Karl Marx: Class Struggle, Historical Materialism and Communism

Karl Marx, a 19th-century philosopher and economist, revolutionized political thought with his critique of capitalism and advocacy for a classless society. His ideas continue to influence social and economic discourse to this day.

Karl Marx (1818 -1883)

Introduction

Karl Heinrich Marx, a prominent figure in the world of philosophy and social theory, was born in 1818 in Trier, a predominantly Catholic city in the Rhineland region of Germany. His intellectual journey began at the University of Berlin in 1836, where he initially pursued a different course but soon switched to philosophy, influenced by the young Hegelians. Over the course of his life, Marx would go on to produce groundbreaking works that would shape the course of history and political thought. Let’s dive into his life and explore his major works.

The Early Years – Karl Marx

In 1842, Marx’s journey as a writer took off when he began contributing to the daily newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. It was during his time in Paris that he encountered Friedrich Engels and other activists who were organizing meetings of the working class. Together, they authored the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” In 1847, Marx was a founding member of the Communist League, and in the following year, he penned the influential “Communist Manifesto”

Critique of Capitalism

At the core of Marx’s philosophy was his critique of capitalism. He viewed the capitalist mode of production as fundamentally opposed to human freedom. Marx saw capitalism as a class-based society that not only subjugated the proletariat but also resulted in systemic unfreedom for all its members. His writings can be divided into two phases: the young Marx, who explored concepts like alienation, human nature, and morality, and the older Marx, who conducted in-depth analyses of the workings of capitalist society. This division is made by Louis Althusser.

Friendship with Engels

Friedrich Engels, a close friend and comrade of Marx, played a pivotal role in their intellectual partnership. Together, they co-authored four significant works. After Marx’s death, Engels continued to publish his works, solidifying Marx as an innovator and Engels as the popularizer of their ideas.

Combined work of Marx and Engles – 

  • The Holy Family
  • The German Ideology
  • Communist Manifesto

Influences and Integration: 

Marx’s intellectual journey was marked by the integration of various legacies. From German philosophy, he borrowed the Hegelian method of dialectics, applying it to the material world. From French political thought, he drew inspiration for revolution in an industrialized capitalist economy. Lastly, from English economists, Marx sought to understand the dynamics of capitalism and the industrial revolution.

Read More about HegelHegel: German Idealism and Political Philosophy

Major Works of Karl Marx

“The German Ideology” (1846): Co-authored with Friedrich Engels, this set of manuscripts argues that humans distinguish themselves from animals when they begin to produce their means of subsistence.

“The Poverty of Philosophy” (1847): Published in Paris and Brussels, this book analyzes the capitalist system of production and distribution, as well as the law of value. In this book Marx criticized J.P Proudhon on his book “Philosophy of Poverty”.

“Communist Manifesto” (1848): This political document presents an analytical approach to the class struggle and conflicts within capitalism and the capitalist mode of production. In this book Marx quotes that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

The Communist Manifesto is classified into four parts –

  • History of the revolution
  • Doctrines of Communist Party
  • Criticism of existing society
  • Reactionary and Bourgeois socialism

“A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859): An analysis of capitalism and the quantity theory of money.

“The Civil War in France” (1871): A pamphlet written by Marx that explores the tumultuous events of the French Revolution.

Important concepts of Karl Marx and his Philosophy

Theory of Alienation by Karl Marx

At first the idea of Alienation was profound in the Poem called “Player’ and later a descriptive study was done in the book called “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1944)’. In this book Marx articulated a striking perspective on how capitalism impacts the working class. He observed that capitalists hire workers to produce objects through their labor, but these products ultimately fall under the control of the employer, the capitalist, rather than the worker.

This leads to a profound sense of alienation among the working class. They become estranged from the very products they’ve labored to create. In a capitalist society, workers exchange their labor power for a wage, and their labor becomes something external to themselves. As a result, their physical and mental capabilities, which are intrinsically tied to their labor, become alien to them. Marx emphasizes that when labor is reduced to a mere means of satisfying the needs of others rather than a source of personal fulfillment, it becomes a form of alienated labor.

