From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
"Workers of the world, unite!" Karl Marx
—The call-to-arms in The Communist Manifesto
(1818-1883) was a very polarizing
known best for writing about and advocating socialism and communism
. Marx is one of the most important men to ever live, though how much of his influence is good or bad depends heavily on your own beliefs. His influence is so widespread that some people have said that the entire twentieth century
is his legacy.
You probably know him mostly for the book The Communist Manifesto
(1848), which he co-wrote with Friedrich Engels in response to a series of revolutions across Europe that year. This is one of those handful of written works which completely changed the world. Contrary to how most people remember it, this is not
the first work about socialism - it was already a common word by the time it was published, and socialist thought arguably goes as far back as at least the Enlightenment. This short work (it's only about 40 pages long, depending on which copy you find) radically asserted that all of history is "a history of the class struggles." Marx and Engels said that capitalist societies will lead to the handful of rich people (the bourgeoisie) who control the means of production manipulating the vast majority of workers (the proletariat) and exploiting their labor. They then predicted that, eventually, the workers will inevitably get fed up with this and revolt against those in charge and create a socialist society, where the working majority are in control. This would start a process towards a society both classless and stateless which he called communism. Marx expanded his theories in several other important works, notably the massively long Das Kapital
, which Engels completed upon Marx's death.
His social, economic, and political views are collectively known as Marxism, and they influenced nearly all left-wing revolutions and movements since the mid-19th century. The first country to fall entirely to a Marxist revolution was Tsarist Russia
, which, under Vladimir Lenin
, became the Soviet Union. The combination of Marxist thoughts on society with Lenin's revolutionary impulses is known as Marxism-Leninism. Other countries would later fall to similar revolutions, giving us such countries as the People's Republic of China
, North Korea
, and several others. As you may have noticed, most of these countries have been oppressive tyrannies, which has been by far the biggest criticism of Marxist-Leninism. It is widely debated whether Marx would have approved of any of these (so-called) Marxist countries, and several of his fans claim that none of those countries went through a true
Marxist revolution. These countries had been mostly rural when they had their revolutions rather than industrial countries, and people like Lenin and Mao had to make changes to Marxist philosophy in order to justify this. Still, it is worth pointing out that all attempts to create a communist state ended in failure. There have been, however, several famous socialists who rejected the need for revolution, such as post-war UK Prime Minister Clement Attlee
(the guy who created the National Health Service
). In fact, Marx did end up supporting the notion that socialism could be brought through peaceful reform rather than revolution, which has been a basis for many Social Democratic parties in Europe. Additionally, you can still be a Marxist in ways that do not apply to politics - for example, you could look at history in material terms or examine creative works based on what they say about the social classes. This is known as Marxist criticism.
He is divisive for all of the obvious reasons. It doesn't help that several people spread total lies about him in order to fit their own agenda (this is not limited to any specific political group, for the record). However, one must consider the historical context of his writings. Marx wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when corporations were pretty much allowed to do anything they wanted and there were no laws which protected workers. Child labor was the rule rather than the exception, nearly all working-class men could not vote (and no women could), no laws existed to guarantee safe working conditions, most of the very large number of poor had only just enough money to live, and there wasn't a financial safety net protecting people from horrific poverty. It's also worth noting that during his age, the legacy of feudalism was still strong in the continent, and most of the wealth was controlled by rich families who possessed it for generations. Economic conditions and inequality were far
worse back then than they are now. One can even arguably say that, even though most countries in the Western world did not fall to communist revolutionaries, they still ended up being highly influenced by Marx for two reasons. Firstly, along with other politically-minded writers of the time (like Charles Dickens
and Victor Hugo
), Marx exposed horrific conditions that convinced most of the public to reform the system and improve the conditions of the average worker, even if they didn't want to go as far as he said. Secondly, the threat of a revolution happening convinced many politicians to push through reforms. Those that didn't change, such as Tsarist Russia, fell to revolutionaries. To quote early African American civil rights activist
W. E. B. Du Bois, Marx "put his finger squarely upon our difficulties." Still, this doesn't mean that these reformers were all secret Marxists or anything. Most reformers were of the middle class, which felt threatened by both the oppression from the rich above and the turbulence from the poor below, and wanted to amend the system to make it work better for them
Marx did several other things. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern social sciences, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Unlike many other philosophers and intellectuals of his time, he insisted that social theories must be examined through a scientific method to see if they world work. Marx is also notable for writing mostly for the poor and disenfranchised, whereas his contemporaries wrote mostly for the rich and for fellow intellectuals. A talented economist, Marx helped the world understand capitalism
better than anyone since Adam Smith - for example, he was the first guy to develop explanations as to why the previously feudal countries of Europe became industrial economies and capitalist powerhouses. His most important contributions to economics concern studying the labor theory of value. In fact, thanks to the influence of Das Kapital
, Marx is the one responsible
for the free market being known as capitalism. Much of what he wrote about how capitalism works actually stands up to scrutiny close to 200 years later, and some people like to call him the father of economic history. A 2011 survey of American economists named Marx the fifth best economist from before the 20th century. The study of sociology was also highly influenced by Marx's writings, particularly his view of the relationship between social class and the individual. As mentioned above, the study of history was highly influenced by him, Marx being one of the first to advocate studying more than just politics, wars, and wealthy people of the past. Basically, like him or not, you have
been influenced by his ideas.
He actually spent much of his life outside of his homeland. Due to his open, enthusiastic association with all of the most radical people of the day, Marx essentially had no chance of ever becoming a professional academic and Germany eventually exiled him. He moved to Paris in 1843, and was kicked out of France in 1849. From then on, he mostly lived in London. Nevertheless, Marx is still an icon throughout much of Germany. A nationwide poll in 2003 saw that Germans voted him as the third-greatest German of all time, behind only West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer
and Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. To put this in perspective, Marx ranked above all of the country's great classical composers
, Albert Einstein
, and Otto Von Bismarck
. In fact, Marx has a far better reputation in Europe than he does in the United States. People over there, even several of his critics, are more willing to admit that he actually was a smart guy who accomplished a lot, while Americans usually associate him with the their old enemy the Soviet Union
. Germany's version of him is the more accurate one: He was (probably) wrong about how the future will inevitably lead to a classless paradise, but he was right about many other things. At any rate, he certainly wasn't evil like many future communist leaders were.
Not to be confused with The Marx Brothers
, or the final boss from Kirby Super Star
. The trope Karl Marx Hates Your Guts
is named after him. Also, yes, he kinda does look a lot like a grumpy version of Santa Claus
, naturally inviting facetious comparisons between his prescriptions for allocating resources and Santa's giving of gifts.
Please please PLEASE
remember Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment
with this guy.
Notable works by Marx include:
- On the Jewish Question (1843) - A response to a fellow philosopher who suggested that the only way Jews could receive political emancipation in much of Europe was to abandon their religion. This work was then seen as a major study of how secular countries actually work, with Marx claiming that even countries without a state religion will see religious forces try to take power. Today, people usually look at it as anti-Semitic, though it should be pointed out that Marx was himself Jewish.
- Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844) - Not published during his own lifetime. One of his earliest works revealing his communist sympathies.
- The Holy Book (1844) - A damning critique of a then-popular group of philosophers known as the Young Hegelians.
- The German Ideology (1846) - His first with Engels. A study/critique of what German culture was like at the time. Today valued as the fullest example of his materialist theory of history.
- Wage Labour and Capital (1847) - One of his most important studies of how capitalism really works for those on the bottom.
- The Communist Manifesto (1848) - Written with Engels. His most famous work. Written in response to the revolutions of 1848. Needs no description.
- The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). Essential for understanding the Marxist view of history, it starts with the famous quote, "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (Despite much searching, no such remark from Hegel has been found.) He spends much of the essay comparing the coup d'état of Napoleon I on the 18th Brumaire An VIII ((9 November 1799) with an 1851 coup by his nephew Napoleon III. It ends with an almost equally famous quote, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." about Marx's view of the place of the individual in history. In the 20th Century, this book gained renewed currency for its analysis about failure in democracy leading to an autocratic-military government with broad popular support with appeals to a romanticized past glory.
