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An Introduction to Karl Marx's Philosophy on Capitalism and Socialism

I've been writing about fiction and philosophy online for over six years. I am also an enthusiast of politics and art.

Karl Marx

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 a fellow German philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel, and the idea that history was slowly progressing toward a “great idea.”

As such, it was his contention that capitalism was a step in historical evolution after the disbandment of monarchies and after the inevitable fall of capitalism, 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 after his death, Marx remains a controversial and influential figure. He often bears the brunt of unfair criticism for the oppressive communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China that did not follow his principles at all but instead used the concept and name 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” which is 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.

The title page of the first volume of Das Kapital or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, the foundational theoretical text by Marx.

The title page of the first volume of Das Kapital or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, the foundational theoretical text by Marx.

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 labor as the most valuable contribution to society and he saw capitalism as a method to exploit labor.

Capitalist Scenario

His main argument against capitalism might be structured in a scenario like the following. A rich man buys a factory and hires fifty employees. While the owner has the capital to buy the factory and the raw materials to make his product, labor is the most important element of his business.

He then gains profit from the labor of his workers, typically paying them a wage that is less than they are worth, especially when he is selling the products they created for a substantial profit. As time goes by, the owner will be able to hire more workers and make even greater profits. All the while, the amount of personal labor he puts in will never really change and his workers will not reap any of the benefits of his success.

One of the main problems with a situation like this for Marx was that he saw this as a gateway for a new type of aristocracy to develop. Marx was against the idea of inheritance and when he co-authored the famous (or infamous depending on your beliefs) The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels, he called for the abolition of inheritance. He wished for the state to seize funds left behind after a person died and for the said state to then redistribute the money 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 the end of capitalism, he never stated that it needed to be a violent revolution. That said, he also never discounted the idea that revolution might manifest itself through violence.

Marx often distanced 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 but rarely makes attacks against Capitalism that could be called moral arguments. All of Marx’s arguments are essentially economic arguments and not moral ones. These make him unique among political theorists who mostly made their arguments based on moral judgments.

Marx saw the period after a 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 worker's unions that would elect their own representatives to government.

Contrary to how his views are usually portrayed, Marx was not a strong supporter of strong central government control. His version of communism would have theoretically been one where all means of production are 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 (often referred to as co-op) in the modern day and have been very 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 Enduring Ideas

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 economic commentary and thought, and his ideas about labor-based economic theory remain both influential and controversial.

Many economists believe 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 defenders and like his political theories, many consider the real implications of Marxist economics to be something that is more along the lines of an untested hypothesis.



J Zod from Nairobi on September 12, 2018:

Hi @Robephiles

Karl Marx's theories on communism have been misunderstood, misinterpreted and implemented in the way he did not intend.Karl Marx was a very disillusioned cultist.Although he pretended to champion the rights of the ordinary man.His objective was to subjugate humanity through communism.This is the reason why China and Russia slaughtered over 100 million in the name of Communism.Karl Marx infact died a very poor man.He was a lunatic who caused his whole family to commit suicide.You can read more about him in my article

BakerRambles from Baltimore, MD on July 23, 2011:

I really appreciate this article on the key conveys of Karl Marx, I believe true Marxism could work if the people could display no greed, but this form of government couldn't happen unless there was a one world government with a general sense of overall equality among everyone, a world without borders.