World History 2 91 - 6.3.3 Marxism

Karl Marx was a highly controversial intellectual and revolutionary. Born in 1818 in Trier, in what is now Germany, he grew up as the son of a successful lawyer and was baptized into the Evangelical Church when he was six years old. As a young man, he studied law at the University of Berlin, where a professor introduced him to the philosophy of Georg Hegel. Marx quickly embraced Hegel’s idealistic universal history, which suggested the world is progressing through conflicts toward greater freedom. After completing his education, he worked as a journalist and writer.

In 1848, Marx published The Communist Manifesto with his co-author Friedrich Engels. In the book, the two argued that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Their idea, that recognizing the class struggle between workers and the ruling class is central to understanding societies, is also known as Marxism (Figure 6.20). In addition to laying out their vision of history, Marx and Engels predicted that society would eventually replace current economic systems with socialism, a system in which the public, not private companies or individuals, owns the means of production. In their view, socialism was one phase of the transition from the private ownership characteristic of capitalism to the completely classless society of communism. They called for the forcible overthrow of current societies, a statement many communists around the world embraced as a declaration of war on capitalism. The ideals of communism were inspired by the abuses of capitalism that often exploited workers.

Part (a) is a photo of a man sitting in a chair on a dark background with a thin tree trunk on the right. He wears a white shirt, dark jacket and pants, has a long, coarse, white beard and long, coarse, white hair, and a large black moustache. His right hand is inside his jacket and his left hand rests on his lap. Part (b) is an image of a beige book cover is shown with black lettering with a black rectangle border of pointy triangles all around the perimeter. The word “Manifest” is written across the top.
Figure 6.20 (a) This 1875 photo of Marx is probably the most famous image made by the popular British photographer John Mayall. (b) Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto was first published in 1848 with this cover. (credit a: modification of work “Portrait of Karl Marx” by International Institute of Social History/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Kommunistisches Manifest” by Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto with his co-author Friedrich Engels in 1848. Many writers from across the political and ideological spectrum inaccurately portray the ideas in The Communist Manifesto to support their own ideas or to paint their opponents in a negative light. Consider reading The Communist Manifesto for yourself and drawing your own conclusions about what the work says and what it might mean to you.

Marx’s book Das Kapital, published in 1867, is one of history’s most often cited sources on economics and politics. In Das Kapital, Marx argued that the bourgeoisie, members of a social class that owned the means of production, were primarily motivated by the desire to exploit labor. In his view, employers paid wages to their workers, also known as the proletariat, that were far less than their labor was worth. They then kept the excess value produced by wage earners, in a process Marx argued was unfair to the workers. Employers used their profits to purchase additional resources and to buy political influence to ensure that the law would support the wealthy instead of the workers. The wealthy became unfit to rule as they increasingly leveraged their growing economic and political power until workers were left powerless and in poverty. Eventually the capitalist system would collapse, and the workers would reclaim control of society.

The Past Meets the Present

Marx on Capitalism and Communism

Karl Marx died almost 150 years ago, but his ideas remain widely debated. In 1867, Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, and it quickly reached a wide audience among those interested in history, economics, and politics. After his death in 1883, Fredrich Engels, his co-author on The Communist Manifesto, published the second and third volumes of Das Kapital based on Marx’s notes. In this quote from Das Kapital, Marx explained his view of the origins of capitalism.

The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former . . . [T]he historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

—Karl Marx, Das Kapital

Long after Marx’s death, his ideas continued to provide inspiration for people dissatisfied with inequality between social classes and angered by injustices. In 1917, revolutionaries in Russia, inspired by Marx’s ideas, overthrew the government and established a new communist society that became the Soviet Union and existed until 1991. Subsequent communist revolutions gave rise to governments that still exist in China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, and Laos. Even in capitalist countries, communist and socialist political parties exist and are often quite popular with voters. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont proudly calls himself a socialist, although as many have pointed out, he does not seek to overthrow capitalism or advocate public ownership of the means of production.

  • What is capitalism, as described in this excerpt from Das Kapital? According to Karl Marx, what are its origins?
  • How does Marx’s view of history agree or disagree with what you know about history?
  • Are Marx’s ideas still relevant today? Why or why not?
  • What would Marx say about the history of the world since his death? Have events since 1883 supported or undermined his arguments?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax