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Creator / Karl Marx

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"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

"Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!"
"Workers of the world, unite!"
(alternatively "Working men of all countries, unite!")
—The call-to-arms in The Communist Manifesto, rendered on his gravestone in a third variation: "Workers of all lands, unite."

Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) was a German-born writer, economist, and sociologist, very polarizing to this day, who is known best for writing about, theorizing and advocating socialism and communism. His best known and proverbial works are The Communist Manifesto (1848), a short pamphlet co-written with Friedrich Engels, in response to a series of revolutions across Europe that year and the Doorstopper that is Capital. Both works are bywords for socialism and communism, but neither was the first work about socialism — it was already a common word by the time it was published, and socialist thought was grounded in some of the more left-wing thinkers of The Enlightenment (which Marx cited as his main influence).

The Communist Manifesto condenses Marx's ideas that history is "a history of class struggle" and that the new capitalist societies of the 19th century, while originally revolutionary (in that they toppled the corrupt aristocracy during The French Revolution and the later wars of reunification in Italy and Germany), led in turn to a new ruling class (labelled the "bourgeoisie"note ) that comprised those who owned capital and means of production that nonetheless functioned on exploitation of the vast majority of workers who did most of the work for little pay, no protection and in deplorable conditions. In the same way that the aristocrats created the bourgeoisie who replaced them as the ruling class, the bourgeoisie will in turn be succeeded and replaced by the newly emergent working class who, in sharp contrast to the ignorant, bonded peasantry of feudalism, was urban and educated (attributes that were necessary for them to work the machines and other tools), organized into labouring units that brought them into contact with workers from other parts of the capitalist nation, leading to the development of a new identity. To Marx, they constituted a new revolutionary class, nurtured in the conditions of the capitalist state. They would become more intelligent as society advances, until the workers had it with their oppression under the class system and set to pave the way for a revolt and the creation of a new socialist society. This would start a lengthy process that would lead first to a society governed directly by the working class (i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariatnote ) but gradually guide it to scientific communism: a global, classless, stateless technological society.note 

His social, economic, political, and philosophical views are collectively known as Marxism: a Genre-Busting philosophy that combines historical inquiry, statistical analysis, journalism and philosophy that subsequently influenced nearly all left-wing revolutions and movements since the mid-19th century, and later expanded into fields of humanities, social sciences, linguistics, art, and psychology. For instance, many literary theorists used Marxist ideas to look at literature and culture (film, theatre, opera) in social and historical contexts, resulting in many Alternative Character Interpretations and revivals in the fortune of hitherto neglected works, in addition to his influence on many artists, such as Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, and Jean-Luc Godard.

Despite his reputation as a prophet, with his rhetoric and habit of making visionary predictions not helping his case, Marx's theories about revolutionary practice succeeded contemporary radical events (the Revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune) rather than anticipating them. They are indeed analytical think pieces about ongoing events and journalistic in character, and Marx used his regular paying job at the New York Herald Tribune's foreign desk to report on various events as and when they happened. The fact that Marx engaged with such political journalism is itself a radical departure from his background as an academic philosopher, and would later provide the model for the philosophe engagé codified by Jean-Paul Sartre. Later writers (mostly, but not exclusively, grounded in analytic philosophy) criticized this stance for calling into question to what degree Marx's ideas and practices are, respectively, carefully developed theories versus instinctual reactions and gut analyses of faraway events that Marx only knew by third hand. This blurring of lines meant that many of Marx's ideas, shaped by the context of the middle of the 19th century, provided an impression of a more coherent and complete view than was actually formulated. In their view, this allowed many 20th-century revolutionaries to claim Marx based on selective interpretation. Vladimir Lenin spearheaded the first successful Marxist revolution in the Russian Empire, and Marx's legacy is to a large extent tied to the fortunes of that event and its highly ambiguous outcomes across the 20th century.note 

Marx himself resided in London and analysed the changes in 19th-century England at the height of The British Empire and most of his works analyse Capitalism far more than they prescribe Socialism. During this era, corporations were allowed to do almost anything they wanted and there were no laws which protected workers. Child labor was the rule rather than the exception, no women and only very few men could vote, no laws existed to guarantee safe working conditions, most of the many, many poor had barely enough money to live, and there was no financial safety net protecting people from horrific poverty. It's also worth noting that during his age, the legacy of feudalism was still strong on the Continent, and most of the wealth was controlled by rich families who had possessed it for generations. Inequality and poverty were far worse back then, and the empires of Europe were spreading globally, seeping into cultures like those of India, China, Algeria, Egypt, and many nations in sub-Saharan Africa and South America. It is no coincidence that Marx's ideas had a far stronger influence, and maintains a more positive and/or neutral legacy, in these colonial outposts than in their respective metropoles. This also led Marx, a German exile, to formulate an internationalist post-national outlook to counter the rise of what would now be called globalization. Marx's influence in the Western liberal nations (what is now called the "First World") would be of a subtler, more intellectual nature.note  Marx 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 and direct on-the-ground empirical research of statistical records and figures. His philosophy of historical materialism was the first major case against the "Great Man" view of history of kings, emperors, and popes, and shifted attention to the largely neglected and relegated-to-a-footnote masses in history, paving the way for Annales historians such as Fernand Braudel. As an economist, Marx remains heterodox, and many modern economic institutions reject his work as scientifically incorrect. Nevertheless, Marxist economics retains a significant following and continues to be used as the foundation of socialist economic ideology.

Many later historians argue that Marx's key political influence came via indirectly promoting reform in many liberal nations, many of them intended to co-opt the thunder of radical movements. This assertion is dubious since advocates of reform existed before Marx, and he himself was opposed to steady and gradual reforms since he noted that it was akin to hoping that the existing order would "reform itself out of existence".note  In the case of America, the New Deal was largely shaped to co-opt class angst and the disrepute of capitalism brought into question by the (then) international and intellectual prestige of Communism (which owed itself to its grounding on Marx's ideas). The American Communists, who were in the margins during The '30s, nonetheless promoted racial equality and organized African Americans in the Deep South during the same period, which ultimately bore fruit in the Civil Rights Movement, which mainstream liberals and some conservatives accepted at last to counter the internationalist appeal of Communism. To quote W.E.B. Du Bois, Marx "put his finger squarely upon our difficulties." Marx himself fluctuated in his attitudes to reform. When the absolute monarchies of Europe started to give way to democracy, he did say that peacefully reforming capitalism was possible in such nations as the United Kingdom and United States, but he argued that such nations as Germany and France had far too deeply entrenched conservative influences for any changes to take root peacefully and argued the same for other nations.note 

He actually spent much of his life outside of his homeland. Due to his open, enthusiastic association with all the most radical people of the day, Marx essentially had no chance of ever becoming a professional academic and the Kingdom of Prussia eventually exiled him. He moved to Paris in 1843 and was expelled from France in 1849. From then on, he mostly lived in London. Nevertheless, Marx is still an icon in 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 outpolled all the country's great classical composers, Albert Einstein, and Otto von Bismarck. In fact, arguably the only country where Marx has a net negative reputation is the United States. While some people there, even several of his critics, give him credit for his then-groundbreaking insights, most Americans usually associate him with their old enemy the Soviet Union and the Soviet satellite nations they fought in Proxy Wars during the Cold War. In any case, by taking the stances that Marx did, he is certain to remain controversial and contentious for future generations and since he never wrote for academic and mainstream respectability in the first place, he might well take heart that his ideas are still countercultural well over a century after his death.

He has no relations to The Marx Brothers, or the final boss from Kirby Super Star. Not to be confused with Karl May, another German Karl M of the 19th century who wrote books that sold by the millions, or with comic book artist Carl Barks. This Karl Marx is also not either of at least two German doctors whose lifetimes partially overlapped his own (one born in 1796, the other in 1857), nor a composer who was born in 1897, after he died. The trope Karl Marx Hates Your Guts is named after him. Also, yes, he kinda does look quite like a grumpy version of Santa Claus, naturally inviting facetious comparisons between his prescriptions for allocating resources and Santa's giving of gifts.

Many of his writings are in the public domain and any interested person can read them at Marxists Internet Archive.

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    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 consider it antisemitic, though it should be noted that Marx was himself (ethnically) Jewishnote  (he was of course an atheist in terms of actual religious beliefs). May have been intended as a Stealth Parody — the jury is still out.
  • 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 (who, like Marx, were also intellectually influenced by Georg W.F. Hegel).
  • The German Ideology (1846): His first collaboration 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 line, "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 as famous line, "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. Basically a dry run for Capital, although some Marx scholars hold that there's stuff in this book that Marx left undeveloped.
  • 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). He set out basically to contain all his thoughts about economics and society in these books. Since Marx kept putting off 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. The hardest parts to understand are the opening chapters of Volume 1, which consist of Marx's abstract theories about labour and value. This is a pity, because many readers never make it to the later chapters, which contain vivid and harrowing accounts of industrial conditions in 19th-century England, with extensive quotations from government reports on the subject.
  • The Civil War in France (1871): Notable for being an examination of the famous/infamous Paris Commune of 1871, the most significant socialist revolution within his own lifetime.
  • Mathematical Manuscripts of Karl Marx (posthumous): Marx’s writings on infinitesimal calculus, written in 1881 but first published in Russian in 1933, with an English translation arriving in 1983.
  • Young Marx (unpublished): A collection of surviving examples of Marx's early works, including fragments of a novel and poetic ventures. Mostly of biographical interest.

    Marx's works provide examples of: 
  • Amoral Attorney: 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. He notably decided to study literature and philosophy in defiance of his father's request that he study law, to be more practical.
  • Badass Boast: In the final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx wrote this:
    "We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror."
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Which it does by making you erroneously think eternal paradise awaits you in the next life to discourage you from improving your lot in this one, and the ruling classes support it only to keep the workers from doing something with their dangerous free time, such as organizing, thinking, and discussing real solutions to their lives.
  • Beneath the Mask: He wrote that people wear "character masks" to interact within a division of labor. These character masks will shape how people act, so that they can get access to the material goods they need to survive. For example, a peasant will act humble and subservient to the king and queen while relying on them for military protection, while the king and queen will act like strong, imposing leaders to convince the peasantry to give them wheat as a form of taxes. Thus, in the materialist conception of history, all people within a society act out roles to keep the machinery of economic production running, regardless of what their true inner feelings on the matter are.
  • Bread and Circuses: According to Marx, the capitalist economy functions on the most elaborate and complex version of this. He famously defined the ideology of a given society as 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 to prevent the people of the working class from uniting to pursue and defend their common interest.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Obviously. Nearly all contemporary critics of capitalism, even those that don't like Marx, are influenced by him on some level.note  At the same time, while Marx disliked capitalism, he did not consider it to be either a bad innovation from feudalism or the worst thing humanity had come up with. In fact, Marx thought capitalism was the best economic system humanity had yet lived under, but more famously, of course, he thought that socialism—and eventually communism—were the solution to the remaining problems capitalism had.
  • Commie Land: He wanted these to happen, but lived decades before the first one was born.
    • Marx considered himself a scientist, and accordingly he spent his time analyzing contemporary capitalist society and revolutionary currents, but refrained from directly describing how a communist society would work. He hoped his materialist work would not be misused as dogmatic, quasi-religious ideology. Ironically, the one description of communist society he did give was radically different from what his intellectual descendants implemented:
      "For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."
    • Marx's main idea was that the communist revolution would take place in developed nations like Britain, The Netherlands, and the United States: nations with advanced technology, liberal democratic government, and well-educated, numerically superior working classes whose people are intelligent enough to understand what is wrong with capitalist society. Indeed, Leninism modified and differed with Marxism on this very point and Lenin had to justify why a poor feudal totalitarian backwater like Russia, where massive majorities of people were farm-working peasants who couldn't read or write, would set up a Communist utopia.note  Marx noted that his ideas were popular in Russia towards the end of his life and wondered if revolution could take root there, but he was highly cautious and skeptical (retroactively, one could say, Properly Paranoid) about it.
  • Corrupt Politician: Marx saw almost all politicians as being either in it for their own power or just puppets of the rich. He made an exception for Abraham Lincoln, though, regarding him as an exceptional politician for describing reality in material terms that ordinary people could understand and relate to. But he regarded most of the rest, be they conservative, liberal, or self-proclaimed socialists, as either corrupt or naïve self-deluding puppets of interest-holders.
  • Fair for Its Day: invokedPlease remember that he wrote during a time when most workers had no voting rights. Direct, militant action and revolution might well have been the only way that they could have gotten the authorities to give them better conditions. Most of Europe did not see universal suffrage until after World War I, actually.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: He saw Simón Bolívar this way (calling him a false liberator) and detested him. His biography of Bolivar was quite unsympathetic.
  • Flame Bait: Marx and his views in general (he was himself no stranger to heated debate and kicked out of his place of residency more than once for his views), but for added fun say something like "Marx was right" in the US or ask whether a Marxist revolution can happen prior to industrialization in Marxist circles. If you get out alive, you will hear some very interesting arguments.
  • 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 possibly come true. Then it happened.
    • Marx also pointed out that capitalism would eventually cause periodic crises even in advanced economies. Most didn't believe that could happen, until it did (although some of these had already happened — albeit of smaller sizes — in his own lifetime).
  • Foregone Conclusion: Marx's analysis of history posited that a workers' state is ultimately inevitable, as capitalism will invariably destroy itself by producing economic conditions leading to a socialist revolution.
