Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Karl Marx
Karl Marx was a 19th Century German philosopher and political and economic theorist best known for his harsh criticisms of capitalism and advocacy of communism. Marx was heavily influenced by the views of G. W. F. Hegel and the idea that history was slowly progressing toward a “great idea.” As such, it was his contention that capitalism had been the step in historical evolution after monarchy and that after the inevitable fall of capitalism that communism would take over. Despite the fact that he was heavily associated with Socialism, Marx was critical of the socialist movements of his day for trying to initiate reforms that he felt would delay the collapse of capitalism. Marx is often heavily criticized for his belief that even a mixed form of capitalism was unsustainable and for having what some see as an overly dogmatic dedication to Hegelian ideals.
Over a hundred years later, Marx still remains a controversial and influential figure. He is often unfairly criticized for the oppressive communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China that did not follow his principles at all but used the concept of communism for their own purposes. He is also seen as a militant atheist for statements such as “religion is the opiate of the masses” (a misquote often attributed to him and taken completely out of context.) and for his views that Jews should do more to blend into mainstream society to avoid anti-Semitism. (This mirrors the views of reform Judaism at the time) Despite all of this negativity attached to his persona he is still considered to be one of the most insightful critics of capitalism.
Marx on Capitalism
Marx thought that unregulated capitalism was a fundamentally flawed system that allowed wealth to become consolidated in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Marx saw the most valuable contribution to be labor and he saw capitalism as a method to exploit labor. His main argument might be structured like this: A rich man buys a factory and hires fifty employees. While the owner has the capital in which to buy the factory and the raw materials from which to make his product, labor is the most important element of his business. Even though this is true he gains profit from the labor of his workers, paying them a wage that is less than they are worth when he sells the products for a substantial profit. As time goes by, the owner will be able to hire more workers and make greater profits but his amount of personal labor will never really change and his workers will not reap any of the benefits of his success.
One of the main problems with this for Marx was that he saw it simply developing into an aristocracy. Marx was against the idea of inheritance and when he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels he called for an abolition of inheritance allowing the state to seize funds left when a person died and redistribute it among the populace. Marx argued that workers, who he called the proletariat, could never gain the status of the capitalist owners (the bourgeoisie), through usual means, and that capitalism would lead to a widening gap between rich and poor until an inevitable revolution. Marx thought that this revolution was simply inevitable given the course that capitalism would take and would be the beginning stages of the rise of communism.
Marx on Communism
The Marxist version of communism remains largely misunderstood, partially for unfair associations with the Soviet Union. While Marx thought a revolution was the only way to bring about Capitalism he never stated that this was necessarily a violent revolution though he also never discounted the idea that revolution might manifest itself through violence. Marx often distances himself from moral judgments when talking about how Communism will come about and these views are more reflective of his Hegelian views toward history than any moral claims. Marx thought that Capitalism would collapse because it was not sustainable and rarely makes attacks against Capitalism that could be called moral arguments. All of Marx’s arguments are essentially economic arguments and not moral ones, which makes him unique among political theorists who mostly made their arguments based on moral judgments.
Marx saw the period after revolution to be one where the proletariat had seized control of society. His version of communism was essentially a loosely democratic one. He saw the government being run by small groups of workers unions that would elect their own representatives to government. Contrary to how his views are usually portrayed, Marx was not a strong supporter of a strong central government control. His version of communism would have theoretically been one where all means of production is run collectively by society. Workers would all have an equal say and would be able to share in profits equally. Such concepts are still employed in worker owned businesses in the modern day and have been successful in certain circumstances.
One major criticism of Marx is that his version of communism creates a power vacuum where a tyrant can easily seize power. Opponents of Marxism point out that this is essentially the scenario that played out in the former Soviet Union and they argue that any attempt to use a Marxist model will have similar results due to simple human nature. Defenders of Marx still insist that his theories may be able to be carried out in practice and that true Marxism has never been tried. Toward the end of his life even Marx was disillusioned with how some people had interpreted and exploited his ideas and if he had the opportunity he might have been able to refine his political theories further.
Marx’s political views are based heavily on a Hegelian viewpoint and many people see this as his major failing as a political theorist. Marx considered his primary contribution to be with economics and his labor based economic theory remains influential and controversial. Many economists believe that his overemphasis on labor as the foundation of economic value led to his inability to take into consideration other forms of value. Still, his ideas have their defenders and like his political theories many consider the implications of Marxists economics to be an untested hypothesis.