Karl Marx was surely one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. His ideas, after all, served as a basis for some of the most dramatic political movements of the twentieth century. This sample historical essay provided by Ultius will discuss Karl Marx, his ideas, and the aftermath of those ideas within the context of the modern world and attempt to provide a better sense of who Karl Marx was.
Karl Marx early life and collaboration with Friedrich Engels
Karl Marx was a philosopher and revolutionary hailing from Germany. As Wolff has written, he:
“was born in Trier, in the German Rhineland, in 1818. . .On completion of his doctorate in 1841 Marx hoped for an academic job, but he had already fallen in with too radical a group of thinkers and there was no real prospect. Turning to journalism, Marx rapidly became involved in political and social issues, and soon found himself having to consider communist theory” (paragraph 1.1).
This is about when he began to develop the ideas for which he would become famous. Throughout his life, he collaborated on several of his major works with an Englishman named Friedrich Engels. Together, they developed a whole new theory of the very nature and meaning of human history.
Diversity in written works
Karl Marx’s output of works is quite diverse in tone and style, although unified by its general set of main themes and concerns. For example, the Communist Manifesto is surely his most famous and widely read work. As its title suggests, it is meant for a popular audience and primarily meant to inspire action. On the other hand, Marx’s work Capital is a massive three-volume analysis of the entire nature of capitalism.
It is written in intensive philosophical language packed with a great deal of jargon. Most academic specialists of Marxism have probably not read much past the first volume. This diversity is perhaps a reflection of Marx’s own dual calling of philosopher and revolutionary. On the one hand, he had a passion for understanding the world in as thorough and clear a way as possible. On the other, he himself knew (and formulated in one of his most famous aphorisms) that the point of all that thinking was ultimately not to understand the world, but rather to change it in a meaningful and radical way.
Marx and dialectical materialism
Marx’s primary innovation was his creation of the philosophy of what he called dialectical materialism. The main idea of dialectical materialism is that human history is produced and driven by the clashes of different forces and interests. Each resolution of those clashes producing new clashes at a higher level. Clearly, the industrial revolution played a large part in the formulations of these ideas. This is reflective of the classic dialectical chain of:
- Synthesis, where the synthesis itself is a new thesis that produces its own antithesis.
According to Marx, this ongoing spiral of conflict produces what people ordinarily call human history. His theory suggests that primitive society gave way to feudalism in this way, and that feudalism in turn gave way to capitalism. Marx himself was, of course, writing from the heart of the capitalist era; and he was essentially prophesying that capitalism itself would dialectically give way to the final era of communism, which would be characterized by universal liberty and the full realization of human potential.
Influence of Hegel on Marx
The main arc of Marx’s ideas can be understood as a kind of dialogue with and rebuttal of the theory of philosophical idealism developed by Hegel who would also play a large part in the ideas of Martin Heidegger as well. According to Hegel as well, history was a dialectical process of unfolding conflict. To Hegel, the main actor of history was what he called Spirit, and the point of history was Spirit increasingly overcoming its own “alienation” realizing itself in fuller and fuller ways. This theory would suggest, for example, that capitalism overtook feudalism due to the simple fact that Spirit needed this to happen for the sake of its own realization. Capitalism provided Spirit with potentials that would have been unavailable to it under feudalism.
Class over spirit
Marx, on the other hand, substitutes the concept of class for the concept of Spirit, and insists that all of history can be understood not as the abstract motions of self-realizing Spirit but rather the concrete motions of material class struggle. In this framework, the very idea of Spirit itself would be a kind of bogeyman that was invented by a specific class and that prevents the vast majority of people from coming to grips with their own true self-interests.
Dictatorship to prevent capitalist society
One of the more controversial concepts in Marx’s arc of ideas consists of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The main idea here is that in the transition from capitalism to feudalism, it would be necessary for the proletariat—that is, the working classes of the world—to impose a kind of authoritarian interim government in order to ensure that its own interests are protected, and that society as a whole does not slide back into capitalist oppression. Marx himself was ominously vague about what such a “dictatorship” would look like, or even whether it would be an actual dictatorship in the literal sense of the word. He aknowledged that it would be almost conceptually impossible for the actual proletariat to impose a literal dictatorship and are quite Machiavellian in nature. The ambiguity of this formulation has had fateful consequences, as we will see soon enough.
