1839. Marx’s “most intimate friend” of this period, Adolph Rutenberg, an older journalist who had served a prison sentence for his political radicalism, pressed for a deeper social involvement. By 1841 the Young Hegelians had become left republicans. Marx’s studies, meanwhile, were lagging. Urged by his friends, he submitted a doctoral dissertation to the university at Jena, which was known to be lax in its academic requirements, and received his degree in April 1841. His thesis analyzed in a Hegelian fashion the difference between the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus. More distinctively, it sounded a note of Promethean defiance:

Philosophy makes no secret of it. Prometheus’ admission: “In sooth all gods I hate,” is its own admission, its own motto against all gods, . . . Prometheus is the noblest saint and martyr in the calendar of philosophy.

In 1841 Marx, together with other Young Hegelians, was much influenced by the publication of Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity) by Ludwig Feuerbach. Its author, to Marx’s mind, successfully criticized Hegel, an idealist who believed that matter or existence was inferior to and dependent upon mind or spirit, from the opposite, or materialist, standpoint, showing how the “Absolute Spirit” was a projection of “the real man standing on the foundation of nature.” Henceforth Marx’s philosophical efforts were toward a combination of Hegel’s dialectic—the idea that all things are in a continual process of change resulting from the conflicts between their contradictory aspects—with Feuerbach’s materialism, which placed material conditions above ideas.

In January 1842 Marx began contributing to a newspaper newly founded in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung. It was the liberal democratic organ of a group of young merchants, bankers, and industrialists; Cologne was the centre of the most industrially advanced section of Prussia. To this stage of Marx’s life belongs an essay on the freedom of the press. Since he then took for granted the existence of absolute moral standards and universal principles of ethics, he condemned censorship as a moral evil that entailed spying into people’s minds and hearts and assigned to weak and malevolent mortals powers that presupposed an omniscient mind. He believed that censorship could have only evil consequences.

On Oct. 15, 1842, Marx became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung. As such, he was obliged to write editorials on a variety of social and economic issues, ranging from the housing of the Berlin poor and the theft by peasants of wood from the forests to the new phenomenon of communism. He found Hegelian idealism of little use in these matters. At the same time he was becoming estranged from his Hegelian friends for whom shocking the bourgeois was a sufficient mode of social activity. Marx, friendly at this time to the “liberal-minded practical men” who were “struggling step-by-step for freedom within constitutional limits,” succeeded in trebling his newspaper’s circulation and making it a leading journal in Prussia. Nevertheless, Prussian authorities suspended it for being too outspoken, and Marx agreed to coedit with the liberal Hegelian Arnold Ruge a new review, the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher (“German-French Yearbooks”), which was to be published in Paris.

First, however, in June 1843 Marx, after an engagement of seven years, married Jenny von Westphalen. Jenny was an attractive, intelligent, and much-admired woman, four years older than Karl; she came of a family of military and administrative distinction. Her half-brother later became a highly reactionary Prussian minister of the interior. Her father, a follower of the French socialist Saint-Simon, was fond of Karl, though others in her family opposed the marriage. Marx’s father also feared that Jenny was destined to become a sacrifice to the demon that possessed his son.

Four months after their marriage, the young couple moved to Paris, which was then the centre of socialist thought and of the more extreme sects that went under the name of communism. There, Marx first became a revolutionary and a communist and began to associate with communist societies of French and German workingmen. Their ideas were, in his view, “utterly crude and unintelligent,” but their character moved him: “The brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies,” he wrote in his so-called “Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844” (written in 1844; Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 [1959]). (These manuscripts were not published for some 100 years, but they are influential because they show the humanist background to Marx’s later historical and economic theories.)

The “German-French Yearbooks” proved short-lived, but through their publication Marx befriended Friedrich Engels, a contributor who was to become his lifelong collaborator, and in their pages appeared Marx’s article “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie” (“Toward the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right”) with its oft-quoted assertion that religion is the “opium of the people.” It was there, too, that he first raised the call for an “uprising of the proletariat” to realize the conceptions of philosophy. Once more, however, the Prussian government intervened against Marx. He was expelled from France and left for Brussels—followed by Engels—in February 1845. That year in Belgium he renounced his Prussian nationality.

