Philosophy Pages

    Dictionary    Study Guide  Logic   F A Q s
  History Timeline Philosophers   Locke

Marx and Engels: Communism

Nineteenth-century hought about social issues took a different turn with the work of such reformers as Godwin and Proudhon.
Life and Works
. . Alienation
. . Communism
. . Economics
Internet Sources
The most comprehensive and influential new way of thinking about social, economic, and political issues was that developed by German philosopher Karl Marx. Like Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx belonged to a generation of German scholars who appropriated but diverged significantly from the teachings of Hegel.

Early in his own career, Marx outlined his disagreement with the master's political theories in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Hegel's emphasis on the abstract achievements of Art, Religion, and Philosophy overlooked what is truly important in human life, according to Marx. Religion in particular is nothing more than a human creation with its own social origins and consequences: it gives expression to human suffering without offering any relief from it by disguising its genuine sources in social and economic injustice. Even philosophy, as an abstract discipline, is pointless unless it is transformed or actualized by direct application to practice.

Marx maintained that progress would best be founded on a proper understanding of industry and the origins of wealth, together with a realistic view of social conflict. Struggle between distinct economic classes, with the perpetual possibility of revolution, is the inevitable fate of European society. Specifically, Marx argued that the working-class of Germany has become the ideal vehicle for social revolution because of the loss of humanity it has suffered as a result of the industrialization of the German economy.

In the unfinished section on "Alienated Labor" from the Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844 (Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844) (1844) Marx tried to draw out the practical consequences of the classical analysis of the creation of value through investment of human labor. To the very extent that the process is effective, he argued, it has a devastating effect on the lives of individual human beings.

Workers create products by mixing their own labor in with natural resources to make new, composite things that have greater economic value. Thus, the labor itself is objectified, its worth turned into an ordinary thing that can be bought and sold on the open market, a mere commodity. The labor now exists in a form entirely external to the worker, separated forever from the human being whose very life it once was. This is the root of what Marx called alienation, a destructive feature of industrial life.

Workers in a capitalistic economic system become trapped in a vicious circle: the harder they work, the more resources in the natural world are appropriated for production, which leaves fewer resources for the workers to live on, so that they have to pay for their own livelihood out of their wages, to earn which they must work even harder. When the very means of subsistence are commodities along with labor, their is no escape for the "wage slave."

Thus, Marx pointed out, workers are alienated in several distinct ways: from their products as externalized objects existing independently of their makers; from the natural world out of which the raw material of these products has been appropriated; from their own labor, which becomes a grudging necessity instead of a worthwhile activity; and from each other as the consumers of the composite products. These dire conditions, according to Marx, are the invariable consequences of industrial society.

The Communist Manifesto

Marx did not suppose the situation to be inescapable, however. Together with his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Marx developed not only an analysis of current conditions but also a plan for political action, together with a theory about the historical inevitability of its success. In the Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (Communist Manifesto) (1848), Marx and Engels presented their practical proposals for changing the world.

Social history is nothing other than a record of past struggles between distinct social classes. In the modern, industrial world, the most significant classes are the bourgeoisie, people who own land, resources, factories, and other means of production, and the proletariat, people who work for wages. In its efforts to succeed, the bourgeoisie must constantly revise and renew the means of production, ensuring a constant infusion of capital by building larger cities, promoting new products, and securing cheaper commodities.

As capital increases and the means of production expand, however, the labor of the proletariat becomes ever less valuable. Alienated from themselves and each other, workers have little political influence. Even small shopkeepers and skilled laborers are encouraged to join with the bourgeoisie in its drive for capital, instead of expressing their natural alliance with wage workers. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels noted, the proletariat constitutes a majority of the population, and the prospect of its organization for effective political action is what raised the "spectre" of Communism in industrial Europe.

Thus, Part II of the Manifesto declares the intention of communism to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to situate all political power in the proletariat instead. This would have lots of practical consequences: Although the surplus value of capital would be undermined, individual property interest in one's own labor would be restored, so that alienation can be avoided. Child labor would be ended, and universal provision for education would guarantee that future generations have greater control of their own destiny. Women would be empowered in their own right as workers, instead of being subject to domination by male bourgeois. Progressive taxation would provide for a re-distribution of capital, and the struggle between classes would be ended. The list of practical aims at the end of Part II is impressive, and many of its features have been implemented throughout the world during the past century-and-a-half.

The Manifesto continues with an effort to position the Communist Party favorably in relation to other social and political movements of the nineteenth century. Its conclusion is a stirring call for political action by the great, sleeping giant of the proletariat.

Economic Details

For the rest of his life, Marx worked on a massive effort to explain and defend his economic theories. The multi-volume work, Das Capital (Capital) (1867-95) began to appear during his lifetime, but was left unfinished at his death. More scholarly in tone than the popular Manifesto, this grand statement of principles provided a legacy of economic theory for future generations.

. . . . .
Political Theory

Creative Commons License
The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

©1997, 2011 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 12 November 2011.
Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:
the Contact Page.