Key thinker: Karl Marx (1818–1883)

Karl Marx (1818–1883)


Karl Marx was born in Trier (now part of Germany) to parents who had converted to Christianity from Judaism ( In 1835, Marx enrolled at the University of Bonn to study law, but left after a year to continue his studies in law and philosophy in Berlin. That same year he got engaged to Jenny Marx (née von Westphalen), whom he would marry in 1843 ( Marx completed his studies and earnt a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Jena in 1841, with a thesis on the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean—two Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophies—concepts of nature (

Apart from Epicurus, Marx’s main influence at the time was the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (see 13.1. Introduction for Hegel’s influence on Marx). Marx was closely associated with the Young Hegelians, a group of left-wing interpreters of Hegel, who sought to challenge the religious foundations of the state’s claim to legitimacy ( Marx’s early interlocutors, like Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach, were prominent intellectuals in the Young Hegelians. But Marx would later break with Bauer and Feuerbach over their idealism (i.e., their treatment of spirit or mind as independent of matter) ( Marx’s materialistic view of history forms the basis for his scientific conception of socialism (see 13.2. The Materialist Conception of History).

In 1843, Marx and his wife Jenny moved to Paris, where he became close friends with his long-time collaborator and patron, Friedrich Engels (see Key Thinker: Friedrich Engels). Engels, the son of a wealthy industrialist, would play a central role in popularising the political and intellectual tradition of ‘Marxism’. He was certain that the working class would lead the way in building a communist society, an idea that Marx incorporated into his own work ( In Paris, Marx began to develop his critique of French socialism, German philosophy, and British political economy, which would form the basis of his argument in the three volumes of Capital (1867, 1885, 1894). The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which Marx wrote during this period, remained unpublished for many years after his death ( In these texts, Marx develops his famous theory of the ‘alienation’ of labour in capitalist society (see 13.1. Introduction).

In 1845, Marx was expelled from France for his political agitation ( Unable to return to Germany, he moved to Brussels, where he remained until 1848. Beginning in 1848, a wave of revolutions—and counter-revolutions—was sweeping across the European continent, from Sicily to France, Russia, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries (see 13.4.3. The end of capitalism). Marx was particularly interested in the revolution in France, where the Second Empire of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had replaced the regime of King Louis-Philippe. Marx’s reflections on Bonaparte’s seizure of power and the restoration of a hereditary empire would form the basis of his 1852 essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, where Marx developed aspects of his theory of class struggle and the state (

Marx settled in London in 1849, where he lived for the rest of his life ( Marx relied on the financial support of Engels, who was working as a manager in one of his family’s factories in Manchester (see Key thinker: Friedrich Engels). Outside of his research on political economy, Marx contributed articles to the New York Daily Tribune ( In 1864, he also played a central role in the founding of the International Working Men’s Association, commonly referred to as the First International ( Towards the end of his life, Marx suffered from ill health. He died in London in 1884. He was 64 years old.


Marx’s critique of political economy begins with his theory of exploitation (see 13.3.2. Exploitation), which shows how value (see Key Concept: Value) is created in capitalist societies. In pre-capitalist societies, the goal of production was to make products that could immediately be consumed (use value), whereas capitalist societies produce commodities that can be exchanged (exchange value). Because all commodities are products of human labour, they can be exchanged for other commodities. According to Marx, capitalists invest money to buy commodities, that they then sell to make more money (M-C-M’). But why does the capitalist end up with more money than they started out with? Marx argues that this is because they buy a commodity which is the source of all value: labour-power, or the capacity of a worker to perform labour. Labour has the unique quality that it can produce more value than it needs to reproduce itself. But because the worker has no choice but to enter into an unequal agreement with the capitalist, who owns the means of production, the latter appropriates surplus value as profit. This is the nature of capitalist exploitation.

One of Marx’s main contributions to philosophy was a radical revision of Hegelian dialectics (see Key Concept: Dialectics). Hegel argued that history progresses towards a consciousness of freedom through a ‘dialectical’ process arising from contradiction. But Marx took issue with the religious and idealist foundations of Hegel’s theory of history, which suggested that progress towards perfection was guided by an abstract, almost mystical, entity called ‘Spirit’. In Marx’s materialist conception of history, societies are characterized by their modes of production (see 13.2.1 Modes of production), which are composed of the forces and (class) relations of production. The relations of production are made up of the economic structure of the society (the base) on the one hand, and the legal and political superstructure, which forms social consciousness. For Marx, changes in the economic base of a society lead to transformations in the superstructure and not vice versa. Therefore, any theory of revolution should be concerned with changing material realities and not just people’s ideas about the world.

While Hegel could not envision a better socio-political arrangement than that of the Prussian state, Marx believed that the state in any capitalist society tended to act as an agent of class rule ( According to Marx’s trajectory of social progress, the state would eventually ‘wither away’. Yet he was heavily criticized by anarchist leftists like Mikhail Bakunin (see 13.4.2 Marx and the anarchists) for his supposedly authoritarian vision of revolution. They agreed that the state needed to be eradicated, but disagreed on its role in the transition to communism. Bakunin criticized Marx’s single-minded focus on the revolutionary role of a centralized and disciplined party, and argued that Marx’s theory of history had reduced all struggle to that between the proletariat (working class people) and capital. Therefore, he argued Marx was unable to seriously consider other sites of socialist struggle.

Other critics of Marx have similarly argued that his economic determinism leaves too little room for human agency revolution and obscures how culture, for example, might shape the economic (base) structure of a society (see 13.2.2. Base and Superstructure). Moreover, Black critics like Cedric Robinson (1983) have taken issue with Marx’s Eurocentric view of history and disregard for revolutionary subjects other than the Western proletariat. After all, hadn’t some of the most radical revolutionary movements of the twentieth century—in Russia and China, for example—relied on the peasantry, and emerged in countries where capitalism hadn’t fully taken root? Marxist-Feminist critics have instead pointed to lacunae in his theory of primitive accumulation (see 13.3.3. Primitive Accumulation), arguing that it fails to consider the role of women’s unpaid (domestic) labour in enabling and reproducing capitalist social relations (Federici, 1998).

The interpretation of Marx’s theory of history is complicated by the myriad ways in which one can read his writing. While Marx’s early work subscribes to a linear and deterministic conception of history, he distanced himself from his ‘stageist’ theory of revolution in his writings on peripheral and non-capitalist societies like India, Indonesia, Algeria, Latin America, or ancient Rome (Anderson, 2016). In his unpublished 1879-82 notebooks or his articles for the New York Daily Tribune, for example, he acknowledged that the path to socialism might be different from what he had predicted, and that revolutionary subjects other than the Western proletariat might lead the way to communism. Moreover, in the draft letters to his Russian critic Vera Zasulich, Marx explained that Russia, for example, didn’t need to pass through a capitalist stage of development to reach socialism ( Marx’s later unpublished writing suggests a move away from the determinism of the Communist Manifesto.

For many Black, Feminist, or Third World Marxists, any flaws in Marx’s theory did not call for a break with the methodology of Marxism (see 13.5. Conclusion). The work of scholars like Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon (see Chapter 28 on Frantz Fanon), Claudia Jones, or Amilcar Cabral proves that Marxism can always be adapted to fit the needs of revolutionary struggles in different contexts. Rodney, for example, has argued for a methodological approach to Marxism, which critically interrogates his conclusions while holding onto the useful analytical aspects of a Marxian framework ( Jones, on the other hand, builds on Marx’s theory of exploitation to theorize the ‘super-exploitation’ of poor Black women workers in the United States, and to show how they are exploited not just through class, but through class, race, and gender (Boyce Davies, 2007). Such critical but creative adaptations of Marx demonstrate how relevant his core ideas and concepts still are today.

Further reading

Mills, Charles W. (2003) From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Williams, Eric (1994) Capitalism & Slavery, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Robinson, Cedric (1983) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, London: Zed Books

Anderson, Kevin (2016) Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vogel, Lise (2013) Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, Leiden: Brill.

Federici, Silvia (1998) Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia.

Rodney, Walter, Angela Y. Davis, Vincent Harding, Robert A. Hill, William Strickland, and Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. New edition. Brooklyn: Verso, 2018.

Cabral, Amílcar and PAIGC. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings. Translated by Michael Wolfers. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 2016.

Boyce Davies, Carole. 2007. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Durham: Duke University Press. 

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