Often called the father of both communism and sociology, Karl Marx remains one of the most fascinating and highly controversial thinkers of the past 150 years. Marx, like many early contributors to economic thought, began his career as a philosopher. Unlike other economists, however, he wasn’t content with merely educating others on his ideas. Marx quickly evolved into a revolutionary figure to encourage common laborers to unite and oppose economic systems that sought, in his opinion, to exploit their labor. His anti-government ideas and associations with radically liberal political groups condemned him to a life of infamy, obscurity and, ultimately, poverty. Yet in the 100 years after his death, his proposed system of economics, called Marxism, was adopted by some of the world’s most populous countries and continues to inspire various pro-labor movements in industrial nations.
Marx was born in 1818 to Jewish parents in Trier, Prussia, now modern-day Germany. Little is known about his childhood, except that his family lived a comfortable life and provided him with a private education through his elementary years. He began public education at Trier High School, where he received his first exposure to liberal humanism.
After high school, Marx enrolled in the University of Bonn, where he wanted to study philosophy but signed up for law school at his father’s insistence. Whether it was his lack of passion for law or a natural proclivity for socializing, Marx spent little time studying at Bonn. Instead, he joined a drinking club, racked up large debts and violated social custom by becoming engaged to a baroness. Marx’s father, horrified by his son’s poor performance at Bonn, forced him to transfer to the University of Berlin, a much more rigorous school.
The academic environment at Berlin University put Marx in a more serious frame of mind. He began focusing on his studies, gradually moving from law to philosophy. While there, he met Bruno Bauer, a lecturer in theology who promoted rationalism over faith—an act highly unpopular with the existing government. Bauer became Marx’s mentor and introduced him to the works of German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who theorized that societies gradually resolve inequality through rational dialogue, or dialectic. Although Marx soon came to criticize much of Hegel’s work, the philosopher’s dialectic theory became the crux of Marxism.
While at Berlin, Marx decided to pursue a career in academia like his mentor. However, by the time he received his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1842, the Prussian government had become intolerant of the extreme liberal views Marx espoused and denied him a teaching position. So, instead, he moved to Cologne and began writing for The Rhenish Gazette, a liberal newspaper. In Cologne, Marx met socialist radical Moses Hess and became influenced by socialist ideas. Marx reflected these ideas in his newspaper articles and was quickly promoted to editor. He held the job, at most, for a year before Prussian authorities dissolved the paper for its criticism of the government.
Marx then married his baroness fiancée, Jenny von Westphalen, and sought a position at a new journal being published in Paris, France: the German-French Annals. Unfortunately, this undertaking had an even shorter life than Marx’s previous journalistic endeavor; only one issue of the German-French Annals was published before authorities dismantled the operation. However, Marx simply moved to another, more radical paper, entitled Forward!, established by his socialist colleagues. Forward! enjoyed a year-long, if minuscule, circulation before it, too, met its demise at the hands of government. This time, Marx didn’t receive another opportunity to publish in Paris; authorities expelled him from France in 1845, forcing him to flee to Belgium.
Marx didn’t go into exile alone, however. In Paris, he had made a friendship that would last a lifetime with Frederich Engels, a young socialist who shared many of Marx’s ideas. After meeting Engels, Marx began developing the social and economic theories that would culminate in Marxism: the alienation of labor, worker-led social revolutions, history as both the production of necessary goods and class conflict, and communism as the logical end to capitalism. Together, Marx and Engels co-authored the infamous Communist Manifesto, outlining the beliefs and goals of Europe’s Communist League, which operated largely under their influence. The publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 sparked several protests in Europe, which became known as The Revolutions of 1848.
Marx was soon accused of aiding Belgian revolutionists and forced to flee again. With a new government in Paris, he believed he could safely return there. He transferred the Communist League to Paris, then moved back to Cologne and started a publication on Europe’s revolutions called the New Rhenish Gazette, acting as its editor, financier and primary contributor. However, the worker-led protests that had allowed Marx to return were quickly quashed by the ruling class. The New Rhenish Gazette was subsequently silenced and Marx was expelled from both Germany and France within a year. Left with no other choice, Marx emigrated to London in 1849.
