Karl Marx, born on 5th May 1818 was a philosopher, economist, revolutionary, and one of the most influential socialist thinkers of the 19th century. He is often given the title of the father of communism and in his life, was both a scholar as well as a political activist.
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He had a distinct ideology which is remembered to this day, as he believed that capitalism, which had replaced feudalism, would itself be replaced by communism, and eventually, a classless society would emerge since capitalism had inherent contradictions which would lead to its demise. He also believed that the socioeconomic change required for this would only be achieved through the organized revolutionary action of an international working class.
He was a thinker ahead of his times and was not appreciated in his lifetime for his ideas, but shortly after his death in March 1883, his ideas started being used by workers and his social, economic and political beliefs started gaining acceptance in the socialist movement. In the subsequent century, there remained few parts of the world that were not influenced by ‘Marxian’ ideas. In this essay, we will discuss the life, times, and ideas of the economist and analyze his influence on modern economics and society.1
Life, Times, and Ideas
Karl Heinrich was born the third of seven children in Germany to Heinrich and Henrietta. Till the age of thirteen, he received education at home and at the age of seventeen, enrolled in the University of Bonn to study law. He was personally more inclined to study philosophy and literature but followed the wishes of his father in studying law instead. A year later, his father sent him to the more serious University of Berlin where he studied for four years.
During this time period, Marx penned many essays and poems on life and also became interested in the atheistic ideology of the Young Hegelians and became a member of their movement. In 1841, Marx earned his doctorate and two years later, went to France where he met a person who became his friend and later on in life, would influence him in significant ways. Friedrich Engels showed Marx, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, which would later be his masterpiece.2
Marx then began writing for the Vorwarts, the most controversial among the German newspapers in Paris or in Europe for that matter. His areas of focus were generally the Jewish question and Hegel. When he was not busy with his writing, Marx spends a lot of time studying the French Revolution and devoted his energies to studying a side of life that was alien to him: a large urban proletariat or the class of wage earners who do not possess capital or property and must sell their labor to survive. As William Sewell said, “[Hitherto exposed mainly to university towns…] Marx’s sudden espousal of the proletarian cause can be directly attributed (as can that of other early German communists such as Weitling) to his first-hand contacts with socialist intellectuals [and books] in France.”3
At this time he wrote “On the Jewish Question”, an essay that was a critique of the ideas prevalent at that time regarding civil and human rights and political emancipation, which also included some religious references. It was Engels who was responsible for igniting Marx’s interest in the working class and their conditions as well as in economics. It was now that Marx became a communist and wrote a series called the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which, however, was published in the 1930s.
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His writings discussed the differences in labor and society under a capitalist and communist society. He wrote that “The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion to the devaluation of the world of men. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally.” The next year, however, Marx was ordered to leave Paris when the Vorwarts supported the assassination attempt on the Prussian King’s life, after which he moved to Brussels, Belgium.4
Here Marx studied the history of the different types of production and predicted that the one currently being practiced, industrial capitalism, would soon fail and be replaced by communism. Then, he wrote “The Poverty of Philosophy” in 1847, which was essentially the basis for his most famous contribution, “The Communist Manifesto”. This was initially published in 1848 as the manifesto of the Communist League, which was a small group comprising European communists were influenced by the philosophies of Marx and Engels.5
After Marx was arrested and expelled from Belgium because of the revolutionary uprising Europe experienced, Marx returned to Paris, then Cologne where he started the “New Rhenish Newspaper” but after his paper was suppressed, London became his home for the rest of his life.
He worked for the New York Herald Tribune and side by side, gradually worked on his political economy projects such as an 800 page manuscript on capital, landed property, wage labor, the state, foreign trade, and the world market which would be published posthumously as “Grundrisse” as well as three large volumes named “Theories of Surplus Values.” In “Capital” (1867), he discussed his labor theory of value, and his concepts of surplus value and exploitation capitalism, which he believed would be the eventual causes of the collapse of industrial capitalism. In 1859, he had also published his first wholly economic work known as “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.”6
At this time, however, he was not focusing wholeheartedly on his publications because his efforts were concentrated on the international socialist organization the First International. He played an active part in the General Council and when the Paris Commune took place in 1871, Marx wrote his famous pamphlet, The Civil War in France, where he heartily approved of the Commune.7
During his last ten years, Marx suffered from ill health but that did not deter him completely as he still commented on German and Russian politics. He had married Jenny von Westphalen in 1843 and in his early years supported his family primarily from the income which Engels earned and somewhat from the articles he wrote. For most of his life, he led a life that was not financially stable but did spend on seemingly luxurious purchases, which he felt were justified considering the social status of the times they lived in.
After his wife died in 1881, Marx’s health failed as he developed bronchitis and later, pleurisy which was the cause of his death in London two years later. His tombstone reads, “Workers of All Lands Unite.” His basic premise was that it is human nature to transform nature, the process he termed as “labor” and capacity, “labor power.” He did not believe that all people worked the same way, but that work was a social activity and society has a lot of influence in determining the conditions and forms under and through which people work.8
Impact of Marx on Economics and Society
Throughout his life, Marx was a fighter who did not compromise when it came to his beliefs and causes and raised his voice against every form of oppression and exploitation. He played a significant role in trying to create better conditions for the working class. He was one of the most influential figures in history as he forced people to think about how the oppressive circumstances can be changed, and how a truly free society can be created where working men and women are not exploited, discriminated against and where they have the freedom to control the conditions of their lives and work.
Also for him, economic laws were strongly related to the specific relations between human beings and he believed that society must satisfy some basic needs in order to survive. Till today, Marxism’s influence can be found in disciplines as diverse as economics, history, art, literary criticism, and sociology as intellectuals turn to Marx’s writings and explore the present-day value of his concepts.
Karl Marx was truly one of the most influential philosophers, economists, revolutionary and socialist thinkers of the 19th century and even though he did not receive acclaim in his lifetime for his ideologies and concept, his work is often explored today and applied to contemporary times in fields of politics, economics, management, art, literature, and social sciences.
Karl Marx. Wikipedia. Web.
Sewell, William H. Jr. 1980. Work and Revolution in France. The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. Cambridge Press.
Wheen, Francis. 1999. Karl Marx: A Life. Fourth Estate.
- “Karl Marx,” Wikipedia. Web.
- William H. Sewell Jr, Work, and Revolution in France. The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge Press, 1980), 145.
- “Karl Marx.”
- Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (Fourth Estate, 1999).
- “Karl Marx.”