- Grundrisse (1858) - Unfinished. An examination of a wide variety of topics, namely ones tying to economics. It is basically a dry run for Das Kapital.
- Theories of Surplus Value (1863) - A very strong critique of the idea that more material creates more wealth. For Marx, it only means more wealth for the wealthy.
- Capital: Critique of Political Economy, also known as Das Kapital (Volume 1, 1867; Volumes 2 and 3 released posthumously) - Probably his masterwork. He set out to basically write down every single thought he had about economics and society with these books. Since Marx kept procrastinating finishing the thing for several years, he died before the second and third volumes were fully completed. Engels edited them after Marx's death and published them. It's massive, so much so that many modern Communist and Marxist movements advise not reading it out of necessity, since its pretty much impossible to read and understand the whole thing without devoting oneself to its study.
- The Civil War in France (1871) - Notable for being an examination of the infamous Paris Commune of 1871, the most significant socialist revolution within his own lifetime.
Many of his writings are in public domain and can be read at Marxists Internet Archive
, in case anyone is interested.
Marx and his works provide examples of:
- The American Civil War: Believe it or not, Marx and Engels were very interested in this war. They wrote a series of articles supporting the Union side and also pointing to slavery in the South as the chief cause of the conflict. In fact, Marx and Abraham Lincoln wrote a few letters about slavery to each other during the war. Marx also campaigned himself heavily among the English working class for the Northern Side. During the Civil War, quite a few English people were contemplating intervening on the behalf of the South, since despite shutting down the slave trade before, English mills depended on cotton from slave plantations. The English working class however and others were entirely pro-Union.
- Authors Of Quote: He is unquestionably a very quotable guy. This leads to a lot of Beam Me Up, Scotty!.
- Badass Beard: If you don't like him, it also counts as Beard of Evil.
- Belief Makes You Stupid: Or, at least, belief makes you think there is eternal paradise awaiting you in the next life so you don't try to improve your lot in this one.
- Bread and Circuses: According to Marx, the capitalist economy functions on the most elaborate and complex version of this. He famously defined ideology of a given society stemming from the base(Capital) and the super-structure(Owners of Capital) built on top of it, with the ideology ensuring that Status Quo Is God. This ideology can include anything and everything from appeals to religion, imagined past glory, military adventurism, racist hostility to immigrants and others stealing your jobs and women and when all else fails, Conspicuous Consumption, all of which to ensure that the working class are divided from uniting for their common interests.
- Commie Land: Wanted these to happen. Lived decades before the first one was born. Probably wouldn't have liked it.
- Marx's main idea was that the Communist Revolution would take place in developed nations like England, France and the United States and that he felt that the Communist state required a proper nurturing and development of economic infrastructure and social upheaval before it can be possible. Indeed, Leninism modified and differed with Marxism on this very point and he had to justify why a poor feudal nation like Russia with huge swathes of the population suffering from illiteracy would set up a Communist utopia.
- Marx himself noted that his ideas were popular in Russia towards the end of his life and wondered if revolution could take root there, he was highly cautious and skeptical about it.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: He pretty much believed that all of them were this by default.
- Corrupt Politician: To Marx, almost all politicians were either in it for their own power or just puppets of the rich.
- Deadpan Snarker: His works are full of many sarcastic attacks on the rich. Several of which are pretty funny, really. Some notable quotes of his:
- "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
- "The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs."
- "Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form."
- His critique of Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty was called The Poverty of Philosophy* and opens with this:
M. Proudhon has the misfortune of being particularly misunderstood in Europe. In France, he has the right to be a bad economist, because he is reputed to be a good German philosopher. In Germany, he has the right to be a bad philosopher, because he is reputed to be one of the ablest of French economists. Being both a German and an economist at the same time, we desire to protest against this double error...
