Karl Marx was convinced that capitalism was destined to collapse. He believed the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeois, and with it abolish exploitation and hierarchy. We now know that his prediction was incorrect, and that can trigger a dismissive attitude towards Marx’s theory of history and economics. What we should instead do is ask how he arrived at his beliefs about capitalism.
It’s important that we study Marx’s theory of history and economics, and in the process identify the basic vocabulary of Marxism, which yielded terms that over the next 100 years were used to win arguments, plan a revolution, and define orthodoxy.
Marx’s theories reacted most of all to the rapidly changing 19th‐century world around him, to industrialization and to the establishment of what was increasingly called capitalism. Capitalism may be defined as an economic system operating in a free market, with private ownership of the means of production, following the competitive pursuit of profit: in hiring labor, in buying and selling commodities.
While precisely dating capitalism’s rise is heatedly debated, it grew out of a commercial revolution in Western Europe in the 17th century (especially in the Netherlands and Britain), then took hold in the 18th century, and had spread throughout Europe in the 19th.
The term capitalism itself was at first most often used as a form of denunciation by socialists (those who Marx would call utopian socialists), who wanted to voluntarily organize society against it and to replace it with something radically different. Marx brought to the discussion of his ironclad conviction that capitalism was nearing its collapse.
Learn more about the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
Karl Marx Believed Capitalism was the Final Stage of Class Clashes
For us, it is a formidable challenge to imagine or think our way back to Marx’s time. We know today that capitalism did not collapse as Marx predicted. Indeed, one often hears the quote of the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” What we must ask is: How did Marx arrive at his certainty?
First, Marx grounded his thinking in a model of historical change. He declared, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Capitalism to him was a stage in this historical evolution, not a final, natural, or organic and stable state of human organization.
The aim of historical evolution was the progressive liberation of human beings, but collective liberty, not the individual liberty championed by classical liberals, which Marx saw as selfish.
At its base, history was economic and expressed itself in a series of clashes between classes, following their objective economic interests, as society moved through different stages, defined by changing means of production. So, Marx wrote, “The hand‐mill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam‐mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
In each case, the base reality was economic, and the superstructure of ideas, values, and social norms was built on top of that base. Even religion was a reflection of economic interests or a kind of narcotic for economic misery. And capitalism was not the end stage of human history, but rather the next to last stage of development when all these clashes reached a climax.
Learn more about Marxism after Marx.
The Proletariat as a Universal Savior Class
Industrialization as a means of production depended on a complicated division of labor, subdividing tasks and work, and in the process alienating the worker. Marx conceded that industrial capitalism had bound the world together, globalizing it, making it cosmopolitan, and had accomplished some amazing feats of development.
The bourgeoisie had played a revolutionary role. But by that very process, Marx announced, it had of necessity also reduced everything to a commodity, something to sell and trade. Human relations were downgraded to a cold, callous ‘cash nexus’, and all earlier certainties and morality dissolved into air.
The labor of workers became a commodity, and Marx was excited at what he considered his discovery of the phenomenon of ‘surplus value’ (Mehrwert, in German) that drove the entire process of exploitation and profit. Indeed, Marx and Engels considered this a huge discovery, equivalent to Darwin’s in the natural world.
As their exploitation increased, the workers’ lot worsened and became direr, in the process of immiseration. Then society at large grew increasingly polarized, between the few rich and the masses of the poor. As competition between capitalists sharpened, ever more members of the bourgeoisie who lost out in competition would sink into the working class, further swelling its numbers.
Its growth only further underlined that the proletariat was not a class like others that had come before, rather the proletariat was a universal savior class that was destined to abolish all exploitation.
Recall how Marx had declared, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Note the ‘hitherto’ qualifier again. For Marx, history was purposeful, moving towards a final struggle, with an inevitable outcome. And that was world communism, not limited to any country—as “workingmen have no country” Marx declared—but rather are bound to other proletarians of their class.
The revolution would not be about compromise, but would totally abolish all exploitation and all hierarchy, in an elemental overthrow of bourgeois society. After the workers took control and abolished all other classes, the state would wither away, as politics ceased to exist. Technology inherited from the industrial revolution and labor free of alienation together would now produce plenty for all. The result would be a radically different society under communism.
Learn more about the intellectual partnership between Marx and Engels.
Marx’s Radical Rupture
The Manifesto had stated, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” In Das Kapital, Marx described it with his famed formula, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Yet how this would come to pass was not spelled out in detail.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels listed ten immediate steps to move in the right direction, including income taxes and a central bank, but they didn’t give a detailed blueprint.
Even with this ambiguity, Marx’s prophecy of an inevitable revolution was not about compromise but was a call to arms. In Die Deutsche Ideologie (The German Ideology), written in 1845 and 1846, Marx and Engels wrote, “A revolution is required because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the working class that dislodges it needs a revolution itself… a revolution that will purge the proletariat of the accumulated trash of its past. Only thus can the workers rebuild society.”
Human society, in other words, needed to be broken in order to be remade new, as a new civilization. Marx hailed the ‘radical rupture’ in all parts of life in the Manifesto, and the fact that communism ‘abolishes eternal truths’, as he put it, ‘abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it, therefore, acts in contradiction to all past historical experience’. This is what revolution promised to Marx: radical rupture.
Common Questions about Karl Marx and Capitalism
As per Marxism, history at its core was economic and expressed itself in a series of clashes between classes, following their objective economic interests, as society moved through different stages, defined by changing means of production. So, Marx wrote, “The hand‐mill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam‐mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
Karl Marx conceded that industrial capitalism had globalized the world, but by that very process, Marx announced, it had of necessity also reduced everything to a commodity, something to sell and trade. Human relations were downgraded to a cold, callous ‘cash nexus’, and all earlier certainties and morality dissolved into air. The labor of workers had become a commodity, opening the door for extreme exploitation and profit.
Karl Marx grounded his thinking in a model of historical evolution. He declared, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Capitalism to him was a stage in this historical evolution, not a final, natural, or organic and stable state of human organization.
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels listed ten immediate steps to move in the right direction, including income taxes and a central bank, but they didn’t give a detailed blueprint.