Karl Marx: his philosophy explained

In 1845 Karl Marx said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; it is about changing it”.

Change it, he did.

Political movements representing masses of new industrial workers, many of whom drew on his thought, reshaped the world in the 19th and 20th centuries through revolution and reform. His work influenced trade unions, labor parties and social democratic parties, and helped spark revolution via communist parties in Europe and beyond.

All over the world “Marxist” governments were formed which claimed to be committed to his principles and which upheld dogmatic versions of his thought as part of their official doctrine.

Marx’s thought was revolutionary. He came to stimulate arguments in all the major languages, in philosophy, history, politics and economics. He even helped found the discipline of sociology.

Although his influence in the social sciences and humanities is no longer what it used to be, his work continues to help theorists make sense of the complex social structures that shape our lives.

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Marx wrote then that mid-Victorian capitalism was at its Dickensian worst, analyzing how the New Industrialism was causing radical social upheaval and severe urban poverty. Among his many writings, perhaps the best known and most influential are Volume 1 of Capital (1867) and the very small Communist Manifesto (1848), written with his collaborator Frederick Engels.

Economically alone, he made important observations that have influenced our understanding of the role of boom/bust cycles, the link between market competition and rapid technological progress, and the tendency of markets to concentrate and to monopolies.

Marx also made prescient observations about what we now call “globalization.” He underlined “the newly created links […] of the world market” and the important role of international trade.

At the time, landowners held the vast majority of the wealth, and their wealth quickly accumulated through the establishment of factories.

The labor of the workers – the propertyless masses – was bought and sold like any other commodity. The workers toiled for starvation wages, like “appendages of the machine[s]in Marx’s famous phrase. By keeping them in this position, the owners become richer and richer, siphoning off the value created by this work.

This would inevitably lead to a militant international political organization in response.

This is where Marx’s famous call came from in 1848, the year of the European revolutions:

the workers of the world unite!


To do philosophy properly, Marx believed, we must form theories that capture the concrete details of the lives of real people – so that the theory is fully grounded in practice.

Karl Marx photographed in 1875.
Wikimedia Commons

His main interest was not just capitalism. It was human existence and our potential.

His enduring philosophical contribution is an insightful and historically grounded perspective on human beings and industrial society.

Marx observed that capitalism was not just an economic system by which we produced food, clothing and housing; it was also linked to a system of social relations.

Work structured people’s lives and opportunities in different ways depending on their role in the production process: most people belonged to either the ‘owning class’ or the ‘working class’. The interests of these classes were fundamentally opposed, which inevitably led to conflicts between them.

On this basis, Marx predicted the inevitable collapse of capitalism leading to equally inevitable workers’ revolutions. However, he seriously underestimated the adaptability of capitalism. In particular, how parliamentary democracy and the welfare state might moderate the excesses and instabilities of the economic system.


Marx argued that social change is driven by the tension created within an existing social order through technological and organizational innovations in production.

Technology-induced changes in production make new social forms possible, so that old social forms and classes become obsolete and replaced by new ones. Formerly, the dominant class was that of the lord landowners. But the new industrial system produced a new ruling class: the capitalists.

A poster of Marx at a May Day march in Sydney.
Paul Miller/AP

Against the philosophical tendency to view human beings as mere organic machines, Marx saw us as a creative and productive type of being. Humanity uses these abilities to transform the natural world. However, in doing so, we also transform ourselves, throughout history, in the process. This makes human life distinct from that of other animals.


The conditions in which people live profoundly shape the way they see and understand the world. As Marx said:

men make their own history [but] they do not do so under self-chosen circumstances.

Marx viewed human history as a process of gradually overcoming obstacles to self-understanding and freedom. These barriers can be mental, material and institutional. He believed that philosophy could offer ways to realize our human potential in the world.

Theories, he said, were not just about “interpreting the world”, but about “changing it”.

Individuals and groups are situated in social contexts inherited from the past that limit what they can do – but these social contexts offer us certain possibilities.

The current political situation we face and the scope of actions we could take to improve it result from our location in our unique place and time in history.

This approach has challenged thinkers from all traditions and continents to better understand the complexities of the social and political world and to think more concretely about the prospects for change.

Based on his historical approach, Marx argued that inequality is not a natural fact; it is socially created. He sought to show how economic systems such as feudalism or capitalism – although extremely complex historical developments – were ultimately our own creations.

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Alienation and Freedom

Seeing the economic system and what it produces as objective and independent of humanity, this system comes to dominate us. When systematic exploitation is seen as a product of the “natural order,” humans are philosophically “enslaved” by their own creation.

What we have produced comes to be seen as alien to us. Marx called this process “alienation”.

Despite their intrinsic creative abilities, most humans feel stifled by the conditions in which they work and live. They are alienated a) in the production process (“what” is produced and “how”); b) others (with whom they are constantly in competition); and c) their own creative potential.

Workers at an Indonesian garment factory in 2019.

For Marx, human beings inherently yearn for freedom, and we are only truly free if we control our own destiny.

Marx believed that a rational social order could realize our human capacities as individuals as well as collectively, by overcoming political and economic inequalities.

Writing at a time before working people could even vote (because voting was restricted to male landowners), Marx argued that “the full and free development of each individual” – along with meaningful participation in the decisions that shaped their life – would be realized through the creation of a “classless society [of] the free and equal.


Marx’s concept of ideology introduced an innovative way of critiquing how dominant beliefs and practices – commonly seen as being for the good of all – actually reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the ‘ruling’ class.

For Marx, beliefs in philosophy, culture, and economics often serve to rationalize unfair advantages and privileges as “natural” when, in fact, the amount of change we see in history shows that it does not. are not.

He didn’t say it was a conspiracy of the ruling class, where those in the ruling class believe things simply because they reinforce the current power structure.

Rather, it is because people are brought up and taught to think in a given social order. As a result, viewpoints that seem eminently rational tend quite conveniently to maintain the distribution of power and wealth as it is.

Marx always aspired to be a philosopher, but was unable to pursue it as a profession because his views were deemed too radical for an academic position in his native Prussia. Instead, he made a living as a crusading journalist.

Either way, Marx was a giant of modern thought.

His influence was so great that people are often unaware of how much his ideas shaped their own thinking.