  • Forensic Accounting: Big time. His defining contribution to socialist thought, the materialist conception of history, says that economics is the driving force behind history, and it shapes both culture and psychology. To understand why people act, speak, and think a particular way, you need to follow the money and find the hidden financial transactions underlying the ideology of a particular time and place. Only by relying on empirical data can you see through the self-serving lies that cultures and individuals generate. Accordingly, Marx spent much of his later life in the British Library, subsidized by Engels, to study financial data.
  • 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 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 would corrupt the system and manipulate it for their benefit, and that eventually a more sophisticated form of democracy would have to take shape.note 
  • Harsher in Hindsight:invoked
    • Marx always supported the existence of a strong state, and the Manifesto declares that this state has to take charge of everything from social services to banks. This viewpoint led to a crass break with the anarchists, who vouched for a no-state solution. Marx believed, however, that even in the end point of socialism, where the state would wither away, some bureaucratic apparatus would exist to look after roads, electricity, mass transit and other public utilities. Marx hoped that this would be merely a technical function and purpose and not really be tied to politics and class interests.
    • Marx believed in a society run by the "proletariat," which he defined as being strictly the industrial working class or those who have been displaced from such a job. This specifically excluded the agricultural "peasant" class, which Marx didn't think would be too enthusiastic about a revolution. He did think such a society would take care of the agricultural peasant class by necessity and out of goodwill. In practice, though, most "communist" states would end up forcefully starving the agricultural class by "collectivizing" food either to feed the industrial class or to buy industrial equipment with on the international market.
  • Historical Domain Character: Surprisingly rare for a man so prominent and influential. Even the film industries of the Communist era never quite made a major Biopic of their Prophet.note  Some of his depictions are relatively recent (around The New '10s), in Existential Comics, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, and the 2017 film The Young Karl Marx by Raoul Peck showing the early friendship between Engels and Marx. Outside of that his most famous Anglophone depiction is probably the Monty Python German versus Greek philosophers soccer parody (where Marx comes in as a substitute).
  • 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. This has been subject to Flanderization, however. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he criticized the excessive adulation of the revolutionaries for The French Revolution noting that many of them uncritically sought to act out the parts of their forbears without realizing that the situation had changed drastically in the 50 years after that event, mostly because they totally misunderstood the history of that time. This led to an iconic paragraph:
    Karl Marx: 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. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Friedrich Engels, his best friend and patron, was this to him. During his life he supported him financially so that Karl could focus exclusively on his academic and political work. He also helped him publish his books, and after his death actually undertook the gargantuan task of organizing all Karl's unpublished, unfinished manuscripts to complete Das Kapital's second and especially third volumes and publish the completed and revised work along with his posthumous writings (the main one being about theories of surplus value). Engels was also a key figure in the organization of the international labour movement, and after Marx died he actively promoted the reading and study of his theories, helping extensively to spread his work, even at the expense of his own (Engels was also a socialist thinker, publishing a number of books, mainly about sociology). It's more than fair to say that Marx couldn't have achieved much without his friend, and Marx always acknowledged it, thanking him by quoting his works numerous times in Das Kapital and praising his talent and efforts.
  • Inherent in the System: Economic crises, Marx argued, were inherent features of Capitalism, rather than the rare exception capitalist economists said it would be.
    • He noted that every economic crisis in his lifetime was supposedly a rare, special event, and everyone said they Didn't See That Coming, but he argued that they demonstrated the fundamental instability of capitalism, where after each crisis someone comes up with some fix that works until the next one comes along. He noted that crises in capitalism differed from crises in feudal times because capitalism comes from surplus of wealth (what Thomas Piketty would shorten to r>gnote ), which was inevitable since capitalism was all about encouraging wealth and capital accumulation in the hands of the wealthiest few, and as mechanization increased and the hunt for cheap labour continued, the gap would widen and keep widening and economic crises would become bigger as time passed.
    • He also argued that socialists should Let No Crisis Go to Waste and suggested that such economic crises were ideal times to mount a revolution or reform, and since these crises are inevitable features of capitalism, there's always an opportunity and potential for change. Fittingly, sales of Marx's works always go up during times of economic downturn.note 
  • Insistent Terminology: There are Marxists who believe that other (so-called) Marxists, such as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, were not really Marxists but statist oligarchs who abused the word of Marx to gain quasi-religious power. It's pretty much a Flame Bait subject. It's accurate in that Marx himself certainly didn't call his own ideas Marxist and so would make references to complex ideas assuming his readership was familiar with it. The other thing is that before the October Revolution, not all his works were published, and only after the USSR came in were his earlier works (called "Young Marx" by academics) unearthed, showing a more humanistic and analytical side than his later works did. People's views of him, then, began to change as his older works were published. The Soviets, for their part, could hardly be blamed for not reading all his books since they went by what was published.
  • Job-Stealing Robot: The rise of automation and the potential it had for making workers obsolete was one of the trends that shaped Marx's ideas.
  • Ludd Was Right: Zig-zagged. Luddite works influenced many of Marx's ideas a great deal. While he agreed that if nothing else changed machines really would put everyone out of work, he believed Ludd had misattributed the true cause of the problem. As you may have guessed, Marx, thinking the root cause of the problem was capitalism rather than technology, sought to put the machine to work for the proletariat before the machine could replace them. Interestingly, the few descriptions he gave of his envisioned communist utopia often use pastoral descriptions and metaphor.
  • 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, he's highly critical of utilitarianism too (at least Jeremy 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 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 the case was one of his reasons for supporting socialism.
  • Reign of Terror: Marx and Engels had contradictory views of the original Terror of the revolution and the use of revolutionary violence.
    • Engels saw the Terror as "useless cruelties" perpetrated by deeply paranoid people, and Marx likewise called Maximilien Robespierre a "terrorist with his head in the clouds", but they also regarded Thermidor as a major reversal of the Revolution's progressive policies and thought the Jacobin Republic and its government provided true democratic mobilization to France.
    • Marx likewise criticized the Paris Commune for not going further, failing to take over the Parisian banks, redistribute wealth and property, and effectively arm themselves to protect themselves from the inevitable reactionary counterforce (which was incredibly bloody, killing 30,000 people in a single week, mostly on the spotnote ). It's certainly true that Marx believed that in a revolutionary context, sometimes Violence is the Only Option, especially in countries with strong and deeply entrenched reactionary forces, but he certainly didn't advocate this as a first resort, nor did he completely advocate against democratic participation.
  • Religion Is Wrong: Discussed.
    • Maybe his most misinterpreted line is: "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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions." In other words, because people suffer, they turn to organized religion as a form of Escapism. If you want to get rid of religion, don't be an insufferable Hollywood Atheist, but get rid of the conditions that make people turn to religion in the first place.
    • Marx was inspired by the work by German academics in advancing textual criticism of The Bible which showed that it was a religious text shaped by circumstances rather than divine truth. This led him to view all religion as a function of the rich and powerful to control the masses, grounded in his readings of classical antiquity, and the cynicism of Ancient Romans.note 
    • However, at the same time, he respected Jesus Christ and early Apostolic Christianity as the prototypical example of a communal society where private property was considered a sin, and everything was voluntarily shared between members of the community for the benefit of all. He acknowledged Jesus as the Ur-Example of a proto-communist who condemned all forms of property ownership ("camel in the eye of a needle") and was murdered because he opposed the Jewish moneylenders' and Roman slave society's aggressive capitalism. However, he did call the early Apostolic community as a form of Primitive Communism, which, though effective in small groups like hunter-gatherer tribes and the Paris Commune, cannot work in a modern large-scale society.
    • Indeed, Marx was also critical of Hollywood Atheists as myopic regarding what truly blocks social progress. In On the Jewish Question, The German Ideology, The Holy Family he criticized the Young Hegelians for their arguments that religion was the only force blocking progress and that as soon as everyone became atheist all of society's problems would be solved. He noted that the United States of America had entered the Second Religious Revival and was also an aggressively capitalist and certainly progressive society by 19th-century standards. In other words, while Marx was an atheist and advocate of science and secular education, it is inaccurate to see him as fundamentally anti-religious in the 21st-century sense.note 
    • Incidentally, Charles Kingsley, an Anglican priest who is sometimes seen as a founder of Christian socialism, echoed Marx's comparison of religion to opium. Four years after Marx, he noted, "We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order," and lamented organized religion's role in preserving social inequality rather than relieving it.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: He heavily implied, if not outright stated, that this would happen at least in Germany, Russia, and other European nations without consistent liberal institutions and infrastructure. But to him, this would count as Necessarily Evil since a world without revolution, which featured mass poverty, illiteracy, imperialism, Urban Segregation, and oppression of minorities, was far less civilized than the worst revolutionary excess.
  • Science Marches On:
    • In university curricula and textbooks, Marx and his economic theories appear only as a footnote, if at all. While he's still a very relevant figure for sociologists and philosophers, none of Marx's contributions to economics is generally accepted today as scientifically credible. For example, Marx asserted that the "value"note  of an asset is equal to — using the words of Adam Smith — the "toil and trouble" necessary to acquire it, and this "toil and trouble" is ultimately labor and labor alone. This led Marx to his most fundamental criticism of capitalism: that all production of wealth from sources other than labor (including the employment relationship, all rent, all interest, and all investments) can objectively, scientifically, and inherently only exist by stealing "value" from the fruit of labor, and must be obliterated in a just society. During Marx's lifetime, this could be accepted based on known evidence, but mainstream modern economics rejects the Labor Theory of Value and Marx's accompanying conclusions as incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, it is not true that the value of assets is equal to the "toil and trouble" of acquiring them. Secondly, this "toil and trouble" of production necessarily involves factors that cannot be reduced to labor — namely, the time required for production between the starting resources and the finished product, and the scarcity and utility of natural resources.
    • This isn't even getting into scientific ideas that Marx based his ideas on but have now been thoroughly debunked. For example, much of the theory of "late-stage capitalism" hinges on the the idea of Malthusian population growth, just without T.R. Malthus's callous solution to the problem. Marx thought that as the economy became more efficient under capitalism, increasing numbers of people would be put out of a job (which is an assumption that has problems of its own, but this was less well understood at the time) while the human population continued to rise exponentially. Thus, the bargaining power of labor would be obliterated and a fundamentally new form of economy would be needed to distribute goods to meet these people's basic needs. However, it turns out the population explosion in Marx's time was the irregularity rather than the norm. The rate of population growth began to progress more logarithmically than exponentially in the 20th century and global population decline is a very real possibility before the 22nd century. This means that labor is itself an increasingly scarce resource, giving labor (or, to use Marxist terminology, people who hold labor power) more power to negotiate wages and benefits.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Marx claimed the wealthiest people use their money and power to work around the rules.
  • Shoot the Dog: Though Marx was against class discrimination and racism on principle, he was above all a pragmatic analyst, social researcher, and (to some extent) a product of his time. This sometimes led him to conclusions many today, even Marxists themselves, might find unsavory.
    • Despite being an immigrant to England, he was wary of immigration by working-class Irish, since he considered it a tool by the English ruling classes to pit the English and Irish working classes against each other.
    • He didn't concern himself much with the plight of the "lumpenproletariat", the class of people below the working class (petty criminals, hobos, pimps, prostitutes, etc.), because he didn't think they had the social consciousness to contribute to a socialist revolution. Furthermore, he thought their ignorance and profit-motivated nature made it easy for the ruling classes to undermine and attack "legitimate" working-class causes by exploiting them.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Marx was a staunch defender of the Union in The American Civil War and thought slavery was even worse than capitalism. Comparing capitalism, or indeed, anything that was not slavery, to slavery was also a notable Berserk Button for him. He basically thought slavery was the most morally repugnant thing imaginable and comparing anything else to it devaluated its horror.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Many people only knowing The Theme Park Version of Marx might not guess it, but in the Communist Manifesto he says "the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part" — and he means it. Marx argues that Capitalism is/was a huge advance over what came before and it is/was absolutely necessary to create the conditions for a communist revolution.
  • There Are No Good Executives: Actually an Averted Trope! Believe it or not, he did think that some businessmen (particularly those who became wealthy based on their own skills and then donated a lot to philanthropic causes) were not so bad. The problem, for him, was that most of them were not like that. To be more precise, he (and Engels, his best friend, patron and a wealthy businessman) believed that the capitalist system was the cause of misery and oppression, and that executives were a part of it, not individually evil, but that they kept an evil system in place, and the system made otherwise decent people serve an evil cause.
  • Upper-Class Twit: He thought there were far too many of them. Marx's view of pure communism essentially involved a classless society where everyone had enough wealth to do as they chose.
  • Violence is the Only Option: Initially he couldn't see that democratic reforms could lead to socialism and working-class revolts were not the only way.
    • To be fair, he lived at a time when most of Europe's countries didn't have universal suffrage and the Continent was deeply oppressive: the Austrian Empire instituted by Klemens von Metternich and his successors was in effect a Police State, Bismarck's Germany was conservative and militarist,note  and Italy's Risorgimento, despite its early aspirations, ultimately came short of Giuseppe Garibaldi's radical vision. As the 20th century would show, these nations have relatively recent traditions of Democracy and they only accepted liberalism and social democracy after supporters and opponents of revolution had killed each other by the thousand.