- Didn't See That Coming: In The Communist Manifesto, he predicted that capitalist rulers will always get more oppressive in order to preserve their own increasingly large wealthy and power, which would eventually lead to the proletariat revolting and the overthrow of capitalism. He did not predict that they would ever compromise in order to satisfy the needs of the workers in order to prevent such a revolution. This resulted in him later reworking his theories in order to accommodate this.
- Dirty Communists
- Evil Lawyer Joke: Marx considered law to be the most powerful social force besides the economy; without the law of property and contract the basis of the capitalist system could not exist. His opinion of the law in general was not high; for him it existed, in the last instance, to defend the bourgeois system.
- Fair for Its Day: Please do remember that he wrote all of this during a time when most of the workers had no voting rights. Direct, militant action and revolution were the only way that they had a chance to getting better conditions. Most of Europe did not see universal suffrage until after World War I, actually.
- Flip Flop of God: Toward the end of his life, Marx became very open to the idea of countries turning to socialism through peaceful, democratic means. He did stress, however, that this won't be true for all of them, since some countries are such oppressive authoritative states that only a revolution could make it possible.
- Follow the Leader: Most socialists and communists follow the guidelines laid by him and Lenin.
- Foreshadowing: Many people initially thought his belief that workers whose rights are not protected will revolt and take over their country was just a laughable prediction that could not possible come true. Then it happened.
- Foregone Conclusion: Marxist's analysis of history posited that a worker's state is ultimately inevitable, as capitalism will invariably destroy itself by producing economic conditions leading to a socialist revolution.
- The French Revolution: Marx studied this quite a lot, and where (he felt) it went right and wrong influenced his own beliefs.
- Full-Circle Revolution: The problem with the use of his ideas, overall, is that all of the countries which fell to Marxist revolutions ended up becoming corrupt tyrannies which placed power in the hands of a few power-hungry leaders who oppressed the majority and violated so many human rights to stay in charge. Just like the very governments the revolutionaries fought in the first place. In the end, they became People's Republic of Tyranny.
- The Marxist counterpoint would be that none of the Communist revolutions of the 20th century were truly revolutionary: each either arose as a result of agitation by intellectuals and old capitalist elements or arose through the interference of neighboring state actors; either as resistance to capitalist forces (Vietnam) or interference by "Communist" ones (Eastern Europe, East Germany). Indeed, the USSR would likely be analyzed by Marx as an attempt to delay the inevitable final crisis of capitalism through a Bread and Circuses style of government. Which viewpoint you find more convincing is a matter of taste.
- Good Republic, Evil Empire: He certainly believed that democracies and republics, where people have at least some say in how the government runs the country, were better than countries run by monarchs, which are oppressive by their very nature. He thought that it would lead to the majority having more power - as he put it, "Democracy is the road to socialism." However, he also thought that...
- Democracy Is Flawed: Because the rich will corrupt the system and manipulate it for their benefit.
- Harsher in Hindsight: Marx did always support the existence of a strong state, and the manifesto declares that this state has to take charge of everything from social services to banks. Some Russians with bright ideas took this to heart during the early days of the twentieth century. When they developed this thought further, another tyranny was inevitable.
- This viewpoint led to a crass break with the anarchists, who vouched for a no-state solution.
- Hypocrite: Marx, during his decades in London, lived on money Engels gave him. Where did that money come from? It was profit from the factory Engels owned. Yes, the man who many times wrote about how wrong it was to exploit the labor of others survived off of doing just that.
- Of course Marx and Engels would call this an example of the dialectic, an example of the contradictions of capitalist society that create its opposite. Neither Marx nor Engels advocated personal austerity on behalf of a great cause like later communists tried to do so for party discipline and among people at large and failed miserably. Marx borrowing money from Engels is simply because his heavy intellectual labour did not have the benefit of modern university grants and he was a serious workaholic, who worked all by himself in the libraries of the English Museum scouring for records. Communism is about solidarity, helping out a friend.
- History Repeats: The overall theme of his works is that the rich and powerful will always find ways to manipulate and oppress the masses - no matter how different events are, this is usually a or the key cause. It also a bit ironic since it fits with his own work as well, since all attempts at Marxist revolutions in the 20th century led to tyrannical countries as well.
