Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998

Article abstract: Marx’s ideas concerning modes of economic distribution, social class, and the developmental patterns of history have profoundly influenced theories in philosophical and economic thought and have helped shape the political structure of the modern world.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Karl Marx Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Early Life

Karl Marx was born into a Jewish family in the city of Trier in the southern Rhineland area. When the Rhineland was rejoined, after the Napoleonic Wars, to Protestant Prussia in 1814, his father, a public lawyer, had converted to Christianity. In 1830, the young Marx entered the Trier secondary school and pursued the traditional humanities curriculum. In the fall of 1835, he entered the University of Bonn as a law student but left the following year to enroll at the University of Berlin. His studies were concentrated on law, history, and the works of the then-leading philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Marx was graduated in 1841, after writing his doctoral dissertation, and returned to Bonn, where he became involved with his friend Bruno Bauer in left-wing politics and in the study of the materialist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. In April, 1842, he began writing radical articles for the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish gazette), and he assumed its editorship in Cologne that October. He married in June, 1843, and moved to Paris that October.

In August, 1844, Marx met Friedrich Engels in Paris, and the two began a productive collaboration. Marx’s articles had angered the Prussian government, and in February, 1845, he moved to Brussels. In 1848, the year of revolutions in many European countries, Marx was ordered to leave Brussels; he returned to Paris and then to Cologne. He was again compelled to leave in 1849 and went to London, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Life’s Work

Marx’s lifelong critique of capitalist economy began in part as an analysis of the then-dominant Hegelian system of philosophical Idealism. Influenced to a degree by Feuerbach’s materialism, Marx rejected Hegel’s metaphysical vision of a Weltgeist, or Absolute Spirit. It was not metaphysical Spirit that governed history but rather material existence that determined consciousness. The ways in which an individual was compelled to seek physical necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing within a society profoundly influenced the manner in which a person viewed himself and others. As Hegel (and others) suggested, the course of history was indeed a dialectical process of conflict and resolution, but for Marx this development was determined to a great extent by economic realities. Whereas Hegel saw dialectical process (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) as one of ideas, for Marx it was one of class struggle. Hence Marx’s position is called dialectical materialism. He stood in staunch opposition to the prior philosophical tradition of German Idealism and thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. German philosophy, he believed, was mired in insubstantial theoretical speculation when concrete and practical thought about the relationship between reality—especially economic and political realities—and consciousness was needed. In general, Marx was a synthetic thinker, and his views represent a mixture of German materialist philosophy such as that of Feuerbach; the French social doctrines of Charles Fourier, Comte de Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; and British theories of political economy such as those of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Marx’s philosophical position of a dialectical materialism suggests a comprehensive view of social organization—which is, broadly speaking, a dimension of human consciousness—in all its manifestations. The determinant of all societal forms is its economic base (Basis), that is, the means of production and the distribution of its produced wealth. All aspects of human social interaction, what Marx called the superstructure (Überbau), are influenced and shaped by the economic base and its consequent relationships of power among social classes. The superstructure ultimately involves a society’s educational, legal, artistic, political, philosophical, and scientific systems. The nature of the economic base—above all the power relationships of the classes—tends to be reproduced in an overt or covert fashion in the various dimensions of the societal superstructure. The pedagogical curriculum of the school system, for example, might reproduce or reinforce in some unconscious manner the inequality of the social classes upon which the mode of production is based. Various aspects of the artistic or cultural dimensions of a society (a novel, for example) might also incorporate in symbolic expression the nature of the economic base. Thus Marx’s economic theories provide an account for a wide variety of phenomena.

In capitalist political economy, the individual must sell his physical or intellectual labor, must sell himself as a commodity, in order to survive. Thus, Marx’s early writings, such as Ökonomische und philosophische Manuskripte (1844; Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 1947), deal with the pivotal concept of alienation (Entfremdung) as a central aspect of the worker’s experience in capitalism. Since the worker is reduced to an exploited commodity or object, this is above all a condition of dehumanization (Entmenschlichung). The individual is alienated or divorced from his full potential as a human being. Committed to long hours of labor in a factory, the worker—and this means man, woman, and child—has no time to develop other facets of the personality. In a capitalist society, individuals are estranged not only from aspects of their own selves but also from others in that the labor market is a competitive one, and workers must outdo one another in order to survive. In its crudest form, capitalist economy, Marx would assert, is a kind of Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” in which the weak—those who cannot work—must perish.

In his Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-1846; The German Ideology, 1938), Marx discusses earlier forms of social organization, such as tribal or communal groups, in which the estrangement of the individual in industrialist society was not yet a crucial problem. His vision of an ideal socialist state would be one in which the individual might, for example, manufacture shoes in the morning, teach history in the afternoon, and play music in an orchestra in the evening. In other words, a person would be free to utilize or realize all dimensions of the self. This idealized notion of social organization in the writings of the young Marx indicates the utopian influence of romantic thought upon his initial critique of capitalist society.

In 1848, after the Paris revolts of that same year, Marx and Engels published Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto, 1850), a booklet that has become the best-known and most influential statement of Marxist ideology. It presents a brief historical sketch of bourgeois society and suggests that capitalism will eventually collapse because of its inherent pattern of cyclical economic crises and because of the worsening situation of the worker class, or the proletariat, in all capitalist nations. The proletariat has become, they argue, more conscious of its situation, and a worker revolution is inevitable. The international communist party presents a revolutionary platform in which the workers are the ruling class in charge of all capital production. Marx and Engels call for a worker revolt to overthrow the “chains” that bind them.

Marx wrote and published Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1859; A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, 1904), which became a preliminary study for the first volume of his and Engels’ planned multivolume analysis of capitalist political economy, Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909, better known as Das Kapital). Marx actually completed only the first volume; the second and third were edited from his notes by Engels, who was helped on the third by Karl Kautsky. This work is a more technical economic analysis of the capitalist mode of production with the intention of revealing “the economic law of motion” that underlies modern (industrial) society.

It would be beyond the scope of this study to provide a detailed summary of this complex work, but a few words of general explanation may be given. Marx discusses economic issues such as the labor theory of value and commodities, surplus value, capital production and accumulation, and the social relations and class struggles involved in capital production. Capital accumulation, the central goal and justification of the system, is beset by certain internal contradictions, such as periodic episodes of moderate to extreme market inflation and depression and a tendency toward monopoly. These inherent conditions usually have their most deleterious effects upon the wage laborer. Such cycles will eventually lead to economic collapse or revolutionary overthrow by the proletariat. In general, Marx’s analyses were flawed—especially the labor theory of value upon which much of this work is based—and could not account for adaptive changes in the capitalist system.

In December, 1881, Marx’s wife, Jenny, died, and his daughter died the following year. Marx himself, after a life of overwork and neglect of his health, died in 1883.


Karl Marx was a critical social and economic philosopher whose materialist analyses of bourgeois capitalist society initiated a revolution that has had profound effects on the development of human civilization. Despite some of the later ideological, and at times quasi-religious and fanatical, adaptations of his thought, the basic philosophical assumptions of Marx’s approach remain humanistic and optimistic; they are based upon fundamental notions of the European Enlightenment, that is, that human reason can successfully alleviate the problems of life. Alienation is, for example, in Marx’s view (as opposed to modern existential thought) a historical and societal phenomenon that can be overcome through a change in the social-economic order. Marxism has remained a vital intellectual position and therefore possesses much relevance to the modern world.

Subsequent developments of Marxist thought have resulted in Communist Party revolutions in a number of countries such as that led by the ideologue Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) within czarist Russia in 1917 or that of the popular leader Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) in the Republic of China in 1949. Unfortunately, these revolutions have involved pogroms and mass executions of certain segments of the population, usually elements of the landed bourgeoisie. This was the case under the rule of Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) in Soviet Russia. These socialist governments have become reified, for the most part, at the intermediate stage of a party dictatorship rather than the essentially free state of the people that Marx had ideally envisioned.

Marx’s philosophy has led to fruitful thought in areas other than social and economic thought. The notion that the power relationships of the economic base effect in various ways the manifestations of the societal superstructure has produced an analytical mode called ideological criticism, in which the hidden dimensions of class ideology are revealed in their social expressions. This has been especially productive in the field of literature and the arts. Marxist analyses of literary texts have yielded new insights into the nature of literary production and its relationship to society at large. The Hungarian critic Georg Lukács (1885-1971), for example, wrote many excellent books and essays on the history of European literature, establishing a new model of Marxist interpretation and criticism.


Bottomore, Tom, ed. Karl Marx. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. An excellent collection of essays by prominent scholars on various aspects of Marx’s thought. Contains a selected bibliography.

Henry, Michel. Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. An important critical work by a French scholar who gives close readings/interpretations of Marx’s key texts.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. An excellent critical biography of Marx by a prominent Marxist scholar. Contains a good bibliography.

McLellan, David. Marx Before Marxism. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. An excellent study of Marx’s important early years as a student and the development of his initial ideas. Contains a selected bibliography.

Singer, Peter. Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A brief but informative introduction to Marx’s life and major ideas. Contains suggestions for further reading.

Suchting, W. A. Marx: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1983. A good critical biography of Marx presented chronologically and by topic. Contains helpful guide for further reading.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Explore Study Guides