    • In the case of England and the United States, however, after he grew a bit Older and Wiser, he supported peaceful democratic means of bringing about socialism, largely because he saw the growing popularity of social democratic parties in democracies as proof that better working conditions for the poor could be brought about peacefully and castigated Communists for not engaging in parliamentary politics. In the case of the United States, he backed Lincoln's Republican Party and supported its classically liberal "free soil, free labour" and abolitionist ideas. He moderated on his position so quickly mainly because he was never big on violence in the first place, unless (he felt) it was absolutely necessary. Also, he disliked other left-wing groups that advocated violence without having a vision or ideology in place, or still others who wanted revolution out of adventurism.
  • War for Fun and Profit: "I do not like money. Money is the reason why we fight."
  • What the Romans Have Done for Us: Marx never denied that capitalism and the bourgeois class were definite improvements over feudalism and agrarian societies. He also saw himself as a man of The Enlightenment and he criticized and rejected early socialists who wanted to return to the Good Old Ways and go back to the farm as naïve and anti-modern. Indeed, Marx believed that communist and socialist ideas like his would take root in economically developed nations once workers gained political experience, education, and technical skills, which he noted were the Required Secondary Powers of running a capitalist society.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Marx grew up in Germany, where the princes had a habit of promising liberal reforms during periods of crisis and then reneging once things cooled down again. Understandably, this led him to claim revolution was necessary to remove unelected monarchies. Later, after he accepted that reformism can work in democratic societies, his son-in-law Paul Lafargue continued to advocate for revolution no matter the circumstances, leading to Marx's famous phrase: "If that is Marxism, I am not a Marxist."
  • Working-Class Hero: This trope is the core of his philosophy and especially that of some of his more radical followers, who define them roughly as one and the same.
  • Working-Class People Are Morons: Discussed in Das Kapital, in a paragraph where he agrees with Adam Smith, who argued that people of the working class would become morons if they were made to do nothing but perform monotonous labour over time. Smith, and therefore Marx, argued that public education was necessary to hinder this.
  • Wretched Hive: Marx wrote his copious social criticism in response to seeing that most people in the places he visited lived in such conditions.
  • You Are What You Hate: Marx loved to use these types of criticisms. Notably, when some people accused socialists of wanting to turn all women into prostitutes by advocating free love, Marx retorted that it was they who forced women into selling their bodies to make ends meet.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: Thoroughly averted. According to Marx's materialist conception of history, people in either of the two social classes (the ruling class and the working class) create ideas spontaneously as an attempt at social cohesion or outright control of the economic system. Ideas only live while they're useful to one of the social classes whose members profess a belief in them. Once ideas cease to have utility, they're discarded and fade into nonexistence or they mutate into a form that supports the new economic conditions. Ironically, Marxism itself has succumbed to this due to the events of the 20th century; however, Marx himself considered the materialist conception of history a set of research principles and was rather hostile to "ideology" as he defined it.
  • Zeerust:
    • Marx was largely motivated by his belief that machines would soon make the working class obsolete. Communism, as Marx defined it, sought to make these machines benefit the working class instead. He believed that factories capable of producing huge amounts of goods near-autonomously were just over the horizon, which if seized by the proletariat, could essentially afford everyone a One-Hour Work Week. Fast forward 150+ years and humans have only now approached being able to do such a thing.note  While Marx was right about the rise of machines, he did not predict the amount of maintenance, monitoring, and assistance those machines would require machines literally capable of thinking to get anywhere close.
    • Marx argued that a communist revolution would most likely succeed in the wealthiest, most industrialized parts of the world, where existing industry could be used to create a Post-Scarcity Economy the fastest. However, Lenin and virtually all "Communist" states afterwards argued the opposite, that a successful communist revolution could only succeed in the poorest and least industrialized countries and regions. Where this ties into zeerust is the advancement in weaponry between Marx's time and the golden age of communism. Marx died before the invention of smokeless gunpowder and the standardization of the repeating rifle, much less machine guns, tanks, and airplanes. Marxist-Leninists would argue that it was now entirely possible for a well-equipped group of elites to suppress a popular revolution. And even if one did somehow succeed, World War I made it clear that such a civil war would likely destroy a nation's industrial capacity completely.

Media portrayals:

Period Pieces/Biopics:

  • 1871 (1990 film), portrayed by Med Hondo (a case of Race Lift).
  • The Young Karl Marx (2017 film), portrayed by August Diehl.
  • Miss Marx (2020 film), about his daughter Eleanor. Portrayed by Philip Gröning.