Insightful critic of capitalism, terrible social architect.

Now that Marx has been liberated from the ironclad ideology of the East Bloc, a serious and frank discussion can take place about him and his philosophy. I've heard it said that the worst thing that could possibly happen to a thinker is for him/her to be placed on a pedestal. In spite of his biblical beard, Marx is neither a secular saint nor a prophet, as any reading of his works will reveal. Yet he made a profound influence on sociology and, to a lesser extent, economics. It is sad that most people have only read The Communist Manifesto, if anything. (And don't be confused by the title; the Manifesto is hardly an endorsement of Marxism-Leninism. I recall a Thomas Nast political cartoon from the 1870s that lambasted communism; but this was a much different sort of "communism.")

The rigid collectivism of Stalin's Russia contrasts sharply with the (rather myopic) vision of a future society. For while Marx rejected the individualism of Locke and Mill, he did not wish to sacrifice the individual to state interests. Still, the vision is hazy and open to interpretation. For instance, what of historical inevitability? From a strictly materalist 19th century view, I can see whereby Marx arrived at that conclusion, an abrogation of free will. But he did he know of quantum theory? One can say the human mind is an expression of this randomness introduced into the universe -- God playing dice. This is why Stalinism rejects quantum theory; for Marxism was adapted by the new Russian autocrats in order to lend legitimacy to their regime. It also seems that his conclusions were extrapolated from too little data. Still, the dialectic is much less important, in my estimation, than the concept of alienated labor.

Marx contradicted himself several times; compare The Civil War in France, written in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and the comparatively authoritarian Manifesto, written in the aftermath of the events of 1848. From The Civil War in France Libertarian Marxism has been derived, combining Marxian analysis with Anarchist praxis.

For it is his analysis of capitalism that is most enduring. Say what you will about Capital; it is the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that I find most enchanting. You see little of the concept of alienated labor in the Gründrisse, and hardly at all in Capital; this was a concept that, for some indeterminate reason, was abandoned by Marx as years passed. It is the young Marx who shares much in common with the existentialists, and his earlier work was and still is accepted by many great psychologists. (Marcuse, Fanon, et al.)

Capital is largely considered to be his magnum opus. One's view of it depends on one's view of the Labor Theory of Value. Myself, I am inclined to think that all wealth is created by labor -- that is, activity which imparts further use-value to an object. What do factory owners do? Do they produce, as their workers do? Nay, they control the means of production, thereby forcing workers to sell their labor to them. Back before the rise of capitalism -- in the Jeffersonian days of yore, when the Bourgeois were in the process of supplanting the nobility in Europe -- most workers were independent artisans and craftsmen and did not have to sell their labor. See why Jefferson's vision of an agrarian society is outmoded? As technology has progressed, the worker finds he can no longer survive independently. But certainly not that technology is a Bad Thing. But I digress...

Regardless of what one thinks of his work, one must acknowledge Marx was a genius on the level of Freud or Darwin, and had an impact as great as the other two thinkers. Marxian philosophy is interesting but perhaps no longer as relevant. I endeavour to study it -- as I do the philosophy of other thinkers -- but keep an open mind and not fall victim to dogmatism. YMMV.
The tragicomic thing with the critique of Marx is that those who have never opened a single book by KM are the ones who try most enthusiastically to denounce his writings.
Marx made only very few suggestions about coming society, how it would look like. Most of all it was the critique of capitalism as the names of his books imply.
Since only critical analysis of Karl Marx' work is written here, I decided to post this biographical WU. I think it's appropriate to briefly outline the man's life at least, until someone decides to pen a better bio. Mind you, this is only a paper I churned out in 45 minutes out for another student (US $10, 1/3 more pages than required...cha Ching.). Nevertheless, it's good to have some sort of biography in the guy's own node. Without further adieu I present...

The Life of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. His writings on philosophy and the role of the working class have influenced billions of people all over the earth; including those in Germany, Russia, China, England, and the United States. The ideas he put forth in his fascinating and remarkable life have forever changed the world. Although he led a controversial life with radical views, he managed to gain the admiration of millions of “Marxists,” as they would come to be called.

Karl Marx was born in Germany to a lawyer in 1818. Although his family was Jewish, his father converted to Lutheranism. Marx went to school to become a lawyer as his father had done, but he became interested in philosophy (as many Germans were at that time), and left to study at Jena. German universities were the best in the world then, a place of enlightened thought and diverse study. Marx was a proponent of Socialism; however, he rejected the ideas of Hegel--the most prolific Socialist writer of the day--as too wistful. Instead, Marx fell under the influence of the Socialist philosophers of Ludwig Feuerbach and Moses Hess.

Karl gained his PhD at Jena in 1841, and acquired his first major job as the editor of Rheinische Zeitung, radical newspaper, in 1842. In 1843, the Rheinische Zeitung’s views were seen as too revolutionary, and the publication was suppressed. Europe was in a state of turmoil in the mid-1800s, and there had been several revolutions. Radical ideas of the state and rights of the working class fueled many of these uprisings, and many liberal forums for discussion were being exterminated. This no doubt had an influence on Marx’ ideas and writings.

The suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung prompted Marx to move to Paris, a move that would change his life. In 1844, Marx met a man by the name of Friedrich Engels, whom he would collaborate with until the day he died. Together, Marx and Engels made a fantastic writing force. They shared a common perspective in that of Socialism. Both Marx and Engels held the belief that the worker was entitled to his equal part in society, both democratically and economically.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined the Communist League in 1847. In 1848, as writers for the Communist League, Marx and Engels produced their most popular and influential work, an essay called The Communist Manifesto. In it, the two proclaimed that the proletariat (the working class) would inevitably come to overthrow the bourgeois (the upper ruling class). The notion that the workers of the world would overcome the ruling class was not a new one, because previous philosophers had stated this. However, there was a new and intriguing element Marx added to this theory. Instead of saying that it was the workers’ natural right to be equal and overthrow the bourgeois--like Hegel and the earlier philosophers--Marx stated that the workers’ triumph was a historical law of inevitability. No matter what, he said, the proletariat will win. This was a very radical and dangerous view to have at that time.

Marx founded many revolutionary parties in the mainland of Europe, to help kindle and encourage worker uprising. However, after the revolutions of 1848 failed, Marx was exiled from most countries on the mainland. Marx was forced to move to London in 1849, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Left nearly penniless from his constant relocation and small dividends from his writing career, he had to take up work in less revolutionary field. He wrote on correspondence for the New York Tribune, but that wasn’t enough. His friend, Friedrich Engels, funded him for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Marx helped to found the International Workingmen's Association. With this organization, Marx's ideas began to spread even more in Europe. The creation of the IWA compelled Marx to write a comprehensive manuscript outlining his ideas. With the editorial and monetary support of Engels, He came out with a monumental review of his theories in 1867 with Das Kapital I . Later, he followed Das Kapital in three more volumes; which were edited and published posthumously.

For the remainder of his life, Marx was consulted on many Socialist party activities and was considered to be the godfather of the workers movement. His views on sociology and history were revolutionary, on level with the great minds of the Enlightenment Age. Karl Marx’ writings have been the lifeblood of communist movements for 150 years. He’s inspired Debs, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, and countless others to undertake the leveling of the class system. Karl Marx died in 1883, at the age of 65.

From Each According To His Abilities, To Each According To His Needs


Node your business homework!

Based strictly on his and Engels' Manifesto, Marx was spot-on about capitalism.

The beginning of The Communist Manifesto discusses the expansion of the bourgeoisie as an insatiable outward thrust. More than once in that volume, Marx (and Freidrich Engels) accurately predict the phenomena of globalization and hits upon more than one of the problems it presents.

"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe."

"The bourgoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations."

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations, even the most barbarian, into civilization ... it compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst ..."

"Just as it (the bourgeoisie) has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasonts on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West."

Disregard for a moment the backhanded racism inherent in some of those passages - I am referring to the use of "barbarian" to describe Chinese culture, among others - and consider what Marx and Engels prophecize in those passages, all taken from Part I of the Manifesto:

  • The need for bourgeois (capitalist) society to constantly discover new markets. Just as in Marx's day, the United States has battled since the 1970s (and continues to battle) to maintain a strong presence in Asian markets. Including, ironically enough, a Communist-turning-Capitalist China.
  • Free and open world trade, including the corporate migration offshore for their manufacturing needs. Marx also remarks upon the "universal inter-dependence of nations," which smells strongly of the economic concept of specialization - basically, narrowing the range of products produced in any given region, then relying on increased exports to pay for the requisite increased imports.
  • Global Americanization. How ubiquitous is Coca-Cola in any city in the world? Nike? McDonald's? Marx predicts that capitalism "compels them to introduce what it calls 'civilization' into their midst ..." The similarities between what Marx foresees and the flood of American products abroad are striking.

Given that the phenomenon he predicts - globalization - has only recently re-emerged as an issue since he identifies it in the 1800s, I think it is far too early to pass judgement on the veracity of Marx's predictions about the fall of Capitalism; his observations of Capitalism in his day were certainly astute. Almost 150 years after the first printing of the Communist Manifesto, I see some unsettlingly accurate predictions in that work, and I see many things which were true during the 19th century, immediately preceding the Industrial Revolution, are still true today. Some of the things he describes as deplorable in the rise of capitalism - I assume that globalization as he describes it refers primarily to the Open Door Policy in China and similar foreign policies - are evocative to me, standing here at the start of the 21st Century, as the world continues to struggle with capitalism.

Thus rather than be wrong ... the beginning of Marx and Engel's Manifesto has only recently been reinforced as dead right. It could be possible that they have accurately predicted the rise of the proletariat, and it just hasn't happened yet. Although I personally doubt the possibility of such widespread revolution, I see areas in which Marx is now correct. It could be that the depressions of the 1920s were not the necessary catalyst for Marx's social change, or perhaps that capitalism was not yet global enough. That, however, is outside the scope of my argument - I am not an economist. I merely wanted to identify how correct Marx and Engels have been so far.

Forgive me if I elect to reserve judgement on the rest of his predictions for now.

Noung offers helpful historical background: ... Marx was also describing contemporaneous circumstances. The world on the eve of the First World War is often considered to be as globalised as it is today, and only Europe's thirty-year catastrophe derailed this process. Other parts of this are borrowed from earlier economists, i.e. Adam Smith and the 'universal inter-dependence of nations'. Marx was, to my mind, more a skillful analyst of capitalism than a far-sighted prophet.

Europe's "thirty-year catastrophe" as a delay, rather than a proof of Marx's error, seems a more fitting evaluation to me.

True: Marx was not some far-sighted visionary. However, one is presented with a multitude of evidence supporting his status as not only an astute observer of capitalism in his time, but a man posessed of foresight enough to identify the trend and pattern of capitalism in so precise a manner that his statements backed, I presume, with evidence such as the handling of the East India Tea Company and European/American foreign policy towards China and Japan in the 1800s are still true today. Bear in mind these same statements are being made now only after the much less subtle evidence we have in the 21st century: Coke signs everywhere from Timbuktu to Tibet, factories spread from China to Mexico, cable television invading homes in Nepal. Not only did he identify economic trends within capitalism, but social ones as well - the necessity for "bourgeois" culture to impose itself upon every other culture it encounters is a phenomenon which I am inclined to credit Marx for predicting rather than Adam Smith or any other great thinker of periods previous, although it is true that Marx did borrow from many people between Aristotle and our buddy Adam, including his contemporary Hegel.


Thanks to Noung and also Catchpole for their comments.

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