For the first few years in London, Marx and his family experienced extreme poverty. Four of his seven children died, and he and his wife suffered from bouts of bad health. Their main source of income came from Engels, who faithfully sent the Marx family a few banknotes every month. It was during this period, however, that Marx focused more intensely on economic theory. He thoroughly studied the works of economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo and wrote hundreds of pages of critiques on economics. The first volume of his most famous work, Capital, a three-volume analysis and criticism of capitalist production, first appeared in 1867. He also wrote briefly for the New York Daily Tribune as a foreign correspondent starting in 1852, composed pamphlets on the French revolution and civil war, and published criticisms of other philosophers’ theories.
As much as Marx published during his lifetime, however, some of his work did not see print until after his death. His anti-capitalism stance, repeated rebukes of government entities, revolutionary activities and multiple exiles kept many of his manuscripts either out of the press or out of circulation. His most significant works on economics, volumes II and III of Capital, appeared a few years after his death in 1883, published by his dear friend Engels. It was only then that the scope of Marx’s genius became internationally recognized. He died impoverished and in exile, mourned by a few friends and memorialized with a humble tombstone.
Today, Marx is hailed as one of the greatest social thinkers of all time. He not only challenged the assumed infallibility of capitalism, but he applied the scientific method to social theories and established the effective use of the critical method of analysis in philosophy. His theories are hotly debated by scholars world-wide and have given rise to many governments modeled after Marxism. In place of his original tombstone now stands a grand memorial bearing his likeness. Though his name and legacy are still regarded with contempt in capitalistic societies, Marx’s contributions to social and economic thought have made him one of history’s most influential, if controversial, figures.
Marxism grew out of Marx’s unique approach to history. Traditionally, historians taught that societies first progressed socially and then modeled their economic activities to reflect those changes. Marx turned that theory on its head by arguing that all of human history can be traced through the production of necessary goods, and that social changes follow, not precede, advances in production. This view of history became known as “historical materialism,” a concept inspired by Marx’s study of G. W. F. Hegel. Marx believed that by analyzing history in this way, he could predict future social and economic outcomes.
Marx described societies as naturally advancing through the following stages: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism. Each stage evolves out of a need to increase economic production but, with the exception of communism, inadvertently creates social inequality, leading to class conflict. According to Marx, such conflict eventually disrupts economic activities, causing social and economic crisis. The crisis allows the next stage in the progression to take hold, leading to greater equity between social classes. With communism, social classes are finally abolished and everyone shares equally in the fruits of their labor, eliminating the need for private property and government.
Like Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, Marx believed that a country’s true source of wealth lay in labor. However, Marx claimed that capitalism ultimately devalues labor. The same processes that increase efficiency and worker productivity also drive down the cost of labor, turning it into a commodity to be traded and alienating laborers from the satisfaction they receive from their work. The further productivity rises, the more depressed wages become as workers compete for fewer jobs.
Meanwhile, by exploiting the “surplus value” of workers’ labor, the owners of production become wealthier, increasing class inequality and economic instability. As technology develops, production owners invest more in technology than in their workers, devaluing labor further. Government and religion only serve to reinforce these trends. Eventually, workers develop a “class consciousness” concerning their low status and exploitation within capitalism and revolt, seizing the means of production and instituting a just and equal communistic society.
However, Marx failed to elaborate on how such a society would function in reality. One possible reason for his vague description of the workers’ “utopia” is that Marx himself was a harsh critic of idealism. Effective systems had to function in reality, not simply according to how one person thought they should function. Marx was content to point out capitalism’s flaws and let the revolutionists democratically work out the details of their new society. In fact, he once wrote,
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (The German Ideology, 49).
Not surprisingly, then, Marx remains relevant for his thorough, if scathing, critique of capitalism. While most economists accepted Adam Smith’s theory of self-regulating and self-sustaining markets as gospel truth, Marx was quick to point out the inherent economic instability that arises from the depressed wages, income inequality and periods of high unemployment that plague capitalism. He also approached economics from a social, rather than individual, standpoint, emphasizing human needs over personal desires. Although communism has largely failed to replace capitalism in industrial societies or create a grand utopia, Marx’s keen insight into capitalism’s shortcomings continues to provide food for thought for modern economists around the globe.