Marx, Karl

Marx, Karl
A German social theorist, founder of revolutionary communism , and in sociology of historical materialism . Marx began studying law at the University of Bonn and completed his studies at the University of Berlin. Soon after arriving in Berlin, he joined an iconoclastic and bohemian intellectual group (who were to become known as the Young Hegelians), and took up philosophy. After completing his studies in 1841 he became a journalist on, and later the editor of, a radical bourgeois newspaper called theRheinische Zeitung. Rather unluckily, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia happened to read an attack on himself that Marx had penned, and prevailed upon the Prussian government to close the paper down.
In 1843 a jobless Marx married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen, and moved to Paris. During the two years he spent in Paris, Marx met and quarrelled with many of the leading radicals of the time, including the anarchists Bakunin and Proudon, and the poet Heinrich Heine. More important for his own development were some of the unknown people he met, especially the socialist artisans and Friedrich Engels , the son of a German manufacturer who was already managing his father's factory at Manchester in England. Engels was to become Marx's lifelong friend, collaborator, and much-put-upon patron.
Marx's more or less simultaneous discovery of socialism and the works of the British political economists , principally Adam Smith , David Ricardo, and James Mill, enabled him to distinguish himself clearly from his Young Hegelian mentors and so lay the foundations for his own theoretical system. Of the three manuscripts he wrote during this period, only the two historically less significant ones were published. The Holy Family and The Poverty of Philosophy. Very likely, as would still be the case today, this was because these two were studies of better-known contemporaries rather than statements of an original position by an unknown author; this was not true of the third text, that which has become known as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. These early publications did little to create a reputation for Marx. By contrast, the ideas outlined in theManuscripts provided him with the intellectual sustenance necessary to sustain himself over a long career as an émigré activist and private scholar, a career marked by poverty and academic as well as political neglect (the interest of the likes of Tsar Nicholas proving to be short-lived). Moreover, although theManuscripts were not published until the 1930s, their appearance even then was a major intellectual event and had a profound effect on Marxist scholarship, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. For some, they represented the key to a hitherto suppressed humanistic Marxist and socialist tradition that provided a basis for the criticism, not only of capitalism , but also of all ‘actually existing socialisms’, whether Stalinist or social-democratic. For others, they made explicit and so allowed the identification and removal of anachronistic, non-scientific traces in Marx's mature theory, and restored its explanatory potential.
The Manuscripts are most often celebrated for the passion with which the concept of alienation (the wage-worker's lack of control over the production and disposal of his or her product) is presented, but equally noteworthy is the general nature of the argument of which this concept is a part. This is because the argument represents an accessible as well as an extremely powerful instance of the mode of argumentation that has become known as critique: that is, exposing the often unjustified assumptions upon which intellectual positions commonly rest. In what still seems like a striking instance of lateral thinking, Marx chose to go about his ‘settling of accounts’ with his philosophical past by applying the method of critique to the aforementioned British political economists, and drawing conclusions about the validity of Hegel's theory of history. What he discovered was that both bodies of thought unproblematically assumed that inequality and all of its attendant sufferings follow from the accident of birth. Thus what Marx shows is that wherever one looks in the conceptual schema of the political economists what one finds is that it rests upon the unjustified assumption of the prior existence of private property.
Marx's own explanation for the existence of private property remains very underdeveloped in the Manuscripts, resting as they do on the concept of alienation. Instead, he is far more concerned to spell out what he sees as the consequences of the psychological and social estrangements that follow from this lack of control, and the resulting universal human need for revolution (see rebellion, revolution ). It was to take him a further twenty years to specify exactly why alienation occurred.
Marx made his first move towards this goal just one year after he wrote the Manuscripts, in the short text that has become known asThe Theses on Feuerbach. Feuerbach was the ‘Young Hegelian’ to whom Marx owed most. The critique of his ideas was eventually to have a significance which extended far beyond Marx's own theoretical system. The thought that launched not just Marxism but structuralism more generally is most concisely crystallized in the sixth thesis, which states that ‘the essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each particular individual. The real nature of man is the totality of social relations.’
Once Marx had in this way defined his starting-point, he moved rapidly on to the specification of the concrete nature of these relations. In The German Ideology of 1846, also unpublished at the time, he used the terms ‘productive forces’, division of labour , and ‘internal intercourse’ or ideology to conceptualize them, and on this basis was able to distinguish four different forms of society covering the whole span of human history: primitive communism, ancient or slave society, feudalism , and capitalism. He also began to explore the issue of how one form was succeeded by another. His suggestion was that, over time, contradictions gradually developed within each form of society because of the constraints imposed upon the development of the productive forces by the ruling ideologies of property. These contradictions resulted in struggles over the distribution of any surplus between the classes created in all societies (except communist ones) by the organization of the division of labour. Marx identified the principal classes of capitalist societies as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat .
The theory lying behind the concept of class was still incomplete since the theoretically critical varying modes of surplus appropriation had yet to be specified. Nevertheless, Marx was clearly extremely excited by the analytical possibilities opened up by his possession of this concept, and he spent the next ten years writing empirically orientated texts in which he sought to demonstrate them. Among the most important of these were The Communist Manifesto (1848), The Class Struggles in France(1850), and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte(1852).
It was not until 1857, and nine years after he had settled in London, that Marx returned seriously to his theoretical studies and the problem of what it was about the ways in which particular forces of production , divisions of labour, and ideologies of property were combined, which divided people into classes. The result of these labours were the eight hundred or so pages that have become known as The Grundrisse (1858). Because Marx was by now a reasonably well-known journalist, he at last found a publisher for his theoretical work. With great difficulty Marx managed to extract a slim volume entitled A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859) from The Grundrisse. Its publication was a resounding failure, and with the exception of the famous base versus superstructure metaphor contained in its Preface, the text itself appears to have been incomprehensible even to many of his closest friends. Marx and his publisher lost interest in publishing any more volumes of such material. This was unfortunate because it meant that it was to be several more years before Marx was forced to present the missing link in his economic theory, the labour theory of value , and to elaborate upon its consequences in a publishable form. This he finally did in 1867 when the first volume of Capital appeared. Two more volumes were published posthumously in 1885 and 1893. Chief amongst the theoretical deductions drawn from the labour theory of value in these later volumes was the theory of crisis he constructed around what he termed ‘the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ and its ‘counteracting influences’.
In sum, then, Marx died having solved (for himself at least) the principal problem remaining in his economic theory; namely, why should the mode of appropriation of surplus that is specific to capitalism organize those engaged in production into two antagonistic classes? What he did not do was to specify what consequences, if any, his new-found theoretical precision might have for his understanding of the mode of surplus appropriation specific to the other social forms that he had identified. Nor did he enlarge on the more or less incidental remarks he had made throughout his career on such topics as the state , ideology , class, law , socialism , and (of all things) communism . One ironic consequence of this unevenness in the development of Marx's thought was that the humane concerns underlying his economic theory were forgotten by many later Marxists, as they often ruthlessly acted upon the extremely powerful, but very partial political and social insights produced by the same theory.
Of the countless biographies and expositions of his thought, David McLellan's Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (1973) still commends itself, for its clarity and attention to detail. Marxist sociology has, of course, been both controversial (sometimes self-consciously so) and heavily criticized. Much of this is discussed elsewhere in this dictionary (see especially those topics listed under the heading ‘Marxist sociology’). See also capital ; Marxism ; means of production ; mode of production ; relations of production.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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