Karl Marx: his philosophy explained (2023)

In 1845, Karl Marx declared: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

Change it he did.

Political movements representing masses of new industrial workers, many inspired by his thought, reshaped the world in the 19th and 20th centuries through revolution and reform. His work influenced unions, labour parties and social democratic parties, and helped spark revolution via communist parties in Europe and beyond.

Around the world, “Marxist” governments were formed, who claimed to be committed to his principles, and who upheld dogmatic versions of his thought as part of their official doctrine.

Marx’s thought was groundbreaking. It came to stimulate arguments in every major language, in philosophy, history, politics and economics. It even helped to found the discipline of sociology.

Although his influence in the social sciences and humanities is not what it once was, his work continues to help theorists make sense of the complex social structures that shape our lives.

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Marx was writing when mid-Victorian capitalism was at its Dickensian worst, analysing how the new industrialism was causing radical social upheaval and severe urban poverty. Of his many writings, perhaps the most well known and influential are the rather large Capital Volume 1 (1867) and the very small Communist Manifesto (1848), penned with his collaborator Frederick Engels.

On economics alone, he made important observations that influenced our understanding of the role of boom/bust cycles, the link between market competition and rapid technological advances, and the tendency of markets towards concentration and monopolies.

(Video) POLITICAL THEORY - Karl Marx

Marx also made prescient observations regarding what we now call “globalisation”. He emphasised “the newly created connections […] of the world market” and the important role of international trade.

At the time, property owners held the vast majority of wealth, and their wealth rapidly accumulated through the creation of factories.

The labour of the workers – the property-less masses – was bought and sold like any other commodity. The workers toiled for starvation wages, as “appendages of the machine[s]”, in Marx’s famous phrase. By holding them in this position, the owners grew ever richer, siphoning off the value created by this labour.

This would inevitably lead to militant international political organisation in response.

It is from this we get Marx’s famous call in 1848, the year of Europe-wide revolutions:

workers of the world unite!


To do philosophy properly, Marx thought, we have to form theories that capture the concrete details of real people’s lives – to make theory fully grounded in practice.

His primary interest wasn’t simply capitalism. It was human existence and our potential.

His enduring philosophical contribution is an insightful, historically grounded perspective on human beings and industrial society.

(Video) A Brief Introduction to Marxism

Marx observed capitalism wasn’t only an economic system by which we produced food, clothing and shelter; it was also bound up with a system of social relations.

Work structured people’s lives and opportunities in different ways depending on their role in the production process: most people were either part of the “owning class” or “working class”. The interests of these classes were fundamentally opposed, which led inevitably to conflict between them.

On the basis of this, Marx predicted the inevitable collapse of capitalism leading to equally inevitable working-class revolutions. However, he seriously underestimated capitalism’s adaptability. In particular, the way that parliamentary democracy and the welfare state could moderate the excesses and instabilities of the economic system.


Marx argued social change is driven by the tension created within an existing social order through technological and organisational innovations in production.

Technology-driven changes in production make new social forms possible, such that old social forms and classes become outmoded and displaced by new ones. Once, the dominant class were the land owning lords. But the new industrial system produced a new dominant class: the capitalists.

Against the philosophical trend to view human beings as simply organic machines, Marx saw us as a creative and productive type of being. Humanity uses these capacities to transform the natural world. However, in doing this we also, throughout history, transform ourselves in the process. This makes human life distinct from that of other animals.


The conditions under which people live deeply shape the way they see and understand the world. As Marx put it:

men make their own history [but] they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.

Marx viewed human history as process of people progressively overcoming impediments to self-understanding and freedom. These impediments can be mental, material and institutional. He believed philosophy could offer ways we might realise our human potential in the world.

(Video) Karl Marx’s Theory (Communism)

Theories, he said, were not just about “interpreting the world”, but “changing it”.

Individuals and groups are situated in social contexts inherited from the past which limit what they can do – but these social contexts afford us certain possibilities.

The present political situation that confronts us and the scope for actions we might take to improve it, is the result of our being situated in our unique place and time in history.

This approach has influenced thinkers across traditions and continents to better understand the complexities of the social and political world, and to think more concretely about prospects for change.

On the basis of his historical approach, Marx argued inequality is not a natural fact; it is socially created. He sought to show how economic systems such as feudalism or capitalism – despite being hugely complex historical developments – were ultimately our own creations.

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Alienation and freedom

By seeing the economic system and what it produces as objective and independent of humanity, this system comes to dominate us. When systematic exploitation is viewed as a product of the “natural order”, humans are, from a philosophical perspective, “enslaved” by their own creation.

What we have produced comes to be viewed as alien to us. Marx called this process “alienation”.

Despite having intrinsic creative capacities, most of humanity experience themselves as stifled by the conditions in which they work and live. They are alienated a) in the production process (“what” is produced and “how”); b) from others (with whom they constantly compete); and c) from their own creative potential.

(Video) Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6

For Marx, human beings intrinsically strive toward freedom, and we are not really free unless we control our own destiny.

Marx believed a rational social order could realise our human capacities as individuals as well as collectively, overcoming political and economic inequalities.

Writing in a period before workers could even vote (as voting was restricted to landowning males) Marx argued “the full and free development of every individual” – along with meaningful participation in the decisions that shaped their lives – would be realised through the creation of a “classless society [of] the free and equal”.


Marx’s concept of ideology introduced an innovative way to critique how dominant beliefs and practices – commonly taken to be for the good of all – actually reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the “ruling” class.

For Marx, beliefs in philosophy, culture and economics often function to rationalise unfair advantages and privileges as “natural” when, in fact, the amount of change we see in history shows they are not.

He was not saying this is a conspiracy of the ruling class, where those in the dominant class believe things simply because they reinforce the present power structure.

Rather, it is because people are raised and learn how to think within a given social order. Through this, the views that seem eminently rational rather conveniently tend to uphold the distribution of power and wealth as they are.

Marx had always aspired to be a philosopher, but was unable to pursue it as a profession because his views were judged too radical for a university post in his native Prussia. Instead, he earned his living as a crusading journalist.

By any account, Marx was a giant of modern thought.

(Video) The man who Changed the World Forever | Karl Marx | PSIR Optional | UPSC

His influence was so far reaching that people are often unaware just how much his ideas have shaped their own thinking.


What is the explanation of Karl Marx philosophy? ›

Marxism is a broad philosophy developed by Karl Marx in the second half of the 19th century that unifies social, political, and economic theory. It is mainly concerned with the battle between the working class and the ownership class and favors communism and socialism over capitalism.

Who was Karl Marx What was his philosophy that made him famous? ›

Who was Karl Marx? Karl Marx was a German philosopher during the 19th century. He worked primarily in the realm of political philosophy and was a famous advocate for communism. He cowrote The Communist Manifesto and was the author of Das Kapital, which together formed the basis of Marxism.

What is one of the main features of the Marxist philosophy? ›

The key characteristics of Marxism in philosophy are its materialism and its commitment to political practice as the end goal of all thought.

What was the statement of Karl Marx about the role of philosophy? ›

In 1845, Karl Marx declared: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. Change it he did. Political movements representing masses of new industrial workers, many inspired by his thought, reshaped the world in the 19th and 20th centuries through revolution and reform.

What is the most important concept of Marx? ›

The first one was released in 1867, the second in 1885 and the third in 1894. Historical Materialism is considered the most popular theory suggested by Karl Marx. This theory stated that material conditions and not just ideas create history.

What type of philosophy is Marx? ›

He subsequently developed an influential theory of history—often called historical materialism—centred around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power.

What philosophy is to the real world Karl Marx? ›

Philosophy and the study of the real world have the same relation to one another as onanism and sexual love.”

What are the principles of Karl Marx? ›

The basic tenets of Marxism are the following: dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the theory of surplus value, class struggle, revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat and communism. Now, these principles will be discussed in detail.

What did Karl Marx believe about capitalism? ›

Marx condemned capitalism as a system that alienates the masses. His reasoning was as follows: although workers produce things for the market, market forces, not workers, control things. People are required to work for capitalists who have full control over the means of production and maintain power in the workplace.

Why did Karl Marx believe in communism? ›

Marx believed that capitalism, with its emphasis on profit and private ownership, led to inequality among citizens. Thus, his goal was to encourage a system that promoted a classless society in which everyone shared the benefits of labor and the state government controlled all property and wealth.

What are the two major ideas of Marxism? ›

The basic ideas are that:
  • The world is split into multiple classes (groups) of people. ...
  • There is a class conflict.
  • When workers realize their exploitation, they will revolt and take over ownership of factories and materials (dictatorship of the proletariat)
  • Communism (stateless, classless society with free enterprise).

What are 4 important concepts in Marxism? ›

Some of the most important ideas in Marxism are economic determinism, historical materialism, the theory of class division of society and class struggle, the theory of base and superstructure, the Leninist theory of socialist revolution and the theory of imperialism.

What is an example of Marxist theory? ›

Marx believed that capitalists inevitably paid their workers less than the value of the goods that they produced. That is to say, if a worker needs one pound to feed, clothe, and house himself, and he produces 5 pounds worth of goods per day, the capitalist would make four pounds in profit.

What did Karl Marx believe about human nature? ›

In the 1844 Manuscripts the young Marx wrote: Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers – he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities – as instincts.

What did Karl Marx believe about socialism? ›

Socialism, for Marx, is a society which permits the actualization of man's essence, by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.

What are three key ideas of Karl Marx? ›

Here are five core ideas of the influential and highly divisive German thinker, on the 200th anniversary of his birthday.
  • 'Class struggle' ...
  • Communism. ...
  • 'Internationalism' ...
  • 'Opium of the people'
May 4, 2018

Which is the greatest value according to the teachings of Karl Marx? ›

Answer and Explanation: The simple way to say this is community, which is directly related to the word communism.

What did Karl Marx believe about religion? ›

19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx, the founder and primary theorist of Marxism, viewed religion as "the soul of soulless conditions" or the "opium of the people".

Is Karl Marx a moral philosopher? ›

Marxist ethics is a doctrine of morality and ethics that is based on, or derived from, Marxist philosophy. Marx did not directly write about ethical issues and has often been portrayed by subsequent Marxists as a descriptive philosopher rather than a moralist.

Why is the Karl Marx theory important? ›

It laid down the theory of class struggle and revolution. Marxism deals with the theory and practice of socialism. It propagates the establishment of a classless society. The means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned by the community as a whole as against private ownership.

What did Karl Marx believe would happen to the world? ›

Marx believed that Revolution was both fundamentally essential and inevitable to the progress of human society. He anticipated that eventually the workers of the world would realise they 'have nothing to lose but their chains' and revolt against the industrialists and capitalists who covertly controlled their lives.

What is the difference between Marxism and communism? ›

Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory originated from Karl Marx, focusing on the struggles between capitalists and the working class. Communism is based upon the ideas of common ownership and the absence of social classes, money and the state.

What is a simple definition of Marxism? ›

Marxism is a social, economic and political philosophy that analyses the impact of the ruling class on the laborers, leading to uneven distribution of wealth and privileges in the society. It stimulates the workers to protest the injustice.

What examples are there of Marxism in society today? ›


Large media, telephone, and oil conglomerates are some of the current examples of the process described by Marx.

What is Karl Marx's most famous quote? ›

The worker of the world has nothing to lose, but their chains, workers of the world unite.

Was Karl Marx a socialist or capitalist? ›

Then came Karl Marx, the German political philosopher and economist who would become one of the most influential socialist thinkers in history.

Did Karl Marx invent communism? ›

Most modern forms of communism are grounded at least nominally in Marxism, a theory and method conceived by Karl Marx during the 19th century.

Why did Karl Marx want to overthrow capitalism? ›

Karl Marx wanted to overthrow Capitalism as he felt the system to be exploitative of the laborers, known as the proletariat. He felt that the capitalists were only interested in the expansion of business and in the increase of their profits.

What is the Marxist theory of democracy? ›

In Marxist theory, a new democratic society will arise through the organised actions of an international working class, enfranchising the entire population and freeing up humans to act without being bound by the labour market.

Did Karl Marx talk about socialism or communism? ›

The Marxist view of socialism served as a point of reference during the socialist calculation debate. Marx himself did not use the term socialism to refer to this development. Instead, Marx called it a communist society that has not yet reached its higher-stage.

Who is the main conflict between in Marxism? ›

One of the most powerful sociological explanations of social conflict is that of Karl Marx, who posited a class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie intrinsic to capitalist, industrial society.

What is the main conflict in Marxism? ›

Marxist conflict theory sees society as divided along lines of economic class between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class. Later versions of conflict theory look at other dimensions of conflict among capitalist factions and among various social, religious, and other types of groups.

What are the five key concepts of Marxism? ›

Key concepts covered include: the dialectic, materialism, commodities, capital, capitalism, labour, surplus-value, the working class, alienation, means of communication, the general intellect, ideology, socialism, communism, and class struggles.

What are the key words of Marxism? ›

  • A. alienation. antagonism. aristocracy.
  • B. barter. bourgeoisie. bureaucracy.
  • C. capital. capitalism. class. commodification. ...
  • D. democracy. dialectical materialism. dialectics. division of labor.
  • E. equivalent form. empiricism. exchange-value.
  • F. false consciousness. fetishism. feudal society.
  • G. globalization.
  • H. hegemony. historical materialism.

What is Marxist criticism in simple terms? ›

The Marxist criticism definition is an approach to diagnosing political and social problems in terms of the struggles between members of different socio-economic classes. Drawing from this approach, criticism does not aim at the flaws of particular individuals, even if they have attained positions of power.

What do Marxists believe about education? ›

Marxists argue that education aims to legitimise and reproduce class inequalities by forming a subservient class and workforce. Education also prepares children of the capitalist ruling class (the bourgeoisie) for positions of power. Education is part of the 'superstructure'.

What is Marxism in one sentence? ›

Marxism is a left-wing to far-left method of socioeconomic analysis that uses a materialist interpretation of historical development, better known as historical materialism, to understand class relations and social conflict and a dialectical perspective to view social transformation.

What are the main criticisms of Marxism? ›

This includes general intellectual criticism about dogmatism, a lack of internal consistency, criticism related to materialism (both philosophical and historical), arguments that Marxism is a type of historical determinism or that it necessitates a suppression of individual rights, issues with the implementation of ...

What is the difference between a socialist and a communist? ›

The main difference is that under communism, most property and economic resources are owned and controlled by the state (rather than individual citizens); under socialism, all citizens share equally in economic resources as allocated by a democratically-elected government.

Did Marx believe in free will? ›

He claims that human beings' free will and consciousness allows them to set up and correct the ends of their activities. However, Marx posits that alienated labor prevents workers from discovering their mental lives in the products by reducing their free conscious works into a means of their maintenance.

Was Karl Marx truly against human rights? ›

39Marx's essential argument against human rights is that if we limit ourselves to the notion of the equality of freedoms, which defines the rights of man, we cannot then express any objection to the market relation as a free contract between free and equal property-owners before the law.

Did Marx believe in human rights? ›

Proclaimed as universal rights pertaining to the abstract individual, Marx suspected that human rights in fact promoted the interests of a highly specific person: the property-owning individual in the capitalist system.

What does Marx say about government? ›

By the time he wrote The German Ideology (1846), Marx viewed the state as a creature of the bourgeois economic interest. Two years later, that idea was expounded in The Communist Manifesto: The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

What was Marx's political vision? ›

Karl Marx had a vision of a new just society based on economic plenty shared by all. Marx believed that in such a society individuals would achieve true freedom. But when the revolution finally came in Russia and later on in other countries, Marx's vision of freedom turned into tyranny.

What are the 5 stages of society according to Marx? ›

The main modes of production that Marx identified generally include primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, mercantilism, and capitalism. In each of these social stages, people interacted with nature and production in different ways. Any surplus from that production was distributed differently as well.

What did Karl Marx believe in sociology? ›

Marx's theories formed a sociological perspective called conflict theory, which stated that capitalist societies were built on conflicts between the workers and the rulers. In this theory, society relies on class conflict in order to keep the wealthy in power and the poor as subjects to the government.

What is the most important story of Karl Marx? ›

He published (with Friedrich Engels) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848), commonly known as The Communist Manifesto, the most celebrated pamphlet in the history of the socialist movement. He also was the author of the movement's most important book, Das Kapital.

What is the most important thing in life according to Marx? ›

According to Karl Marx, the most important factor in social life is a person's: The self is shaped by society, but society is also shaped by the self. According to symbolic interactionism, what is the relationship between the self and society.

What is the biggest contribution of Karl Marx in the society? ›

Marx's most important contribution to sociological theory was his general mode of analysis, the “dialectical” model, which regards every social system as having within it immanent forces that give rise to “contradictions” (disequilibria) that can be resolved only by a new social system.

Why did Marx think religion was bad? ›

In the snappily titled Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, he famously called religion "the opium of the people," in that religion was not only used by those in power to oppress the workers, but it also made them feel better about being oppressed when they couldn't afford real opium.

How does Marxism explain social inequality? ›

Marx argues that there are inequalities in society based on social class differences. Marx claims that to improve society and make it fairer there needs to be large-scale change. Marxism is criticised for ignoring other important factors such as gender and ethnicity, focusing too much on social class.

How did Marx criticize religion? ›

Marx viewed religion as having in the present and future—as contrasted to the past—a wholly reactionary role, because he assumed that a completely secular world-view could not but be adopted by the working class, let alone by progressive intellectuals.

What are the key concepts of Karl Marx sociology? ›

Critical concepts in Marx's sociology are conflict theory, class consciousness, and dialectical materialism. Conflict theory is the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie for political power and resources.

What is a real life example of Marxism? ›

Its best example is when Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong took over the control of China in 1949. He formed a communist country and named it the People's Republic of China. It is something that the Marxism ideology aims to achieve.

What are the 5 ideas of Marxism theory in society? ›

According to Marx's theory of historical materialism, societies pass through six stages — primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally global, stateless communism.

What does Marxism teach about humanity? ›

Marxism : According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), human beings are naturally productive, sociable beings who find fulfillment and meaning in their lives through the free exercise of their natural powers. They fulfill themselves through their creations, so that what they make is an expression of what they are.

What are the three concepts of Marxism? ›

Marxism, a body of doctrine developed by Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, by Friedrich Engels in the mid-19th century. It originally consisted of three related ideas: a philosophical anthropology, a theory of history, and an economic and political program.

What did Marx think of socialism? ›

Socialism, for Marx, is a society which permits the actualization of man's essence, by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man; it is the fulfillment of the prophetic aim: the destruction of the idols.

What is the difference between communism and Marxism? ›

Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory originated from Karl Marx, focusing on the struggles between capitalists and the working class. Communism is based upon the ideas of common ownership and the absence of social classes, money and the state.


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