Karl Marx is often called the father of communism, and his writings formed the foundation of most of the communist regimes of the twentieth century. However, many thinkers before him had suggested forms of government based on the idea of common ownership. What Marx did was to redefine communism by developing an entire socio-economic system; a communistic system of government he believed would neutralize the class differences that had arisen in the wake of industrialism.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
Karl Marx, born into a middle-class family in Germany, dreamed of becoming a poet and novelist. His family, however, did not approve of this dream, and his father sent him to the university, where he studied law, history and philosophy. Here he became associated with a group of young people who opposed both religion and society. Turning to journalism after his studies, he wrote articles with such a scathing social critique and with such radical ideas on politics and economy that he was blacklisted by the authorities.
When he was 25 years old, Marx moved to Paris, where he joined the Communist League. It was also here that he met Friedrich Engels, with whom he entered into a lifelong friendship and work partnership. Engel’s father owned cotton mills in England, and the two of them spent time there documenting the poverty and the appalling living conditions of English workers. He was eventually expelled from Paris, and spent the next few years in both Belgium and Germany before moving back to Paris in 1848. During these years, he wrote and published several manuscripts, the most famous being the Communist Manifesto.
In 1849, Marx and his family moved to England, where they lived in poverty in a small flat in London for many years. He became an active participant in the growing international workers’ movement at the same time as he continued working on his social and economic theories. Marx had a materialist view of history, asserting that history is a process of evolution, and that change in society comes about through material forces. Each generation inherits the previous generation’s system of production, develops it to fit their times and subsequently hands it on to the next generation to do the same. Throughout history, man has entered into different relations with each other regarding production: the hunting and gathering of food in prehistoric times; the relationship between the landowning lords and their serfs in the Middle Ages; the contract between the capitalist and his workers in modern times.
According to Marx, labour is not only a means of survival. Labour is also essential to a human being’s self-conception and feeling of identity. Capitalism deprives workers of these feelings of self-worth and identity by alienating them from the entire production process. The only thing the workers own is their own labour – and they are forced to sell that to a capitalist who will attempt to get as much labour as possible for as small wages as possible. The means of production (the tools, machines and the factories) belong to the capitalists, as do the finished products, which the capitalists sell for a profit which they use as they wish. Finally, the workers were alienated from other human beings.
They are divided by class from the capitalists. The nature of modern industry demands specialization of labour. So the workers are alienated from other workers by having different tasks in the production process and by sometimes having to work different shifts.
This new class of capitalist industrialists – the bourgeoisie – will go on oppressing the working class – the proletariat – until the workers one day join forces to overthrow their masters. Private ownership, the source of societal inequality, will be abolished. Everyone will have an equal stake in society, which will be based on the Marxist idea: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Karl Marx: Critique of the Gotha Program. 1875) Capitalist societies all over the world will inevitably go through a proletarian revolution which will lead to a socialist society in which the state will be a dictatorship. These socialist societies will gradually evolve into pure communist societies in which classes do not exist, and the state will therefore be redundant.
In the course of the 1800s, England carried out several social reforms, for instance extending the franchise and a series of factory acts regulating the use of child labour, working hours etc. – within the framework of a liberal, capitalist society. However, other countries adopted Marxist theory and developed their own brand of communism; for instance the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.