Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a revolutionary German economist and philosopher, and the founder of the Communist movement. Marx was writing against a backdrop of great industrial change. Overcrowded, newly industrialised cities were expanding, and much of the working class lived in great poverty. Marx saw history as the story of class struggles, in which the oppressed fight against their oppressors. According to Marx, as history unfolded, the victory of one class would pave the way for the future freedom of the rest of society.
Marx viewed the unfolding process of history as follows:
- First in ancient and mediaeval society the landed and wealthy had oppressed the slaves and the poorest plebeians and labourers.
- Then, as new technologies were invented and market forces grew stronger, everything changed. The middle classes - gaining wealth and power from trade and manufacture - challenged the power and authority of the old rulers.
- But at this stage a new struggle was formed between the bourgeoisie (the property owning class) and the proletariat (the industrial working class).
Marx argued that the capitalist bourgeoisie mercilessly exploited the proletariat. He recognised that the work carried out by the proletariat created great wealth for the capitalist. The products created in the factory (the material outcome of the workers' labour) were sold for more than the value of the labour itself i.e. more than the workers' wages. For instance, the factory worker may get paid £2 to produce a yard of cloth. The capitalist then sells the cloth for £5. In this way, the capitalist, who controls the process of production, makes a profit. But the worker does not benefit from this added value, and fails to benefit from the fruits of his/her own labour.
Marx believed that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. He described how the wealth of the bourgeoisie depended on the work of the proletariat. Therefore, capitalism requires an underclass. But Marx predicted that the continued exploitation of this underclass would create great resentment. Eventually the proletariat would lead a revolution against the bourgeoisie. The final struggle would lead to the overthrow of capitalism and its supporters. Marx wrote that modern bourgeois society 'is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.'
Following the proletariats' defeat of capitalism, a new classless society would emerge based on the idea: 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'. In such a society, land, industry, labour and wealth would be shared between all people. All people would have the right to an education, and class structures would disappear. Harmony would reign, and the state would simply 'wither away'.