by Robert M. Seiler

1. Contribution

Like Charles Darwin (1809-82), his contemporary, Karl Marx (1818-83) has had a profound impact on modern thought. This German philosopher, social scientist, and professional revolutionary formulated a theory of social change that influenced most modern forms of socialism and communism. Marx pioneered conflict theory. Motivated by a belief in human emancipation, he tried to discover a way to free people from the social, political, and economic constraints that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Marx used to say: Philosophers explain only; critical theorists translated theory into practice.

2. Early life

Marx grew up in Trier, Prussia, the son of Jewish lawyer who converted to Christianity in order to keep his job. During the period 1835-41, he studied (in 1835) law at the University of Bon and he studied (in 1837) philosophy at the University of Berlin, falling under the influence of the idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who interpreted the whole of history as the process by which "Spirit" (and consequently humanity) progressed towards complete self-knowledge and a "rational" and "free" society. Marx looked to Hegel for help in uncovering the principle that would explain historical change; he wanted to know how slavery gave way to feudalism and how feudalism gave way to capitalism. About this time, he joined a group of leftist radical socialists who attacked the Prussian government. He graduated (in 1841) Ph.D. at the University of Jena, but could not obtain a university teaching job because of his subversive views.

During the period 1842-48, Marx made his living as a free-lance journalist and political activist. For a while, he wrote for the Rhenish Gazette, becoming editor-in-chief. Under his direction, the paper gained much notoriety, thanks to his articles documenting the misery of the peasants living in the Moselle (a wine-making) region. Eventually, the government closed the paper. After getting married in 1843, he and his wife moved to Paris; when the revolution broke out, he co-edited a radical magazine. During this period he met Friedrich Engels (1820-95), the son of a textile manufacturer, who became his life-long friend, and the two formulated what we now call "Marxism." After the revolution failed, Marx went into exile, settling in London, where in extreme poverty he lived for the rest of his life.

During the period 1848-83, he earned his living writing newspaper articles. He never had a steady income--now and then Engels helped him out financially. In 1848, they published the Communist Manifesto, which proved to be one of the important events in human history. In 1864, he helped establish the International Working Men's Association, an organisation dedicated to improving the life of the working classes, and preparing for a socialist revolution. Over the years, many Russian and German radicals visited him, hoping to discuss the problem of establishing "communist" organisations.

3. Life work

As mentioned, Marx set out (a) to understand the human condition in capitalist society as he experienced it, i.e., during the 1840s; (b) to lay bare the dynamics of that society, to lift the veil on its inner working and impact on human relations, and (c) to develop a theoretical framework that would help him explain the mechanisms at work in the overall process of historical change of which capitalism was but a phase.

dialectical materialism

As we saw, Marx found his inspiration in Hegel, who argued that humanity advances because of the clash of ideas, as seen in religious struggles and political revolutions. Hegel explained human progress in terms of the principle called dialectic: that is, one concept (the thesis) evokes its opposite (the antithesis) and the two interact to form a new concept (the synthesis), which in turn becomes a new thesis. We can think of Socrates, especially the question-and-answer method he employed to get to the truth.

Consider the following example: (a): Thesis: marriage means a man and a woman living together and raising a family, and (b) Antithesis: Marriage means two people living together un mutual love and support. Producing a (c) Synthesis, governments across North America are trying to sanction same-sex marriages, arguing that the traditional definition of marriage discriminates against same-sex couples.

Marx's great insight was to invert Hegel's dialectic, i.e., he explained historical change not in terms of the operations of the human mind but in terms of conflict in the material world. He found the key to change not in people's minds but in the system of production of material life. He speaks of four modes of production, which form a development sequence: (i) slavery, (ii) feudalism, (iii) capitalism, and (iv) communism. Eventually, he argued, social conflicts would produce a synthesis, ending conflict altogether; we can think of this new, ideal society as socialism. Marx called this system dialectical materialism.

base and superstructure

Marx points out that people must produce the necessities of life before they philosophise, engage in politics, create art, and so on. He writes that the mode of production of material life/the economic system of society shapes our consciousness, determines the ideas people have. In other words, the economic relations of life constitute the base of society, upon which the superstructure of society is built--the political and legal institutions, religious organizations, philosophical systems, the arts, and so on. Thus, capitalism is not only an economic system; it is also a cultural force.

How the base affects the superstructure has been a subject of much debate. Economic relations are important, but as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall (taking their cue from Louis Althusser) argue they are not the only influences. Analysts oversimplify when they say that the base automatically "shapes" the superstructure.

class conflict

Marx writes that classes form when the productive activity of a society yields a surplus above the subsistence needs of its members:

Marx regarded class conflict as the engine of change. The feudal relations of production (i.e., the lord-serf relationship) restrained the development of capitalism and in turn capitalists had to overthrow feudal relationships--with new relations between themselves as the dominant class and the propertyless proletariat as the subordinate class.

false consciousness

According to Marx, individual consciousness develops as a reflection of the material conditions of existence. He says that the ruling class is capable of obstructing the development of consciousness in the lower classes. He put it this way: The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. The class that dominates the economic sphere also dominates such spheres as politics, religions, and so on.

The argument here is that the ruling class persuades the other classes that the status quo benefits us all. The ideas people have are the ideas the ruling class wants them to have. That is, the ruling class generates an ideology, which we call a false consciousness, one that blinds the subordinate classes to the true nature of their social relationship. The media are central to the spread of false consciousness. They distract people from the realities of life--poverty, racism, sexism, violence, and so on.


Under capitalism, Marx points out, the human condition is one of alienation, i.e., human beings are estranged from their world, in terms of work, social relations, and so on. His goal was to help workers re-connect with themselves and with the world around them. Once the working class became conscious of these facts--he predicted--it would act to overthrow capitalist society and establish a new form of classless society.

Marx published only a few works during his life time; some works were discovered (and published) many years after his death. These (some written with Engels) include The Germany Ideology (1845-47), Poverty of Philosophy 1847), Communist Manifesto (1848), Grundrisse, written 1857-58 (1939-41), and Das Kapital 3 vols. (1867-94).

5. Critique

Marx's social and economic ideas inspired generations of political activities. In the words of A.J.P. Taylor, the historian, every Labor and Social party in the world stems from the example Marx set, even though many repudiate the rest of his teaching. We should remember that Marx's system was rooted in the conditions of his time. He predicted the revolutions that came later, but he misread the proletariat altogether; peasants make revolutions, the proletariat do not. Marx's dialectical materialism, combined with semiotics, offers social scientists a powerful tool for studying the political signification of every facet of contemporary culture, including television, film, music, fashion, and sports. They show how people absorb capitalist values via political rhetoric, news reporting, advertising, and public relations.

6. Works Cited

Engels, Fr. "Karl Marx's Funeral." 1999. Available at: http://www.ex.ac.uk/Projects/meia/Archive/1883-Death/dersoz1.htm
Karl Marx: Timeline (the Marx/Engels Internet Archive). 1999. Available at http://tqd.advanced.org/3376/MARX2.htm
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto (1848), introduced by A.J.P. Taylor. London: Penguin Books.

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