Karl Marx

(1818-1883)

“The writer may very well serve a movement of history as its mouthpiece, but he cannot of course create it,” says Karl Marx, but he was himself such a writer whose ideas have swayed the course of history. Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist and a revolutionary communist, and one of the most influential men in history. He is best remembered as a co-founder of scientific socialism (modern communism) along with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), who was his lifelong friend. Marx lived a very radical life in conditions of extreme poverty, surviving only be the continuous financial support of his loyal friend Engels. Their joint work The Communist Manifesto revealed their views in a systematic and logical manner, and urged all workers to unite for a revolution. Later, Marx wrote Das Kapital (Capital), which was unfinished at the time of his death and was completed by Engels from Marx’s notes.

There are three aspects of the Marx’s philosophy. First is the metaphysics, which is the philosophy of dialectic essentially derived from Hegel, and a belief that history is being governed by dialectical forces. The second is an economic theory, which advocates a communistic economy over a capitalistic one. And the third is the ethical aspect, which shows how the capitalistic society has affected the relationships of men. All three elements are strongly interrelated in Marx’s philosophy and the division between the three is somewhat arbitrary.

Marx was a materialist, but he differed from other materialists in certain respects. We call him a dialectical materialist or a historical materialist. He does not consider man as a passive receiver of the stimulus of an active object. Sensation, is for him, an interaction between the subject and object, in which both were affected. Man does not just gain knowledge about the world around but also changes it to suit his needs. It is a continual process of mutual adaptation, not a process of one-sided activity. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[1] Marx calls the process as ‘dialectical’ because it goes on indefinitely and never arrives at an ultimate end.

Marx is also a successor of Hegel. He agrees with Hegel that the world history moves forward in a dialectical fashion, but for Hegel the driving force was ‘Spirit’. Marx is a materialist, and therefore considers matter as the driving force, or more specifically, man’s interaction with matter. Marx distinguishes between the basis and superstructure of a community. Basis defines the material, social and economic aspects of a society, while superstructure refers to the art, religion, politics and philosophy of that society. He believes that the superstructure of any community is an outcome of its basis i.e. how or what people think is based on what and how they eat. Marx says, “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”[2]

Basis can further be classified into three levels: conditions of production refer to the natural resources available, means of production are the different methods, tools or processes used to obtain the raw materials, and distribution of production or ‘production elements’ describe the division of labor, i.e. how work and ownership is distributed between different groups. In these, the means of production hold the principal importance and production elements have a secondary importance. This ‘materialist conception of history’ reduces all history to a history of class struggles, a fight to own the means of production. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,”[3] states Marx. Where Hegel had seen history as a dialectical conflict between nations, Marx saw it as a dialectical conflict between classes. A class is a particular socio-economic group. According to this view of history, first there existed the king-states, which broke down into elements of rulers and the slaves. From this thesis and anti-thesis emerged a synthesis… a feudalistic society emerged. But soon the feudalistic society also broke up into lords and serfs. The conflict between the two resulted in the formation of modern capitalistic society. Now, Marx says that the capitalistic society has also divided into the thesis and antithesis. The most significant classes of the capitalism are the bourgeoisie, the class that owns the means of production, and the proletariat, the class that works for the bourgeoisie for wages. And there is a fundamental inconsistency between these two classes, which is giving rise to a state of conflict. This conflict between the thesis and antithesis will ultimately lead to a new synthesis—a socialistic society. Each stage in this dialectic is ethically superior to its previous stage.

Here, it will be of benefit to consider Marx’s idea of alienation. As written before, the interaction between man and the nature is a mutual process in which both are affected. When a man alters nature, he himself is altered; when man transforms the matter around him, he himself is transformed. In this sense, work is a very important and vital element in a man’s life; his work gives him his identity. It is a positive thing which gives the worker his essence. But in capitalism, the worker works for someone else to earn the wages. His work is external to him, it doesn’t belong to him; the man becomes alien to his work, and thus becomes alien to himself. He has lost his own essence, his own reality. The alienation accompanies fetishism, which is the worship of the products of labour. The things which the labourer produces are given a greater value than the person who creates them. In these ways, capitalism depersonalizes the relationships between men, cutting off and isolating them from each other; making men more like machines and machines more like men. This is, obviously, extremely harmful to the human society. What we need is a morality that is based on human values, not a morality that sacrifices these human values for machines. In capitalism humanity is replaced by an inhuman drive for profits; socialism seeks to create a society in which human values will again get the top priority.

The capitalist gains more and more profit as work continues and he goes on expanding the methods of production, thus the value of the labor of the worker goes on decreasing, and the laborer faces a constantly increasing alienation. He is being exploited to the benefit of the bourgeoisie. “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”[4] This creates more and more resentment in the proletariat, as they become aware that they are being exploited. In other words, they become “class conscious”. And soon, Marx predicts, they will unite and rebel against the owners to overthrow them and capture the means of production. For a transition period, there will be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ but soon this phase will pass and will produce a classless society, in which the means of production will be owned by all. The policy to be followed in this society will be “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[5] “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”[6]

It must be noted that Marx was a believer of historical necessity, history was deterministic for him. He believed that the communism was the next stage in the dialectical movement of history. He did not merely advocate communism, he predicted and prophesied it like a prophet. Communism was primarily to be a child of a determinisitc historical process, not the realisation of a pre-determined moral philosophy; though it cannot be denied that philosophy of communism does have an ethical side as well. The rise of socialism was imminent and inevitable for Marx and Engels, and nothing could stop it. “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism”[7].

Marx called himself an atheist and believed religion to be a human fabrication. He was of the view that religion was invented as response to the alienation in the material life, and once man is emancipated from this alienation, religion will itself die away. Many of his views on religion have almost become proverbial. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”[8]

Engels said in the funeral address of Marx:
“His mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalistic society… And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success which few could rival… and consequently was the best-hated and most culminated man of his time… his name and his work will endure through the ages.”[9]

And, indeed, more than a century has passed since Marx’s death, but Marxism is still one of the most dominating political philosophies of our times.

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Footnotes:

[1] Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, no. 11
[2] Karl Marx, A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface
[3] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
[4] Karl Marx, Capital, vol 1, ch 10.
[5] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme
[6] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
[7] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, opening sentence
[8] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Preface
[9] Friedrich Engels, quoted in I. Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, OUP 1978, page 206