Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95)

Masters of Money Documentary

History of ideas Podcast Marx and Engels

A German philosopher, economist and political thinker, Marx developed a theory of history that highlighted the importance of economic life and the conditions under which people produce and reproduce their means of subsistence. This was reflected in the belief that the economic ‘base’, consisting essentially of the ‘mode of production’, or economic system, conditions or determines the ideological ‘structure’. According to Marx, history is driven forward through a dialectical process in which contradictions within each mode of production give rise to class conflict. All class societies, including capitalism, are thus doomed to collapse, eventually leading to the establishment of a classless, communist society. Marx’s classic work is the three-volume Capital (1867, 1885 and 1894), which painstakingly analyses the capitalist process of production and is based, some argue, on economic determinism. Marx’s best-known and most accessible work is The Communist Manifesto (with Engels)

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were German exiles living in the UK in the 1870s .

A German industrialist and life-long friend and collaborator of Marx, Engels elaborated Marx’s ideas and theories for the benefit of the growing socialist movement. By emphasising the role of the dialectic as a force operating in both social life and nature, he helped to establish dialectical materialism as a distinct brand of Marxism, portraying Marxism in terms of a specific set of historical laws. Engels’ writings include The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), a historical account of the industrial proletariat in Manchester, and The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), which analysed the institution of monogamous marriage in terms of the workings of the capitalist class system. Engels’ writings were highly influential in popularising the ideas of Marx, but they have also been criticised for advancing a mechanistic and determinist interpretation of Marxism that, some argue, is not faithful to Marx himself.

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels argued that revolution was inevitable as there was a contradiction at the heart of capitalism . Marx argued that his form of socialism avoided the utopian idealism of earlier forms . He claimed that historical materialism involved a scientific analysis of human society, based on his study of history and dialectics . The inevitability of socialism could be proved, rather than just being a desirable aim . In their analysis, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism, like previous stages in history such as feudalism, contains the seeds of its own destruction . Within capitalism, Marx argued, society is split between two opposing classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie . The interests of these two groups are fundamentally at odds with each other . The bourgeoisie’s aim of making profi t depends on the exploitation of the proletariat . Marx used the term ‘surplus value’ to describe how workers are (and must be) paid less than the true value of their labour in order to generate profi t . The workers get no satisfaction from what they produce as they are merely part of the process; they often do not see the end product and cannot afford it either . Marx described this as alienation . In recent years, the treatment of workers in the garment industry in countries such as China and Bangladesh is a clear example of this process . Marx borrowed the idea of dialectics from German philosopher G . W . F . Hegel (1770–1831) but developed it to create an economics/materialist based argument that within each society there are opposing forces (e .g . the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) . Once class consciousness develops among the proletariat, these two forces will eventually clash, leading to a new stage of history . He saw class confl ict as the driving force in history, be it bourgeoisie and proletariat or slave and slave owner . This, he argued, was scientifi c analysis as it was proven and factually based rather than wishful thinking . Revolution was therefore inevitable, leading to the abolition of capitalism . Marx’s analysis of capitalism is still admired today and he is seen to have predicted globalisation and explored the unstable nature of capitalism, in which the poor always suffer most from its regular crashes . For Marxists, capitalism must be overthrown and replaced with common ownership and substantial economic equality . Marx and Engels argued that after the inevitable revolution, a classless and stateless society would emerge, with no poverty and genuine equality of outcome, thus resulting in emancipation . Before this, however, there would need to be a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, to prevent counterrevolution . Once the revolution was safe and secure, the state itself would ‘wither away’, a theory that seems more like anarchism and certainly not the actual result of any of the twentieth century’s socialist revolutions . In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels argued that the nuclear family was essential to profit making and that the subjugation of women was part of the capitalist structure .