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Marxism 101: What you need to know about Karl Marx

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In the first of a series of articles on key Marxist ideas, Amy Leather argues Karl Marx remains relevant for everyone who wants to change the world
Issue 2826
Karl Marx father of Marxism

Marx called the working class “the gravediggers of capitalism” (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

If Karl Marx was alive today, he would be raging about the world. We face deep and multiple existential crises. The Covid pandemic, catastrophic global heating, war and imperialism have already brought death and devastation to millions of people and threaten the very future of the planet. 

These crises are entwined with racism and wider questions of oppression that impact so brutally on people’s lives. And now millions of people across the globe face a social emergency as governments and bosses hammer their living standards. In this context, Marx’s ideas offer an insight into the workings of the capitalist system—as well as a strategy for change.

Of course, Marx, born in 1818, was writing at a time when the world looked quite different. Industrial capitalism was only just developing in places such as Britain and other parts of northern Europe. But many of the characteristics of society that Marx analysed are still with us today. If anything, they are more pronounced.

Marx is sometimes caricatured as an old, bearded man holed up in the British Library, writing abstract theory. But Marx was motivated to write by the inequality and brutality that he saw in the world around him. He described capitalism as coming into being “dripping with blood”. He could see how this new system created immense wealth, but also great human misery, with its achievements denied to the vast majority of people.

Marx wanted to analyse and understand capitalism as a system because he wanted to get rid of it. As he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” He wrote Capital—probably his biggest and most well-known work—to understand capitalism better “in order to hasten its overthrow”.

Theory did not just emerge from Marx’s head. He was an active revolutionary, and developed his ideas by constantly engaging and learning from the events and struggles breaking out in the world around him.

Marx had a number of unique insights. But he covered a lot during his life—economics, politics, philosophy, history and more. In part, this was because he saw society as a totality. Such topics aren’t separate and unconnected.

It’s worth remembering when studying his ideas, that Marxist theory is not something to be learned by rote. Marx did have a good turn of phrase. But it’s not enough to read Marx, learn it off by heart, repeat verbatim and there you are—you’re a Marxist. Instead, Marxism is a method we use to help understand the world. As such, it has developed since Marx’s time.

Marxism is a body of thought. At the time, Marx worked closely with his collaborator Frederick Engels.  But other revolutionaries—such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg—have built on Marx’s ideas, using his understanding of the world and his method to try and make sense of new situations they confronted.  

The starting point for Marx’s method was to look under the surface of capitalism in order to try and understand its dynamics. It is not enough to just describe how capitalism appears. There is often a big contrast between how things appear and the actual reality.

Very crucially Marx was a materialist. Unlike some philosophers who think history is driven by ideas, Marx was clear that you have to start with material reality.  People and their ideas are shaped by their actual circumstances of life.

Therefore, to understand any society, we have to look at how things are produced in that society so that people can survive. At the most basic level humans need food, shelter and clothing before we can do anything else at all. We cannot create music or art, develop scientific knowledge, engage in leisure pursuits or anything else until we have satisfied our basic needs. So, we have to look at how a society organises to produce or make those things. 

In this process humans have always had a relationship with nature. It is sometimes assumed that Marx only focused on economics and had little to say about the environment. But, along with Engels, he wrote much about the natural world and had great insight.

They were clear that rather than standing over nature “like a conqueror” humans are a part of nature. We act on the natural world in order to produce the things we need and this then impacts back on the environment.  Humans have done this throughout history. But Marx and Engels argued that, in contrast to previous societies, capitalism disrupted the relationship humans had with nature—something they termed “metabolic rift”. Therefore, they identified that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological.

Humans’ ability to use their labour to transform the world distinguishes us from animals. While animals act out of instinct, humans consciously labour on their environment.  The way animals act—and survive—remains unchanged over tens of thousands of years. In contrast, humans act on nature consciously, which means we build on our successes and develop new ways of producing the things we need. It means we have a history whereas animals do not. Marx called our capacity for conscious labour our “species being”.

Marx was also clear that humans are social beings. None of us can get what we need to survive on our own. We have to cooperate with other people in order to produce homes, food, clothing, or anything else in society. Throughout history humans have done this in a myriad of ways—from hunter gatherers working together to kill beasts, gather food and keep the fires going to today where millions of acts of human labour are linked through the market. Different ways of producing what we need has given rise to very different societies, with a wide range of ideas.  