- Insistent Terminology: There are many (so-called) Marxists who believe that other (so-called) Marxists, such as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, were not really Marxists. It's pretty much a Flame Bait subject among his fans.
- Morally Bankrupt Banker: Oh my, yes. To him, they were the worst of them all, since they had an even greater opportunity to manipulate the money.
- The Needs of the Many: A huge advocate for this trope, noting that the majority of the people were working poor laborers at that time, he argues that the massive wealth and the goods from the wealthy class (capitalists) should be redistributed among the working class majority. Ironically enough, he's highly critical to utilitiarianism (at least Bentham's version of it), stating that human nature is too dynamic to be limited to a single utility and noted that Bentham fails to take into account of the changing character of people. Instead, most of his communist ethical views were closer to Immanuel Kant and deontology.
- No Poverty: Creating a world where this was true was one of the biggest reasons why he supported the socialists.
- Pet the Dog: Marx had a sympathetic view of women since he believed they were one of the greatest examples of what happens to the oppressed, since they were forced into the roles of housewives, cheap factory workers, and prostitutes. An early feminist, he called for more equal rights for women, and he believed that socialism and communism would lead to this equality.
- Religion Is Wrong: Or rather, it was just a scheme by the rich and powerful to control the masses. Organized religion was especially guilty of this. After all, he did famously say "Religion is the opium of the masses." Marx himself was an atheist.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: He heavily implied, if not outright stated, that this would happen. But to him, this would count as a Necessary Evil.
- Rich Idiot with No Day Job: Too many of them, from his point of view.
- Seinfeld Is Unfunny: Though many people today think of him as a dangerously misguided individual, the modern understanding of social science and economics - both liberal and conservative - owes an enormous debt to him and his theories. Similarly, his critiques of capitalism and advocacy of communism can seem less applicable in the modern world (not that he is no longer relevant). However at the time he was writing, the conditions for the working class, especially in England (where he wrote Das Capital), were truly appalling, and much of the ideas and movements that would improve and reform it - and, ironically, blunt so much of communism's power - were still considered seditious. A year before he began his studies at the University of Bonn, England transported several Dorsetshire men to Australia for forming a union. Ultimately, what Marx didn't reckon on was the dynamism of democracy in order to effect change. Remember, Marx was writing during a time when there was no minimum wage, no worker protection, no welfare system, no laws against child labor, not anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws, no laws demanding truthful advertising, no laws banning unsafe products, no laws guaranteeing rights to women and minorities (and, in a lot of cases, for Europeans and men, too), and, for most of the world, no voting rights for most people. We have come a LOOOOOOOOONG way since Marx's time, and he is arguably Vindicated by History.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Marx claimed the most wealthy people use their money and power to work around the rules.
- Socialism: The very face of it.
- Take That: On surplus value: "The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people."
- There Are No Good Executives: Actually an Averted Trope! Believe it or not, he did think that some of them (particularly those who became wealthy on the basis of their own skill and then donated a lot to philanthropic causes) were actually not so bad. The problem, for him, was that most of them were not like that.
- Utopia Justifies the Means
- Violence Is the Only Option: Initially couldn't see that socialism could possibly be brought about by democratic reforms rather than working-class revolts. To be fair, he lived at a time when most of Europe didn't have universal suffrage. However when he grew a bit older he supported peaceful democratic means of bringing about socialism, largely because he saw the growing popularity of social democratic party's in democratic societies as proof better working conditions for the poor could be brought about peacefully. The reason he flipped on his position so quickly is mainly because he was never big on violence in the first place, unless (he felt) it was absolutely necessary. Future Communist dictators would proceed to basically ignore this.
- War for Fun and Profit: "I do not like money. Money is the reason why we fight."
- You Are What You Hate: Marx loved to use these types of criticisms. Notably, when some people accused the socialists of wanting to turn all women into prostitutes, Marx shot back that it was actually them who forced women into selling their bodies to make ends meet.