Karl Marx (1818–1883) was born in Trier, Germany to Jewish parents (who later converted to Christianity in the face of anti-Jewish laws of the time). Attending private schools in his childhood, Marx later studied law and eventually received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1841. As a student, he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Georg Hegel and his successors (known in philosophical circles as the “Young Hegelians”), but later critiqued what he saw as the idealism of Hegel and developed his own theory of historical materialism (see the “Key Concepts” section below). After receiving his Ph.D., Marx worked as a journalist and became involved in communist thought and politics, as well as numerous political and social issues of the time. In 1843 he married Jenny Von Westphalen and, in 1844, he met Friedrich Engels, who would financially support much of Marx’s later writing and co-author some of his most influential works, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party and The German Ideology.
Marx moved to England in 1849, and spent the remainder of his life researching, writing, and being involved in politics and activism until his death in 1883. Much of Marx’s later writings revolved less around philosophy and more on economics, particularly his two-volume magnum opus, Capital. In Capital, Marx developed one of the most sustained analyses of modern capitalism, and his work on the relationships between the social lives of human beings and the capitalist economy has made him one of the most influential social theorists in history. While Marx is probably best known in the popular imagination for the influence his writings had on communist politicians and parties after his death, in social theory, Marx’s most enduring legacy revolves around his analyses of the effects of capitalism on social life.
When Marx died in London in 1883, his friend Engels read the eulogy. In it, he provided perhaps the clearest articulation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism:
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact—hitherto concealed by the overgrowth of ideology—that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people have been evolved, and in light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as hitherto been the case.”
Tucker 1978: 681
There is sometimes a tendency to discount Marx because some of the predictions he made about the next stage of capitalism (and communism) did not come to pass. True enough, Marx was a brilliant social theorist, but he wasn’t a prophet. But many of Marx’s most fundamental insights into the nature of modern capitalism still help us understand the capitalist system we live in today. His argument that capitalism is prone to regular crises rings true in relation to events like the recent global economic meltdown. While we almost certainly will continue to live in a capitalist as opposed to a communist economic world, it is an economic system that increasingly relies on the intervention and support of political institutions like the state (bailouts, anyone?) to keep it afloat, much as Marx predicted. And, of course, you only have to turn on your television, flip through a fashion magazine, or take a stroll through New York’s Times Square to recognize how strongly we continue to fetishize commodities. It is Marx’s still unparalleled insights into the nature of capitalism that continue to make him one of the most important social theorists of our time.
Central to Marx’s thought is his theory of historical materialism, which argued that human societies and their cultural institutions (like religion, law, morality, etc.) were the outgrowth of collective economic activity. Marx’s theory was heavily influenced by Hegel’s dialectical method. But while Marx agreed with Hegel’s basic dialectical thesis of social change, he disagreed with the notion that abstract ideas were the engine. Rather, Marx turned Hegel on his head and argued that it was material, economic forces—or our relationship to the natural, biological, and physical world—that drove the dialectic of change. More specifically, the engine of history rests in the internal contradictions in the system of material production (or, the things we do in order to produce what we need for survival).
For Marx, each economic system or “mode of production” in human history contained within it a contradiction that eventually led to its demise and replacement by another, more advanced stage of economic and social life. The contradictions inherent in feudalism, such as the necessity for states ruled by monarchs to trade with other states, thus creating a merchant class, eventually led to the advance of capitalism. Yet Marx saw that capitalism, too, had its own contradictions, particularly in the overproduction of goods. As technology advances (i.e. bigger and faster machines) and the exploitation of workers continues, too many goods are bound to be made (just take a look at the sales and bargain bins next time you are at Target or Wal-Mart). The problem, according to Marx, is that overproduction produces crises for capitalism, crises that he felt would eventually prove fatal and lead to the development of communism.
While Marx himself argued that the inherent exchange value of a commodity was only equal to the labor that produced it, he recognized that we often treat and experience commodities as if they were worth much, much more (sometimes even more than life itself). This habit of imagining commodities as having human or even superhuman qualities is what he called commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism takes many forms, but one of the most common ways we fetishize commodities is by identifying ourselves with the things we own—our mobile phones, footwear, automobiles, etc. Marx thought it perverse that the things that people produce end up defining them as persons, that what people owned ended up, in no small measure, owning them. Marx was highly critical of this tendency to treat our own creations as “magical” objects that then define and have power over us.
Marx also thought that commodities and capitalism led to widespread alienation. He is well known in social theory for his argument that capitalism systematically alienates us in four distinct but related ways: it alienates us from the products of our labor (i.e. what we make), the labor process itself, our fellow human beings, and even from our own human nature or “species-being.” Take, for example, alienation from our own human nature. It is not that we don’t know we are human; rather, what we think is human is misguided, in Marx’s view. Marx wrote that what makes us human is our ability to creatively manipulate and produce our surroundings, and therefore our humanity is reflected back to us in the things we produce (think of it as that satisfying feeling you get when you’ve made something with your bare hands, such as a new sweater you knit, an outdoor deck you build, or a nice meal you cook). Marx argues that if we are locked into a system where someone else owns the commodities we produce, and when we lust after those commodities as if they had nothing to do with our own labor, then we have become alienated from our sense of our own species-being.
See the interactive reading for Marx’s Capital.
While we’ve included some of Marx’s most influential works in the Social Theory Re-Wired reader, it is still just a small portion of his overall writing. Luckily, and much in the spirit of Marx’s political leanings, many of his works are open access and free to the public. If you want to read more from social theory’s pre-eminent theorist of capitalism, you can check out the Marx and Engels Internet Archive at:
Here you will find everything from Marx’s earliest writings on philosophy and democracy, to his later work on economics and capital.
Marx also continues to inspire many of today’s most influential social and cultural theorists, like
and Sylvia Walby: