Karl Marx: Although Sociology as a discipline emerged much after Karl Marx’s death, and he had no connection to the subject matter itself, Marx has been assigned the status of a classical thinker in Sociology, and his theories continue to be examined and analyzed voraciously by sociologists and students of sociology. This article provides an insight into the life, some major works, and criticisms of the theories s of one of the most celebrated, debated, and studied figures.
Introduction to Karl Marx:
Karl Marx was born Karl Heinrich Marx on May 5, 1818, in Trier, in Rhineland, Germany (then Prussia). His mother was Henriette Pressburg, and his father, Heinrich Marx, was a lawyer and, although he did not practice Judaism actively, Heinrich had to convert to Christianity (Lutheranism) to be able to continue his legal practice in the rise of anti-Semitism. Heinrich’s secularist ideas and engagement with the Enlightenment (with Immanuel Kant and Voltaire as the main persons of influence) were crucial in the development of Marx and his conceptions. He married Jenny Von Westphalen, a German political activist, in June 1843.
Marx’s studied at the high school in his hometown Trier, before which Heinrich taught Marx privately. The Trier High School was often put under surveillance by the local government for promoting liberal ideas among its staff and students. Marx was educated in his later years in Law, History, and Philosophy. In 1835, he was admitted to the University of Bonn. Following a series of hostilities, which Marx got engaged in during his time at Bonn, Marx relocated college to the University of Berlin in 1836 to undertake the subjects of Law and Philosophy (along with History). It was here that Marx was introduced to the ideas of German Philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, and joined the group of radical thinkers called ‘Young Hegelians’. Hegel played one of the most significant roles in influencing Marx’s theoretical system known as ‘Historical Materialism’, which is the foundation for a majority of Marx’s works. Marx earned a doctorate in Philosophy in 1841 from the University of Jena.
Marx’s career in academia was jeopardized as a consequence of the conservative ministry of education in Berlin placing an embargo on Marx for being a radical. However, he found a place as a writer in the liberal newspaper circulated in Cologne, the hotbed of industrial advancement in Prussia, called ‘Rheinische Zeitung’, and later became the editor of the same in October 1842. During his career at the newspaper, Marx wrote on a variety of topics such as press freedom, the vices of censorship, poverty and destitution in Berlin, and the government’s appalling treatment of the indigent and the peasants. His excessive and unreserved criticism on these issues invited the disapproval of the authorities, and the newspaper was proscribed. In 1843, he got married to Jenny, and they both moved to Paris later in the year. In Paris, he got acquainted with the works of Henri de Saint-Simon, a French Philosopher whose views set off the formation of Christian Socialism, as well as those of Adam Smith, a political Economist, and David Ricardo. Marx’s friendship with Friedrich Engels, whom he first made acquaintance with during his work at the Rheinische Zeitung, also deepened. This marked the beginning of a journey of partnership and bond of friendship between the two which would persist through the entirety of their lifetimes. Marx’s vehement journalism once again attracted the umbrage of the government, and he was forced to change cities. He moved to Brussels, where, along with his friend Engels, he published two of his most paramount works, namely, ‘The German Ideology’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’, along with others such as ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ and ‘The Holy Family’, published in 1847 and 1845 respectively. Marx also became associated with the League of the Just, which was later renamed to Communist League. During the workers’ protest that ensued during 1848, Marx and Engels went back to Rhineland, where, in Cologne, they co-contributed to the paper ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’ started in 1849. Put on trial for arousing and supporting revolts and for participating in the vilification of the royal family of Prussia, Marx was ousted from the country, and also had to leave Paris. With his wife and children, he settled in London. Once there, he immersed himself into writing, mainly focusing on economics, and producing such works as ‘Capital’ (also known as ‘Das Kapital’). Marx also established and directed the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, the main purpose of which was to abolish the atrocities under capitalism.
Throughout most of his career, Marx had to rely on financial aids from others, among which was his friend, Friedrich Engels, who provided Marx monetary assistance during his years in London. With rapidly declining health, and lack of means to sustain themselves, Jenny and Marx passed away on December 2, 1881, and March 14, 1883, respectively.
Major Influences on Marx’s Ideology:
Apart from the conditions of the society during his lifetime, and the circumstances in which he grew up, Marx’s thinking which was reflected in his writings were largely inspired by the ideas of several people throughout his life. The following people, along with a few others, were the ones who made the most significant impact on Marx:
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Hailed as one of the greatest and most noteworthy contributors to German idealism, W. F. Hegel was a German Philosopher. To say that the entire theoretical alignment and standpoint of Marx is based on Hegel would not be an exaggeration. To understand Hegel’s influence on Marx, it is important to first make sense of Hegel’s theory. With a firm belief in the fact that change, in history, is constant till the ‘perfect’ or ideal state of society is attained, Hegel theorized that it is ideas that carry forward and cause changes in history. According to Hegel, reality and the material things that we comprehend in our consciousness as experiences do not and in fact cannot exist without our consciousness and our ability to construct them within it. What we perceive, and the way we perceive it becomes reality. With a change in our perception and understanding, the reality around us changes as well. It through this that ideas progress throughout history. Hegel saw this as a ‘dialectical’ method: a ‘thesis’ (or, a particular idea) collides with an ‘antithesis’ (or, a conflicting idea), the resolution of the discord between which will give rise to the ‘synthesis’ (or, a new idea), which serves as the new thesis, and the process continues (Maybee, 2016). Karl Marx formed his main theory, known as “Historical Materialism”, based on (or, to put it in a better way, by inverting) the theory of Idealism by Hegel. Marx’s theory is explained in detail in one of his most famous works, ‘The German Ideology’.
- Ludwig Feuerbach: The work by Feuerbach which inspired Marx the most was also the most important work during his career: ‘The Essence of Christianity’ published in 1841 (also known as ‘Das Wesen des Christentums’). In a contrast to the traditional Christian idea that God created humans and bestowed his (or her) own qualities to the humans, Feuerbach asserted that it is humans who create God as per their consciousness allows, and therefore, it is not humans who have the qualities of God, but rather God who is suffused with the attributes of humans. This theory of materialism, as opposed to Hegel’s theory of idealism, inspired Marx, who attested that the material world is the one that is real, and any ideas which we might develop about it are the outcomes, and not the reason of occurrence, of that world.
- Adam Smith: During his stay in Paris, Marx focused his attention on the intensive study of the work of political economists, one of whom was Adam Smith, along with others such as David Ricardo. Adam Smith’s understood ‘laissez-faire capitalism’ as one in which any form of competition is allowed, and there are no restrictions imposed on the entry and exit of firms within the market. An ‘invisible hand’ mechanism ensures that the economy is in equilibrium. According to this notion, the outcome of capitalism is favorable for everyone involved in the process: both the producers and the consumers benefit from capitalism in the end, and it provides greater economic and social well-being in general. In direct contrast, Marx identified ‘alienation’, differences between bourgeoisie and proletariats, and exploitation of the workers as the essential consequences of capitalism. Marx also contended that within the conditions of Capitalism were present the seeds of its destruction.
In addition to these, others such as Immanuel Kant, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Charles Darwin, and his friend, Friedrich Engels’s also made a mark on Marx.
Marx’s Contributions to Sociology:
- The German Ideology: Published somewhere between 1845 and 1846, The German Ideologywas one of Marx’s most seminal works, co-written by Friedrich Engels. This text gives an elaborate narration of Marx’s theoretical alignment. Marx uses W. F. Hegel’s notion of ‘idealism’ and overturns it to formulate his ideology of ‘historical materialism. In altering Hegel’s viewpoint, Marx keeps a few basic characteristics of the former’s theory intact. According to Marx, societies everywhere are ever-evolving, and the constant reformation that they undergo is eventually towards an ideal society. This concept is in congruence with Hegel. For Marx, as for Hegel, when the utopia would arrive, at that point in history any transformation would come to a standstill. Until then, according to Marx, the alteration would be instigated by situations of struggle between the classes. When Hegel theorized that ideas prompt historical changes, Marx rejects it, and insists that the material existence of humans (i.e., what we do or the actions we execute) are, in contrast, the actual instigators of events and changes. Instead of individuals, groups of people constituting classes, and separated from each other through the resources owned by each are, in Marx’s conception, the cause of historical movement. According to Marx, within each such historical stage, where one group of people exert their power or control over another, is present the spark of revolution which causes the so-called ‘rulers’ to be overthrown, and the power to be redistributed among the people. This process occurs in such a way that the stage in history disintegrates by itself and gives birth to a new one (for example, the end of feudalism marked the beginning of capitalism due to a new form of resource allocation taking place in societies). This is termed ‘Historic Materialism’, and it signifies a material-based interpretation of human history. In the case of Marx’s theory, the final, ‘ideal’ world is one of communism. To explain his theory, Marx posits a base-superstructure system of social order. The ‘base’ consists of the means of production (the ‘raw materials’ such as land, factories, etc.) and the relations of production (such as capital, proletariat or workers, and bourgeoisie or capitalists). The base shapes the ‘superstructure’, which consists of ideologies, religion, education, culture, law, and politics. The superstructure in turn sustains the base, such that they have to be in tandem with each other to ensure proper working of the society. Because the structure of the superstructure depends on the base or, essentially, the material conditions, the social position of an individual (or a group of individuals) is based on the type of material conditions they correspond to, i.e., materials form the basis of the existence of individuals. Every aspect of the human person–their worldview, learning, career, family–depends on the material conditions that are etched into each class position. In other words, the ‘humanness’ of people arises from material existence. The base, being dynamic, changes, as does the superstructure. The class of people who caused such a restructuring of the base, the class with the “ruling material force of society” becomes the “ruling class”. As Marx says: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx & Engels, 1932/1998).
- Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: The concept of ‘alienation’ is one of Marx’s finest contributions to sociology. The topic is covered in his essay titled “Alienation” found in the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” among 9 others. Alienation refers to that situation in which the workers who are actively participating in the production process of a particular commodity are separated from the process, the product, themselves, and the others within the society. It is, in essence, a form of denying humanity to humans themselves. Some also describe it as the psychosocial vice which deliberately detaches two things (beings and/or objects) which for all practical purposes belong together in the first place (Leopold, 2018). According to Marx, this debasement is an intrinsic and inevitable feature of capitalism as a result of the kind of production process that exists within it. ‘God’ or religion in such a class-based society exists only to hypnotize or sedate the working class, and to keep them from being conscious of their deprivation. Marx identifies not one, but four types of alienation:
- Alienation from the product of labor: The work put in by the owner of labor only serves to provide the wage or money which can sustain them. It is in no way an activity that defines human existence or one’s relations with others in society. The labor is owned by the private owners or capitalists, has no meaning within itself, and is simply another mere ‘input’ or factor of production utilized in the process of creating something.
- Alienation from the production process: The people who provide their labor to earn wages have zero control over how the products are made and what goes into making them. The workers are not controlling the technique and inputs, and are not ‘producing’ commodities actively; they are merely participating in the creation of something, which is also alienated from them, because, once again, the workers have no control over the distribution, price, quantity, etc. of the final product. Instead of the commodity is dependent on the worker, the latter is dependent on the former to earn their means of subsistence.
- Alienation from the self: In their activities as workers and mere inputs in the production process, individuals are estranged from their humanity or the aspect of being a human person. In a capitalist production system, the workers lose their creativity, and even the labor of the workers does not belong to them.
- Alienation from others in society: In a capitalist system, humans are separated from fellow humans. They are reduced to commodities–paid for, used, and sold as per requirement. Other ‘human commodities’ become their competitors. Human relations do not exist beyond the necessity of the production process. As Marx puts it, in such loss of human-to-human interaction, “What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal” (Marx, 1932/2012).
- The Communist Manifesto: Co-written by Marx and Engels in 1847 for preparing the Communist League’s principles, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’ was formulated to promote and instill among people the ideals of the communist movement. This pamphlet holds the famous quote by Marx: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx & Engels, 1992). Marx identifies two distinct and conflicting classes within capitalism: the bourgeoisie (or the owners of the means of production who earn profits) and the proletariat (the owners of labor power who earn wages). Ownership of private property by a handful of people is the chief issue as it leads to exploitation of the workers. The Communist Manifesto traces the emergence of Capitalism and posits events that will lead to its eventual and inevitable destruction through the development of ‘class-consciousness’ among the proletariats. Marx also defines a list of measures that can be undertaken to restore power to the common people. In sum, the Manifesto is a written demonstration of the communist ideology.
- Das Kapital: In this work, Marx integrates both social and economic analysis of capitalism. Marx uses the help of several of Adam Smith’s ideas to generate his own analysis of the capitalist system. In the ‘Capital’, Marx provides a detailed criticism of the social and economic organization under capitalism which renders private owners more powerful than the workers having the actual labor strength. Marx theorizes that the economic structure of capitalism is sure to cause its own downfall.
Read: Das Kapital – Summary
Criticism of Marxism ( Karl Marx) :
Karl Popper, one of the most notable philosophers of the 20th century, proposed the ‘Falsification Principle’ or the ‘Theory of Falsification’ to determine what can be considered ‘science’ and what else can be considered ‘pseudoscience’. According to Popper’s critique of Karl Marx’s theory, it is a pseudoscience because it cannot be proven false. Karl Popper also said that Marx’s theories try to give a prediction of future events without any substantiated proof. Others such as Leszek Kołakowski, a Polish philosopher, contend that in identifying the social facts as they were, Marx fails to recognize certain basic human conditions such as life and death, etc. Other critiques of Marx’s theories include Max Weber, Robert C. Allen, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Maynard Keynes.
- Karl Popper, in accordance to his Theory of Falsifiability, asserted that Marx’s theories, such as Historical Materialism, could once could have legitimately called scientific, had become pseudoscience, and instead of promoting science, they had started promoting dogmatism (Thornton, 2021).
- Eminent economist John Maynard Keynes was thoroughly condemning of Marx’s theories. In his book ‘Essays in Persuasion’, Keynes dismissed Marx’s ‘Capital’ as “an obsolete economic textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world” (Keynes, 1963, p. 300).
- Famous polymath Bertrand Russell, in his work ‘Portraits from Memory’, called Marx “muddle-headed” whose theories were “almost entirely inspired by hatred” (Russell, 2007, p. 229).
- Thorstein Veblen, the renowned sociologist, and economist, is also said to have offered criticism of Marx by stating that the latter preached the idea that workers had a ‘natural right’ to the whole of the outcome which their labor produced (O’Hara, 1997).
What did Karl marx believe in simple terms
Marx was a person ahead of his time. During a period when the conservatives actively made sure no liberal idea was spread, Marx spoke about his thoughts, which were largely liberal and critical of the governments and their policies, without fear. Marx’s first belief was in the struggle between the ruling classes and the working classes. Marx understood society not through the peace that was seen on the surface, but through the class conflict and struggle power struggle between the ‘rulers’ and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed. For Marx, class struggle was at the core of and a necessary outcome of Capitalism. Marx was a vehement critic of capitalism. He understood dehumanization, oppression, unequal social arrangement, subjugation, and alienation of humans as a key feature of capitalism.
Next, Marx believed that despite the unequal power and resource division between the private owners and the laborers, the working class is in a constant state of struggle against the bourgeoisie. Marx believed that a time in the future of people will arrive when the working class or the proletariats will have all the power in their hands, i.e., those who actually do the work will also have control over the resources. That brings us to Communism. As proclaimed by Marx, communism will be that ‘ideal’ structure of social order which takes away the power from the bourgeoisie and redistributes it among the working class and common people. Marx also believed that capitalism can be overthrown only when all people of the working class, regardless of their nationalities, come together and revolt against it. This is declared towards the end of ‘The Communist Manifesto’.
Read: Difference Between Socialism and Communism
Marx was also an atheist from a very young age, choosing to rely on knowledge and people instead of religion. Marx’s ideas on religion, which are reflected in several of his seminal works, are most visible in his famous declaration that “religion is the opium of the people” (Jonathan & Leopold, 2020). In other words, Marx believes that religion is a tool used by the bourgeoisie to keep the working class people in a mollified state. The proletariats are administered religious beliefs and practices in a similar way to narcotics, so that they are provided instant and temporary relief from their miseries, and their attention shifts away from the problems of power inequality and injustice that exist within society.
Despite the several objections to his theories, Karl Marx continues to inspire students, academicians, activists, politicians, and sociologists all over the world even today.
Practise Question and Answer
“Religion is the opium of masses and an instrument of classes.” Critically analyze.
Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses and an instrument of the classes. Religion reduces the pain of oppression by:
(1) Promising rewards in the next birth or afterlife.
(2) Makes suffering a virtue – as a test of one’s character by God.
(3) Through theories like karma, one believes that the oppressor will get divine justice.
However, in reality, it is simply used as a tool by the upper classes to justify and consolidate their privileges:
(1) Estate system: was assumed to be divinely ordained and hence unchangeable.
(2) caste system in India.
(3) Religion is a means to develop false consciousness, thus prevents the proletariat from recognising the true cause of their sufferings and uniting in a proletariat revolution.
(4) Leads the masses to believe a ‘Saviour’ will arrive, instead of self organizing a revolution.
(5) Louis Althuser calls religion as a part of ideological state apparatus.
(6) ‘Divine right to rule’ of the monarchy → in medieval times.
- Religion can also be an impetus for change → Weber in protestant ethics and capitalism.
- Even in USSR, which established communism and state actively discouraged religion, religion did not die out.
Bildt, C. (2018, May 10). Why Marx was wrong. The Strategist. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/why-marx-was-wrong/
Feuer, L. S., & McLellan, D. T. (2021). Karl Marx. In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/
Hudelson, R. (1980). Popper’s critique of Marx. Philosophical Studies, 37(3), 259–270. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00372447
Keynes, J. M. (1963). Essays in persuasion (p. 300). W. W. Norton & Company.
Leopold, D. (2018, August 30). Alienation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/alienation/
Marx, K. (2012). Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Dover Publications. (Original work published 1932)
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1992). The communist manifesto (D. Mclellan, Ed.). Oxford University Press.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1998). The german ideology : Including theses on feuerbach and introduction to the critique of political economy. Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1932)
Maybee, J. E. (2016). Hegel’s dialectics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel-dialectics/
Mommsen, W. J. (1977). Max weber as a critic of marxism. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 2(4), 373. https://doi.org/10.2307/3340296
O’Hara, P. A. (1997). Veblen’s critique of Marx’s philosophical preconceptions of political economy. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 4(1), 65–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/10427719700000020
Russell, B. (2007). Portraits from memory and other essays (p. 229). James Press.
Thornton, S. (2021). Karl Popper. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/
Wolff, J., & Leopold, D. (2020). Karl Marx. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/