Marx was one of the great thinkers of modern times. Born in Prussia, he led an itinerant existence and had various interests; in his youth he wrote lyric poetry, later he became a newspaper man, and eventually a theorist advocating social reform. From his student days Marx was interested in philosophy (his doctoral dissertation concerned itself with aspects of Greek philosophical systems) and, after reading extensively in anthropology and economics, he arrived at a formulation of his own “philosophical anthropology” — the science of human beings in society.
Despite what has been proclaimed and enacted in his name (later in life he would protest that he was not a “Marxist” as the term had come to be understood), Marx was concerned ultimately with human freedom, reviving the ancient concept of communism wherein human beings could fulfill their cooperative roles within society without fear of exploitation. He saw the historical stage of capitalism as the “insidious” antagonist of such freedom; insidious because unlike serfdom (capitalism’s predecessor in the evolution of social relations) capitalism was able to perpetuate the illusion of freedom even though its raison d’etre relies on those who have nothing to sell but their labor and those, who through the power of capital and property, exploit such labor for profit. It is important to point out that Marx did not view capitalism as an aberration in society’s evolution toward true freedom, but as a necessary historical stage in that evolution.
Evolution is a key term in Marxist Theory and like Darwinism and Utopianism it partakes in the legacy of scientific and social thought of the nineteenth century. Some critics observe that, given the nature of the human species, Marx’s thought is essentially Utopian. He believed, for example, that human beings (as opposed to other species) should not be burdened by one monotonous form of work, which (as automobile assembly-line workers will tell you) produces not a pride or satisfaction in their work, but rather a sense of alienation. Marx believed (many would say “idealistically”) that a person could and should be something of a philosopher in the morning, a gardener in the afternoon, and perhaps a poet in the evenings. Whatever his utopian traits, Marx thought of himself as a social scientist, and his writings illuminate important aspects in the history of human societies, from pre-Christian times to the nature of capitalist society in nineteenth-century England, where his friend and coll
aborator Friedrich Engels managed a factory and recorded documentary evidence on working class life.
Marx’s “materialist conception of history” is based on the following premises: that human beings, in all historical eras, enter into certain productive relations (hunting and gathering food, the relation of lord and serf, the contract between labor and capital-that is, certain economic foundations) and that these relations give rise to a certain form of social consciousness. He maintained that: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. . . .”
Karl Marx was not a great influence during his life, but after his death it increased with the growth of the labor movement. His ideas, as interpreted by Lenin, continued to have influence throughout most of the twentieth century. In much of the world emerging nations were formed by leaders who claimed to represent the proletariat.