This is important because we are often given the impression that capitalism is the natural order. But, in fact, it’s a very new system.  Importantly, if society has been organised differently in the past, then it can be different again in the future.

Understanding historical change was very important to Marx. The past not only helps us understand today but also how and why change happens. He developed an approach known as historical materialism. Just as Marx didn’t think ideas drove historical change, neither did he think great individuals such as kings or emperors did.

In How Marxism Works, Chris Harman, wrote, “The development of new techniques of producing wealth – the means of human life – has always given birth to new forms of co-operation between humans – to new social relations.

“Changes in the way humans work together to produce the things that feed, clothe and shelter them cause changes in the way in which society is organised and the attitude of people in it. This is the secret of social change – and history.”

But doesn’t mean Marxists believe improvements in technology automatically produce a better society, or that new inventions automatically lead to changes in society. Throughout history, ways of advancing the production of food, shelter and clothing have been rejected because they clashed with attitudes or forms of society that already existed.

In Marxist terminology—as the forces of production develop, they clash with the pre-existing social relations and ideas that grew up on the basis of the old forces of production. So, for Marx, history is a history of class struggle which involved ordinary people as agents of change. Either people identified with the new forces of production win this clash, or those identified with the old system do. It means society does not just automatically go forward—it can go backwards too.

Marx’s historical approach meant he could not only understand why change has happened in society, but analyse what’s unique about capitalism. 

One of Marx’s central ideas is that economic crisis is intrinsic to capitalism. This is in contrast to most mainstream economists who understand crisis as an aberration or a problem caused by external factors. Therefore, their conclusion is that crisis can be corrected out of the system.

Instead, Marx argued that crisis stems from the system itself. He identified a contradiction at the heart of capitalism. The same dynamic that drives the system forward also makes it extremely crisis prone and destructive.   

Capitalism is a completely chaotic and unplanned system. Relentless competition for profit is at the heart of the system. Not only does the profit motive distort all aspects of life—from health and education, to housing and the environment—the nature of the competitive process also leads to crisis.

Therefore, the actual history of capitalism, far from being an unbroken line of development taking us ever forward, has been one of boom and slump. Periods of fast expansion of production have been interspersed with sudden collapses where whole sections of the economy grind to a halt.

To understand why crisis is built into capitalism Marx analysed the whole system. He identified two key divisions in capitalist society. On the one hand there is the central divide between bosses and workers—or as he termed them, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. But there is also a divide between rival capitalists.

The first and most fundamental division is between bosses and workers. Here Marx is talking about class, and of capitalism being a class society. He understood class very specifically. It is not something defined by whether you go to the opera or pub, by how you speak or what you eat—although class shapes these things. Neither can it be understood by classifying people according to their occupation as many charts seek to do. 


Class is an objective social relationship. It depends on your relationship to the means of production. By means of production Marx meant the things that are required to produce the things we need to survive as humans—food, shelter and clothing at the most basic level. Land, raw materials, minerals, tools, machinery and technology are all needed for production to take place in any society.

What Marx identified is that all these things are owned and controlled by a tiny minority of people. He termed this group the bourgeoisie, but we are more likely today to call it the capitalist or ruling class.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people don’t own any of these things. They have no way of making a living unless they sell their “labour power”—their ability to work—to one or other of the capitalists.

Marx made the point that workers under capitalism are “free” in two senses of the word. They are free to work for one or other of the capitalists, in that we can choose to some extent who we work for. But, since workers are “free” from any access to the means of production, they are forced to sell their labour. They have to work for one company or another otherwise they are “free” to starve.

Now of course the types of jobs people do look very different in Britain today than in Marx’s time but that fundamental divide still remains. And your class depends on what side of it you are on. Do you own or control the means of production or do you have to sell your ability to work for a wage? If you sell your labour then you are working class—whether you are a postal worker, train or bus driver, hospital porter, car worker, delivery driver, call centre worker, housing worker, teacher, nurse, or docker.

At the heart of this relationship is exploitation of workers by capitalists. This is another very important Marxist insight. Exploitation is not an anomaly under capitalism, or something that happens only in sweatshops. Instead, it is at the centre of the system. It is the process by which profits are made. 

Profit is central to capitalism. Most economists don’t question the notion of profit. It is usually justified as a reward for the capitalist, or as a legitimate return for them being clever, innovative or even just for investing in the first place.

But Marx was clear that all profits come from workers. He developed what he called the labour theory of value to understand this. Central to this is the understanding that workers create value. When workers go to work, the actual amount of value they create is far more than what they get back in their wages.  This difference between what they are paid and the value they create when at work is the source of profit. Marx called this “surplus value”—the source of profit.

For example, if we take a car production worker, it is very clear when the capitalist sells those cars, they get back far more than what they paid the worker.  The worker has been paid less than the value of the cars they have made by their labour.

On the surface it may look like an equal exchange has taken place between the capitalist and worker. There is even a slogan “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. But in reality, it is never fair. The worker has been exploited. They have been paid less than the value they created while at work. So, exploitation is at the heart of capitalism. 

Bosses are constantly trying to squeeze more surplus value out of workers by making people work longer and harder at a greater intensity for less pay.  Capitalists do this not just because they are nasty, although they often are, but because they are compelled to do so by the logic of the system.

This brings us to the second division in capitalism which Marx identified – between the capitalists themselves. Although the capitalists are united as a class against the workers, they are all in competition with each other. 

This is because the organisation of production under capitalism is by separate rival firms. These can be anything from a small company to a major corporation, from a financial institution to a multinational. Crucially, they are all in competition with each other to grab profits. The more profit they make the better able they are to get ahead of their rivals by investing in new and more advanced technology and machinery.

Of course, some of the profit capitalists grab is used to enrich themselves. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the rest all have very luxurious lifestyles, with their mansions and yachts. But if that was all they wanted profit for, then there would be some limit to how much profit they required.

Instead, they need more and more profit to plough back into production. In order to stay ahead of their rivals each firm wants to maximise their profits. These can then be used to reinvest in more productive machinery, technology or equipment. This allows them to produce more efficiently, cut prices and undercut their rivals.

Marx called this process competitive accumulation—and he identified it as the driving force of capitalism. Companies have no choice but to compete for profits to reinvest to stay ahead of their rivals.  And there is no limit or end to this—the process of competition is relentless.

This is the starting point for understanding why capitalism goes into crisis. It is a completely unplanned and chaotic system, with no overall coordination. The whole process of production stems from a relentless scramble for profit rather than any rational decisions about what is needed by the people in society.

This process can lead to booms. If a firm sees profits to be made in a certain market, it will rush to take advantage of it and move into that sector.  They expand their output as quickly as possible to grab as much market share as they can. They invest in new plant, machinery and workers. It has a knock on effect creating demand for the products of other industries.

But the problem is that the unplanned nature of capitalism and the competition between each firm means there is no coordination. Each individual firm rushing into the profitable sector plans to take over all of the market. But all the other firms are seeking to do this too.

So, in this way, there is overproduction. Too much is produced and can no longer be sold at a profit.  At the same time in the rush for profit the existing supplies of raw materials, components, skilled labour and finance can be used up. Shortages start to hit firms, and prices and costs rise.  The only way a firm can protect itself is to cut back production, sack workers, shut down plants and factories and in so doing destroy the market for goods of other firms.

Identifying booms and slumps was not unique to Marx. Economists often talk of the “business cycle”.  What Marx identified was a longer term tendency over several cycles for slumps to get deeper and longer and booms to get shallower and shorter. There is a drive towards worsening and deeper crisis, due to the long term processes within the capitalist system.

Central to understanding Marx’s explanation of crisis is what he called the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He thought this was the “most important law of modern political economy”.

This arises due to the contradiction at the heart of the system. In the short term it makes sense for each individual capitalist to constantly reinvest their profits in more productive techniques. It gives them a short term advantage. But in the longer term it actually undermines the rate of profit leading to problems for the whole system.

What matters to each capitalist is not the absolute amount of profit they receive, but how this amount of profit compares with their original investment. This is called the rate of profit.

Capitalists invest in employing workers, and they invest in machinery, plant and technology.  But it is only the workers that create new value. So, as a capitalist invests in labour-saving technology, they can undercut their rivals and grab large amounts of profits. But it means capitalists invest a greater proportion into machinery, plant and technology than employing labour—the source of value. It means that in the long term the rate of profit declines.

Marx was clear that the rate of profit does not just drop like a stone. Indeed, there are countervailing influences. In particular, squeezing workers and increasing the rate of exploitation may enable the system to restore profit rates for a time. Destroying unprofitable companies—for example, through bankruptcies in a crisis—can also restore profitability.

However, the nature of production under capitalism means that economic crisis is built in and slumps get deeper over time. The process of competitive accumulation has other consequences which also worsen the impact of crisis.

As capitalism gets older it changes. The number of competing firms tend to get fewer and the units of capital tend to get bigger. In Marx’s day a firm would operate as a single capitalist running one textile mill in Manchester. Now we have giant multinationals, and a handful of very large firms have come to dominate whole industries. This is not an accident. 

Companies have grown in part as a result of the new investment that is made through the process of competition but they also grown through mergers and takeovers.  Marx called this the concentration and centralisation of capital. The scale of companies today means that if they were to go bust, it would have an even bigger devastating impact on the economy.

The process of competition has also led to the expansion of capitalism across the globe as capitalists search for raw materials and new markets. The nature of competition means war is embedded in capitalism. Lenin called imperialism the “highest stage of capitalism”. We now have a system of competing states which struggle for domination. Not only are they looking to secure new markets for “their” companies with ties to a particular nation state, but also to seize control of areas of the globe to keep their rivals out. 

The central conclusion for Marx was that, if crisis is built into the system, then it cannot be reformed. Instead, we need to get rid of capitalism altogether and look to revolutionary change.

This brings us to Marx’s most unique and original idea—working class self-emancipation. While Marx identified that workers were the most exploited class, he did not see them as purely victims of the system. Instead, he identified that they had a potential and special power.

Marx saw them as the force that could potentially bring down the system, and so he called the working class “the gravediggers of capitalism”. When Marx was writing, other people were also horrified by the terrible conditions that workers lived and worked in. However, for most of them, the solution was to appeal to the capitalists to be nicer to their workers or to intervene to help workers through charitable endeavours.  

Marx had a different view. When he talked about the need for workers “self-emancipation”, he meant workers could bring change through their own actions, not just waiting for a well-meaning person to intervene on their behalf.

Although the ruling class own all the workplaces, resources, wealth and make decisions about society, it is workers who actually do all the work. It is workers who build houses, grow crops, make food, drive trains, make clothes, teach children, clean offices, deliver the post, work in power stations, nurse people to health and all the other jobs needed in society.  Even if a particular job does not seem of use to society, it is still crucial to the capitalist because it makes profit.

It means that if workers stop work nothing happens. And the profits—the profits that drive the system—don’t get made. We have seen that very clearly in recent weeks when rail workers and others have gone on strike. Just 40,000 rail workers were able to bring the entire train network in Britain to a standstill.

This is the special and unique power workers have when they act collectively. Workers create all the wealth and are concentrated together in workplaces with a shared experience of exploitation. This means they have the potential power not only to win changes within capitalism, but ultimately to overturn and completely transform society through their own collective struggle.

Therefore, self-emancipation is at the very heart of Marxism. And from it flows something else Marx was very clear on—the need for revolution. By revolution Marx did not mean a coup or action by a small minority of people. Instead, he understood revolution as a mass event—taking place over months, perhaps even years, drawing in millions of people who would be part of completely transforming society.

Marx didn’t lay down a blueprint for what a future socialist society would look like. The whole concept of working class self-emancipation means that any new society would be created by those millions of people themselves, out of the process of revolution. Socialism is not something to be imposed from above according to a plan.

But Marx was clear about some key features of socialism.  Class society would be abolished. All the means of production from the land to the workplaces, resources and technology would be owned and controlled by everyone collectively. And there would be more democracy—a real and deeper democracy where everyone could participate in decisions about what is produced in society and how it runs. And those decisions about what is produced would no longer be based on what is profitable. Instead, they would be based on what is needed by the people in that society. 

This means that socialism was definitely not what happened in Stalinist Russia, or the Eastern Europe after the Second World War. These were brutal class societies characterised by inequality, exploitation and repression—none of which have anything to do with socialism. Neither is socialism represented today by countries such as Cuba, Venezuela or China. They are all class societies that have not broken with capitalism.

And socialism is not limited to getting a different party elected into government or a new law passed in Parliament. Of course, any new law to shorten the working week, increase the minimum wage, or to renationalise the energy companies would be very welcome. Socialists support such things. But while such legislation may upset some Tories or bosses, they would not make Britain a socialist country.

Socialism is about the complete transformation of society. It is about getting rid of capitalism entirely. And it is about a vision of a world without poverty, racism, oppression or war. Socialism is about ordinary people running society directly. It is about those who do all the work in the world—the vast majority of people—actually having a say in how society is organised. That means getting rid of class divide and profit motive.

Marx understood the only way to achieve this is through revolution. As we have seen, capitalism cannot be reformed since crisis is built into the system, and because those at the top of society won’t give up their wealth, power and privilege without a fight. They must be forced to do so. Which brings us to another reason why Marx thought revolution so necessary—it is needed to overthrow the state.

The state is sometimes presented as some sort of neutral entity, almost standing above society. But Marx was clear the state arises out of the irreconcilability of different class interests. In fact, the state is a capitalist state. They need it in order to stay in their position of power. After all they are a tiny minority living off the work of everyone else. So they created the laws, the institutions, the army and the police—all of which Lenin called “special bodies of armed men”—to enforce their rule.

We see on a daily basis the violence of the state and these “special bodies”—from the deaths of black people at the hands of the police to the force used against protestors. The ruling class uses the state to protect private property and their rule, and against workers when they go on strike.

Therefore, it is a tool of the ruling class. We cannot just take it over and use it. Instead, it has to be smashed, got rid of. By this Marx does not mean a few of us going down and breaking a few windows in our local police station but mass collective action that can actually dismantle the state, its laws, institutions and “special bodies of armed men”.  This act of insurrection to get rid of the actual capitalist state is as Lenin put it “the crowning act of a mass revolution”.

But there is also another reason why Marx thought revolution necessary. It is needed to get rid of what he called “the muck of ages”. Capitalism deliberately stokes up divisive ideas— racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and more. These ideas have not always existed. For example, women’s oppression is rooted in class society and takes a particular form under capitalism with its need for the family. Racist ideology was deliberately created to justify slavery as capitalism was coming into being.

Marx took oppression very seriously. He is not just all about economics. He clearly opposed the anti-Irish racism prevalent in his time, and was firmly against slavery.

But he also understood how people are shaped by the system of capitalism and that means that sometimes working class people can end up accepting some or all of those divisive ideas. These should be argued with. But Marx also saw how mass collective struggle can undermine these ideas on a much larger scale, as people see who both their allies are and who is their enemy.

It’s also true that most working class people are told that we are not good enough to run society. Instead, it should be left to those who are more educated, perhaps at Eton and Oxbridge. But the process of struggle and revolution can be transformative for those people involved, as they get a sense of their own power. It is this process that makes it possible for people to create a new society.

We should be clear that the concept of revolution is not an abstract idea. The highest point of revolutionary change was in Russia 1917 when workers got rid of the capitalist state and directly controlled decisions in society through the soviets (workers councils). But there have been many more revolutions, and revolutionary situations in the century since then. 

They may not have gone forward to socialist revolution. But there have been many situations of vast numbers of people protesting on the streets, mass and prolonged strikes, great movements fighting for democracy and social justice together. And they have seen new forms of self-organisation created by workers in the workplace as well as in local communities.

But Marx was not mechanical. He did not predict that one big crisis that would bring down capitalism or that capitalism would just collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Neither did he think socialist revolution was inevitable.

While crisis is built into capitalism, the ruling class can get out of crisis if workers are prepared to pay the price. What Marx did identify is that struggle is inevitable under capitalism. This is because of the contradiction at the heart of the system where capitalists try to squeeze more and more profit out of workers by increasing the rate of exploitation. This can force workers to fight back.

But the outcome of any struggle is not predetermined. It depends on strategy. That is why Marx not only developed theory but was also an activist and always part of an organisation. Indeed, he wrote the Communist Manifesto to try and win people to the ideas of the Communist League.

Marx developed his ideas in order for revolutionaries to better intervene in struggles and to help take them forward to their most radical conclusion – for workers to win out against the capitalist class. Above all else Marxism is a theory of revolutionary change based on the self-emancipation of working class people. At a time of deep existential crisis, it is more relevant than ever. 

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