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Introduction: Karl Marx's life

The German philosopher Karl Marx became one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Germany. He studied law and philosophy at university in Germany.

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Marx associated with the influential philosopher Friedrich Engels. Together they developed and built on theories of capitalism, socialism and historical change. Marx's most influential theories were published in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and the Das Kapital (1867).

Marx's theories were controversial and caused him to be exiled from Germany. He settled in Paris, Brussels and finally London.

Karl Marx's theories

Marx believed that all historical change was caused by a series of class struggles between the bourgeoisie 'haves' and the proletariat 'have nots'.

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Capitalism describes an economic system in which the means of production (such as factories) are privately owned. The bourgeoisie are the 'haves', the middle and upper classes. They have economic and political power. They own land and run businesses. They are capitalists.

The proletariat 'have nots' are the lower classes, those who do not have economic or political power. The proletariat provide labour on the land or work in the businesses owned by the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat are, according to Marx, exploited by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie employ proletarians in their factories and farms. The proletarians are paid money for their labour. The bourgeoisie then use the proletarian labour to produce goods that are sold for more money than the wage of the proletarian. The bourgeois businessman keeps the profit and becomes wealthy from the labour of the proletariat.

According to Marx, the proletarians would eventually tire of their exploitation and oppression and overthrow the capitalist bourgeoisie. The end result of the revolution would be the establishment of a Communist society, a classless state where all means of production and property are shared among all citizens.

Russian Marxism

The sudden burst of progress experienced by Russia in the 1890s brought attention to Karl Marx's theories.

The Industrial Revolution visibly divided society into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie enjoyed the luxury of wealth and a monopoly on land ownership, business and politics.

The proletariat worked on the land and in the factories owned by the bourgeoisie. The proletariat enjoyed few economic, social or political freedoms. They were kept neatly under the thumb of the capitalist bourgeoisie.

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The work of Karl Marx caught the attention of members of the intelligentsia. The first Russian to translate Marx's works was George Plekhanov. In 1883 he founded the first Marxist organisation in Russia. He has been called the father of Russian Marxism.

Several other political movements adopted Marx's theories, including the Populists and the Social Revolutionaries. The Populists believed that the peasants had to be provoked into revolution through education. Members of the Populist party ventured into the countryside to educate the peasants about their oppression. The Populists met with little success.

The Social Revolutionaries widened the base of revolutionaries to include, not only unhappy peasants, but workers, members of the intelligentsia and other Russians disillusioned by the Tsarist regime.

The Populist and Social Revolutionary parties departed from Marx's original theory by adopting violent tactics. When their ideologies failed, they carried out a number of political assassinations and other violent actions.

The Social Democrat party followed Plekhanov's interpretation of Marxism which stated that as capitalism oppressed the proletariat, class consciousness would emerge. The proletariat would realise that they were oppressed and disadvantaged. A revolution, led by members of the disgruntled working class, would be staged. Capitalism would be overthrown. The government would be replaced by a socialist society where classes and private property were abolished and all citizens would be equal.

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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, was a member of the Social Democrat party and an associate of Plekhanov. Lenin believed that Plekhanov's adaptation of Marxism was too theoretical for Russia.

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Lenin and Plekhanov disagreed over the nature of revolution in Russia. Plekhanov believed that the plight of the proletariats should be improved by political reform. Lenin was disillusioned with the political process and believed that revolution should be instigated by a small, dedicated group of the intelligentsia.

This disagreement, action versus reform, led to a split within the Social Democratic party in 1903. The party was divided into the Mensheviks, those who followed Plekhanov's ideology, and the Bolsheviks, those who followed Lenin's ideology.

Karl Marx's theories were central to the party ideology of Lenin's Bolsheviks and had a key role to play in the 1917 revolution and the establishment of the Russian Communist state.


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