The accomplishments of Karl Marx have persisted beyond his death on 14 March 1883. His legacy centers on the lasting impacts of his theories and concepts on the fields of sociology, politics, and economics. Furthermore, his followers have tried to interpret his works and apply their analyses in the modern world to explain social and economic phenomenon, and to establish alternative socioeconomic systems.
The Accomplishments and Contributions of Karl Marx
1. Contributions of Karl Marx to Literature and Intellectual Thought
Marx introduced revolutionary ideas that scrutinized modern economic systems and social order, including his criticisms of capitalism. These ideas were disseminated primarily through his published works that now form part of modern sociology literature. Below are his most important works:
• The Communist Manifesto: An 1848 political pamphlet commissioned by a group of European communists called the Communist League and co-authored by German philosopher and sociologist Friedrich Engels. At the core of its discussion is an assertion that class struggles are at the center of the history of all society and such will culminate with the victory of the proletariat or the working class. Note that the ideas presented in this pamphlet collectively form the basis of Marxism.
• Das Kapital: A foundational theoretical text arguing the motivation behind capitalism is the exploitation of labor, thus arguing against the pro-capitalist stance of thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, among others. Also known as “Capital Critique of Political Economy,” the first volume of the text was first published in 1867 while the second and third volumes were posthumously completed by F. Engels respectively in 1885 and 1894 based on the notes of Marx.
• Wage Labor and Capital: An essay written in 1847 and published in 1849 by a German daily newspaper that served as the precursor to Das Kapital. Marxists describe this work as an in-depth examination of how the capitalist economic system works, why it is inherently exploitative, and why it would eventually collapse from within. It explains the economic conditions that form the basis of class struggles while also presenting the Labor Theory of Value to argue for a clear distinction between labor and labor power.
• The German Ideology: A set of manuscripts written by Marx and Engels around April and May 1846 consisting of satirical polemics against Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, and the Hegelian Left. The collective work represents the introduction and development of historical materialism or the materialist conception of history by Marx. Note that this work also laid the foundation for “The Communist Manifesto” alongside “The Poverty of Philosophy” published in 1847.
• Theories of Surplus Value: A draft manuscript written by Marx between January 1862 and July 1863 that discussed the theories of classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among others. It focuses on the concept of surplus value or the full value between the labor provided by the worker and the wages he or she received for his or her labor. Hence, it also argues for the distinction between labor and labor power, while also claiming that the capitalists maintain power by controlling surplus value.
2. The Theories and Concepts Introduced by Karl Marx
What made Marx a revolutionary thinker was his consistent evaluation of the prevailing social order of his time. The theories and concepts he introduced during the middle of the 1800s remain fundamental models for scrutinizing capitalism as a social and economic system.
• Historical Materialism: Marx promoted an approach to historical analysis that he called the materialist concept of history based on the notion that the union between productive capacity and social relations of production determines the organization and development of the society. In other words, the ultimate cause of all social change stems in the changes in the mode of production. Historical materialism essentially examines the causes of changes in a particular society through the way humans produce the necessities of life.
• Marxism: The works of Marx serve as the fundamental basis for the body of ideas known as Marxism. Note that ideas or models promoting social or common ownership have existed since antiquity. However, Marxism provides a more concrete framework for the modern theory of socialism and communism, particularly through a materialist approach and dialectical view of analyzing class relations and social conflict.
• Bourgeoisie-Proletariat Class Struggle: Marx extensively used the terms “bourgeoisie” to refer to the capitalist class and “proletariat” to refer to the working class. According to his historical materialist analysis, these two classes work side-by-side to overthrow aristocracy. This marked the end of the feudal system and start of the capitalist system. However, another form of class struggle emerged under capitalism due to the conflicting interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, thus resulting in the oppression or exploitation of the workers by the capitalists.
• Socialism and Communism: In “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels presented socialism and communism as the next developmental stages of the post-capitalist era. They characterized socialism as a system in which the working class holds the power of the state. However, in communism, the state ceases to exist because of the demise of social classes. Hence, unlike in feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, true communism has no power structure.
• The Theory of Alienation: Researchers from the Soviet Union posthumously published in 1932 the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” of Marx. It introduced the Theory of Alienation that argues that capitalism results in the mechanization of individuals, thus resulting in their estrangement from human or alienation. Marx argued further that individual workers are alienated in four ways: alienation from their product, from the act of production, from the species-essence, and from other workers.
• Surplus Value Theory: Central to the Marxian critique of the political economy is the concept of surplus value. Marx defined surplus value as the new value generated by workers in excess of their own labor cost. Under a capitalist mode of production, the final value of the product made through labor is greater than the actual cost of labor paid out in wages. Marx asserted that capitalism exploits the working class by confiscating this excess value or surplus value as profits from the workers and redirecting such to the capitalists.
• Labor Theory of Value: Marx argued that the value of a product should be objectively measured by the average number of labor hours rendered in its production. For example, if a pair of pants takes twice as long to produce than a piece of shirt, then it should be as twice as valuable than that shirt. Although he did not refer to this theory as the “labor theory of value” and his argument is not unique to Marxism because it was also presented by classical liberal economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he positioned such as an attempt to criticize the exploitative nature of capitalism.
3. Impacts of Karl Marx in Academics, Economics, and Politics
From an academic perspective, Marx contributed immensely to social sciences. Numerous scholars have recognized his contributions. For example, French philosopher Paul Ricœur mentioned that Marx as one of the three masters of the “school of suspicion” or “hermeneutics of suspicion” of the nineteenth century alongside German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. This school provides a balanced recognition and perception between explanation and understanding to validation the expressions of a representation.
Russian-British social and political theorist Isaiah Berlin also considered him as the true founder of modern sociology. To be specific, Berlin argued that Marx introduced theories and concepts that collectively form the Marxist sociology. American sociologist Craig Calhoun also mentioned that Marx, in contrast in contrast with other philosophers, provided some theories that can be tested with the scientific method. As an example, Marxism provided a methodology for examining the causes of the French Revolution, particularly through historical materialism.
Marx also has lasting impacts on economics and politics. The fundamental ideas of Marxism have been interpreted and applied in real-world situations, thus leading to the emergence of neoclassical Marxism and other Marxist variants, as well the establishment of socialist economic systems. For example, several revolutions during the 20th century in different countries labeled themselves as Marxist. These included the Russian Revolution in 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin who introduced Marxism-Leninism, as well as the rise of the Communist Party of China to power in 1949 led by Mao Zedong who introduced Marxism-Maoism.
Of course, the economic and political legacy of Karl Marx is complicated. It is easy to argue that he was responsible for millions of deaths due to the failed adaptation of his Marxist ideologies evident in the conflicts during the reign of the Soviet Union, the failed Great Leap Program of China, and the Vietnam War, among others.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Isaiah, B. 1967. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Times Book Division
- Marx, K. & Engels, F. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Germany. An English version of this book is available in 2007, Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1st ed. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications
- Marx, K. (1867). Das Kapital. An edited and English version of this publication is available in S. Moore & E. Aveling, Trans., 2012, Capital: Critique of Political Economy. Aristeus Books ISBN: 978-1478245391
- Ricœur, P. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.