Karl Marx here identified four type of alienation:

  • From Product
  • From work
  • From fellow beings and nature
  • From Himself

The extent of alienation is comprehensive in Marx’s view. Workers are not only estranged from their own products and labor but also from their own selves, the natural world, and fellow human beings.

Commodity Fetishism by Karl Marx

Marx’s analysis of capitalism goes further with the concept of commodity fetishism. In a capitalist society, exchange value, or the price a commodity can fetch, takes precedence over use value, or the actual utility of the product. Even if an item possesses a useful purpose, it may not be produced unless it carries a market value in a capitalist setting.

The key determinant of exchange value is the amount of human labor invested in the creation of a commodity. However, Marx astutely notes that the contribution of workers is often undervalued and overlooked. Labor power itself becomes commodified, bought and sold as if it were any other product on the market.

Capitalist societies tend to flood the market with an excess of commodities, produced using human labor and valuable natural resources. Paradoxically, this overproduction in capitalism not only diminishes the value of labor but also depletes precious natural resources.

“Human is a economical Being” – Homo Faber

Dialectical Materialism by Karl Marx

Karl Marx borrowed the concept of dialectics from Hegel but infused it with his own materialistic perspective. While Hegel applied dialectics to the evolution of human history, emphasizing intellectual development, Marx shifted the focus. He contended that in the essence of the universe, it’s not ‘idea’ or ‘consciousness’ but ‘matter’ that holds prominence. According to Marx, social institutions are manifestations of changing material conditions, not evolving ideas.

Dialectical Materialism represents the philosophical basis of Marxism, underscoring the importance of material factors in shaping societies and their development.

Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism encompasses three key dialectical concepts:

Quantity into Quality: This concept posits that gradual accumulation of quantitative changes can lead to a sudden qualitative transformation. For example, as workers collectively demand better wages (quantitative change), it may eventually result in a qualitative shift, such as a revolution.

Unity of Opposition: Marx argued that contradictions within a system drive change. The unity of opposites suggests that opposing forces within society, like the bourgeoisie and proletariat, generate tension that can lead to societal change, such as class struggle.

Negation of Negation: Marx’s dialectics involve a process where a thesis (existing social order) encounters its antithesis (challenges and contradictions), resulting in a synthesis (a new social order). The negation of negation describes how a new synthesis can itself become a new thesis, perpetuating societal evolution.

These dialectical concepts underpin Marx’s analysis of historical and social change, emphasizing the role of contradictions and conflict in shaping society.

Theory of Class Struggle by Karl Marx

Class struggle is a central theme in Marxist theory. Marx observed that relations of production in societies were fundamentally shaped by class relations. He famously stated, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist Manifesto). 

In every society, Marx identified two key classes: the ruling class, which owns the means of production, and the working class, which sells its labor. The relationship between these classes is defined by exploitation and domination. Throughout history, different iterations of these classes have existed, such as lords and serfs, guild masters and journeymen, and oppressors and the oppressed. Marx categorized classes into “Class in itself” (unaware of their common interests) and “Class for itself” (conscious of shared interests).

Marx believed in the revolutionary potential of the “Class for itself,” represented by the proletariat (working class). He foresaw a socialist revolution led by the working class that would overthrow capitalism and establish a classless society, ultimately ending class conflict. He asked for all the workers to be united. He propagated for “Dictatorship of Proletariat”.

Contrary to this many philosophers like George Owell and Bakunin feared that Marx’s dictatorship of Proletariat would become dictatorship on the proletariat.

Historical Materialism by Karl Marx

Historical Materialism, detailed in Marx’s “Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy,” offers a scientific basis for Marxism. He held that men during social production centers into definite relations that are independent and indispensable of their will ; Relations of production which corresponds to a definite stage of development of their material productive force. The sum of these relations of production constitutes in Society the economic structure. 

In Economic relations of Society, people undertake production, distribution and exchange of materials goods for their need which again constitutes legal and political superstructure. However, the economic structure is the real basis of Society . 

