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Karl Marx, workers and revolution

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Karl Marx said revolutions would be instrumental in building socialism. Sadie Robinson argues that workers taking mass action is still necessary to change the world
Issue 2611
Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, during a revolution that topped dictator Hosni Mubarak
Protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, during a revolution that topped dictator Hosni Mubarak (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Karl Marx believed that workers have the power to transform the world through revolution.

The working class, he argued, could create a new system based on meeting the needs of everyone, not making profit for a tiny few.

Marx called this system communism and later used the term socialism.

Along with his collaborator Frederick Engels, he wrote about how this new world could come about and what it might look like.

Marx was writing in the 19th century at a time when capitalism was still coming into being in many parts of the world.

He had seen how the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, was sweeping aside the old feudal order.

For Marx “revolutions are the locomotives of history.”

They drive society forward. Marx described how revolutions happen when economic development pushes against ways of organising society that hold it back.

For instance, capitalism marked a huge advance on the feudal societies.

It revolutionised production and unleashed great potential. But while Marx saw the dynamism of capitalism, he also saw the horrors that it brought about.

He wrote that capitalism “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.

Marx and Engels were revolutionary socialists actively involved in organising to overthrow it.

It isn’t simply that capitalism forces working class people to live in hovels, work in dangerous conditions and suffer poverty. For Marx, it also has a deeper damaging effect.

Marx wrote that humans can be told apart from animals by many things, but importantly, “They begin to distinguish themselves as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.”

So people have a unique ability to labour consciously on the world around them.

But under capitalism this is controlled by the bosses for their own interests.

Marx wrote that workers are alienated because of this—from their work, from each other and themselves.

In words many people will recognise, he said the worker “does not count labour itself as part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life”.

Women marching in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution in February

Women marching in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution in February

This alienation is built into the way capitalism works, and can’t simply be reformed away.


Marx also argued that revolution is the only way to get rid of all the reactionary ideas that capitalism generates.

In Marx’s time just as today, ruling classes used racism to try and divide workers.

When Marx was writing, racism in England was mainly directed towards Irish workers.

Marx wrote that the “antagonism” between English and Irish workers was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class”.

For Marx and Engels, the ruling ideas in any society are “the ideas of the ruling class”. This doesn’t mean they are the only ideas.

But those at the top of society are in a position to promote certain ideas—respect for the rule of law, nationalism, and so on—and these dominate.

“Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew,” they wrote.

How would this revolution come about?

It might seem that the rich, with all the power and influence they wield, can quite easily protect their system. And much of the time, many workers don’t appear very interested in overthrowing capitalism.

But Marx identified how struggle is built into the system. Capitalism is based on bosses competing with each other.

Each fights to accumulate more wealth than the rest—and those who don’t compete successfully risk going to the wall.

This pushes them to constantly attack workers. So they might try to slash pay or scrap a pension scheme to cut costs and boost their profits.

But these attacks push workers to collectively resist.

When workers do fight back, this opens up a space for their ideas about the world—and themselves—to change.

And in times of crisis, these struggles can spill over into bigger challenges to the system.

So capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction—it creates its own “gravedigger” as Marx and Engels put it. But a successful revolution isn’t inevitable.


Marx and Engels wrote that class struggle could lead to the “common ruin of the contending classes”.

But they did not waver from arguing that only a revolution could liberate working class people.

In an address to the Communist League in 1850 they said, “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”

A placard during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011

A placard during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 (Pic: Socialist Worker)

And even when the bourgeoisie was still a relatively new class, in some cases fighting an old feudal order, they warned against putting any trust in it.

“In all the conflicts to come, it will be the workers who will be chiefly responsible for achieving victory,” they argued.

“The petty bourgeoisie, to a man, will hesitate as long as possible and remain fearful, irresolute and inactive.”

Marx argued that workers had to liberate themselves, not rely on any other group to win change on their behalf.

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself,” he wrote.

A socialist society would do away with private property and put ordinary people in charge. Marx said that over time, society would be run on the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

There would still be classes in the transition between capitalism and communism.

Workers will need to organise in order to protect the new society from a counter-revolution by the old ruling class.

Marx wrote that this transition would see the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. And Engels wrote that a revolution is where “one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part”.

Right wingers sometimes use such quotes to paint Marx and Engels as anti-democratic or in favour of repression.


But a workers’ revolution would see the vast majority imposing its will on a tiny minority.

It would protect and extend democracy against a minority determined to hold onto its power.

As Engels asked, “Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie?”

The experience of the Commune in March 1871 showed the power of workers and the potential for revolutionary change.

An uprising of workers forced the government to flee Paris and the first ever workers’ government, the Commune, was set up.

It got rid of the army and police, and armed the people instead.

Marx wrote, “For the first time since the days of February 1848 [when revolution broke out in France], the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind.”

The Commune’s representatives were elected by universal suffrage—and they could be recalled. All took a workers’ wage. Education was opened up to all.

“When plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their ‘natural superiors’ the old world writhed in convulsions of rage,” wrote Marx.

“Wonderful, indeed, was the change the Commune had wrought in Paris!”

Marx saw how the Commune didn’t challenge the centralised capitalist state, and kept many of the old structures. After two months it was drowned in blood.

For Marx, this confirmed that workers can’t just take over the “ready-made state machinery”. Instead they have to create new forms of organising.

Despite the defeat, workers had shown that they were capable of running society for themselves. Marx said the Commune “will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society”.

There have been many revolutions since Marx’s time that have also shown the potential of bringing about a socialist society.

Organising together to fight for that change is the task that faces us all.

Read more

  • Civil war in France—the Paris Commune by Karl Marx, £9.99
  • The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos, £9.99
  • Marx showed why workers have the power by Sadie Robinson,

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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