Karl Marx (1818-83)


19th Century witnessed many revolutions in the realm social movements and theories. The ordinary people, the working population, the wretched of the earth [Fanon] who entered in the arena of political theory through Rousseau in the 18th century found a profound spokesperson in the genius of Karl Marx in the 19thcentury. Marx, as a student of jurisprudence, history and philosophy, at a time when Hegelianism was the dominant paradigm and trend in the academia, turned Hegel’s philosophy of inverted reality upside down and declared, “In practice man must prove the truth”. Thus rejecting the easy way of discovering the truth through myth, revelation and authority based on some obscure God or prophet or Hegel or Marx had made his intentions very clear by charging that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.” The journey of Marx’s this clearly un-Hegelian, activist view of philosophy began with his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights as the subject of his doctoral theses. Unable to find a job in academics, in 1842 he began to prove the truth in practice through his writings, as a journalist of  a democratic newspaper in Cologne, Rheinische  Zeitung and the paper was suppressed by the Prussian government. Marx moved to Paris, where he came in contact with Proudhon,  the  leading French socialist intellectual and Bakunin, the Russian anarchist and his country-cousin, Engels who became his life long companion. In 1845, under the pressure of the Prussian government, expelled from Paris, Marx moved to Brussels where he along with Engels authored the Communist Manifesto in 848. In 1849 Marx went to London and lived there till his death in 1883. Marx began his analysis of existing bourgeois social order with Economic and Philosophical Manuscript (EPM) in 1843 carried forward in a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and took it to a logical conclusion in the 3 volumes of Capital completed in 1867.

Marx was a materialist and an atheist before he systematically began to criticize Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights. He made two opposing liberal streams of liberal philosophy – Feuerbach’s metaphysical materialism and Hegel’s Dialectical idealism — as his reference point, challenged and transformed them. He challenged and reversed the prevailing notion that men’s consciousness determines material conditions and stated and reversed it. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their existence.” [Preface] He began his analysis of Capitalism based on his thesis, “the anatomy of civil society has   to be found in political economy.”  Pre-Marxian social analysis emphasized the law and the politics. Marx shifted the emphasis to economics and seeks the explanation of historical changes in the economic structure of the society, the basis on which rise political and legal superstructure.

The mode of production of material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political and intellectual life.

Marx rejects the history of social changes in terms of monarchs, their court ladies and fellow dynasts or in terms of wars and battles. Marx attempts to locate the deeper causes of historical changes beyond the wars and triumphs. Men began to distinguish them self from other animals by producing their own means of subsistence and hence the major cause of historical changes lie in the mode of production.

At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into with the existing production relationship. Or, what is but a legal expression for these with property relationship in which they have moved before. From forms of development of productive forces, these relationships are transformed into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution opens. With the change in the economic foundations, the superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

The Communist Manifesto begins by proclaiming, “the history of hitherto societies has been the history of class struggles between the haves and have-nots with irreconcilable antagonistic class interests, as individual does not exist in isolation but as an integral part of a large social aggregate.  The epoch of bourgeoisie has simplified the antagonism by “splitting the society into two great hostile camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat”. The law of the social changes from primitive communism to slave system to feudalism and to capitalism led Marx and Engels in the Manifesto to conclude the end of capitalism by more advanced Forces of Production – the Working Class — for the same historical reasons and its replacement by socialism that will lead to a classless society and the state shall weather away.

Marx’s writings are difficult to be placed in any of the existing disciplines as Marx himself was opposed to compartmentalization of the study of laws of social dynamics as the society is one organic whole. In fact they cover almost all the existing disciplines. Marx is the first social thinker to use the neglected government reports and statistical material I the study of social and economic problems. Marx’s analysis of capitalist system influenced the course of history in such a way that the entire intellectual and political spectrum of the world got split into two broad camps in to Marxist and anti-Marxist camps in the same way as capitalism has split the world into two broad classes with contradictory class interests.

As Marx declared in the Theses on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” And hence he sought to interpret the world with the aim of changing it. In his interpretation of history, Marx emphasized on the economy — the mode of production of material means of existence,  and sought the explanation of all the major historical events and changes in the economic structure of the society, the basis on which rise political and legal superstructure and conditions the whole process of social, political and intellectual life. Strictly speaking, historical materialism is the application of the method of dialectical materialism to history or the Materialist concept of history and constitutes social-scientific core of Marxist theory of the course of history that seeks ultimate Cause and great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of the society, in the changes in the mode of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggle of these classes against one another”. [Engels, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian, SW: 394-411]

Historical Materialism, as Marx and Engel’s claim in the German Ideology (1845-46), is the “guiding thread” of all their subsequent studies. It rests not on philosophically derived abstractions or dogmas but on observation and accurate depiction of real conditions that can be verified in purely empirical ways. Economic structure  of the society, constituted by its relations and the forces of production, is the real foundation  of the society ‘on the basis of which rise a legal and political super structure and  to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’.[Preface] 

The concept of Class and Class struggle is the key to Marxist concept of social change. Marx’s ‘discovery of proletariat’ as ‘the idea in the real itself’, a new political force engaged in a struggle for emancipation, formed the basis for Marxist theory of history and politics. Liberals before him do talk about this conflict but for them it is a ‘problem’ to be solved by good will, reason and reconciliation. For Marx, the conflict is irreconcilable as it is not a ‘problem’ to be solved but a relationship of domination and subjugation to be lessened and ended eventually by the total transformation of the society by ending the conditions, which give rise to it. The antagonists are not the individuals, but the individuals in and through a society, members of a social aggregate, the Class. “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of inter-relations, the relations within which these individuals stand.” [Grundrisse] Basis of domination and the struggle to end it is the determination of the dominant classes to extract maximum products of labor of the subject classes.

The latest antagonists are the common people and the global capitalism. The working class that is the common people are the revolutionary forces today.  What does working class or proletariat mean? Marx writes in the Poverty of Philosophy, “Economic conditions had first transformed the people of the country into workers. The domination of the capital has created for this mass a common situation, a common interest. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle this mass gets united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interest it defends becomes class interest. Comprehension of the collective interest of the class as a whole to which one belongs is the consciousness of the class interest that makes the working class from a class in itself into the class for itself.

 The above Marxist analysis of class and class conflict is predominantly based on the development of capitalism in the developed capitalist countries. But the colonial intervention and dominance of foreign capital exceedingly distorted, qualitatively and quantitatively, the development of capitalism in Third World/developing countries.

Marx and Engels termed the bourgeois consciousness as ideology in the sense of false consciousness, through its ideologues as it presents the sectoral, class interest and class ideas as universal. These spokespersons of the dominant classes try to persuade the subordinate classes about the universal validity of these class-bound ideas and ideals, generally under TINA syndrome, as universally true and essential for the maintenance of the social order. They themselves and those whom they speak to, deeply believe in this universal and final truth and hence will vigorously fight for them.

Working Class is a universal class, as the “previous historical movements have been movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. “The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with the traditional property relations” and “with traditional ideas”[CM]

What this class consciousness is in reference to the working class? In Marxist parlance it means an understanding that the emancipation of proletariat and hence liberation of the whole society, the human emancipation, require the overthrow of capitalism along with its ideas and ideals. The will and preparedness to overthrow is its logical corollary. It is revolutionary in the sense of its radical rupture.

No set ideas or ideals, ‘communists do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.’  The workers ‘have no ready made utopia to introduce’ and ‘have no ideals to realize but to set free the elements of new society with which the old collapsing bourgeois society’ [GI] Those who treat Marxism is as a cult  robs the concept its dynamic nature of its character as constantly changing process that is not unilinear. It is susceptible to not only progress but also to regress. There are no irreversible formulas. It is an objective understanding of the social order and what to do about it. Historically it has been full of tensions, contradictions, open questions, possibilities of errors and regression.

It means a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of the society, internalization of the need to achieve that ‘most radical rupture’.  It is not a definite set of ideas but a perspective, a world view. In times when the class struggle nears a decisive hour a section of ruling class and particularly a section of its ideologues who have raised themselves to the level of theoretically comprehending the historical movement as a whole’, and change the side to join the proletarian struggle for emancipation. The middle class, petty bourgeoisie and peasant are against capitalism to save their existence from extinction, try to roll back the wheel of the history so they are unwilling allies, allies, nevertheless.

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi

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