Karl Marx: Marxism


1.       From which philosophical movement do both liberalism and Marxism derive?

2.       How do liberal and Marxists differ in their methods of achieving social justice?

3.       When and where did Marx and Engels write the Communist Manifesto?

4.       Carefully explain how Marx uses the term “dialectical materialism” to describe his theory of historical progress.

5.       What are the three stages through which history has progressed?

6.       How does the expansion of material technology drive the progress of history through progressive stages?

7.       What made the French Revolution a perfect demonstration of Marx’s belief that economic change drives political change?

8.       What might Marx have said about the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917?



(excerpted from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry, pp.254-268)


The failure of the revolutions of 1848 and a growing fear of working class violence led liberals to abandon revolution and to press for reforms through the political process. In the last part of the nineteenth century, Marxists and anarchists became the chief proponents of revolution. Both liberals and Marxists shared common principles derived from the Enlightenment. Both believed in the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature and claimed that their doctrines rested on rational foundations. Both aspired to liberate individuals from accumulated superstition, ignorance, and prejudices of the past and to fashion a more harmonious and rational society. Both believed in social progress and valued the full realization of human talents.


Despite these similarities, the differences between liberalism and Marxism are profound. The goal of Marxism-- the seizure of power by the working class and the destruction of capitalism-- was inimical to bourgeois liberals; so too was the Marxist belief that class struggle and violence were the essence of history, the instruments of progress, and the vehicle to a higher stage of humanity. Liberals, who placed the highest value on the individual, held that through education and self-discipline people could overcome inequality and poverty. Marxists, on the other hand, insisted that, without a transformation of the economic system, individual effort by the downtrodden would amount to very little.


Karl Marx (1818-1883) was born of German-Jewish parents (both descendants of prominent rabbis). To save his career as a lawyer, Marx’s father converted to Lutheranism. Enrolled in a university to study law, Marx switched to philosophy, embracing elements of Hegel’s thought. In 1842, Marx was editing a newspaper that was soon suppressed by the Prussian authorities for its outspoken ideas. Leaving his native Rhineland, Marx went to Paris, where he met another German, Freidrich Engels (1820-1895), who was the son of a prosperous textile manufacturer. Marx and Engels entered into a lifelong collaboration and became members of socialist groups. In February 1848, they published the Communist Manifesto, which called for a working-class revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. Forced to leave France in 1849 because of his political views, Marx moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life. Although supported by Engels, Marx was continually short of funds, and at times he and his wife lived in dreadful poverty. In London, Marx spent years writing Capital (1867) - a study and critique of the modern capitalist economic system, which, he predicted, would be destroyed by a socialist revolution.


A Science of History


Marx believed that he had discovered the laws of nature operating in history and society. He was a strict materialist, rejecting all religious and metaphysical interpretations of both nature and society. He viewed religion as a human creation-- a product of people’s imagination and feelings, a consolation for the oppressed-- and considered the happiness it brought an illusion. Real happiness would come, said Marx, not by transcending the natural world but by improving it. Rather than deluding oneself by seeking refuge from life’s misfortunes in an imaginary world conjured up by religion or Hegelian metaphysics, one must confront the ills of society directly and remedy them. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.” Philosophy should seek to understand the past in order to alter the present, Marx insisted. It should not be a disinterested speculation but a force for social liberation.


To effectively make their own history people needed to comprehend the inner meaning of history-- the laws governing human affairs in the past and operating in the present. Marx adopted Hegel’s view that history was not an assortment of unrelated and disconnected events but rather a progressive development which proceeded according to its own inner laws. For both Hegel and Marx, the historical process was governed by objective and rational principles; it was intelligible. Marx also adopted Hegel’s view that history advanced dialectically, that the clash of opposing forces propelled history to higher stages and towards a final destination: a harmonious society.


However, Marx also broke with Hegel in crucial ways. For Hegel, history was the unfolding of the metaphysical Spirit or Idea. According to Marx, Hegel’s system suffered from mystification. It downgraded the realities of the known world which became a mere attribute of the Spirit. Marx saw Hegel’s abstract philosophy as diverting attention from the real world and its problems, which cry out for understanding and solution. For Marx, history was explainable solely in terms of natural processes, empirically verifiable developments; reality could not be reduced to something metaphysical or spiritual.


For Marx, the starting point and ultimate significance of history is found in the human social and economic environment, the natural conditions of life; thought is a product of these conditions. It is the ‘real man’, the person who lives in and is conditioned by the objective world, who is the only true reality and the center of human history. History is the action of humans becoming fully human, fulfilling their human potential. The moving forces in history, said Marx, were economic and technological factors: the ways in which goods are produced and wealth distributed. The clash of opposing classes, what he called dialectical materialism, accounted for historical change and progress.


Marx divided past history into three broad stages: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Each stage constitutes a thesis that in turn gives rise to an antithesis in the form of a class that feels deprived by the existing socioeconomic relations. During the Middle Ages, feudalism constituted the thesis, and an emerging middle class, the bourgeoisie, hostile to the established order, represented the antithesis. The victory of the bourgeoisie over the feudal aristocracy produced a synthesis, capitalism, which marked a higher stage in history. Constituting the new thesis, capitalism gave rise to its own antithesis, the working class, or proletariat. Like the bourgeoisie in relationship to the feudal aristocracy, the proletariat is a productive class that is denied the fruits of its labor. The clash between the working class, awakened to its revolutionary goal, and the bourgeoisie will produce a still higher synthesis and another stage of history- socialism.


Marx said that material technology-- the methods of cultivating land and the tools for manufacturing goods-- determined society’s social and political arrangements and its intellectual outlooks. For example, the hand mill, the loose yoke, and the wooden plow had given rise to feudal lords, whereas power-driven machines had spawned the industrial capitalists. As material technology expanded, it came into conflict with established economic, social and political forms, and the resulting tension produced change. Thus, feudal patterns could not endure when power machinery became the dominant mode of production. Consequently, medieval guilds, communal agriculture and even the domestic production of goods gave way to free labor, private property, and the factory system of manufacturing. As Marx put it, the expansion of technology triggered a change from feudal social and economic relationships to capitalist ones. Ultimately, the change in economic-technological conditions becomes the cause for great social, political and cultural changes.


This process was most clearly demonstrated by the French Revolution. Radical changes in the economic foundations of society had taken place since the Middle Ages without corresponding political changes, said Marx. However, the forces of economic change could not be contained in outdated political forms which protected the power and privilege of the aristocracy. In France, this tension exploded into revolution. Whatever their conscious intentions, said Marx, the bourgeois leaders of the French Revolution had scattered feudal remnants to the wind; they had promoted free competition and commercial expansion, destroyed the special privileges of the aristocracy and the clergy, and transferred power from the landed aristocracy to the leaders of finance and industry. Whenever major economic changes take place, said Marx, political, social and cultural changes must follow. Thus, the French revolution and the political upheavals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were attempts of the bourgeoisie to gain political power commensurate with the economic power it had derived from changing modes of production.




Karl Marx, 1818-1883 (History Guide)

Karl Marx, 1818-1883 (Victorian Web)

The Age of Ideologies: Reflections on Karl Marx (History Guide)

Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

Marxism Page (Australia National)

Marx and Engels Internet Archive


The Aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution (History Guide)