Karl Marx

The early 19th century saw the end of the Enlightenment, a period of intellectual thought that focused on the use of rationality and reason to answer humanity's biggest questions.  As this period closed out, a number of thinkers emerged who began their work from a different understanding than those who had come before them. This new understanding resulted in theorists trying to solve problems that did not exist before the Enlightenment. For Friedrich Nietzsche, this meant the death of God, for Sigmund Freud it was how to properly understand the mind, and for Karl Marx it was political economy, specifically capitalism, and how problematic he viewed it as an economic system.

Karl Marx Karl Marx

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Table of contents

    Karl Marx and Marxism are often misrepresented and this misrepresentation is born out of the complexity of Marx's ideas and the way his thought is interpreted by the individual reading him. This is a problem that Marx was aware of during his own life and famously stated that he himself was not a Marxist in reference to a French radical using the term "Marxism". The best starting point for understanding Marx is to understand his thoughts on economy, which serves as the foundation for everything else he has to say.

    Karl Marx Biography

    On May 5th, 1818, Henrietta Marx gave birth to Karl in Trier, Prussia (now Germany). His father, Heinrich Marx, was a well off lawyer who fathered eight other children with Henrietta and was able to ensure that Marx would have the educational foundation needed to be successful in life. The young Marx, after completing his mandatory studies, attended university in Bonn and Berlin then completed his PhD at the University of Jena in 1841, receiving a doctorate degree in philosophy. After receiving his degree he went on to become an editor at a newspaper called the Rheinische Zeitung, a newspaper which was heavily suppressed by the government for the views it published. After resigning from his position as editor he married Jenny Von Westphalen and relocated with her to Paris to become more involved in political affairs.

    Karl Marx, Karl Marx statue, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Statue of Karl Marx, Author: Ferran Cornellà, Wikmedia commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

    In 1848 Marx and his closest friend Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet they were commissioned to write by the Communist League. The manifesto gained notoriety quickly and following its release failed revolutions took place across Europe (these revolutions were already in the making before the manifesto). Major European governments, afraid of Marx's ideas and influence moved to banish him, resulting in Marx being banned from Prussia, France, and Belgium.

    After the banishments, Marx packed up and moved to London where he would remain for the rest of his life. Marx and his wife Jenny had a total of seven children throughout their marriage, though only three would survive into adulthood, something which greatly affected Marx, he also had an illegitimate son with a housekeeper. Following the death of his wife, Marx became incredibly ill and was unable to do much writing or reading, though he managed bits here and there, on March 14th, 1883 Karl Marx died from a mixed bout of pleurisy and bronchitis while sitting in his armchair.

    Marx's reported last words according to the housekeeper he shouted at when she asked if he had any last words were "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!"

    Karl Marx Books

    Karl Marx authored over a dozen books and many more articles and pamphlets, among his most influential works, are:

    1. Das Kapital (1867)

    2. The Communist Manifesto (1848)

    3. The German Ideology (1932 posthumous)

    4. Grundrisse (1939 posthumous)

    Karl Marx A piece of paper with the writing of Marx, StudySmarterManuscript penned by Marx, Author: Karl Marx Wiki.commons CC-PD-Mark

    There is little debate amongst scholars that Marx's magnum opus (greatest work) was Das Kapital. The text takes a critical look into the inner workings of capitalism and serves as the base for anyone wishing to understand Marx's economic thought. Covered in Das Kapital are some of the most prominent Marxist positions on the problems of alienation and exploitation as well as class conflict and how it arises.

    Karl Marx died before he could complete much of his work. Luckily for his friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Marx left behind thousands of manuscripts that Engels was able to use to write volumes II and III of Das Kapital. Marx was notorious for having terrible handwriting and Engels was one of a handful of individuals who could make sense of the manuscripts that Marx left behind. The above photo is a picture of one of the pages Engels used to write volumes II and III of Das Kapital

    Karl Marx Alienation

    Two key elements that arise throughout Marx's thought which are of great significance are alienation and exploitation. While it is common to hear Marx's name used in conjunction with the term equality, this is not an entirely accurate description. When reading Marx's work, the reader will notice that he pays limited attention to the issue of equality in his writings. Instead, his efforts are aimed at developing an understanding of the conditions that the average worker endures in modern capitalist society, what creates these conditions, and how to get the worker out of those conditions. In thinking about this issue Marx realized that the type of work a labourer performs in a modern industrial economy separates them from critical elements that humans use to identify themselves in the world.

    For Marx, a worker who spends 13 plus hours a day, 6-7 days a week, standing in a production line or working in a coal mine, loses their sense of self and is separated from a feeling of pride in their work. This separation creates psychological problems for the worker as they have no real way to identify themselves in the world, they simply work to get the financial means necessary to eat, sleep, reproduce, and then go back to work. It is important to note that in the time when Marx was writing, it was the status quo for an individual to start work at the age of 7 or 8 and work up to 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week.

    Think about a master watchmaker spending weeks building the perfect watch. They apply themselves entirely to their work and at the end of that work they have a single finished product that reflects them as a person, they can take satisfaction in the quality of the product they have created. More still, they may see somebody wearing that watch and be proud when they see the fruits of their labour being enjoyed. Now compare this example with somebody who simply installs a single piece of the watch over and over again for 12 or more hours a day. They have no connection to the work they are doing and they spend the majority of their time doing it, this lack of connection creates alienation, it strips the satisfaction and self-worth that can be found in work, such as building one of a kind watches.


    This part can be a bit tricky, so stick with me!

    Closely related to alienation is exploitation, a problem which Marx identifies as originating in the profits of Capitalism. According to Marx, profits are a result of the exploitation of the labourer as they are only possible when the labourer works for less than the value of the work they are producing. Suppose a labourer is paid 5 pounds an hour. In order for the employer to make a profit, they have to extract more value out of the labourer than the 5 pounds an hour they give them, so if the labourer makes 5 pounds, the value the labourer produces must be worth more than that to create profit.

    Value- For Marx, value is the economic worth produced by a labourer via their work.

    According to Marx, this is the first part of exploitation, the labourer is not being paid a fair wage according to the value they produce for the employer. The second part of exploitation is concerned with where this extra value goes. Once the labourer has produced something of worth, it is sold for a profit, this profit is then given to shareholders in the company who are not performing any of the labour, and therefore not producing any value. For Marx, the profit should return to the labourer but because it is divided amongst people who own stocks in the company, it is an exploitation of the labourer's work. Because the labourer is not given any of the profit from their labour and the labourer is paid less than the value of their work, they are being exploited by the employer.

    Karl Marx Class Conflict Theory

    This is perhaps the most famous aspect of Marx's work, class conflict.

    “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

    Marx split the world into two broad categories of people, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have existed for as long as society has, or as Marx put it; "Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed." For him, there is always a group that exploits (bourgeoisie) and a group that gets exploited (proletariat) as this is the nature of production. Everybody wants material goods, but nobody wants to produce them, this results in a power struggle that ends with a producing class and a ruling class.

    There are different types of classes outside of bourgeoisie and proletariat in Marxist thought, but for simplicity's sake, we are using two broad terms here. Marx also included landlords, lumpenproletariat, petty bourgeoisie, middle class, and the peasantry/farmers.

    For Marx, the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat always results in a struggle that turns into conflict. Eventually, the oppressed class overthrows the ruling class and themselves become the oppressors, starting the cycle anew. Much of the relationship between the two is based on the ownership of private property, as private property gives the owner something they can use for purposes of production, or to acquire rents. A factory owner cannot own a factory unless they first possess the land to place their factory, a plantation owner cannot have a plantation without land, and a landlord cannot have tenants without owning land. On the other side of the coin, the labourer, slave, and renter are in their positions primarily because they do not own land which they can use. These individuals are bound to those who have land and those who have land have the position and incentive to exploit them as they see fit.

    Karl Marx Quotes

    If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.

    This quote, part of a longer letter, foreshadows the problems that were to come with Marx's thought. Even while Marx was alive he watched as French radicals began drastically changing his ideas while calling it Marxism, something he loathed.

    “Political economy regards the proletarian like a horse, he must receive enough to enable him to work. It does not consider him, during the time when he is not working, as a human being. It leaves this to criminal law, doctors, religion, statistical tables, politics, and the beadle.

    Here Marx is touching on the alienation of the worker. The worker, in the eyes of the employer and political economy, is not a human, they have no agency or sense of self, they are simply a machine which must eat.

    No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.

    As mentioned earlier, there is more than just the bourgeoisie and proletariat. In this instance, Marx is referring to the petty bourgeoisie who make their money by taking advantage of the situation of the proletariat.

    Karl Marx - Key takeaways

    • Karl Marx is a German philosopher and economist born in Trier, Prussia
    • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels co-wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 under a commission from the Communist League.
    • Karl Marx was banished from France, Belgium, and Prussia for his political agitation.
    • The book Das Kapital is Marx's magnum opus.
    • Friedrich Engels wrote volumes II and III of Das Kapital using manuscripts left by Marx after his death.
    • Alienation and Exploitation are two critical themes of Marxist thought.
    • Exploitation focuses on the value generated by the labourer's work and how the profits of this labour do not return to the worker.
    • Alienation is the feeling of separation the worker experiences when conducting work they are unable to see themselves in.
    • Class struggle takes place between two primary groups; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Karl Marx

    What is exploitation according to Marx

    Exploitation occours when the laborer is not paid the value of their labor. For Marx, profit is the monetary proof of exploitation.

    Who is Karl Marx

    A German political theorists who developed the theory of Marxism and criticized capitalist economics.

    What is alienation according to Marx

    When the worker, as a result of their repetitive labor, becomes alienated from the very things that make them human.

    What is class conflict according to Marxist thought?

    Class conflict is the struggle between the Bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

    What was Karl Marx's most famous work?

    Das Kapital

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