Karl Marx was a German philosopher of the 19th century. During this century, industrialization had come to the countries in Western Europe, and this process was altering traditional social structures. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked on farms producing food for themselves and selling whatever extra they had. Many of these people had to pay fees to landowners and were never going to be able to gain much wealth in their life.
Once countries began to industrialize, millions of people moved to cities where they gained jobs in factories. They had to work for a daily wage, were forced to stay at the factory for upwards of twelve hours, and had to live in dirty cramped apartments. Meanwhile, technological advancements in agriculture, as well as the outsourcing of food production to overseas colonies, meant family farms became far less practical.
In the midst of these changes, in 1836, at the age of nineteen, Karl Marx began to study philosophy. He studied under accomplished philosophers. However, Georg Hegel, the philosopher that influenced Marx the most, died a few years earlier. Hegel died in 1831 but left behind a large body of work. Marx was interested in Hegel's idea that the material world is incredibly influential on the course of someone's life. While Hegel believed in God, he thought that there was a certain amount of impact the material world had on the life of the individual.
Eventually, Karl Marx began to develop a complete theory based on Hegelian ideas that he thought could be used to fix the problems in society. Marx, unlike Hegel, thought the material world was the only determining factor in life. He did not think any higher power had influence over the life of individuals. Instead, he asserted that because life is determined by the material world and always has been, social class is the enemy of equality. He believed social class was what kept people separate and prevented goods and resources from spreading to all people. Since Marx thought the material world was the only factor in life, he thought that meant the only barrier to equality and equal access to resources was socially constructed class systems.
Marx took this theory further by calling for a revolution in industrialized countries. During the French Revolution, the middle class rose up to depose the French King. Marx hoped that in a country like England the working class would do the same and depose the middle and upper classes. Once this happened in a country, Marx outlined how a Communist economy should function. Socialism is an economic theory that calls for the central government to decide what goods are produced in factories and how much of each good is made. This is a centrally planned economy in which the government decides how much supply there will be. This is in contrast to the Capitalist system in which companies make goods and hope citizens will buy them. This economic theory was important to Marx because if the government did not own the factories and decide what was produced, a social class system would steadily return.
The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital
"The Communist Manifesto" is an explanation by Karl Marx and his colleague, Frederick Engels, of what was wrong with society in the 19th century. In this document, they elaborate on the idea that class struggle is at the center of human history. They also stated that before there was a capitalist system, there were societies based on feudalism, slavery, and other ancient social structures which all had extreme disparities between the workers and the rich who own the means of production (factories, farm equipment, land).
The document also highlights the issues of capitalism such as child labor and poor working conditions. Marx advocated for revolutions, but also said simply that there were problems with capitalism and, if left unaddressed, would be taken over by socialism.
Das Kapital focuses more on Marx's economic ideas. In this book, Marx traces the origins of the separation of the worker from the means of production. This book states that at some point in the past, people lived in an ancient communal society that may have had some sort of leader but where all the people had access to the same resources and goods. Marx asserts in this text that the steady accumulation of capital through exploitation and conquest has enabled the disparity seen in the 19th century. Marx thought the historical exploitation of slaves and the conquest of empires such as those in the New World created an excess of wealth that some were able to profit from considerably.
Marx connected this to capitalism and said that the modern economic system was founded on the exploitation of the wage earner. If they were not exploited, they would need to work less and be paid more. However, if this happened the owners of the factory would not gain very much wealth.
Historical materialism is the combination of many of the ideas Marx already had into a cohesive theory of social development. This theory asserts that human life is based on the material factors of existence. Because the material factors of life have created such economic disparity, class struggle is at the center of all human history. Moreover, history can be divided into several modes of production. A mode of production is a specific set of resources and human labor required to drive an economic system.
Marx identifies four modes of production across human history.
- Tribal: This mode of production was referred to as primitive Communism because, at this stage of human societies, they all functioned in a communal society.
- Ancient: The best examples of this mode are the Greek and Roman civilizations which heavily utilized slavery in order to make farming profitable. Countries all around the Mediterranean practiced this kind of slavery, especially after a war was won and an empire had prisoners of war.
- Feudal: This mode was common in Europe and Japan for many centuries. A wealthy landowner purchased knights to build an army, and peasants agreed to work the land and give the landowner some of their food if he agreed to protect them. Knights and merchants steadily were able to accrue wealth which led to some conflicts such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution.
- Capitalist: Capitalism arose during the Industrial Revolution as labor transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing. The changing of conditions meant that workers could be exploited in a completely new way. The revolutions at the end of the feudal period occurred because that mode of production allowed the small middle class to grow, and they asserted power as soon as they could. Marx saw similar dissatisfaction among factory workers and hoped this would lead to revolution as well.
To Marx, this progression from the tribal to the capitalist mode of production was founded on exploitation and conquest. According to Marx, because the world is based on material and social conditions, social classes would be continually exploited by the worker unless the workers came together and eliminated all class distinctions. Marx viewed the mode of production as a very influential force that shaped the entire superstructure of society. He asserted that modes of production influenced religion, culture, laws, politics, and all other elements of non-economic life. This superstructure also influences the mode of production such as when scientific advancements and new technologies are created which make some work more efficient and put other people completely out of a job. Both the superstructure and the mode of production influence each other in a cycle that continues to benefit exploitation in Marx's eyes.
Theory vs. Reality
Karl Marx hoped Communism would be embraced in revolutions in Western Europe. In a country like England, a majority of the people worked in factories, and the country was fully industrialized by the mid-1800s. Only in a country like this could the revolutions against capitalism begin. However, this is not what happened.
Marx died without any country embracing Communism. It was not until 1917 that a country would embrace Communism when Vladimir Lenin would turn the crumbling Russian Empire into the communist country called the Soviet Union. However, Russia was not an industrialized country. Russia was still a largely feudal country based on agricultural income.
By the 1930s, it became clear that the Communist state did not work very well. Joseph Stalin had seized power in the Soviet Union after Lenin died and became a dictator. While the upper class was incredibly small, most Russians lived in poverty, and their life was not much better than it had been before. Stalin established gulags, work camps, where he sent millions of people who may have posed a threat to the government. Meanwhile, Stalin rapidly industrialized the country by forcing millions to work in extreme conditions to build factories, mines, and other infrastructure needs to compete with the industrialized world.
In the 1940s, another Communist revolution occurred in China. China was primarily an agricultural economy just like the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong, who became dictator in China, also attempted to rapidly industrialize the country. By the end of Mao Zedong's life, it is estimated that 80 million people were directly or indirectly killed by his decisions and actions. An additional 20 million deaths can be attributed to Stalin.
Other countries which have embraced Communism all had primarily agricultural economies as well. While ideas of communalism have helped millions of people in poverty across countries, the theory itself could not become reality. Communism requires an incredible amount of power placed on a single person or a central government. This extreme amount of power has the ability to be abused by people who are placed in such positions of power. This is exactly what happened with Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong who may have been committed to Marxist ideas but instead committed atrocities in his name.
Several Communist countries still exist to this day but have steadily embraced capitalism to an extent, such as China.
Karl Marx was a German philosopher who lived through the 19th century, a century which saw millions of people moving into cities and working in factories for the first time. After seeing the horrible working conditions people were subjected to, Marx believed that the Capitalist system was going to have to respond to these working conditions, otherwise a violent revolution would occur. He wrote the "Communist Manifest" and Das Kapital in order to articulate both what he thought would happen and how governments' economies should be changed to create a more equitable society.
An idea created by Karl Marx and his partner, Frederich Engels, during this period was the theory of Historical Materialism. They argued that human history has been a story of constant class struggle, and that exploitation by rulers has allowed for the accumulation of wealth. Marx believed economies are organized into modes of production. One major mode of production was feudal society in which wealthy landowners protected peasants who were forced to provide food in return. However, eventually, the tension between productive forces and social relations eventually lead to a new mode of production. After revolutions ended the feudal society, capitalism became the major mode of production. One of the major parts of the superstructure of Marx's theory that leads to change from one mode of production to the other is scientific advancement. The development of steam engines and inventions during the Industrial Revolution allowed for more efficient production, but it also caused tensions between factory workers and factory owners. Because of poor working conditions, Marx believed the capitalist mode of production would eventually evolve into Communism. Marx hoped a Communist revolution would occur in industrialized countries like England; however, they only occurred in agricultural economies like Russia and China. Through economic adjustments, China managed to industrialize considerably while slowly embracing capitalism.
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What does Historical Materialism teach us?
Historical Materialism teaches us that the material conditions people find themselves in can heavily influence their decisions. The cyclical nature of modes of production shows that humans always push back against exploitation, but not as predictably as Marx hoped.
What are the principles of Historical Materialism?
A major principle of Historical Materialism is that the material world drives social progress, not the other way around. Additionally, the only way for the social system to be changed and for the upper class to be deposed is through a violent revolution. This led Marx to predict revolutions in places like England where factory workers were unhappy with their working conditions.
What does Marx mean by Historical Materialism?
Marx believed that human actions are dependent solely on the material conditions of the world they find themselves in. Rulers are going to rule, and the working class will be willing to work until tension rises so much that the people revolt. Marx thought this remained true throughout history and thought that material conditions had driven the differing modes of production that have existed.
What is the first stage of historical materialism described by Marx?
The first stage of historical materialism is the tribal stage. Marx described this as primitive Communism in which societies were small communities that worked together and shared their resources.
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