Karl Marx (1818-83) was a German social thinker and the founder of a particular concept of communism. Born into a Jewish middle-class family, his father was inspired by Enlightenment ideals and had little sympathy for religion.
Karl studied law and Hegelian philosophy, two areas which would have a profound effect on his later thinking. Like his father, he held a dim view of religion but his ideas were well-intentioned and humane.
Marx advocated equal wages for equal work and decried the exploitation of workers by the owners of the means of production.
His labor theory of value maintains that products contain a use value, an exchange value and a surplus value.
- Use value is the practical utility of a commodity or service.
- Exchange value is a commodity or service’s value as compared to other goods and services, expressed as a ratio. For instance, a chocolate bar priced at $1.50 would have an exchange value of 1:2 with a $3.00 hamburger.
- Surplus value is the extra amount of value that workers create but don’t get paid for. The owners of the means of production take this profit for themselves and thus exploit their workers.
Marx believed that European history will pass through six stages of development, with conditions in each stage contributing to the rise of the next.
- Primitive Communism
- Slave Society
- Worldwide Communism
Marx is often demonized by religious fundamentalists and political conservatives but the communism he had in mind had next to nothing in common with the tyrant communisms we find in the world today. To me, Marx’s ideal seems like a pleasant fantasy for someone unaware of God and the enduring realities of evil.
When…class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power…is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another…In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.¹
Wikipedia notes that this would entail:
- Statelessness: there are no governments, laws, or nations anymore.
- Classlessness: all social classes disappear; everyone works for everyone else.
- Propertylessness: there is no money or private property; all goods are free to be consumed by anyone who needs them.²
By way of contrast, George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm paints a very different picture, where successful revolutionaries morph into corrupt oppressors just like their predecessors.
Orwell was writing about the Russian revolution degrading into Stalinism. But the overall dynamic of the oppressed becoming oppressors is something we see today with corrupt labor unions.
In religion, historically we find the enduring dynamic of oppression with the rise of the all-powerful Christian Church in the Middle Ages. What once was victim became victimizer.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.³
Marx says religion is the “opiate of the people” because he believes that imaginary otherworldly beliefs divert the people’s attention away from the real issue of social, political and economic oppression.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.4
For Marx, fantasy obscures reality, a materialist position which Sigmund Freud would mirror in his psychological work.
Marx was popular in universities from the 1960’s to early 80’s but was displaced by postmoderns like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. With the exception of Foucault, one could argue that the abstract, specialized language of some postmoderns leans toward academic elitism, something which Marx would have abhorred.
³ Excellent video illustrating the timeless WHO tune: https://youtu.be/zYMD_W_r3Fg
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