The Philosophy of Karl Marx

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883) was born on May 5, 1818 in Trier, son of a Jewish lawyer who converted to Christianity in 1824. After studying law for a year at the University of Bonn, Marx left the Rhineland for the University of Berlin in 1836, where he associated with members of the radical Young Hegelian movement, and switched from the study of law to philosophy. In 1841 he received his doctorate from the University of Jena, for a dissertation on the materialism of Democritus and Lucretius. The accession to the Prussian throne of Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1840, however, doomed any hopes Marx may have had for an academic career in philosophy, and he turned his talents instead to journalism, editing radical publications in the Rhineland, France, and Belgium throughout the 1840s.


In 1844 Marx began collaborating with Friedrich Engels, the rebellious and self-educated son of a textile manufacturing family with mills in Barmen, Germany and Manchester, England. It was Engels who introduced Marx to both the study of political economy and the working class movement. Marx’s manuscripts on political economy (the so-called Paris manuscripts), written in 1844 but not published until 1930, exhibit a brilliant intelligence, trained in Hegelian philosophy but influenced by Enlightenment materialism, beginning to articulate radical criticisms of both the capitalist social order and its theoretical self-understanding in the works of economists such as Adam Smith and James Mill. Marx and Engels’s first joint publication was The Holy Family (1844), a polemical attack on Young Hegelian philosophy, chiefly on the ground of its preoccupation with theological issues and its practical political irrelevance. The following year the two men were in Belgium, where they collaborated on a second polemical treatise, The German Ideology. It went unpublished until 1932, but is of decisive theoretical significance because its first part contains the earliest elaboration of the materialist conception of history that was thereafter to be the methodological basis of Marx’s study of economics and history.

While in Belgium, Marx and Engels also founded the Communist League, and jointly wrote its famous Manifesto, which was published on the eve of the French Revolution of February 1848. The Revolution brought Marx back to Paris, and then to Cologne, where, until the revolution collapsed, he edited the radical Neue Rheinische Zeitung in support of revolutionary change in the Prussian Rhineland. After successfully defending himself and his associates in a Cologne court against charges of “inciting to revolt,” Marx fled from Prussian territories in 1849 and soon took up residence in London, where (except for a few trips abroad in later years) he was to spend the rest of his life.

The first years in England subjected Marx and his family to a poverty as brutal and bitter as any he was ever to describe in his writings. Three of the six children died of want before 1856, and Marx’s own health was to suffer a decline from which he would never fully recover. Despite this, whenever not confined to bed by illness, Marx regularly spent ten hours a day in the British Museum, doing research and writing. After returning home in the evening, he often wrote far into the night. The chief object of Marx’s labors was a comprehensive theoretical analysis, economic and historical, of modern capitalism. A preliminary study was published in 1859 under the title Toward a Critique of Political Economy. In 1867, the first volume of Marx’s Capital was finally published. He continued working on the two remaining volumes until his death, but they were never completed. Engels finally edited and published them, in 1884 and 1893 respectively.

Marx was instrumental in founding the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, and guiding it through six congresses in the next nine years, before it collapsed through internal dissension between the followers of Marx and those of Pierre Proudhon, chief among them the anarchist Michael Bakunin. After 1873, Marx’s declining health made it harder and harder for him to work or to take an active part in radical politics. He died in London on March 13, 1883.


Marx’s interest in philosophical materialism is evident as early as his dissertation. But as a philosopher Marx always remained also in the tradition of Hegelian idealism, which he sought to marry with Enlightenment materialism. From both traditions he derived the idea that philosophy must both comprehend itself historically and engage itself practically in the progressive struggle of humanity. German idealism was concerned with problems of human selfhood, the nature of a fulfilling human life, and with people’s sense of meaning, self-worth, and relatedness to their natural and cultural environment. It saw modern culture as a scene of self-alienation, but also as holding out the promise of overcoming this alienation.

In the Paris manuscripts of 1844, Marx begins to see these problems as fundamentally a matter of the social and economic conditions in which people live. Marx’s concern with the plight of the modern working class is from the beginning a concern not merely with “material needs” in the usual sense but more fundamentally with the conditions under which human beings can develop their “essential human powers” and “free self-activity.” Truly human and fulfilling life activity would be an activity of free social self-expression. This is free because it is self-determined, developing, and expressing their whole humanity, objectifying itself in a world and then comprehending that world as its adequate expression as the “affirmation,” “objectification,” and “confirmation” of human nature. These conditions are social because it is the nature of human beings to produce both with and for others. A free life activity must be free not only individually but socially; that is, the social relationships it involves must be rationally understood and consciously chosen in light of that understanding. Marx’s critique of political economy holds that the scientific understanding of capitalist social relationships systematically mystifies and falsifies their real nature, in a manner corresponding to the illusion, present practically in those relationships themselves, that they result from nothing but the free choice of independent individuals. A free life activity must be predicated on a rational understanding of the social nature of labor in class society, and then on a practical transformation of those relationships from relations of oppression to relations of free association.


