Who was Karl Marx?

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was the German revolutionary and philosopher of modern society and economics who is most often credited with having founded communism and socialism as political movements and systems of thought. He is also credited with the impetus behind the modern labor union movement. Marx's early works are considered utopian and were not published in his lifetime. His magnum opus is Das Kapital (Capital, released in 1867, 1885, and 1894), although the The Communist Manifesto (1848) that he wrote with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is less hypothetical and more accessible to the reader.

At the time Marx and Engels wrote, the following did not exist for workers in industrialized nations: minimum wage laws, health care insurance, pension plans, workplace safety regulations, laws against child labor, or specified hours for shifts or work weeks. Neither was there widespread and compulsory public education for the children of workers. While some of these goods do not universally exist at this time in industrialized nations and may not exist at all in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, they are now generally taken for granted as fundamental human entitlements.

Along with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels established the ideals of communism (Art Archive).

Along with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels established the ideals of communism (Art Archive).

Who was Friedrich Engels?

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) founded Marxism with Karl Marx (1818-1883). In addition to The Communist Manifesto (1848), they collaborated on The Holy Family (1844) and The German Ideology (1845). Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) described the suffering in the lives of workers at that time. Engels also published Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) and Anti-Düring (1878). In The Dialectics of Nature (1883) Engels related historical materialism to natural science and claimed that there were universal laws of nature and thought.

Engels' greatest contribution was a presentation of Marx's ideas in more accessible and popular formats and terms. Engels' father was a textile manufacturer, and the young Engels worked at his mill in Manchester, eventually owning it. Engels helped Marx financially throughout his life and also supported his children after Marx died. He edited Marx's Das Kapital after Marx's death.

In a nutshell, what did Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write in their philosophy?

Human beings must work to live. History, noted Marx and Engels, is a Hegelian dialectical process in which different divisions of labor have developed, resulting in the nineteenth century in a bourgeois owning class that controls the government and an exploited proletariat, or working class, that furnishes the labor for capitalists. Capitalism is an economic system in which owners seek profits through ever-expanding production and markets. Their profit is the result of subtracting the costs of material and equipment, or capital, plus wages paid to workers, from the money they take in.

Within the producing system, labor, or the work of the working class, results in a "surplus value," because workers are exploited by employers. The worker is paid just enough to go home and eat, sleep, and engage in familial acts of reproduction, which altogether "reproduce" his labor so that he can continue to function as a worker. That is, every aspect of the worker's life is "squeezed" by their employers so that they can maximize their profits. The result is that workers, especially those who made up the vast pool of labor in nineteenth century industrial society, were poor.

Did Karl Marx live in poverty himself?

Yes. After he was kicked out of Brussels and Paris for his revolutionary writing, Marx and his family found refuge in London. In 1850 they were ejected from their two-room flat in Chelsea for failing to pay the rent. They found cheaper accommodation in Soho, where they stayed for six years. In order to help Marx with an income, Friedrich Engels returned to work for his father in Germany. The two kept in constant contact, and over the next 20 years they wrote to each other about every other day. During this time, Marx sought to understand capitalism by reading back issues of The Economist, as well as journal articles, in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

The Marxes' fifth child, Franziska, was born at their Soho flat, but she only lived for a year. Eleanor was born in 1855, but later that year Edgar became the Marxes' third child to die. The family owned very little, and some days Marx could not leave the house because Jenny had to pawn his trousers to buy food. But on some Sundays, they all went to Hampstead Heath for picnics.

After Marx began earning money from his articles for the New York Daily Tribune, and Jenny's mother left her a small inheritance, they were able to move to Kentish Town. In 1856, Jenny had a baby that was still-born, and after that she caught smallpox. Although she survived this illness, it left her deaf and badly scarred. Marx also grew ill, and he wrote to Engels that "such a lousy life is not worth living." But when he had an outbreak of boils in 1863, he was consoled that it was "a truly proletarian disease."

Both the working class and the owning class have their own ideologies, which unreconstructed are the ideology of the owning class. That is, the owning class sees the world in a way that justifies their position: for example, in believing that all who have great wealth have earned it by hard work. The politically dominant class in a society is the class that economically controls the main means of production. In general, the ideology of any social class is the result of where that class is located in terms of the dominant means of production in its society.

Workers and others need to realize that workers are human beings who become alienated from their own labor when it is merely treated as a commodity on which their employers make a profit. The short-term solution to this situation is for workers to unite and demand better pay and working conditions. The long-term solution is a historical process through which capitalism will destroy itself through its own internal contradictions. The erstwhile workers will then become socialist owners who are able to pursue self-fulfilling activities, instead of merely laboring to survive from one day to the next.

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