Karl Marx was born in Trier, in what is now Germany, in 1818. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and was profoundly influenced by the materialist philosophy of the so-called young Hegelian movement; a movement that attempted to use Hegel’s essentially conservative philosophy as a tool of radical social criticism.
In 1844 Marx moved to Paris where he became acquainted with the radical politics of the new ‘working class movement’ and it was here that he wrote his definitive early philosophical work The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In this work, Marx gives a basic account of his early philosophy; a philosophy that was profoundly humanist, concerned with how humans can develop their essential human powers through free creative activity.
Marx thought that the majority of Europe's labouring population was denied the opportunity to fully develop themselves as individuals because they were forced to sell their labour to exploitative capitalists who valued human beings as sources of profit rather than as human beings. Humans were thus reduced to being rather like any other product for sale on the market- commodities that could be exchanged for any other commodity of similar price. In this system, according to Marx workers are essentially alienated from their true selves. Their time is not their own and the efforts of their labour, the products that they produced, are not made available for their own use but for profitable sale on the open market.
Thus Marx was a political philosopher who sought to expose the injustices of modern capitalist societies. His idea of the ‘good society’ was derived from his idea of the nature of pre-modern forms of social life, where the dominant form of work was individual craft production for communal use not economic exchange. The fact that he was a passionate believer in human creativity and freedom, and that he saw the craft production of the past in essentially idyllic terms, makes the early Marx something of romantic philosopher.
However, Marx was to develop his critical insights still further. He left Paris and eventually returned to Germany, where he became heavily involved in working class politics. He founded, along with his life-long friend and colleague Friedrich Engels, the Communist League and in 1848 he wrote The Communist Manifesto; a pamphlet that was written more for the purposes of political agitation and propaganda than for philosophical enlightenment. In this work he claims that capitalism is really a kind of hell on earth, where ‘all that is sold melts into air’ and ‘everything sacred is profaned’. It is in this work that he introduces his philosophy of history for which he subsequently achieved world-fame. According to the mature Marx, all human history can be see as a consisting of a series of class struggles; political conflicts over the ownership and control of the means of production. The most significant class conflict of the mediaeval feudal world was that between a merchant class and the feudal aristocracy. The resolution to this conflict was a new social system - capitalism. But capitalism, although it pretended otherwise, was also class ridden, albeit in a different way. The progressive force of modern history ‘under’ capitalism, Marx believed, would be the political struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat - a struggle that would lead to the eventual demise of capitalism and the emergence of a communist society where everybody lived according to the maxim ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. Marx thus correctly foresaw that the twentieth century societies would be a conflict between workers and their bosses and so he was, along with Nietzsche, one of the chief prophets of the modern age.
To some extent, the mature Marx moved away from his Humanist and Hegelian roots and tried to construct a science of society. He thought that the fundamental level of all human societies is the economic level where goods are produced to satisfy human needs. In his view, in the last analysis, all human beings are driven by their material needs (for food, clothing, enjoyment) and so he attempted to found his new science upon an alternative economics to the one that had been invented by the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. These economists had claimed that modern capitalism was a free-market of selfish ‘profit maximising’ individuals and that free-markets were the most rational way of allocating resources. Marx tried to expose these theories as ideologies, that is as false accounts of the nature of human social life that mask the brutal truth of life for the majority of people in modern capitalist societies. He put forward his alternative economic theory, the so-called labour theory a value that claimed that the true value of thing was not given by its price but by the amount of socially useful time taken to produce it. He thus showed that it was the workers who were the true source of all value in the world and that they have been unfairly expropriated by the capitalist class. He went on to argue that as productive technologies become more sophisticated, less and less labour would be needed to produce things and that eventually more and more people would be reduced to lives of poverty and immiseration - an uncannily accurate prediction when we look at global poverty today.
Marx's entire approach to philosophy was captured in his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, where he claimed that ‘philosophers only describe the world, the point is to change it’. It would seem then that in one sense Marx was not really a philosopher at all but a revolutionary committed to social and political change. But it is a mistake to understand Marx as a propagandist because his concern for social justice and the future development of modern society made him one of the most significant and interesting political philosophers in the history of philosophy.
Questions: to what extent is Marxism still a valid philosophy at the beginning of the 21st century?
In a era when most political commentators assume of romantic idea of the market as a rational self-equilibrating system, does Marxism offer a timely corrective to this?
Does Marx's vision of a society of a free association of producers provide an alternative to he neo-liberal orthodoxy that crudely asserts that the poor should 'pull themselves up by their own bootstraps'?
Can we have a society without a strong idea of property? In the era when we can see the basic problems with tbe very idea of a 'property owning democracy' could Marx's philosophy catch on?