Historical Materialism

The theory of society and history that Marx offers in this direction is one which posits socially productive activity as the fundamental determinant of social organization and historical change. For the materialist conception of history, the fundamental element determining social organization is the productive powers of a society, and the fundamental determinant of history is the tendency of these powers to grow. Whether historical materialism is a “technological theory of history” depends on how broadly or narrowly we take the crucial idea of “productive powers.” Marx indicates, however, that under this heading he understands not only the arsenal of tools and means of production at people’s disposal, along with the human skills required to employ them, but also the theoretical knowledge of nature involved in production and even forms of human cooperation, insofar as they play a direct role in productive techniques and the satisfaction of human needs.

Productive powers at a given stage of development determine the nature of human laboring activity because labor consists in the exercise of those powers. A given set of productive powers favors a corresponding set of “material relations of production” – that is, forms of cooperation or division of labor – which are not directly part of them but facilitate their employment to a greater degree than rival relations would do. Productive powers thereby also favor certain “social relations of production,” systems of social roles relating to control of the production process and the disposition of its fruits. These relations are the basis of institutions of property. Taken together, the system of social relations of production constitutes what Marx calls the “economic structure of society” characteristic of a given “mode of production.” Marx understands history as divided into periods, specifically as a series of distinct modes of production, each with its own characteristic economic structure, social relations of production and consequent forms of property, and distribution of social power.

The materialist theory treats political, legal, and other such institutions as a “superstructure” erected on this economic base. Political institutions reflect the dominant relations of economic power and property, because their function is to enforce those relations. The dominant ideas, conceptions, and intellectual products in a society are erected on the same economic basis. Like political institutions, they reflect and tend to reinforce the dominant economic structures in the society. Marx does not think that economic relations dictate the thoughts that people have, but they do determine which thoughts gain currency and influence, because they select for thoughts which harmonize with existing social relations. And since the dominant ideas also set the conditions of education and research, economic conditions also indirectly determine the direction new ideas and theories may take. Because they are conditioned in this way, and often serve to reinforce social relations which involve systematic self-concealment and mystification, the dominant thoughts also serve to obfuscate and mystify social relations to those who create and participate in them. Insofar as ideas (including religions, philosophies, aesthetic and scientific productions, and so on) perform this function, Marx gives them the name “ideology.”

Marx’s theory of historical change depends on the fact that the productive powers of society have a tendency to grow over time. As they grow, they alter their relation to dominant relations of production, or the economic structure of society. New powers come to correspond to new relations of production, which would facilitate their social employ ment or their further expansion. When the powers and relations of production cease to correspond, and come into conflict, this brings about a change in the economic structure of society, as new relations replace old ones. The old or outdated mode of production is then replaced by a new mode of production. An epoch in which such changes are occurring is an epoch of social revolution.

These Marxian ideas have been taken over with little modification by currently popular theories which hold that we are now undergoing a transition from the industrial age to a post-industrial or “information” age, which parallels earlier transitions from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural way of life, and from agriculture to industry. The chief difference between Marx’s theory and the current ones is that Marx emphasizes the role of class relations in the economic structure, and of class struggles in the process of social revolution. Social relations divide people into determinate groups, which share a common situation and common interests with regard to the distribution of social power, property, and control over the production process. These groups are not classes, but they become classes when they organize to promote their shared interests. They then create new, collective interests over and above the shared economic interests which occasioned their formation. At the same time, they create political structures and social ideologies to promote these distinctive collective interests. Thus it is not Marx’s view that class movements are nothing but devices for promoting the individual interests of the class’s members.

Marx views the struggle between class movements as the mechanism by means of which one mode of production replaces another during an epoch of social revolution. The old mode is one which favors the class interests of one or more dominant classes, while the class interests of other, revolutionary classes is more in line with the social relations of the emerging mode of production, which better corresponds to the state of the growing productive powers of society. Thus Marx sometimes speaks of the new productive powers of society as the “weapons” used by a revolutionary class against the dominant class which it is struggling to replace. This, for instance, is the way in which the Communist Manifesto describes the victory of the bourgeoisie over the feudal aristocracy during the rise of the capitalist mode of production.

