The Worldly Philosophers By Robert Louis Heilbroner Summary and Analysis Chapter 6 - The Inexorable System of Karl Marx


In 1848, the threat of revolution was everywhere. The French endured a weak, dissolute king before fomenting riots; the Belgians likewise found no strength in royal leadership. Uprisings in Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria imitated the unrest of the French. The songs of workers and the poems of romanticists echoed the volatile rumblings of internal discontent. Yet, despite all their zeal and furor, these stirrings failed because they were spontaneous, undisciplined, and disconnected.

From this fierce, bloody clamor, however, a new voice made itself heard — the voice of militant workers who comprised the Communist League. Their initial efforts proved insufficient against the reaction of European governments, but they presaged a turn of events in world economics which would make itself felt for years to come, for amid this turmoil appeared The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx, with the collaboration of Friedrich Engels.

Marx (1818-83), born in Germany, the second son of a liberal, middle-class Jewish family, pursued a college education, but to his father's dismay, he rejected the study of law. At universities in Bonn and Berlin, he dedicated himself to philosophy and came under the influence of Hegel's ideas. He found his ambition to teach blocked by authorities who rejected his liberal views, particularly his belief in constitutional government and atheism.

Marx turned to journalism and edited the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical newspaper which was suppressed because of his attacks on law and the Tsar of Russia. At this time, he began studying politics and economics. Married to the beautiful Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and his former next-door neighbor, he continued his journalistic career in Paris, Brussels, again in Paris, then in Germany. However, the pattern of his life changed little — radical views always led to expulsion. Hunger was never far from the Marx household.

In Paris, in 1844, Marx formed an immediate and lifelong association with Friedrich Engels (1820-95). The son of a wealthy German textile manufacturer, Engels lived a double life by associating with capitalists while devoting himself to socialism. In Brussels, the two collaborated to produce The Communist Manifesto, which became the program of the Communist League, a loose organization of discontented workers who desired fundamental political and economic changes. The League eventually died and was replaced by the International Workingmen's Association, which underwent several phases of reorganization as its members tried to reach a consensus.

Wherever he went, Marx, a quarrelsome and intolerant activist, organized workers' movements and edited communist papers. Eventually, he fled to England to spend the remainder of his life in London. There, he and his family and a faithful servant spent a miserable existence of abject poverty and near-starvation. Jenny and two of their five children died, and to add to his misery, Marx suffered from chronic boils.

Despite everything, Marx remained devoted to his family. His only steady income was derived from his reports on European political affairs to the New York Tribune, but, at times, Marx couldn't send his reports to New York because he lacked money for postage. After selling the family silver and valuables, he pawned his shoes and overcoat to survive. What kept his family going was Engels' generous financial aid; later, Marx came into a small inheritance from an old friend. Undoubtedly, these years of extreme poverty account for much of Marx's bitterness.

Marx worked in the British Museum library from ten to seven each day. He pored over books and manuscripts on economics, gathering and cataloging enormous amounts of data which formed the basis of his Das Kapital. This meticulous book required eighteen years of preparation, with the main part — Volume I — published in 1867, after two years of editing.

Marx endured not only poverty but also disappointment. His later years were filled with bickering over the validity of his interpretations among a motley assortment of dissidents. At one point near the end of his life, disgusted with feuding, Marx declared, "I am not a Marxist." At his death, only Volume I of his masterpiece had been published. Engels published Volume II in 1885 and Volume III in 1894; the final volume appeared in 1910, making a total of 2500 pages filled with minute, tedious points of economic theory.

As Marx did not make a systematic presentation of his philosophy, it is necessary to discover his basic concepts from a study of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, each of which was written for a different purpose. Marx developed the principle of dialectical materialism from the dialectical method of Hegel, a German philosopher who believed that change occurs as the result of a blend of opposing forces. The given idea, or thesis, when challenged by an opposing idea, or antithesis, results in a new concept, or synthesis, which is somewhat closer to the truth than the initial two ideas. Accepting this fundamental premise, Marx went further. He substituted realism for Hegel's idealism and used it to explain world history. By stressing the reality of materialism, Marx evolved his economic interpretation of history. Marx's writings interpret history in terms of a class struggle for survival, which determines everything else in human affairs. The history of humanity, according to Marx, is primarily the story of one class' exploitation of another. Applying the theory of dialectical materialism, Marx determined that the inevitable next step was a revolt of the overwhelming majority of workers, who would overthrow the ruling capitalists and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, or workers. This economic cataclysm would lead to communal ownership and a return to a classless society.

While The Communist Manifesto states the revolutionary aims of communism and maintains that capitalism must inevitably destroy itself, Das Kapital is Marx's analysis of the means of destruction. It is a critique of political economy which attempts to explain economics in coldly analytical and scientific terms. To Marx, his scientific arguments comprise irrefutable evidence prognosticating the doom of capitalism.

Marx sets the scene for his attack on capitalism by describing a capitalistic world of perfect competition — where the market is free, without monopolies, unions, or special advantages for anyone. Every product sells for its correct price or value. Agreeing with Adam Smith and David Ricardo on the definition of value, Marx states that the value of a product is the amount of labor which goes into making it. The worker wishes to sell labor-power; the capitalist wants a profit.

But how can there be profit if everything sells for an exact value?

It would be simple for profits to arise if there are monopolies to set excessive prices, or if capitalists pay less for labor than it is worth. Marx demonstrates that in its most perfect form capitalism is unworkable. Therefore capitalism, with its monopolies and imperfections, has no chance for survival.

Das Kapital explains that profits arise from one product or commodity which is distinctive — labor. Because capitalists control all access to the means of production, the worker must sell labor-power to the capitalist for its exact worth. Its value is what it takes to keep the laborer alive.

Marx concludes that labor actually produces more for the capitalist by working extra hours. The surplus value of labor gives rise to the capitalist's profits. In short, while the worker receives only a daily wage equal to subsistence requirements, actual production for a workday results in extra units of products. The value is translated into profits for the capitalist, who steals what is rightfully the worker's.

How can such a theft occur? Simple, answers Marx. It results when the capitalist monopolizes the means of production and forces the laborer to work a full day in order to remain employed. Since the typical factory work-week in England during Marx's time averaged slightly more than eighty hours, his concept of surplus value was not as farfetched as it seems today.

In Marx's view, the capitalist strives to obtain more surplus value by expanding production, thereby increasing profits. However, other capitalists compete in the same fashion, hiring more people and bidding against other capitalists, consequently driving up wages. This situation serves to decrease profits. Marx rejects Ricardo's notions because he believes that workers are too enlightened to continue increasing their offspring. At the same time he scornfully rejects the Malthusian Doctrine, labeling it "a libel on the human race." Instead, Marx sees the capitalist providing a solution through the adoption of labor-saving machinery. By substituting technology, the capitalist forces workers out of jobs, thus increasing the labor supply and decreasing wages.

However, the "solution" does not really solve the capitalist's problem, for as the capitalist adds equipment, the cost of each device inhibits the realization of any surplus value from them. Therefore, the capitalist defeats the purpose of the purchase but must continue modernizing because competitors are continually adding machines to increase production. Consequently, the percentage of profit steadily falls until the point is reached where production is no longer profitable. Bankruptcies result and small firms go out of business.

If workers lose their jobs, labor is forced to accept cuts in wages. Machines are traded, human labor is rehired by the remaining firms, and, for awhile, surplus value and profits return. Not for long, however, as this is a vicious cycle. Capitalists ultimately dig their own graves, for on one hand, the working class, increasingly dissatisfied with its misery, grows larger. On the other hand, the capitalistic class grows smaller as larger capitalists gobble up smaller and weaker competitors. When finally only a few powerful capitalists remain, the time comes for the proletariat to rise and sweep away capitalism, which has, in a sense, destroyed itself.

Marx predicted trends which capitalism would follow. Surprisingly, most of them have come true. These predictions he called the "laws of motion":

  1. As the economy expands, profits fall, both within the business cycle and outside it.
  2. As profits fall, business seeks new survival techniques by innovating, inventing, and experimenting.
  3. Business runs in cycles of depression and boom.
  4. Huge firms dominate the business scene and suppress smaller firms.
  5. Finally, the working class overcomes factory owners and capitalism disappears.


Some of Marx's predictions have indeed come true. Others are not so clear-cut. For example, profits do tend to fall within a business cycle, but they do not fall as steadily outside the business cycle. Some have risen instead. Most significantly, even though indicators reflect Marxist philosophy, capitalism continues to thrive in the United States, Japan, and Great Britain, even if it has partly disappeared in Western Europe.

Russia, the communist bloc countries, and China are another matter. During the most intensive rule of communism, capitalism has remained suppressed except for a trickle of imports from the West, such as Coca-Cola, drilling equipment, medicines, and computers. However, with the 1989 thaw in Cold War tensions, capitalism was one of the first aspects of Western democracy to penetrate the Iron Curtain as McDonald's brought "burgers and fries" to Moscow.

Obviously, Marx's vision of the future has proved too inflexible. Like the laws of gravity, he expected the weakening of capitalism to fall into place without the slightest deviation. However, he failed to predict many mitigating factors, such as improvements in the lives of workers. Further, in no case where communism has triumphed has the revolution taken place in an industrialized nation at the hands of the workers themselves. Russia, China, and Cuba were all primarily agrarian economies when the revolutions occurred. The same could be said for the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, except for Czechoslovakia.

Another worthy consideration is the fact that each Communist country was taken over from without and during wartime. These nations did capitulate according to Marx's predictions, but largely from the work of professional revolutionaries. On the other hand, Germany and Italy, which chose fascism over communism during the late 1930s, today exhibit both state capitalism and private capitalism working in partnership.

Non-communist economists find the weakest point in Das Kapital to be the theory of surplus value, for it does not satisfactorily explain prices. Likewise, these economists do not accept labor as the sole measure of value. Yet, economists have not derived an agreed-upon substitute measure of value.

Furthermore, liberals and humanitarians cannot accept Marx's economic interpretation of history. They deny that history evolves purely from economics — to the exclusion of religion, nationalism, and human will. Also, they spurn the Marxian notion that the hero has a subordinate role in the motivation of historical events. On the other hand, until the time of Marx, historians had all but overlooked the effect of economics in human affairs.

Undeniably, with all the flaws in his predictions, Marx made a sizable impact. No communist nation or party fails to pay homage to his teachings. While capitalism has not collapsed as Marx predicted, it has been forced to adapt. Socialism has risen throughout the world since Marx's time — and communism is an unyielding, inexorable variety of socialism.

In the U.S., socialism has been avoided largely as the result of support of competition through government anti-trust legislation and regulation of public utilities. From the impoverished nations of Latin America to the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, the communist banner of Karl Marx continues to wave — proof that his concepts cannot be lightly dismissed. In truth, Marx is entitled to be called the Prophet of the Proletariat.

Here are a few terms to help clarify Marx's philosophy:

Marxism: Karl Marx's version of communism. While a typical Communist may believe that the final goal of communism will come into existence by a number of methods, the Marxist accepts Marx's every word and explanation as the only way. Both forms of communism accept the concept of revolutionary socialism — the attainment of a classless society by violent and bloody revolution, as opposed to the peaceful and democratic method of socialists. In terms of "left" and "right," Marxists are further left than Communists, who are, in turn, to the "left" of Socialists.

Scientific Socialism: Laws evolved by Marx and Engels which explain the economic determination of history, the class struggle, the inevitable downfall of capitalism, and the triumph of the proletariat.

Capitalists: Financial backers of production; also called the "haute bourgeoisie," or high middle class.

Bourgeoisie: The middle class, technically divided between rich capitalists ("haute bourgeoisie") and small shopkeepers, government officials, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and independent farmers. A term generally applied to people with private property. (Bourgeois is the adjective form.)

Proletariat: The workers, or the lowly wage earners.

Anarchism: Rebellion against all forms of government. Anarchists are not content to wait for the withering away of the state. They believe in ending government rule by assassinating public officials. Because they disdain any type of government, anarchists are at the extreme "left" of all political groups.

The early modern theorist of the benefits of anarchism was William Godwin, whose Political Justice (1793) expressed a utopian ideal. The father of anarchism, however, is Pierre Proudhon (1809-65) who quarreled violently with Marx and whose book What Is Property? answered the question in the title by stating that "Property is theft." The anarchist who championed direct action through violence was Mikhail Bakunin, who originally followed Marxism but, in time, became Marx's bitter enemy.


Hegelian Dialectics The philosophical concept that in the world of ideas, change occurs as the result of a synthesis, or coming together of opposing forces: a given idea (thesis), when challenged by a new and opposing idea (antithesis), results in a new concept (synthesis) which is somewhat closer to the truth than the initial two ideas.

Dialectical Materialism Karl Marx's application of Hegel's dialectical method to an explanation of all world events.

Historical Materialism Marx's economic interpretation of history, which stresses economics as the basis for all human actions and historical events.

Communism A belief in the achievement of socialism by revolutionary means, particularly by class warfare.

Marxism Communism according to the exact words and predictions of Karl Marx.

Scientific Socialism What Marx and Engels called the ideas contained in The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital; scientific laws explaining the economic determination of history, class struggle, and the inevitable downfall of capitalism with the eventual triumph of workers over the moneyed class.

Prophet of the Proletariat Karl Marx.

Capitalists The class which provides or controls the money that underwrites the production of goods. Technically, capitalists are the upper class of the bourgeoisie, known as the "haute bourgeoisie," or high middle class, the most hated class under Marxism.

Bourgeoisie The middle class. Technically, it includes the "petite bourgeoisie," or small middle class — the small shopkeepers, government officials, lawyers, doctors, independent farmers, and teachers — and the "haute bourgeoisie." The term is generally used by Marxists to describe the owners of private property. (Bourgeois is the spelling of the adjective form.)

Proletariat Lowly wage earners, or workers.

Anarchism The support of no system of government; the belief that government, controls, and authority are oppressive.

Father of Anarchism Pierre Proudhon.

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