Concept of Base and Superstructure

According to Marx, the structure of Society consists of- 

  • Base – Economic Relations (Mode of Production) 
  • Superstructure – Social and Political Relations (Religion, morals, culture, art, etc) 

Further, forces of production and relations of production are the two components of the Base’s modes of production. The forces of production consist of means of production like tools, land, equipment and Labour power (human knowledge and skills). With the advancement in technology, improvement in means of production over powers the development of Labour power. While, Relations of Production in Society are on the pattern of ownership of the means of production which give rise to haves and have not, for example slaves were individuals who owned no means of production not even their own Labour, The serfs did own some but not full means of production, therefore landowning exploits the serfs , the Proletariat also does not own any means of production and were exploited by the property owning capitalists. 

Hence, Relations of production revolve around ownership of means of production and lead to social stratification. In capitalism, property-owning capitalists exploit the proletariat, who lack ownership of the means of production. Marx believed that capitalism represented the final stage in class conflict history, poised to be overthrown by a socialist revolution, ultimately ushering in a classless society.

5 Stages of History by Karl Marx

It’s important to note that Karl Marx’s framework is rooted in his theory of class struggle and the development of the means of production. Here are the five stages of history according to Karl Marx:

Primitive Communism:

This is the earliest stage of human history when people lived in small, tribal communities. The means of living was hunting and gathering. Needs were limited. Private property did not exist, and resources were shared collectively. Social hierarchies were relatively undeveloped, and there was little class distinction.

Slave Society:

This stage emerged with the development of agriculture and the establishment of surplus production. The primary mode of production was based on slave labor, where a privileged class of slave owners controlled the means of production.

Class divisions became more pronounced, with a clear distinction between slave owners and slaves.

Feudalism:

Feudalism emerged with the decline of the Roman Empire and lasted through the Middle Ages. The dominant mode of production was feudal, where feudal lords controlled land, and peasants worked the land in exchange for protection and a share of the produce.

Society was characterized by a hierarchical structure with a rigid class system, including kings, nobles, and serfs.

Capitalism:

Capitalism marked a significant shift in the means of production, with the rise of industrialization and the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) controlling factories, machinery, and resources.Wage labor became the norm, as workers sold their labor for a wage to the capitalist class.

Capitalism was marked by the pursuit of profit, private ownership, and the commodification of goods and labor.

Socialism (Transition to Communism):

According to Karl Marx, capitalism would eventually lead to its own downfall due to inherent contradictions and class struggle.

The working class (proletariat) would revolt against the capitalist class (bourgeoisie), leading to the establishment of a transitional socialist state. In this stage, the means of production would be collectively owned, and the state would play a central role in redistributing resources and eliminating class distinctions. This predecessor socialism is regarded as dream socialism by Karl Marx.

Ultimately, this transitional stage was expected to pave the way for a classless, stateless society known as communism, where resources would be distributed according to the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

Here to the idea of communism by Marx, Edward Bernstein, founder of evolutionary socialism and Revisionism criticized him saying that it is only imaginary in nature and can not be applied in reality as the end of the middle class is impossible.

Theory of Surplus Value – Das Capital

At the core of Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism lies the Theory of Surplus Value. This concept reveals how the capitalist mode of production exploits the working class by extracting “surplus value” from their labor. Karl Marx firmly asserted that “Labor is the sole creator of value”, even though the working class lacks ownership of the means of production.

In the realm of production, there are four factors at play: land, labor, capital, and organization. Among these, only labor generates new value within society. However, the actual amount of labor exerted in commodity production often differs from the market price, which fluctuates based on demand and supply. When the labor market is saturated with job seekers, wages decline.

This disparity allows capitalists to maximize their exploitation of the working class by not paying the full value of labor power, thereby pocketing the surplus as profit. Surplus value, as described by Marx, signifies the value of labor done by workers for which they receive no compensation. This unpaid labor represents the capitalist’s profit.

Surplus Value = Surplus Labor / Necessary Labor

Karl Marx argued that if workers owned the means of production, they would not be compelled to sell their labor power to capitalists. Furthermore, workers lack control over the products they create and receive no compensation for the values they produce.

State and Revolution by Karl Marx

For Karl Marx, social classes serve as the driving forces behind revolutionary change. Historically, each new property-owning class has initiated revolutions under the guise of benefiting all members of society but eventually solidifies its position as the ruling class, exploiting those without property.

Marx maintained that the only class capable of leading a revolution to abolish private property and class society is the proletariat—the working class. In his book Communist Manifesto, Marx dubbed the “state as the instrument of the ruling class”. He argued that the proletariat must seize state power to initiate the revolution.

Marx advocated for the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, a transitional phase where the bourgeoisie is excluded from the state until private property is expropriated and a classless society emerges.

Different types of Colonies by Karl Marx

Karl Marx in 1865 also identified three types of Colonies that were commonly recognized during the era of colonialism, which Marx would have been familiar with:

  1. Plantation Colonies: These were colonies established primarily for the cultivation of cash crops such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee. The European colonial powers, particularly the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, set up large plantations in various parts of the world, including the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa. These colonies were characterized by a heavy reliance on enslaved or indentured labor to work on the plantations. The profits from these colonies were often sent back to the colonial powers.
  2. Settler Colonies: Settler colonies also known as Proper Colonies were territories where European settlers, often from Britain or other European nations, established permanent communities with the intention of eventually replacing or dominating the indigenous populations. Examples of settler colonies include the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In these colonies, the settlers played a dominant role in shaping the social, economic, and political landscape, often at the expense of the indigenous peoples.
  3. Well Populated Colonies: The example of these types of colonies are India and Mexico.

Famous Quotes by Karl Marx

  • ‘The history of all previous Societies has been the history of class struggles’.
  • ‘Men make their own history but they do not make as they please’.
  • ‘Revolutions are the locomotives of history’.
  • ‘Universe is a product and a prophecy in every state’.
  • ‘The anatomy of civil society is to be found in Political economy’.
  • ‘Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form’. 
  • ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point, however, is to change it’.
  • ‘The last Capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope’. 
  • ‘I am nothing but I must be everything’.
  • ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’.
  • ‘If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist’.
  • ‘Religion is the impotence of humankind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand’. 
  • ‘Foreign Policy of a nation is shaped by Geography’.

Conclusion 

Karl Marx stands as an intellectual giant whose ideas have left an indelible mark on the fields of philosophy, economics, and politics. His penetrating critique of capitalism and his vision of a classless society have reverberated throughout the ages, inspiring generations of scholars, activists, and policymakers. Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value, Dialectical Materialism, and insights into class struggle and historical materialism continue to serve as vital frameworks for understanding the dynamics of society and the inherent contradictions of capitalism. While some of his specific predictions and proposals may have evolved or faced criticism over time, Marx’s enduring legacy lies in his relentless pursuit of a more just and equitable world, where the working class can break free from the shackles of exploitation and achieve true emancipation.

As we navigate the complexities of our contemporary world, Karl Marx’s ideas continue to challenge us to critically examine the structures of society, the nature of labor, and the pursuit of a more equitable future for all. Whether viewed as a visionary or a provocateur, there is no denying the profound impact Marx has had on our understanding of society, economics, and the pursuit of a fairer world.

Some Important Comments on Karl Marx

  • ‘Marx’s Das Capital is an irrelevant book which in my view is not only flawed from a scientific point of view but not interesting or worth it’. – R.Takkar
  • ‘Marxism is a utopia but a generous and humane one’.- Sabine

Chronological Order of Karl Marx Work 

  • The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law, 1842 
  • Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843 
  • “On the Jewish Question”, 1843 
  • “Notes on James Mill”, 1844 
  • Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 1844 
  • The Holy Family, 1844 
  • “Theses on Feuerbach”, 1845 
  • The German Ideology, 1846 
  • The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847 
  • “Wage Labour and Capital”, 1847 
  • Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848 
  • The Class Struggles in France, 1850
  • The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852 
  • Grundrisse, 1857
  • A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859 
  • Writings on the U.S. Civil War, 1861 
  • Theories of Surplus Value, 3 volumes, 1862 
  • “Value, Price and Profit”, 1865 
  • Capital, Volume I (Das Kapital), 1867 
  • “The Civil War in France”, 1871 
  • “Critique of the Gotha Program”, 1875 

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