An Introduction to the Work of Marx

Karl Marx’s work offers a significant, powerful critique of modernity on several fronts. He is best known for his passionate attack on capitalism, but he also presents us with serious philosophic and cultural arguments. The reader should consider, however, whether any of his writing can be read except in the light of his expressed revolutionary purpose. Marx’s work is generally divided into two periods: the more philosophical, idealist, early Marx; and the more mature, scientific, and materialist Marx. Despite this general split, however, in all of his work, Marx wavers between a focus on the transformation of consciousness, and an insistence on the primacy of material conditions for the formation of consciousness. Central to any interpretation of Marx or Marxism is a treatment of this tension. This tension can be restated as a concern with the perennial problem of the relation of theory to practice. Marx claimed that philosophy is based on its revolutionary and practical character, or “praxis,” in light of the knowable direction of history. On the level of practical politics, Marx and his followers debated the nature and proper scope of the intellectual leadership of workers’ parties, the need for revolutionary transformation of state structures, and the question of the inevitability of the transformation from capitalism to socialism. All of these issues originate in the central Marxian concern for properly relating theory to practice, and can be seen expressed in various forms in Marx’s treatments of Hegel, his doctrine of historical materialism, and even in his economic teachings.

The Hegelian Background of Marx’s Thought

Marx was formed by Hegel’s writings, and accordingly most of his early work is an attempt to understand the implications and shortcomings of Hegel’s thought. Hegel himself supported a version of the Prussian state and respected Christianity as a partial representation of the whole truth. Marx, however, considered himself an acolyte of the German Left, or Young Hegelians, a group that included David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Max Stirner. These men were radical atheists who insisted that Christianity was an expression of human alienation and needed to be destroyed in order to make way for a new, humanistic religion. Most importantly, Feuerbach criticized Hegel’s speculative method as an obfuscation of the reality of human experience, and set for himself the task of demystifying it. Feuerbach explained that the attributes of God are actually human attributes; mankind, alienated from his true self, experiences that alienated self as an oppressive power he is forced to worship.

Marx was impressed by this argument but criticized it as incomplete because it focused only on consciousness. Exposing the human roots of religion has no effect if one wishes to change man’s relationship to the “divine”; what must be done is to destroy the material conditions that make religious alienation necessary. Marx indicates his turn to materialism in The Holy Family, “On the Jewish Question,” “Theses on Feuerbach,” and especially A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It is important to note that Marx’s political understanding predates his materialism. He believed in the desirability, necessity, and even the inevitability of socialism before he worked out the logic of its genesis. “On the Jewish Question” contains a rare instance of Marx’s confrontation with the philosophy of natural right and the formal conception of freedom in the so-called bourgeois democracies. While natural rights theorists claim to have allowed for religious and personal freedoms in the realm of civil society, Marx claims that this conception divides the human being from himself, giving him neither a real public nor a real private existence. Men have formal rights and equality, but their rights have no power, and we are unequal in our conditions. Freedom of religion and privacy of conscience are belied by the economic conditions which are the real bases of consciousness.

Alienated Labor and Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is Marx’s central philosophic doctrine. It is clearest in The German Ideology and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In recent decades there has been a surge of interest in this period of Marx’s thought. Even though many of his later economic and scientific arguments have been refuted theoretically, empirically, and politically, the philosophic humanism that underlies them still has great appeal for many intellectuals.

The doctrine of historical materialism holds that the impetus of human historical development is the economic antagonism between various social classes. It takes for granted Hegel’s claim that History is a meaningful process that works progressively toward its end in the midst of apparently chaotic human events, but argues that the Ideas that Hegel takes to be crucial moments in that History are merely the epiphenomena of the material conditions that created them. Marx wrote that “all human history is the history of class struggle.” At its most extreme this teaching says that every political and social institution is a reflection of existing economic relations; the state exists as the servant of the ruling class and introduces whatever laws, practices, or beliefs will perpetuate the prevailing economic order. In this understanding, politics, religion, philosophy, and even science are reflections of the economic order and serve the interests of those who benefit from it. The core of this teaching is Marx’s theory of alienated labor. Acting on material given by nature in order to make it into something useful is the fundamental and unique life-activity of human beings. Marx explains that all of human history can be understood by changes in the mode of production, or the organized relation of human beings to the products of their labor. Marx argues that by separating the worker from the product of his labor, the system of industrial capital not only alienates the worker from himself, but from all other human beings: the worker who has to sell his labor as a commodity and does not enjoy the product of his labor is not really human.

There are four main stages in human history: tribal, communal, feudal, and bourgeois, or capitalist. In each successive stage there is a substantive advancement and multiplication of human productive forces but also an increased degree of exploitation, until mankind reaches a threshold condition of abundance produced by technology that is sufficient to provide for all human needs. That condition will eventually force the mass of mankind, with no property but its own labor, to overthrow the few remaining capitalists and abolish private property. This “communism” is the end of class struggle and therefore the end of history or the final plane of human economic relations.

By the time of the Manuscripts Marx had turned to a materialism that argues that all forms of consciousness, and therefore all ideals, arise out of actual, constantly changing material conditions. Nevertheless, as his teaching on labor shows, he was at this time still presenting an account of a fundamental human nature from which it is possible to be alienated. In that account, he claims that there is a fullness, an original unity of the human being to which it is possible to return. But if ideals are ephemeral epiphenomena of material conditions, then what appears to be “human nature” necessarily changes in accord with changing economic conditions. Accordingly, in the “German Ideology” and his later, more scientific presentations of historical materialism, Marx no longer speaks of “alienation” and “dehumanization,” but of “oppression” and “exploitation”; that is, he abandons the notion of an ideal human nature separate from material conditions and appeals to justice in purely economic terms.

The Critique of Capital and the Collapse of Capitalism

Whether Marx’s economic teaching was only the latest tactic in his larger revolutionary strategy, chosen because it was more rhetorically effective and far-reaching than his philosophic critique of modern bourgeois life, or a sincere attempt to put economics on a more secure footing, the turn toward political economy marked for Marx a transition to a new enthusiasm for science and the modern technological project.

Marx’s most systematic and lengthy presentation of the laws of industrial capital is in Das Kapital, his magnum opus. Marx wrote the first volume and left notes for the others, to be completed by Engels. This text purports to explain precisely the process whereby a worker becomes estranged, or alienated, from the product of his labor; how he is exploited by the capitalist; and finally how, propertyless and unemployed, the mass of the workers, the proletariat, is forced to overthrow the whole economic system and the political order protecting it.

The foundation of Marx’s economic argument is the labor theory of value, which he adapted from David Ricardo, Adam Smith, and Thomas Hodgskin. The worker, having been dispossessed of his land, and with no other property of his own, has to sell his own labor as a commodity in order to earn his subsistence. The commodities his labor helps produce do not belong to him; instead, he receives enough wages to sustain him as a worker. The value of a commodity is based on how much labor-power is expended in its production, not on its use. The capitalist makes his profit by requiring the worker to work beyond the time necessary to earn his subsistence, extracting free labor. For the capitalist, the worker’s use-value—how many hours he works, and so how much he produces—exceeds his exchange-value—how much he has to be paid to maintain him as a commodity. The excess is called surplus-value, or exploitation.

Another aspect of industrial capital is the proliferation of machinery. Industrialists, competing with each other, are forced to invest an ever greater percentage of their surplus-value in manufacturing. The use of machines makes skilled labor less necessary, so women and children can be employed cheaply. Innovations in machinery make workers less necessary; unemployment increases, wages decrease below the level of subsistence, and a mass of unemployed workers forms, which Marx calls the Industrial Reserve Army. Most capitalists, unable to keep up with the level of investment in machinery, go out of business and join the ranks of the proletariat. There is a tendency toward centralization and monopolization of the means of production as the ranks of the capitalists is thinned and the rate of profit continually diminishes. With the collapse of profit, investment ceases and the capitalist system implodes. At this point we have either state, and not private, control, or the workers are forced to destroy the state and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in order to effect the transformation to communism. Marx tends to champion the second possibility.

Revolution and the Relation between Theory and Practice

The laws of capital, as Marx sees them, point to the inevitable collapse of capitalism and the emergence of communism as a historical necessity. Yet, the move from capitalism to communism is a long and difficult struggle, and it requires the conscious and deliberate organization of the workers by professional revolutionaries and then by the Communist Party. Marx calls for political and social revolution and argues for the necessity of organizing the workers to overthrow the state in most of his early writings, but the most direct appeal to the workers is in the Communist Manifesto, written with Engels in 1848 for the Communist League. The book consists of a brief account of historical materialism, an outline of the Communists’ political program, and distinctions between the Communists as a revolutionary political party and all other socialist movements. Despite its potent rhetoric, the Manifesto contains little that is novel but the political program. Here Marx confronts seriously for the first time the practical political questions that would arise upon the occasion of a proletarian revolution. What he describes amounts to an intermediate stage between the fall of capitalism and the emergence of truly communist society. Property is abolished, but until class distinctions disappear there will be a state monopoly on capital and centralization of the organization of production and communication. The proletarian class must be the ruling class as long as classes are necessary, but once it achieves the complete destruction of the old order, the state will “wither away.”

The term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which refers to the temporary administration of the state power by the workers, was first used by Joseph Weydemeyer, but was quickly adopted by Marx. In On the Civil War in France, he remarks on the political program of the Paris Commune, the government set up by the revolutionary socialists who ruled Paris for two months in 1871, in order to describe the dictatorship more programmatically. From the Paris Commune, Marx claims to learn that the proletariat must not only seize the state power and use it until the conditions of the class struggle have been destroyed, but must destroy the bourgeois state apparatus altogether in order to establish its own government organs.

In “Critique of the Gotha Program” Marx further distinguishes between the first phase of communism, where, because the new society still carries some of the defects of the old, each will receive not what he needs but only what he contributes, and a higher phase, where all will receive what they need. In these works, by responding to historical events with new theoretical formulations of the transformation from capitalism to communism, Marx inaugurates a Communist tradition of inventing stages between the two. At the root of this necessity to continually revise revolutionary theory according to the requirements of revolutionary practice, is Marx’s expressed purpose: the theoretical understanding of what is just and good for human beings has been attained; what is now required of philosophy is to realize it in practice by any means. These means must not only right economic injustices but must also transform consciousness.

At its heart, Marx’s philosophy, following Rousseau, is governed by a view of human freedom. Freedom is a consonance between desire and ability, and a unity of our private and social selves and our material and spiritual existences. But whereas Rousseau ultimately argues both that all politics is a form of enslavement and alienation, and that there is no full returning to our original condition, Marx hopes to transcend politics and attain on a communal and developed level, the freedom and equality that Rousseau’s original solitary men enjoyed in the state of nature. One may say that the actual injustice and lack of freedom in Communist countries is caused not only by the tyrannical rule of many who rule in Marxism’s name, but also by this attempt to effect the impossible.

For further introductory reading, see also:

Joseph Cropsey,  “Karl Marx” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. Terrell Carver, Cambridge: 1992.