“The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles.”
- Karl Marx
When most people think of communism, the mind tends to jump to countries like Russia and China. However, socialist revolutionary and political theorist Karl Marx was the true pioneer of communism, and his ideas were influential in determining the present world order.
Born in 1818 in Germany, Karl Marx began his intellectual journey as a law student. At eighteen, he became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a fellow activist. Ludwig von Westphalen, Marx’s father-in-law, was an extremely liberal government official who inspired him to begin voicing his opinions by writing against autocracy and capitalism.
As a writer, Marx wrote for a newspaper in which he strongly opposed the Prussian autocracy, which he argued was oppressive towards the common people. His outspoken views were so radical that the newspaper was shut down by the Prussian government.
As a result, Marx relocated to France to start a new life for himself. It was then that Marx began writing articles based on the theory of communism - which then was an unpopular view. Marx had articles published in several newspapers and then wrote The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which was made available to the public much later in the 1930s. It was widely criticized because communism was seen as a radical, far-left idea that the government wanted to avoid from becoming reality.
After a year in France, Marx moved to Brussels, Belgium, with his companion and fellow theorist Frederich Engels. In 1845, the pair wrote The German Ideology, a set of manuscripts that gained popularity among philosophers. This was when both Marx and Engels began to shed light on the concept of communism.
In a famous quote from The German Ideology, Marx solidified his support for a communist society by stating,
“Communism is for us, not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
Marx was extremely outspoken about his views on the negative effects of a capitalist society that Europe had, and instead advocated for allowing the central government to hold power over workers and production in a true command economy. He and Engels introduced the idea that capitalism was distinctive - and that its issues went much further than private sectors being able to control production.
They brought up worker exploitation, arguing that powerful companies forced the worker to go beyond the minimum, necessary labor required for efficient production. By doing this, Marks and Engels argued that workers were often exploited to do much more work than truly needed, allowing a business to benefit from the surplus-value of work and take the profit instead of the worker. They articulated that communism, on the other hand, would allow the working class to break free from the harsh control imposed on the government.
Perhaps Marx’s most famous and widely known piece of work written was The Communist Manifesto. It had little impact at first in Europe, but a hundred years later, millions of people would be living under governments that loosely followed the Marxist views.
Marx, assisted by Engels, published the pamphlet in 1848. He introduced the idea that the problems in the economy were essentially a result of class struggles and hierarchies, arguing that the ultimate rise of the working class could put an end to class society for good.
Marx and Engels went as far as to suggest that the wars and oppression in Europe were all due to the capitalist system. This idea was radical to many government officials at the time. Through communism, they explained, workers would be able to control the means of production rather than allowing the elite in power to order and exploit them. The importance of creating a strong working-class would ultimately be able to fulfill their hope of transition out of the capitalist society, which in their view was oppressive, classist, and dangerous.
The Communist Manifesto truly began to gain popularity when European countries slowly moved towards attempting to get rid of the capitalist societies built in place, starting with the Russian Revolution in 1917. The common people, led by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, joined together to overthrow the ruling monarchy and abolish it for good in 1917- reflecting Marx’s view that the working class had a duty to overthrow the elite. Similar efforts occurred in Cuba and China later in the 20th century.
However, the common theme is that none of these countries was ever truly successful in transitioning to a completely communist society. Marx had stressed the importance of a joint, strong working class to transition into an effective communist society; however, Russia was a country in which half the population was common peasants.
Therefore, while the rise against the monarchy had been successful in the sense that the ruling class had been overthrown, Russia was simply not prepared to transform into the fully communist society that Marx had wanted. It was doomed from the start, and their society only worsened under the eventual rule of Stalin.
The same pattern continued in both China and Cuba, where the lack of organization in overthrowing the government led to harsh dictatorships and an overall negative view that does not fulfill the original Marxist ideals of communism.
True Marxism has argued against the idea of a dictatorship, in which power is heavily concentrated by one person. This is one of the central reasons that China, Cuba, and Russia cannot be called truly Marxist. While all three countries started off initially with the idea of getting rid of the concept of class hierarchies, it was unsuccessful and never truly lived up to the hopes outlined in The Communist Manifesto.
Nowadays, it is hard for people to see that the meaning of communism under Marx had a completely different intention than the meaning of communism relative to the current societies of Russia, China, and Cuba.
Marx’s ideal concept of successful communism has never truly been fulfilled. Rather, modern-day communism that started with Russia has given communism an extremely negative connotation due to the fact that people now tend to immediately think of dictators such as Stalin and Fidel Castro, whose ideas led to immense violence in the 20th century.
It is hard to say whether a truly communist society would be able to exist successfully in today’s world, given how politics and the economy have changed immensely since philosopher Karl Marx sparked the ideas that transformed the modern world.