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Karl Marx’s Utopia

The name that strikes fear into the heart of capitalists worldwide: Karl Marx

Black and white watercolour portrait of famous German revolutionist, Karl Marx..
Karl Marx

Karl Marx, born in 1818, was a German revolutionary, author and philosopher. Marx was one of the most important political theorists of the 19th century best known for his ideas about communism and capitalism. Because of his political views and publications, Marx had to live in exile with his family in London until his death in 1883, but his most famous works – The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital – are nonetheless, without doubt, the most influential socialist publications of all time.

Marx was born in Trier, Germany, into a family which eventually grew to nine children. Little else is known about his childhood, up until he went to the University of Bonn to study Law (a choice his father made, as it was “more practical” than Marx’s desired choice of studying philosophy and literature). Even there, he was a controversial figure, joining a radical political ‘Poets’ Club’ which was even monitored by police. Assumedly due to his commitment to his politics, his grades began to slip, and he was transferred to the more studious University of Berlin. After writing his dissertation on why philosophy is a far superior study to theology, he graduated and became a journalist for the Rhineland News, in which he expressed his early views on socialism and economics. Again, at this stage, his work was already controversial: all of his articles were checked for seditious material by the Prussian government before printing.

The next important stage of Marx’s life was when he befriended Friedrich Engels. At this point, after the evident hostility to him in Germany, he had moved to Paris. Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 convinced Marx that the working classes could be the only agent of a communist revolution, and soon the two began collaborating closely. By the end of 1844, “Marxism” had begun to form in their minds.

What is Marxism?

Karl Marx is undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential philosophers, as well as a prominent revolutionary, so it is worthwhile understanding his ideas. The dream for Marx was a classless, stateless society (however that would work!), where everyone is equal, led by the working classes who were subjugated by the capitalist elite in current societies.

Marx’s method of achieving this utopia was first outlined in The Communist Manifesto. The work begins by describing his idea of historicism. This is a view that sees the history of all nations following a process beginning with primitive societies, through to absolute communism. In between, Marx describes the transient stages including slave-based societies, feudal societies, the emergence of capitalism, and then its destruction by the proletariat. In essence, this view means that – in Marx’s view – the destruction of capitalism was inevitable, though there was a journey to be followed. This first point of the manifesto is hugely significant, as its writing at the height of the industrial revolution shows how controversial it was, though there seemed little likelihood that such as powerful system could be overthrown.

As stated in his historicist theory, revolution was hugely important for Marx, as it made up an entire stage of his historical plan for how communism was to be achieved: the violent overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat was both necessary and inevitable. He strongly disagreed with the notion that socialism or communist could be achieved through peaceful means, and instead believed that the complete destruction of capitalism was necessary as capitalists would do anything to hold on to their power and wealth.

Next in his manifesto, Marx addressed his concept of class, and the class struggle. As anyone who’s familiar with socialist beliefs will know, Marx saw class as the defining divider within society. He believed that the working classes were hugely downtrodden, being ruled instead by a bunch of greedy capitalists, who owned the workers are merely a factor of production, thus exploiting their labour for profit. Therefore, in his Communist Manifesto, Marx outlined the world where the working classes would engage in a class struggle – known as a dialectic: this is the clash between the dominant classes and the working classes, which results in the working classes’ alienation, eventually causing revolution.

Marx’s second hugely influential publication was Das Kapital, which focused more on the economics of communism rather than the theory behind it. (It was published after his initial dive into economics in The Poverty of Philosophy which was a witty, and critical response to Proudhon’s own book, The Philosophy of Poverty). Perhaps the most important part of Das Kapital is Marx’s specific description of what he calls ‘surplus value’ – a term for profit which denotes how workers’ labour is exploited, meaning they do not receive the full rewards for their labour. The significance of Marx’s observation is that he wants an economy where the workers own all the means of production, so there is no “profit”, and instead the workers get the full fruits of their labour without any being diverted to owners.

Marx’s influence for all his ideas is not the most transparent thing, though, particularly as his own upbringing was not mired by poverty by any means. In fact, he and Engels were both supported by Engels’ work managing his father’s cotton spinning factory (clearly a capitalist job), though at that time, the irregular payments he was receiving meant he did live in relative squalor for a while. This – devastatingly – is shown by the deaths of three of his six children (Henry, Jenny, and Edgar) during his time there. However, whilst living during the 19th century, Marx saw the problems of poverty, disease, and early death throughout Europe even more extensively, and noted how they were inextricably linked with being working class. (Engels was inspired by a similar reckoning, and described the misery of the working classes in his 1844 book, The Condition of the English Working Class in grim detail.) Surprisingly, Marx was also influenced by the works of other philosophers, such as Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and John Locke. These philosophers were propagating the capitalist and liberalist ideologies, which are the antithesis of Marxism, and the consensus with which they were accepted encouraged Marx to write against them.

As well as the philosophical influences on Marx, he was also influenced by Darwin’s work. His theory of natural selection was hugely important for Marx, and a friend once reported that Marx ‘spoke of nothing else for months’. In Das Kapital, Marx expressed his belief that natural selection was the basis for the class struggle.

Finally, the works of Percy Shelley were also inspirational to Marx, as Shelley was an outspoken critic of the status quo in England. This is expressed in his poetry such as ‘England in 1819’, a sonnet which criticises the King as ‘leechlike’ upon the country. This kind of thinking is clearly analogous to Marx’s own. Perhaps this literary influence is why Marx wrote works of his own including several poems, and even a satirical novel, Scorpion and Felix, which was never finished.

Marx’s Influence

However, perhaps more interesting than what influenced Marx is who and what he influenced himself. Broadly, he of course influenced socialism for generations to come, but the most interesting effect of his writings is how he inspired Lenin. Leninist-Marxism was the ideology that swamped Soviet Russia throughout the 20th century; it was the ideology that killed millions due to ‘purges’; the ideology that spent years trying to create the perfect communist society, but ended in abject failure.

However, despite the failure of the Soviet Union – the most common retort against Marx’s ideas – as an ideologue and philosopher, Marx was one of the best. No one had thought of these principles as extensively as Marx, and his exploration inspired generations of philosophers, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Beatrice Webb, and David Miliband, as well as many leaders, including Stalin, Mao, and Castro (not the most flattering list, but there we are!).

Therefore, it’s clear that however controversial his publications and ideology were, they were hugely influential. The fact that Marxist theory is used pejoratively by right-wing politicians shows just how powerful an ideology it is and finally expresses why Marx was such an important philosopher and writer.

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