Introduction to Marx

Who is Karl Marx?

Marx Small

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher whose revolutionary writings on philosophy, politics, economics, and history have had a lasting impact on the modern world. His work inspired the construction of communist regimes in the twentieth century.  We see his ideas at the foundations of many critical theorists' and scholars' work today. Marx resided in London for many years with his wife and children, where he developed his ideas alongside fellow German thinker Friedrich Engels. The praise and criticism Marx has received throughout the centuries has earned him the title as one of the most influential humans in history. 

The center of Marx's theories across all disciplines, collectively known as Marxism, is the notion of class conflict. Marx believes that history and the development of society is a narrative of class struggle, where a ruling class subjugates a lower class in the form of exploitation, dehumanization, and other forms of oppression. Society and history move forward through this struggle, as the ruling class oppresses the lower class, the lower class overthrows the ruling class, and the cycle continues over and over. Marx is famously known for applying this theme to capitalism. He argues that the economic system ultimately exploits workers for the benefit of the wealthy elite. In this class, we will examine Marx's writing on capitalism and the meaning of life through his most well-known work, The Communist Manifesto. This pamphlet is a collection of Marx's theory that history is one of class struggle, but we will focus on Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians. You can find a link to the document here if you prefer to work through that. 

Communism, Capitalism, and Marx: An Overview

Before diving into the text, let's go over some key concepts and definitions. Marx's writing revolves around communism, a theory that all history is a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, manifested through capitalism. The bourgeoisie (boo-jwah-zee) are property owners, business owners, industry leaders, and other wealthy elites. They control the means of production, which are the facilities and resources used to produce goods which are then sold. For example, Elon Musk is a member of bourgeosie who owns Telsa which produces electric cars.  The proletariat are workers that exchange their labor for a wage. In other words, they use the bourgeoisie's property to produce goods in exchange for money. For example, maybe Michelle is paid $15 per hour to put windshields on Teslas at a Tesla factory.

Capitalism is an economic system in which trade and industry are controlled by private individuals in pursuit of profit, rather than state control. According to Marx, the system of capitalism oppresses the proletariat, as their labor is exploited for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. In a capitalist society, one's wage is less than the value of the product his labor created; otherwise, there would be no profit for the bourgeoisie. In this way, capitalism dehumanizes the proletariat while enriching the bourgeoisie. Marx believes that this inherent struggle will culminate in a proletariat revolution that overthrows the bourgeoisie and establishes a communist society, one in which private property is abolished and individuals work and receive payment based on their needs. 

Argument All History is Class Struggle

Below is the opening paragraphs of the first chapter in The Communist Manifesto. Note Marx's argument on the purpose of history and its relationship to the bourgeoisie. 

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.


Key Principle History and the Bourgeoisie

All History is Class Struggle Argument Outlined

Marx is working in this passage to convince you that all history can be understood as one of class struggle, continuing to the present society between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. His method is to give you details to help you see the dynamic.  He makes four hypotheses.

(1) Every period in history involves some form of class division or class struggle. 

Example: Whether it is between a farmer and his lord in feudal society or the cashier and her employer, societies throughout history are defined by division of people into economic classes. 

(2) These class divisions are characterized by an antagonism between classes, leading to the oppression of one class by another. 

Example: A feudal lord can oppress a farmer within his land through tax collections, seizing property, and other actions.  The farmer does not have this power over the lord.  A store owner can threaten to fire her cashier, but the cashier cannot fire the owner.

(3) This oppression continues until a revolution or collapse of the society occurs. 

Example: These power imbalances are unstable and tend toward greater oppression over time.  Lord demand more and more taxes.  Factory owners lower wages and take advantage of workers.  

(4) History, as a record of civilizations, is characterized by revolutions and the fall of societies. 

Example: Look at the history of any nation. Nearly all nations involve a series of revolutions or governmental changes that affect the unity of its people. 


The Development of the Bourgeoisie

Marx also describes the establishment of the bourgeoisie - the current ruling class. If we accept that history is class struggle, then we can also see history as the simplification of class struggle. In earlier civilizations, there were plenty of class divisions along a variety of economic lines. For instance, Rome had patricians, knights, plebeians, and slaves. In industrial society, there are only two classes: the wealthy bourgeoisie and the poor, laboring proletariat. The consolidation of class division only magnifies the oppression placed on the proletariat. Through this, the bourgeoisie has developed as the ruling class. They are the property owners, business owners, and other authority figures over regular citizens and workers. 

Work and Flourishing

[The bourgeoisie] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.


Argument The Proletariat

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.

The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.

No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.


A Short Summary

You can see a short explanation of what we've covered so far in the video below. 

Connection Weber and the Iron Cage

Marx wasn't the only German philosopher in this period thinking about how the economy affected the good life.  Another approach was coming from Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology. Weber was born towards the end of Marx's life, but his work has some interesting similarities and expansions of Marx's work. In Weber's book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he argues that capitalist society is fueled by the Protestant Work Ethic. The basic idea is that hard work and contribution to society is an outward way of manifesting the fact that you are elected by God for salvation.  The doctrine of election is a key tenet of Calvinism. This work and investment in the community surely benefits a capitalist system, which is reliant on labor and the flow of money. Thus, Weber contends that religious philosophy in Calvinism fuels capitalism, explaining why both systems grew up together in Europe. In fact, it is so powerful that, according to Weber, it traps society and individuals in an iron cage. For Weber, the iron cage is the notion that the Protestant work ethic (compulsion to work) is so engrained in our minds through society's reliance on it that we cannot imagine a world without work. As a result, we are stuck in a continual cycle of labor that continues the capitalist system. 

You can watch a short explanation of Weber's Protestant work ethic here.

Below are passages from Chapter 5 of Weber's book further explaining the iron cage. You can read along here for the full chapter if you prefer to work through that.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the fast stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”


Objection Objections to Marxism

Remember, this class's focus is not on Marx's political theory, but on his notion of work's relationship to human identity and capitalism's harm to that identity. With that said, it is still important to consider some objections to Marx's theory. Below you will find a video from The Economist provides further context to Marx's theory but with modern data. It shows that although Marx may have been right in some regards to capitalism, some statistics indicate that capitalism has also benefited the worst off in society. Both Marx and Weber's theories of the good life are especially interesting because they make ethical claims while also making predictions about history, societies, and economies.


This digital essay was prepared by GGL Fellow Blake Ziegler.