Inspired political movements
The two greatest political movements that have been inspired by Marx’s philosophy of history are:
- Leninism-Stalinism in Russia
- Maoism in China
These revolutionaries were all inspired by Marx’s general vision of social revolution, but also became aware that it would not be possible to apply Marx’s ideas to their own societies in a direct way. Rather, they took Marx as an inspiration but then proceeded to develop their own theoretical and pragmatic platforms for their own social revolutions. There are numerous theoretical divergences between Leninism-Stalinism and Marxism. Likewise, there are also numerous divergences between Maoism and Marxism. However, both of these movements have always considered themselves as falling within the lineage of Marxism.
Effect of Marx’s influence in other nations
Crucially, both Leninism-Stalinism as well as Maoism have been dramatically effective at producing real political changes within their respective nations:
- The Soviet Union – was a thoroughly Communist (with an intention capital “C”) nation. The Cold War, of course, has primarily been formulated as a clash between the Soviet Union and her Communist allies on the one hand, and the United States and her liberal democratic allies on the other. Likewise,
- China – continues to consider itself a Communist nation, with the revolution brought about by Mao still constituting an important part in land reform and the entire fabric of Chinese society.
Given that these are the only examples of “communism” coming into being in the modern world, most people have by now come to associate Marx himself and his ideas with the Soviet Union, China, and other allied nations; and they have tended to evaluate Marx and his ideas solely on the basis of the practices and the fates of those nations.
Now, even a cursory understanding of Marx’s actual ideas would seem to indicate that movements such as Leninism-Stalinism and Maoism could not possibly have very much to do with Marxism proper. This is due to the simple fact that:
According to Marx, the communist revolution he envisioned could only take place in highly advanced capitalist nations—and not in backwater, quasi-feudal places like early-twentieth century Russia and China.
In fact, Marx was quite clear that a real Communist revolution could not possibly happen in such places. This follows from his theory of dialectical materialism, according to which:
Feudalism gives way to capitalism, and then capitalism gives way to communism
This is both because both the material and ideological prerequisites of communism could only be established under an advanced capitalist regime. The idea of a feudal society attempting to directly jump to communism without passing through capitalism first would have seemed completely ridiculous to Marx himself.
Marxist ideals give way to authoritarianism
Theorists such as Lenin and Mao, of course, imagined themselves to be interpreting Marx’s theory for application within the context of their own nations. This misses the crucial point, however, that according to Marx’s own theory, such application would be completely impossible. Whatever Lenin and Mao thought they were doing, they were not following Marx’s own ideas—for if they were, the first thing they would have done is work toward developing advanced capitalist regimes within their own nations.
Likewise, it is quite clear that within the Soviet Union and China, the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in a way that simply reproduced old-fashioned authoritarian dictatorships, and not some kind of enlightened transitional state on the way to total freedom (see Flank). This logically follows from the simple fact that Marx’s communist utopia was utterly impossible for these societies to achieve, according to Marx’s own theory of dialectical materialism itself.
A society based upon freedom
In the minds of most people, Marx has come to be almost inextricably associated with the people who betrayed him, to the point that outside of academic circles at liberal arts colleges, it has become almost taboo to identify oneself as a Marxist or to declare any kind of affinity with Marx’s ideas. For example, the presidential candidate Sanders has often been denigrated by liberals and conservatives alike for pushing for a kind of “communist” social order—under the assumption, of course, that communism must necessarily mean a society like that of China or the former Soviet Union.
There is almost no public awareness left that in Marx’s vision, communism originally meant nothing other than a society based on real human freedom, and moreover that a highly developed capitalist society like the United States (and not a place like China or Russia) would in fact be the ideal place for such a revolution to take place.
Karl Marx developed a highly sophisticated and innovative philosophy of history, with a vision of history as a whole culminating in a society characterized by the realization of human freedom. Another point that has been made, however, is that the people who came after Marx and were inspired by him have tended to greatly pervert his ideas and tarnish his name. The younger generation would seem to be somewhat more sympathetic to the ideals of communism. This is presumably because members of this generation have no memory of the Cold War, and are thus in a psychological place where they may be willing to consider new ideas and become inspired by the genuine vision of Marx. This is encouraging because there is much in Marx’s vision that is and should remain inspiring to all human beings.
Erckel, Sebastian. Maoism: The Divergences between Maoism and Classical Marxist Thought. Noderstedt: GRIN Verlag, 2008. Print.
Flank, Lenny. Rise and Fall of the Leninist State: A Marxist History of the Soviet Union. New York: Red and Black, 2008. Print.
Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford U P, 1977. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Capital Volume 1. New York: Penguin, 1992. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers Co, 2014. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: Prometheus, 1988. Print.
Wolff, Jonathan. “Karl Marx.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .