Sociology Resources: Karl Marx

Karl Marx was known as the Father of Communism and also the Founder of Socialism. A social thinker with great influence, he introduced revolutionary economic ideas which came to be known as Marxism. Born Karl Heinrich Marx on May 5th, 1818 in Trier, Germany, his parents were Heinrich and Henrietta Marx. He died on March 14th 1883 at the age of sixty five in London. His tombstone can be found at the Highgate Cemetery in London. Karl Marx left behind seven children from his marriage with Jenny von Westphalen on June 19, 1843.

Karl Marx’s family belonged to a long line of rabbis. Shortly before Marx was born, his father converted to Lutheranism in an effort to promote his law career. It’s known that Heinrich Marx was a man of the Enlightenment, greatly influenced by Lessing and Voltaire. From the onset, Heinrich harbored ambitions that Karl would follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer.

During the early years, Marx was educated privately but he joined the Trier High School in 1830. In 1835 at age 17 , he went to the University of Bonn to pursue higher studies in law, upon the insistence of his father. In actuality, he wanted to study literature and philosophy. Marx spent a lot of time socializing, incurring heavy debts along the way. At one point, Marx even served as the president of the Trier Tavern Club Drinking Society. Subsequently, his grades suffered. When his father learnt of his wild behavior, he forced Karl to transfer to the University of Berlin, which is a traditional and sober university.

The move to Berlin brought about a change and for some time, Karl worked hard at his studies, though it didn’t last long. Under the guidance of one of his professors Bruno Bauer, Marx developed a higher interest in philosophy and history. The introduction to the works of Hegel was a major influence on Marx. The crux of the theory was that any thought or thing could not exist without an opposite viz. the relationship between a master and slave. Other significant influences on Marx were the classical economic theory of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the French socialists Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint Simon, and German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx Joined the Young Hegelian movement, and began to write a number of essays and poems in the theological language of his father. In 1841, Marx earned his doctorate and his thesis was The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Owing to his reputation as a Young Hegelian, Marx was moved to submit his thesis at the University of Jena because it was thought that the University of Berlin would not be so receptive to his radical ideas.

After college, Marx went to Bonn to work as a professor at the university. However, he quit when Feuerbach was removed from the chair and Bauer was barred from lecturing. In 1842, Marx moved from Bonn to Cologne where he was the editor in chief of a newspaper called Rheinische Zeitung. Run by radicals, this was a newspaper which opposed the Prussian government. Bauer also had a hand in this newspaper. Yet, these revolutionary movements were not successful owing to the strict censorship standards in Prussia.

Hooking up with another German revolutionary by the name of Arnold Ruge, Marx made plans to publish the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, which is translated to mean the German-French Annals. Since the publication was to be based in Paris, Marx arrived in the city in October 1843. During this time, Paris was a hotbed for revolutionaries from Britain, Italy, Poland, and Germany. On August 28, 1844, Marx would meet Friedrich Engels at the Café de la Regence located on the Place du Palais. It was a most fateful meeting because Engels would become the most die-hard supporter and life-long friend of Marx. Previously, Engels was briefly acquainted with Marx at the office of the Rheinische Zeitung and two years later, he made the trip to Paris for the sole purpose of showing him The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a book which he had written. The meeting was significant because Marx was convinced that the working class would be the catalyst and agent for the revolution of revolutions. After his expulsion from Paris in January 1845, Marx and Engels went to Brussels in Belgium. In 1848, Marx was deported from Belgium, and he went to Paris again, before going back to Cologne, returning to Paris, and then, being exiled again. In May 1849, Marx went to London, staying there for the remainder of his life.

Marxism represents a political, economic, and sociological viewpoint. There are three main points in Marxism. The first is that the history of mankind is marked with struggle among different social classes. A society is defined by its productive abilities and the growth of society is tied to the growth of these abilities. They go through various phases like slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. The various features of a society are formed by these changes fueled by growth as the people undergo transformation.

Marx criticized the capitalist society where a select few dominated the economy, taking advantage of the majority of the people. According to Marx, this form of society exploits the workers especially since surplus labor is extracted from the workers where they are treated as commodities. Though the process appears socialized, ownership of property is the right of the ruling while the working class owned nothing. This major drawback of the capitalist society retards its ability to grow. To overcome this divide, the workers must join together and create a revolution, thereby taking control of the political powers in the country. The capitalists should be removed and a system of collective ownership should be formed to abolish inequality, once and for all.

Marx proposed that economics cannot be viewed as separate from philosophy, history or sociology, which was an unconventional view. Normal economic theory attempts to understand economics by understanding its components but Karl Marx analyzed society as a whole, together with its influence on economy. His idea of economy is that people are driven by basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter rather than greed. The development of agriculture and acquisition of land created the initial divide of masses and classes. This caused social conflicts in the society based on power and wealth. Capitalism worsens this divide by increasing the disparity.

The ideal system would have exchange of value for value and no exploitation as compared to the existing system where the capitalists exploit the workers by paying the basic wage. He also felt capitalists would reduce investment in labor and invest in technology over time. Also, the rate of profits would decrease over the years as the profits would be a result of surplus spent on labor. During recession, there would eventually be reduction in labor cost and enhanced growth in new sectors. This is a cycle of growth, depression, and growth. He was not keen about the process as it enabled the rich to create more wealth while the poor would become poorer.

Marx used labor theory of value which stated that the actual value of a commodity is the time that the worker invested in it. However, the workers are not compensated accordingly for their work. Instead, they are paid the minimum wage to exist on an everyday basis. The wage paid is only a fraction of what is due while the actual sum due is taken by the owner as profit. The difference between the actual wage and the wage earned is the surplus value.

The most well known works by Karl Marx are the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Some of the other works are A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, The German Ideology, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and Principles of Communism, to name a few.

The theories put forth by Marx have a tremendous influence on much of the world’s population, especially during the times when Russia and China spearheaded the communist movement. His ideas not only attracted the Marxists but also numerous traditional economists. Even those who do not subscribe to his views may use the dialectical method of thought to arrive at their own conclusions, which still is a tribute to Karl Marx. Some modern theories have been formed with Marxism as its core.

Follow these resources to learn more about Karl Marx.