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Karl Marx

His life (1818-1883) coincided with perhaps the harshest phase of capitalist industrialization in Europe, a time when an encompassing market economy was rudely shattering older institutions and traditions and before the benefits of this new and highly productive system were widely shared. It was a savage proces, described by Marx as "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation," but in it, he discerned the coming of a new world.            Robert Strayer

The will of the capitalist is certainly to take as much as possible. What we have to do is not to talk about his will, but to enquire about his power, the limits of that power, and the character of those limits.           Karl Marx, "Value, Price and Profit"

Belatedly compared to England, the industrial revolution in the early 1830s was taking shape in Germany. Karl Marx was entering his teen years, the son of a wealthy, middleclass lawyer in the town of Trier, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia. His father was a man of the Enlightenment, interested in the ideas of the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Voltaire, a man who had abandoned his Jewish heritage.

Germans in the 1830s were migrating into urban areas and hiring themselves to work at industrial jobs. It was an age of survival-of-the-fittest sociology, when famine often occurred, when labor unions were without influence and employers were paying their workers wages that were barely enough for survival, an age still of child labor and or working longer than 40 hours per week. Deprivation among the workers stimulated labor organization. Angry members of Germany's laboring poor fled Prussian authorities, and in Paris they formed a secret society, the League of the Just. Labor organizing was about sharing power and sharing their earned wealth with their brother workers rather than pursue individual gain. There was some influence from Christianity, which had been communist in its early history, and the League of the Just would have an influence on Karl Marx.

Marx acquired a doctorate of philosophy at the age of twenty-three, and for his dissertation he compared the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus. He worked as a journalist in the city of Cologne, 187 kilometers north of his hometown of Trier. He wrote an article attacking a government censorship decree, and it didn't get past the censors. He moved to work as a journalist in Paris in1843. He met the League of the Just there and was impressed because they were more than intellectual armchair socialists. These were men without property who saw themselves as victims of men with property. They saw the abolition of private property as a way to change society. Marx wrote that "The brotherhood of man is no mere phase for them, but a fact of life." Marx was anti-utopian. He believed in political change brought into being by political organizing. He complained in 1845 that philosophers had been interpreting the world in various ways but that the point was to change the world. By 1845 the League of the Just had a membership of around 300 and branches in Switzerland, Germany and London. At a congress held in London in June 1847 the League of the Just merged with members of the Communist Corresponding Committee headed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It was a time when revolution meant more than tinkering with reforms regarding wealth distribution and money in politics or a new soft drink. The year 1848 would be known for revolution and for political upheavals throughout Europe. And it in February 1848 Marx's Communist Manifesto was published. In it he described his belief that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." He as talking about slave owners versus slaves, landowners versus serfs and the most recent class conflict: between those who hired labor (owners of the means of production) and those who worked for a wage.

Marx was kicked out of France but accepted in England, and he 1849 he settled down in London. Marx was for free markets and free enterprise run by workers for workers, however strange that may sound to people who associate free enterprise with and freedom of choice with capitalism. His Labor Theory of Value described capitalists as not paying workers fully for the value of what they produced. Capitalists, he figured, deserved nothing. He wanted them out of the picture — a revolution indeed.

In his examination of statistics he didn't see any long term rise in real wages. He foresaw economic crises that would give to suffering people a greater class consciousness and favor for revolution. These were crises involving declining profits, production that exceeded society's ability to consume and worker layoffs.

In 1871 came the rising in Paris called the Paris Commune, which flew the socialist red flag rather than France's traditional tricolor flag. Marx wrote of France's "collapsing bourgeois society" as "pregnant" with a new society. Parisians went to the barricades again, and they were defeated again by the French Army. The Commune had been in power only two months. Marx wrote of France's "collapsing bourgeois society" as "pregnant" with a new society. Soon the Paris Commune was attacked by conservative forces from outside Paris. Parisians went to the barricades again and were defeated by the French Army. The Commune had been in power only two months. Estimates of the number of rebels killed vary from about 10,000 to 50,000. Marx was identified as the brains behind the uprising. He decided that rising was premature. For a revolution to succeed, he concluded, it had to have broad support from a citizenry — the kind of support that would win elections if there were a democracy.

But soon, for the International Workingmen's Association (Socialism's First International), Marx wrote:

Workingmen's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.

Marx remained flexible regarding whether his new society had to be born with an armed takeover. In 1872 he said, "... we do not deny that there are countries like England and America... where labour may attain its goal by peaceful means."

He died in 1883 at the age of 64. The economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946 ) would complain that Marx's economics was not science as Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels had claimed. What Marx and his followers got right, according to Joyce Appleby was "the coherence of a new class of owners determined to use its influence and money to secure policies that favored its interests." She writes of Marx's as a historical figure rather than the creator of a tool for analysis today. (Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: the History of Capitalism, p 79.)

The somewhat conservative sociologist Francis Fukuyama has claimed that ideas do not become powerful unless they speak to the concerns of large numbers of ordinary people, and he describes the Marxist scenario as having been undermined as "the real living standards of the industrial working class kept rising."

Here is an entertaining description of Marx's views on You Tube:

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.