Brussels period
The next two years in Brussels saw the deepening of Marx’s collaboration with Engels. Engels had seen at firsthand in Manchester, Eng., where a branch factory of his father’s textile firm was located, all the depressing aspects of the Industrial Revolution. He had also been a Young Hegelian and had been converted to communism by Moses Hess, who was called the “communist rabbi.” In England he associated with the followers of Robert Owen. Now he and Marx, finding that they shared the same views, combined their intellectual resources and published Die heilige Familie (1845; The Holy Family), a prolix criticism of the Hegelian idealism of the theologian Bruno Bauer. Their next work, Die deutsche Ideologie (written 1845–46, published 1932; The German Ideology), contained the fullest exposition of their important materialistic conception of history, which set out to show how, historically, societies had been structured to promote the interests of the economically dominant class. But it found no publisher and remained unknown during its authors’ lifetimes.

During his Brussels years, Marx developed his views and, through confrontations with the chief leaders of the working-class movement, established his intellectual standing. In 1846 he publicly excoriated the German leader Wilhelm Weitling for his moralistic appeals. Marx insisted that the stage of bourgeois society could not be skipped over; the proletariat could not just leap into communism; the workers’ movement required a scientific basis, not moralistic phrases. He also polemicized against the French socialist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Misère de la philosophie (1847; The Poverty of Philosophy), a mordant attack on Proudhon’s book subtitled Philosophie de la misère (1846; The Philosophy of Poverty). Proudhon wanted to unite the best features of such contraries as competition and monopoly; he hoped to save the good features in economic institutions while eliminating the bad. Marx, however, declared that no equilibrium was possible between the antagonisms in any given economic system. Social structures were transient historic forms determined by the productive forces: “The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steammill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Proudhon’s mode of reasoning, Marx wrote, was typical of the petty bourgeois, who failed to see the underlying laws of history.

An unusual sequence of events led Marx and Engels to write their pamphlet The Communist Manifesto. In June 1847 a secret society, the League of the Just, composed mainly of emigrant German handicraftsmen, met in London and decided to formulate a political program. They sent a representative to Marx to ask him to join the league; Marx overcame his doubts and, with Engels, joined the organization, which thereupon changed its name to the Communist League and enacted a democratic constitution. Entrusted with the task of composing their program, Marx and Engels worked from the middle of December 1847 to the end of January 1848. The London Communists were already impatiently threatening Marx with disciplinary action when he sent them the manuscript; they promptly adopted it as their manifesto. It enunciated the proposition that all history had hitherto been a history of class struggles, summarized in pithy form the materialist conception of history worked out in The German Ideology, and asserted that the forthcoming victory of the proletariat would put an end to class society forever. It mercilessly criticized all forms of socialism founded on philosophical “cobwebs” such as “alienation.” It rejected the avenue of “social Utopias,” small experiments in community, as deadening the class struggle and therefore as being “reactionary sects.” It set forth 10 immediate measures as first steps toward communism, ranging from a progressive income tax and the abolition of inheritances to free education for all children. It closed with the words, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!”

Revolution suddenly erupted in Europe in the first months of 1848, in France, Italy, and Austria. Marx had been invited to Paris by a member of the provisional government just in time to avoid expulsion by the Belgian government. As the revolution gained in Austria and Germany, Marx returned to the Rhineland. In Cologne he advocated a policy of coalition between the working class and the democratic bourgeoisie, opposing for this reason the nomination of independent workers’ candidates for the Frankfurt Assembly and arguing strenuously against the program for proletarian revolution advocated by the leaders of the Workers’ Union. He concurred in Engels’ judgment that The Communist Manifesto should be shelved and the Communist League disbanded. Marx pressed his policy through the pages of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, newly founded in June 1849, urging a constitutional democracy and war with Russia. When the more revolutionary leader of the Workers’ Union, Andreas Gottschalk, was arrested, Marx supplanted him and organized the first Rhineland Democratic Congress in August 1848. When the king of Prussia dissolved the Prussian Assembly in Berlin, Marx called for arms and men to help the resistance. Bourgeois liberals withdrew their support from Marx’s newspaper, and he himself was indicted on several charges, including advocacy of the nonpayment of taxes. In his trial he defended himself with the argument that the crown was engaged in making an unlawful counterrevolution. The jury acquitted him unanimously and with thanks. Nevertheless, as the last hopeless fighting flared in Dresden and Baden, Marx was ordered banished as an alien on May 16, 1849. The final issue of his newspaper, printed in red, caused a great sensation.

Early years in London
Expelled once more from Paris, Marx went to London in August 1849. It was to be his home for the rest of his life. Chagrined by the failure of his own tactics of collaboration with the liberal bourgeoisie, he rejoined the Communist League in London and for about a year advocated a bolder revolutionary policy. An “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” written with Engels in March 1850, urged that in future revolutionary situations they struggle to make the revolution “permanent” by avoiding subservience to the bourgeois party and by setting up “their own revolutionary workers’ governments” alongside any new bourgeois one. Marx hoped that the economic crisis would shortly lead to a revival of the revolutionary movement; when this hope faded, he came into conflict once more with those whom he called “the alchemists of the revolution,” such as August von Willich, a communist who proposed to hasten the advent of revolution by undertaking direct revolutionary ventures. Such persons, Marx wrote in September 1850, substitute “idealism for materialism” and regard

pure will as the motive power of revolution instead of actual conditions. While we say to the workers: “You have got to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and national wars not merely in order to change your conditions but in order to change yourselves and become qualified for political power,” you on the contrary tell them, “We must achieve power immediately.”

The militant faction in turn ridiculed Marx for being a revolutionary who limited his activity to lectures on political economy to the Communist Workers’ Educational Union. The upshot was that Marx gradually stopped attending meetings of the London Communists. In 1852 he devoted himself intensely to working for the defense of 11 communists arrested and tried in Cologne on charges of revolutionary conspiracy and wrote a pamphlet on their behalf. The same year he also published, in a German-American periodical, his essay “Der Achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Napoleon” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), with its acute analysis of the formation of a bureaucratic absolutist state with the support of the peasant class. In other respects the next 12 years were, in Marx’s words, years of “isolation” both for him and for Engels in his Manchester factory.

From 1850 to 1864 Marx lived in material misery and spiritual pain. His funds were gone, and except on one occasion he could not bring himself to seek paid employment. In March 1850 he and his wife and four small children were evicted and their belongings seized. Several of his children died—including a son Guido, “a sacrifice to bourgeois misery,” and a daughter Franziska, for whom his wife rushed about frantically trying to borrow money for a coffin. For six years the family lived in two small rooms in Soho, often subsisting on bread and potatoes. The children learned to lie to the creditors: “Mr. Marx ain’t upstairs.” Once he had to escape them by fleeing to Manchester. His wife suffered breakdowns.

During all these years Engels loyally contributed to Marx’s financial support. The sums were not large at first, for Engels was only a clerk in the firm of Ermen and Engels at Manchester. Later, however, in 1864, when he became a partner, his subventions were generous. Marx was proud of Engels’ friendship and would tolerate no criticism of him. Bequests from the relatives of Marx’s wife and from Marx’s friend Wilhelm Wolff also helped to alleviate their economic distress.

Marx had one relatively steady source of earned income in the United States. On the invitation of Charles A. Dana, managing editor of The New York Tribune, he became in 1851 its European correspondent. The newspaper, edited by Horace Greeley, had sympathies for Fourierism, a Utopian socialist system developed by the French theorist Charles Fourier. From 1851 to 1862 Marx contributed close to 500 articles and editorials (Engels providing about a fourth of them). He ranged over the whole political universe, analyzing social movements and agitations from India and China to Britain and Spain.

In 1859 Marx published his first book on economic theory, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). In its preface he again summarized his materialistic conception of history, his theory that the course of history is dependent on economic developments. At this time, however, Marx regarded his studies in economic and social history at the British Museum as his main task. He was busy producing the drafts of his magnum opus, which was to be published later as Das Kapital. Some of these drafts, including the Outlines and the Theories of Surplus Value, are important in their own right and were published after Marx’s death.

Role in the First International
Marx’s political isolation ended in 1864 with the founding of the International Working Men’s Association. Although he was neither its founder nor its head, he soon became its leading spirit. Its first public meeting, called by English trade union leaders and French workers’ representatives, took place at St. Martin’s Hall in London on Sept. 28, 1864. Marx, who had been invited through a French intermediary to attend as a representative of the German workers, sat silently on the platform. A committee was set up to produce a program and a constitution for the new organization. After various drafts had been submitted that were felt to be unsatisfactory, Marx, serving on a subcommittee, drew upon his immense journalistic experience. His “Address and the Provisional Rules of the International Working Men’s Association,” unlike his other writings, stressed the positive achievements of the cooperative movement and of parliamentary legislation; the gradual conquest of political power would enable the British proletariat to extend these achievements on a national scale.

As a member of the organization’s General Council, and corresponding secretary for Germany, Marx was henceforth assiduous in attendance at its meetings, which were sometimes held several times a week. For several years he showed a rare diplomatic tact in composing differences among various parties, factions, and tendencies. The International grew in prestige and membership, its numbers reaching perhaps 800,000 in 1869. It was successful in several interventions on behalf of European trade unions engaged in struggles with employers.

In 1870, however, Marx was still unknown as a European political personality; it was the Paris Commune that made him into an international figure, “the best calumniated and most menaced man of London,” as he wrote. When the Franco-German War broke out in 1870, Marx and Engels disagreed with followers in Germany who refused to vote in the Reichstag in favour of the war. The General Council declared that “on the German side the war was a war of defence.” After the defeat of the French armies, however, they felt that the German terms amounted to aggrandizement at the expense of the French people. When an insurrection broke out in Paris and the Paris Commune was proclaimed, Marx gave it his unswerving support. On May 30, 1871, after the Commune had been crushed, he hailed it in a famous address entitled Civil War in France:

History has no comparable example of such greatness. . . . Its martyrs are enshrined forever in the great heart of the working class.

In Engels’ judgment, the Paris Commune was history’s first example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx’s name, as the leader of The First International and author of the notorious Civil War, became synonymous throughout Europe with the revolutionary spirit symbolized by the Paris Commune.

The advent of the Commune, however, exacerbated the antagonisms within the International Working Men’s Association and thus brought about its downfall. English trade unionists such as George Odger, former president of the General Council, opposed Marx’s support of the Paris Commune. The Reform Bill of 1867, which had enfranchised the British working class, had opened vast opportunities for political action by the trade unions. English labour leaders found they could make many practical advances by cooperating with the Liberal Party and, regarding Marx’s rhetoric as an encumbrance, resented his charge that they had “sold themselves” to the Liberals.

A left opposition also developed under the leadership of the famed Russian revolutionary Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin. A veteran of tsarist prisons and Siberian exile, Bakunin could move men by his oratory, which one listener compared to “a raging storm with lightning, flashes and thunderclaps, and a roaring as of lions.” Bakunin admired Marx’s intellect but could hardly forget that Marx had published a report in 1848 charging him with being a Russian agent. He felt that Marx was a German authoritarian and an arrogant Jew who wanted to transform the General Council into a personal dictatorship over the workers. He strongly opposed several of Marx’s theories, especially Marx’s support of the centralized structure of the International, Marx’s view that the proletariat class should act as a political party against prevailing parties but within the existing parliamentary system, and Marx’s belief that the proletariat, after it had overthrown the bourgeois state, should establish its own regime. To Bakunin, the mission of the revolutionary was destruction; he looked to the Russian peasantry, with its propensities for violence and its uncurbed revolutionary instincts, rather than to the effete, civilized workers of the industrial countries. The students, he hoped, would be the officers of the revolution. He acquired followers, mostly young men, in Italy, Switzerland, and France, and he organized a secret society, the International Alliance of Social Democracy, which in 1869 challenged the hegemony of the General Council at the congress in Basel, Switz. Marx, however, had already succeeded in preventing its admission as an organized body into the International.

To the Bakuninists, the Paris Commune was a model of revolutionary direct action and a refutation of what they considered to be Marx’s “authoritarian communism.” Bakunin began organizing sections of the International for an attack on the alleged dictatorship of Marx and the General Council. Marx in reply publicized Bakunin’s embroilment with an unscrupulous Russian student leader, Sergey Gennadiyevich Nechayev, who had practiced blackmail and murder.

Without a supporting right wing and with the anarchist left against him, Marx feared losing control of the International to Bakunin. He also wanted to return to his studies and to finish Das Kapital. At the congress of the International at The Hague in 1872, the only one he ever attended, Marx managed to defeat the Bakuninists. Then, to the consternation of the delegates, Engels moved that the seat of the General Council be transferred from London to New York City. The Bakuninists were expelled, but the International languished and was finally disbanded in Philadelphia in 1876.

Last years
During the next and last decade of his life, Marx’s creative energies declined. He was beset by what he called “chronic mental depression,” and his life turned inward toward his family. He was unable to complete any substantial work, though he still read widely and undertook to learn Russian. He became crotchety in his political opinions. When his own followers and those of the German revolutionary Ferdinand Lassalle, a rival who believed that socialist goals should be achieved through cooperation with the state, coalesced in 1875 to found the German Social Democratic Party, Marx wrote a caustic criticism of their program (the so-called Gotha Program), claiming that it made too many compromises with the status quo. The German leaders put his objections aside and tried to mollify him personally. Increasingly, he looked to a European war for the overthrow of Russian tsarism, the mainstay of reaction, hoping that this would revive the political energies of the working classes. He was moved by what he considered to be the selfless courage of the Russian terrorists who assassinated the tsar, Alexander II, in 1881; he felt this to be “a historically inevitable means of action.”

Despite Marx’s withdrawal from active politics, he still retained what Engels called his “peculiar influence” on the leaders of working-class and socialist movements. In 1879, when the French Socialist Workers’ Federation was founded, its leader Jules Guesde went to London to consult with Marx, who dictated the preamble of its program and shaped much of its content. In 1881 Henry Mayers Hyndman in his England for All drew heavily on his conversations with Marx but angered him by being afraid to acknowledge him by name.

During his last years Marx spent much time at health resorts and even traveled to Algiers. He was broken by the death of his wife on Dec. 2, 1881, and of his eldest daughter, Jenny Longuet, on Jan. 11, 1883. He died in London, evidently of a lung abscess, in the following year.

Character and significance
At Marx’s funeral in Highgate Cemetery, Engels declared that Marx had made two great discoveries, the law of development of human history and the law of motion of bourgeois society. But “Marx was before all else a revolutionist.” He was “the best-hated and most-calumniated man of his time,” yet he also died “beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow-workers.”

The contradictory emotions Marx engendered are reflected in the sometimes conflicting aspects of his character. Marx was a combination of the Promethean rebel and the rigorous intellectual. He gave most persons an impression of intellectual arrogance. A Russian writer, Pavel Annenkov, who observed Marx in debate in 1846 recalled that “he spoke only in the imperative, brooking no contradiction,” and seemed to be “the personification of a democratic dictator such as might appear before one in moments of fantasy.” But Marx obviously felt uneasy before mass audiences and avoided the atmosphere of factional controversies at congresses. He went to no demonstrations, his wife remarked, and rarely spoke at public meetings. He kept away from the congresses of the International where the rival socialist groups debated important resolutions. He was a “small groups” man, most at home in the atmosphere of the General Council or on the staff of a newspaper, where his character could impress itself forcefully on a small body of coworkers. At the same time he avoided meeting distinguished scholars with whom he might have discussed questions of economics and sociology on a footing of intellectual equality. Despite his broad intellectual sweep, he was prey to obsessive ideas such as that the British foreign minister, Lord Palmerston, was an agent of the Russian government. He was determined not to let bourgeois society make “a money-making machine” out of him, yet he submitted to living on the largess of Engels and the bequests of relatives. He remained the eternal student in his personal habits and way of life, even to the point of joining two friends in a students’ prank during which they systematically broke four or five streetlamps in a London street and then fled from the police. He was a great reader of novels, especially those of Sir Walter Scott and Balzac; and the family made a cult of Shakespeare. He was an affectionate father, saying that he admired Jesus for his love of children, but sacrificed the lives and health of his own. Of his seven children, three daughters grew to maturity. His favourite daughter, Eleanor, worried him with her nervous, brooding, emotional character and her desire to be an actress. Another shadow was cast on Marx’s domestic life by the birth to their loyal servant, Helene Demuth, of an illegitimate son, Frederick; Engels as he was dying disclosed to Eleanor that Marx had been the father. Above all, Marx was a fighter, willing to sacrifice anything in the battle for his conception of a better society. He regarded struggle as the law of life and existence.

The influence of Marx’s ideas has been enormous. Marx’s masterpiece, Das Kapital, the “Bible of the working class,” as it was officially described in a resolution of the International Working Men’s Association, was published in 1867 in Berlin and received a second edition in 1873. Only the first volume was completed and published in Marx’s lifetime. The second and third volumes, unfinished by Marx, were edited by Engels and published in 1885 and 1894. The economic categories he employed were those of the classical British economics of David Ricardo; but Marx used them in accordance with his dialectical method to argue that bourgeois society, like every social organism, must follow its inevitable path of development. Through the working of such immanent tendencies as the declining rate of profit, capitalism would die and be replaced by another, higher, society. The most memorable pages in Das Kapital are the descriptive passages, culled from Parliamentary Blue Books, on the misery of the English working class. Marx believed that this misery would increase, while at the same time the monopoly of capital would become a fetter upon production until finally “the knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

Marx never claimed to have discovered the existence of classes and class struggles in modern society. “Bourgeois” historians, he acknowledged, had described them long before he had. He did claim, however, to have proved that each phase in the development of production was associated with a corresponding class structure and that the struggle of classes led necessarily to the dictatorship of the proletariat, ushering in the advent of a classless society. Marx took up the very different versions of socialism current in the early 19th century and welded them together into a doctrine that continued to be the dominant version of socialism for half a century after his death. His emphasis on the influence of economic structure on historical development has proved to be of lasting significance.

Although Marx stressed economic issues in his writings, his major impact has been in the fields of sociology and history. Marx’s most important contribution to sociological theory was his general mode of analysis, the “dialectical” model, which regards every social system as having within it immanent forces that give rise to “contradictions” (disequilibria) that can be resolved only by a new social system. Neo-Marxists, who no longer accept the economic reasoning in Das Kapital, are still guided by this model in their approach to capitalist society. In this sense, Marx’s mode of analysis, like those of Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer, or Vilfredo Pareto, has become one of the theoretical structures that are the heritage of the social scientist.

Lewis S. Feuer
David T. McLellan

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Type of work: Political economy
Author: Karl Marx (1818-1883)
First published: Vol. I, 1867; Vols. II and III, edited by Friedrich Engels, 1885-1894

If Marx was right, the Russian Revolution was inevitable and the worldwide growth of communism is also inevitable; therefore, even if Das Kapital had never been written, the world would have been split by revolution and by the emergence of communism as a dynamic polit­ical force. But it may be that Marx was mistaken, and that the emergence of communism would not have been possible had it not been for the labors of Marx in the British Museum which resulted in the writing and pub­lication of Das Kapital. Even if economic injustice had resulted in a revolutionary uprising of the proletariat in Russia or elsewhere, it probably would not have taken the form it did, or occurred when it did, or had the subsequent worldwide effect that it has had, had Marx not written Das Kapital. To write that this book has been world-shaking, then, is but to speak the truth.
Many of Marx's revolutionary ideas had already been expressed in the Communist Manifesto (1848) which he wrote with Friedrich Engels, but Das Kapital was more than another call to arms; it was an attempt to base communism on a theory of political economy which could be scientifically and dialectically defended. The Mani­festo is a passionate document, an outline of a political philosophy, and something of a prophecy; but Das Kap­ital is a scholar's treatise, the product of years of research and reflection, a work of economic theory that continues to challenge professional economists. This contrast is illuminating, for the Communist movement has always been characterized by contrast: the intellectual leads the laborers; the reasoned defense is supplemented by vio­lence and murder, and the scholar's program comes alive in revolution and the threat of war.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that the history of all societies has been a history of class strug­gles, that the struggle had become one between the bour­geois class and the proletariat, that all the injustices of society result from the economic advantage the bourgeoi­sie have over the proletariat, that the proletariat would finally rebel and take over the means of production, forming a classless society, a dictatorship of the proletariat.
In Das Kapital, Marx uses a dialectic method which was inspired by Hegel, even though it is put to a different use. Marx claimed that his dialectic method was the "direct opposite" of Hegel's, that with Hegel the dialectic "is standing on its head" and "must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." The method is not mysterious; it involves attending to the conflicting aspects of matters
under consideration in order to be able to attain a better idea of the whole. Thus, Marx describes his "rational" dialectic as including "in its comprehension and affirm­ative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time, also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up. . . ."He went on to maintain that his account regarded "every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and there­fore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence. . . ."
In Marx the dialectic method led to "dialectical mate­rialism," the theory that history is the record of class struggles, the conflict of economic opposites.
Das Kapital begins with a study of commodities and money. Marx distinguishes between use value and value, the latter being understood in terms of exchange value but involving essentially the amount of labor that went into the production of the commodity; thus, "that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production."
Money results from the use of some special commodity as a means of exchange in order to equate different prod­ucts of labor. Money serves as "a universal measure of value." According to Marx, it is not money that makes commodities commensurable, but the fact of their being commensurable in terms of human labor that makes money possible as a measure of value.
Money begets money through the circulation of com­modities: this is Marx's general formula for capital. Money is the first form in which capital appears precisely because it is the end product of a circulatory process which begins with the use of money to purchase commodities for sale at higher than the purchase price.
Capital would not be possible without a change of value. If money were used to purchase a commodity sold at the initial price, no profit would be made, no capital made possible. To explain the surplus value that emerges in the process, Marx reminds the reader that the capitalist buys labor power and uses it. The material of production belongs to the capitalist; therefore the product of the pro­ductive process also belongs to him. The product has a use-value, but the capitalist does not intend to use the product; his interest is in selling it for a price greater than the sum of the costs of its production, including the cost of labor. The realization of surplus value is possible, finally, only by some sort of exploitation of the laborer; somehow or other the capitalist must manage to make the cost of labor less than the value of labor.
One way of increasing surplus value is by increasing the productiveness of labor without decreasing the work day, but the problem which then arises is the problem of keeping the price of commodities up. One solution takes the form of using large numbers of laborers and dividing them for special tasks. The capitalist takes advantage of lower prices of commodities by paying labor less and purchasing materials more cheaply. At the same time, through a division of labor, he achieves greater produc­tiveness without a corresponding rise in labor cost. In other words, the capitalist hires an individual and puts him to work in cooperation with others; he pays for the labor power of that individual, but he gains the value that comes from using that power cooperatively.
Marx rejects the idea that machinery is introduced in order to make work easier. He argues that "Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus value."
Marx concluded that the possibility of the growth of capital depended upon using labor in some way that would free the capitalist from the need to pay for the use of labor power. He decided that capital is "the command over unpaid labour. All surplus value ... is in substance the materialisation of unpaid labour."
Capitalist production, according to Marx, "reproduces and perpetuates the condition for exploiting the labourer. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour-power in order that he may enrich himself." Accordingly, the division between men which is described in terms of classes is inevitable in a capitalistic society.
Marx explains the self-destruction of the capitalistic society by arguing that from the exploitation of laborers the capitalist, if he has the economic power, passes to the exploitation of other capitalists and, finally, to their expropriation: "One capitalist always kills many." The monopolistic tendencies of capitalists finally hinder the modes of production, and the mass exploitation of work­ers reaches such a peak of misery and oppression that an uprising of the proletariat destroys the capitalist state. Thus, "capitalist production begets, with the inexorabil­ity of a law of Nature, its own negation." The transfor­mation into the socialized state is much quicker and easier than the transformation of the private property of the workers into capitalist private property, for it is easier for the mass of workers to expropriate the property of a few capitalists than for the capitalists to expropriate the prop­erty of the laborers.
Das Kapital has often been criticized as an economic study written in the style of German metaphysics. It is generally regarded, particularly by those who have never read it, as an extremely difficult book, both in content and style. By its nature it is a complex, scholarly work, but it is also clear and direct in the exposition of Marx's ideas; and it is lightened by numerous hypothetical cases which illustrate in a vivid manner the various points which Marx makes. In its consideration of the work of other scholars it is respectful if not acquiescent. Perhaps the primary fault of this momentous work is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too simple: to argue that capital is made possible by exploitation of labor may be to ignore the ways in which profit can be realized and labor paid to the satisfaction of both the capitalist and the laborer.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy