Karl Marx Paves the Way for Communism
In the histoty of the Western world, at all events, there have appeared, from time to time, books which by reason of the theories set out in them have had a great influence on the development of men. Such a one was The Origin of Species of Charles Darwin, which put forward for the first time the principle of Evolution in Nature. Another was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which still forms the starting-point of the study of political economy; while Sigmund Freud’s Studies in Hysteria and the Interpretation of Dreams opened the way to the understanding of human behaviour and was instrumental in removing the social stigma from insanity.
Others could be mentioned, but influential though these books have been on men’s lives, none has so directly affected day-to-day existence, and in a paradoxically indirect way, as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. For it is the Marxist materialist conception of history that forms the basis of Communism, which in turn, by being diametrically opposed to Capitalism, has divided the world into two ideological camps.
Since the economic philosophy regulates the political philosophy in both camps, the Common Man in both cannot escape from the effects of one or other of the ideologies; and since Marx taught that by their nature his principles have a world wide application, which must be imposed by revolutionary means if need be, in one half of the world men are plotting the revolution and in the other half are planning to resist it.
Karl Marx, the son of a Jewish lawyer, was born on 5 May, 1818, at Trier, in the Rhineland. Beginning his education at Trier high school, in October, 1835, he entered Bonn University to study law. He remained at Bonn only a year before moving on to Berlin University, where, besides working at his studies with moderate keenness, he discovered poetry, for which he developed a moderate passion.
In 1838 Marx’s father died, and Karl made yet another move, this time to the University of Jena. By now he had decided to abandon the law and take up an academic career. For this reason when he presented his thesis for his doctorate in philosophy in 1841, he chose for his subject The Difference between the Natural Philosophy of Democritus and of Epicurus.
Having been awarded his doctorate, he went for a time to Bonn at the invitation of a friend, Bruno Bauer, who was a lecturer in the University, with the object of discovering whether the academic life was really what he wanted. After some months, he decided that it was not, and when he was offered the editorship of a new newspaper, The Rheinische Zeitung, which had been founded by a group of young disciples of the philosopher Hegel, to counteract the influence of the reactionary Kolnische Zeitung, he accepted the offer and in May, 1842, he moved to Cologne.
Very early in his journalistic career he earned the reputation of being the first German journalist of note. This reputation he achieved by the fearlessness and ruthlessness with which he attacked the Prussian Government in his articles, the courage and ferocity which he displayed being totally different from the subdued and compliant journalism to which the censorship had accustomed the public.
Marx’s interest in philosophy was now superseded by a penetrating and extensive interest in practical politics, and he used every opportunity to press for reform of what he considered to be outmoded Prussian laws. In the process, he flouted the censorship, challenged the Prussian Government and brushed aside the advice of friends.
Though his editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung changed the direction of his interests and made him a prominent figure in Germany, it was during this period that he began to conceive the theories which were eventually to earn for him a world-wide and enduring fame.
In March, 1843, unable to countenance Marx’s attacks and his utter disregard of the censorship laws, the authorities suppressed the Rheinische Zeitung. Marx chose this point in time to end his seven years’ engagement to the daughter of an official of the Prussian administration of Trier, Jenny von Westphalen, by marrying her.
Marx had been expecting the closure of his newspaper for some time, and had made plans for continuing his attacks on the Prussian Government in a newspaper to be published abroad. So, in November, 1843, he and his wife arrived in Paris. From this time, except for a few months during the German revolutionary outbreaks of 1848-1849, he was to be a permanent exile from his homeland.
In Paris, where during the next fifteen months his thoughts ripened, he met Friedrich Engels. The two men formed a life-long friendship, and were later co-founders of the Communist Party. The mid-nineteenth century was a period of growing revolt by the masses from their exploitation by the ruling (capitalist) classes, and Socialist movements, some moderate, some extreme, were springing up everywhere. Wherever such movements functioned, the authorities kept a keen eye on them and did not hesitate to take suppressive action when they looked like becoming too menacing to the existing order.
Early in 1845, because the French authorities were beginning to view his activities with too great interest, Marx moved to Brussels. A short time later he visited England, where he made contact with working-men’s organizations in London and Manchester.
Until now he had kept aloof from the Socialist organizations which were not only travelling the same path as himself but working to put their ideas and ideals into practice. But this visit to England made him aware that verbal attacks on the evils of the social order as he saw them were not enough.
Returning to Brussels, he began to plan for the active co-operation and collaboration of the Socialist, now called Communist, groups of all nationalities, and he travelled extensively to meet as many of the groups as he could.
As a result of these ideas and discussions an International Communist League was formed, and in December, 1847, at the Second Congress of the League, held in London, Marx presented to the delegates a Communist Manifesto, which he and Engels had drawn up. The Manifesto set out the principles of Communism as conceived by Marx and Engels, indicated the ways in which the practical parts of the teaching might be applied, and advocated a series of reforms which, in the political climate of the times, appeared to the traditionalists as the height of revolutionary madness.
Following rapidly upon the publication of the Manifesto, though not as a result of it, came the outbreak of the second French Revolution, which sent a wave of revolutionary activity rippling through western Europe, including Germany. On receiving the news from Germany, Marx and Engels hurried there, but before they could make an effective contribution the movement ground to a halt. As a result of their involvement, Marx and Engels were listed by the Belgian authorities as dangerous persons, and expelled. The Marxes, with their three young children, settled in London, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Marx now devoted all his energies to promoting Communism. At the same time he was developing his thought and formulating the theory for which he will certainly be remembered so long as our planet is inhabited. By 1867 he had consolidated his thought, and in that year he published the first volume of Das Kapital (two further volumes were to be published after his death) in which he set out his doctrine in full.
Marxism is a philosophy of history implemented by an elaborate economic theory. The philosophy claims to show the inevitability of full Communism, a classless, collectivist order in which natural resources and manufactured wealth are distributed according to need, and in which the state, law, money and the concept of economic value, having lost their functions, have withered away.
The most important elements of Marxist doctrine are: determinism, the economic interpretation of history, dialectics, the class struggle and the labour value theory.
One of the most original minds among the Marxists, Rosa Luxembourg, spoke of the Marxist Socialist creed as being built on “the granite foundation of objective historical necessity”. The determinism of Marxism, while promising victory to the working classes, nevertheless has to call upon them to make sacrifices in order to bring about the essential developments.
But this raises a fundamental problem, for why should sacrifices have to be called for, if universal Communism is inevitable? The working classes are not slow to ask this question, so the Marxist philosophers are faced with an insoluble dilemma, for the problem though related to is not identical with the issue of free will and causal necessity as met with in general philosophy.
Marx never gave anywhere in his writings an explicit and comprehensive formulation of what he meant by the “economic interpretation of history”. The main difficulty here is the interpretation of the word economic. Though Marx scattered allusions to the meaning of this doctrine and even partial expositions of it throughout his writings, and though Engels, with Marx’s approval, tried to supply more extensive explanations, the lack of clear-cut definition remains.
This has led to a certain amount of disagreement among Marx’s intellectual successors. But despite the absence of detailed interpretation, this Marxist law can be stated in general terms.
Economic developments, it says, are the bases of social evolution. Ideas, laws, politics, institutions, religious beliefs, even artistic expression, are changed by gradual changes brought about in the economic foundation by ever-developing technological knowledge.
Put more simply, history evolves as and how man increases his control over nature. Although the speed of this technological progress can be regulated by political, legal and other developments, it can never be slowed down to a stop, nor can its achievements up to the present ever be reversed.
This economic interpretation of history tends to overstate its case by denying that a man’s intellectual and spiritual development has any independence of the effects of the inevitability of economic change. Nevertheless, this Marxist law has firm foundations, to the extent that the social consequences of economic progress can be forecast; and there is no doubt that all the social sciences have been greatly enriched by the attention it has drawn to technological progress as a cause of some important cultural and institutional developments.
Dialectic is a term in logic which primarily means the art of testing truth by discussion. In the philosophical system expounded by Hegel, under whose influence Marx came very early in his career as a journalist, it came to mean “the tendency of a finite object or notion to suppress itself, to develop contradictions”. Such dialectic occurs, Hegel stated, not only in thought and science, but in nature and history.
This Hegelian use of the term was adopted by Marx, and in applying it to his other doctrines he expounded the Marxist dialectic that all important historical development is achieved through an all-out clash between the old and a new social principles.
In other words, reform, which only transforms the present system, is antipathetic towards Marxism; only revolution can achieve the required ends.
The Marxist doctrine of class struggle derives directly from the Marxist dialectic. Marx went far beyond the obvious truth that different social groups have interests that conflict, the conflict being expressed in warring political creeds, and stated that the classes can never have any common interests, and that, therefore, there must be a constant pitiless and all-out struggle between the classes.
The success of the new ruling class in this kind of struggle must be followed by the repression and extinction of the old ruling class. In the struggle of the workers against the capitalists, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be the transitional link between Capitalism and full Communism, the latter being a system of social organization based upon common property or an equal distribution of wealth and income.
The Marxist interpretation of the economic development of history is based upon the theory of the “exploitation of labour”.
Marx accepted the classical economic doctrine that the value of a commodity depends on the amount of labour required to produce it, and he extended the principle to the value of labour itself He contended that labour itself is a commodity which can be bought and sold like any other commodity, and that its value is determined by the cost of living and education. However, because a worker can work more hours than are necessary for him to provide himself with the cost of living and for him to be in a position in which he can afford to reproduce himself, labour is the only commodity that can produce a value greater than its own value.
The product of surplus labour is surplus value, and surplus value is appropriated by the employer in the form of profits, interest and rents; that is, all income that is unearned.
From this, Marx argued that the exploitation of labour is the only source of profit, and that since this is so, the rate of profit depends largely on the number of workers employed. Machines cannot be exploited, but they can be profitable to the individual employer since they give him an advantage over his competitor. However, as the outlay for machinery increases in relation to the cost of the workers’ wages, so profits decrease in relation to the whole of capital outlay.
Against this process, which is inevitable, the Capitalist cannot protect himself, and gradually he will come under pressure from the workers, who will demand from him the means of existence. Since he cannot provide these means, his system will collapse and the power will be assumed by the workers.
There are of course weaknesses in all these theories. Marx himself could not reconcile several of them. But despite these weaknesses, Marxism has been a much greater influence on political thinking in recent times than any other system of political philosophy. Its doctrines formed the bases for the evolution of modern Communist philosophy and practice as devised by Lenin, the founder of the first great Communist state.
Lenin’s interpretation of Marxian doctrine provided for the total transformation of man and society, first in Russia and then throughout the world by a process of revolution. It is in Marxism-Leninism, as this interpretation is known, that the Marxian theories and doctrines exert their influence, either positively or negatively, on mankind to-day. For whether involved in or opposed to Communism, no one can escape the consequences of the ideas which, in Das Kapital and some of his other writings, Marx put forward.
- Althusser, Louis (21 April 1969). “How to Read Marx’s Capital”.
- “Wage Labour and Capital”. An earlier work by Marx that deals with many of the ideas later expanded in Das Kapital.
- Engels, Friedrich (1867) “Synopsis of Capital”.
- Harvey, David. “Reading Marx’s Capital”. University open courses.
- Rühle, Otto. “Abridgement of Karl Marx’s Capital”.
- Ehrbar, Hans G. “Annotations, Explanations and Clarifications to Capital”. It helps with understanding the early concepts.
- Choonara, Joseph. “Capital”. Socialist Worker. First in a series of accessible columns on Das Kapital.
- “PolyluxMarx – A Capital Workbook in Slides”.
- Harvey, David (12 July 2018). “Why Marx’s Capital Still Matters”. Jacobin. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
- Segrillo, Angelo. Karl Marx’s Capital (Vols. 1, 2, 3) Abridged. São Paulo: FFLCH/USP, 2020.