The Theoretical Analysis of Capitalism

The materialist conception of history is simultaneously a summary of empirical results, a methodological program for empirical research and a device for projecting the historical future. Just as Marx thinks capitalism defeated feudalism through the progress of human knowledge and the growth of social productive powers, so he is convinced that the rapid expansion of productive powers encouraged by capitalism itself will soon outstrip the limited horizon of capitalist social relationships and lead to a class movement whose historic mission is to abolish class differences themselves and achieve universal human emancipation. With this in mind, Marx was engaged simultaneously in organizing the working class and in a theoretical enterprise whose aim was to articulate the internal conflicts in existing capitalist society – such as the problems of underemployment of labor, underconsumption of its products, and the long-run tendency of the rate of profit to fall – so as to put the working class in a position to assume self-conscious rule over social production and thereby fulfill its historic mission. Marx’s theory in Capital is constructed self-consciously on the model of the systems of the great German idealist philosophers, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, especially following the dialectical structure of Hegel’s system. It begins with an abstract analysis of capitalist production, grounded on the idea of a product of labor as an exchangeable commodity. Then it works through the determinate variants of commodity production found in modern capitalism, by developing the categories of exchange value, money, capital, wage labor and surplus-value. These conceptions represent social relations of production, which Marx’s analysis shows to be grounded on the determinate form that labor assumes given the productive powers found in modern society. In this way, Marx’s method in Capital both depends on and illustrates the materialist conception of history. In the subsequent volumes (left unfinished at Marx’s death and later published by Engels), Marx develops the theory further, encompassing the process through which capital expands itself and the way capitalist surplus value is divided into profit, interest, and ground rent. As in the first volume, Marx tries to show where the capitalist production process generates the conflicts and instabilities he thinks will lead to its downfall, and its replacement by a higher socialist or communist mode of production under the rule of the proletariat or working class.


The Death of Marxism

Marx always saw his theoretical activity as vitally connected to the practical struggle of the working class for universal human emancipation. In an early essay (1843), he depicted philosophy as the “head” of the struggle for emancipation, and the proletariat as its “heart.” He fought for the acceptance of his ideas within the working class movement because he thought that the success of the working class movement was dependent on its liberating itself from ideological confusions and achieving a correct scientific understanding of the social and historical process in which it is involved. In line with a radical tradition within the modern Enlightenment, Marx was convinced that humanity was on the verge of a radically new way of life, which would be brought about when the scientific understanding achieved by philosophers or intellectuals joined forces with a democratic mass movement.

There is no doubt that Marx was overoptimistic about the accomplishments of working class social and political organization, and about the prospects for transcending capitalism and its oppressive power relations. At a deeper level, along with the rest of the radical Enlightenment tradition, he overestimated the prospects for human emancipation through a mass movement focused on the secular, scientific ideas and theories of philosophers. The late twentieth century witnessed a resurgence, both at a popular level and among intellectuals, of antiEnlightenment ideas and values, whether these take the form of popular religious fundamentalisms or, among intellectuals and theorists, of a corrosive skepticism directed against the power of reason among intellectuals and theorists. In our age there is renewed trust in those very social and institutional powers that Marx held most responsible for human oppression, and whose defeat he was convinced would be required for human progress. It is questionable, however, how far these historic defeats of Marxism represent an intellectual defeat of Marx’s thought or even a permanent decline in its intellectual or political influence. The confident decrees and declarations we hear all around us that Marx’s thought is dead and discredited, that socialism has failed, should themselves arouse our suspicion. For they resemble all too closely the very opposite pronouncements which used to be made by dogmatic Marxists in similar tones of infallibility, as though the future of the human race were something already decided, and they had been elected to announce the decision. Too often the historical arrogance stood in inverse proportion to the evidence, and excesses of certainty in theory were nothing but an expression of excesses of unwisdom and inhumanity in practice. But there is no reason to think that the human failings displayed in such conduct are any more characteristic of Marxists than of the adherents of any other set of strongly held views.

With the gain in uncritical confidence in capitalist institutions has come a growing gulf between rich and poor, both within society and between societies, and a deepening oppression of workers on a worldwide scale. The modern economy, for all the changes which have taken place since the mid-nineteenth century, comes more and more to resemble the system of inhuman oppression Marx catalogued and criticized. Even with all the engines of political, economic, and ideological power which have been amassed and deployed by the forces of oppression, it can only be a matter of time until their intemperate triumphalism provokes a significant counter-movement. We of course cannot know what role Marx’s thought will play in such a movement, but for now it still remains the chief historical source of the ideas which might fuel resistance to capitalist oppression and the renewed drive toward human emancipation.

Further Reading

Marxist Literary Criticism: An Overview

Marxism and Literary Theory

Althusserian Marxism

Georg Lukacs as a Marxist Literary Theorist

Louis Althusser: ISA and RSA

Raymond Williams as a Marxist Literary Theorist

Terry Eagleton and Marxist Literary Criticism

Fredric Jameson as a Neo-Marxist Critic

Ernst Bloch and Utopian Marxist Philosophy

Terry Eagleton and Marxist Literary Theory

Marxist Feminism

Fetishism and Commodity Fetishism

Carver, Terrell (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Marx (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Cohen, G. A.: Karl Marx’s Theory of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).
Miller, Richard: Analyzing Marx (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Wood, Allen W.: Karl Marx (London: Routledge, 1981).

Marx Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975–).

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