Karl Marx for Beginners

First, let’s get a handle on two terms: bourgeoisie and proletariatBourgeoisie comes from the French word for those who live behind walls; those who dwell in bourgs, fortified market towns. For example, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a book-length allegory of the Christian spiritual journey, there is a bourg—a market town—called Vanity Fair. Bunyan depicts Vanity Fair as a place where unnecessary and vain things are bought and sold, and where the pious are in danger of losing their spiritual focus–and therefore souls.

Christian suspicion and ambivalence concerning the moral value of the capitalist-oriented bourg carries into the ideas of the German philosopher and founder of Communism, Karl Marx (1818-1883). In Marxist terms, the market town-dwelling bourgeoisie represent the greedy ruling class, which is divided into: (1) the financiers and fabulously rich owners of the means of production (the haute bourgeoisie); and (2) the managers of that production—as well as the small business owners, the white-collar professionals, and those who are bureaucratic functionaries for the government (the petite bourgeoisie).

The class contrasted with the bourgeoisie is the proletariat, a word derived from the Latin proles (“children”), which was also used by ancient Roman census-takers to designate the individual—a proletarius—who had no property save his or her children. Thus, in Marxist terms, members of the proletariat have little by way of possessions beyond their children and nothing to sell but their labor. This class too is divided, consisting of: (1) urban and rural physical laborers, including the foot-soldiers who die in wars; and (2) those that are incarcerated or unemployed—the so-called “lumpenproletariat.”

For Marx, the members of the bourgeoisie maintain their control over the means of production in society, not because its members are intellectually superior to their unpropertied counterparts (the proletariat), nor because nature has otherwise endowed them for rule, but because the social-cultural system—the way it’s set-up economically and ideologically—favors them. There’s nothing natural, God-ordained, or permanent about the bourgeois arrangement of things. In actuality, there’s always an ongoing struggle for power between the economic classes of human beings, and this struggle goes on in ways that are both open and hidden. As Marx puts it in his “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” written in London in 1847 when he was 39 years old: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marx summarizes the history of class struggles this way:

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

And this class struggle continues. According to Marx, the most recent historic round of it was won by the bourgeoisie (the commerce-oriented town-dwellers), vanquishing the structures of feudal society. We are now, according to Marx, in a bourgeois-dominated era:

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. . . . From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses [citizens] the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.

They have a saying in Brazilian politics: “The flies change, but the shit is the same.” This is also Marx’s view. Beneath the appearance of things in any given era, keep your eye on the class struggle (the struggle for who is to control the means of economic production in society). But this struggle is not eternal; history has a direction and is coming to a head: “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

Marx believes the decisive factor in history, in its broadest terms, is discovered in the “material conditions of existence” (that is, in economics), and that he has discovered the driving force of history: the class struggle. He further believes that he has identified how that struggle must play out: with the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. Marx, therefore, is a historical and economic determinist: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”

In other words, Marx believes that he has identified the inherent instability in all previous economic arrangements (whether feudal lord in relation to surf or bourgeoisie in relation to proletariat): a minority has always ruled the majority. But, as a bucket of sloshing water must find its most natural level, so history must find its level in the masses of human beings, the rule of the majority (the proletariat). And Marx sees proletarian rule as immanent (near in coming), and it will constitute the final stage of economic history. Why? Because the bourgeois order is so obviously unstable; that is, its chief production is mass misery:

[P]aupersim develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society. . . . What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

How, then, has the bourgeoisie maintained its control over the means and management of production for as long as it has historically if its chief production is “its own grave-diggers” (alienated, unpropertied men and women)? And how does it continue to do so? Marx sees a dozen key factors at work (all quotes are, again, from his “Manifesto”):

  • The discovery of new market opportunities for Europeans going West and East. (“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.”)
  • The industrial revolution. (“[T]he markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production.”)
  • The communications revolution. (“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the barbarian, nations into civilization.”)
  • Urbanization and education. (“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”)
  • Colonialism. (“Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”)
  • Control of political parties. (“[T]he bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”)
  • The monetization of all relations under the banner of free trade. (“[The bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.”)
  • Appropriation. (“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with revernt awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.”)
  • Liquidation. (“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”)
  • Cosmopolitanism. (“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. . . . The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.”)
  • The creation of a globalist ideology. (“The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”)

For Marx, this state of things simply cannot go on forever. Something has to give. “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism,” he writes in the first sentence of his “Manifesto,” and “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution” is found in his last paragraph. Like the first century Christians presuming the soon return of Jesus, Marx believes that the proletarian revolution must surely be coming to ripeness “in the womb of time” (to quote Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello). How surprised Marx would be to see the 21st century, and the resilience of the bourgeoisie.


  • Tucker, Robert C. (editor). The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton, 2nd edition, 1978). The “Manifesto of the Communist Party” begins on pg. 473 of that edition.
  • Claeys, Gregory and Lyman Tower Sargent (editors). The Utopia Reader (New York University Press, 1999).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Karl Marx for Beginners

  1. andrewclunn says:

    The luddite revolutionary is quite the odd one.
    “The luxury of convenience destroys the self!”
    he proclaims as he demands them from everyone else,
    but knows not where such things come from.

  2. Paradigm says:

    There is a much simpler theory: the smart rule. It’s painfully obvious in Sweden and probably other European countries that politicians and businessman very often are nobility whose ancestors ruled the country in the Middle Ages. Which is bad news for capitalists as well, since they justify their position by equal opportunity which is an illusion if our station in life is dictated by our DNA.

  3. colinhutton says:

    A thought-provoking primer on KM and an interesting speculation.
    Much would surprise him today, no doubt, including China! However, would he feel abashed and recant? Somehow, I doubt it! Utopian visionaries have a limitless capacity for ignoring facts and wishing away reality (e.g. Chris Hedges). Even after apprising himself of all that we have learnt from evolution, genetics and biology over the last 150 years, KM would find a way to convince himself that differing individual abilities were all due to nurture and privilege and nothing to do with nature, and that the pecking order found in any society was all a result of conspiracies by nasty capitalists.

    • J. A. Le Fevre says:

      KM: ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to need.’
      Karl clearly recognized the differences Nature endowed, but argued that the well-endowed (through nature or far worse, through family ties) should not expect to control and enjoy exclusively said endowment. Rather he argued that the poor, hungry and oppressed should have their needs seen to. Understand the industrial world Marx and Dickens were privy to: Coal smoke blackened buildings, clothing, streets and lungs. Children working in dangerous factories and mines. No safety measures on machines, no assistance for the ill or injured. Lowest wages and longest hours the factory owners could bully from the hungry population. Whichever man, woman or child could perform the task and would accept the lowest wage doing so, until retired, dead, sick or injured. Then replaced with the next. Each a free agent negotiating on their own behalf. Libertarian freedom for all. Capitalist ecstasy. What could be better?

      • andrewclunn says:

        So did situations improve due to legislation, or due to increased wealth brought about by the industrial revolution? Should we be thanking planners or technology. I’ll give the planners their due for environmental controls that the free market had no way of replicating, but the story of many an ideology is claiming the credit they are not due for achievements they did not make.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre says:

    Nay, clearly, it was the egg that came first. It’s never the chicken.
    Jared Diamond had a similar argument (to mine, that is) on the Neolithic Revolution: ‘The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’. (http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html). I thought he meant it a joke until half way through or so.
    The Neolithic begat kings and peasants, the industrial owners and workers. Neither king nor owner gave up their hegemony without a fight – no goodness in either heart. The law brought both to heel – if only to a degree.
    But the yeoman farmer was only possible with the technology developed through thousands of years of peasant farming, representative government only possible following long development of schools/academies and civil service. Unions only possible with minimum levels of productivity engineered over decades.
    Technology may have made improvement possible, but the radicals pushed the people to demand the laws – nothing was given with a smile or handshake.

    • andrewclunn says:

      Odd that your vary rebuttal requires viewing all of human history through class struggle. I fear you may have internalized this narrative to the extent that it colors all your views.

  5. colinhutton says:

    Comments from both extremes of the socialist-libertarian spectrum, with both making valid points!

    ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to need’ may suggest that KM recognised differing degrees of natural ability. However, he failed to allow for differing degrees of natural greed and thuggishness. He also failed to propose a mechanism that would provide a useful yardstick of ability – other than the opinion of thugs. I think that the most that he could validly claim is that the threat posed by his flawed vision persuaded the bourgeoisie, at least those in Western Europe (and possibly the US to a lesser degree), to grant serial concessions, via a democracy/universal-suffrage model, sufficient to avoid destructive revolution and disorderly redistribution of ownership.

    In economics the chicken always comes first. Expanding on the analogy: Domesticating the chicken required an entrepreneur. She wouldn’t go the trouble and effort if she couldn’t keep the eggs. She will eat some and hatch some, producing more chickens and more eggs, to eat her fill and trade the surplus. She might, in her long term interest, willingly cede some eggs to the body politic that provides her with protection. She might even donate some eggs to hungry lumpen proles who would short-sightedly kill and eat all the chickens and —everyone starves.

    Thanks for the link to the Jared Diamond article. Like his books, it is readable and thought provoking. However, I think he is a sucker for the ‘noble savage’ delusion and I suspect his world-view conflicts with mine** (also, I suspect, with Andrew’s). A hypothetical: Should the US cease funding NASA and use the money saved to help the poor sods in Haiti, thereby immediately increasing overall human *happiness*? I say ‘no, that is bottomless pit – let’s rather maximise humanity’s long-term *achievement*’. I suspect Diamond might say ‘yes’, or at least equivocate over the question.

    **Conceding that everyone’s world-view is influenced by their personal circumstances and, in my case, is that of an Australian, a lucky country where everyone is virtually guaranteed at least a bourgeois, by global norms, way of life.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre says:

    Building on the notion of biases, I particularly like that Diamond essay for exposing what a huge mistake a small perception bias can lead to. I do like most of Diamond’s analyses, but on this one he made a U-turn. While his facts are right on the impacts of early agriculture – as far as they go, his mistake was to assume the decision was between hunting and farming. No farmer ever gave up hunting, and farmers continue to hunt to this day, when they can. The Neolithic decision was between farming and starving. And with Hunter-Gather communities all facing extinction in the next few generations, Mother Nature herself is assessing the magnitude of the mistake of civilization.

    Marx too, of course, had his biases, but I contend/agree his mistakes were prescriptive. The problems he described were the very real problems he witnessed which many others described as well. His mistake was in how to solve those problems.

    Yes, the point of the domestic chicken/domestic chicken egg metaphor is that you cannot have either until you develop them – together.

  7. Pingback: Karl Marx for Beginners | english7nyc

  8. Reblogged this on 23 & a ''BIT'' Studying at WIT and commented:
    For anyone doing the 2nd sociology essay title!

  9. Pingback: Marxism and Feminism – Jetman Designs

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