Karl Marx: The Activist Economist (by Daniel Horen Greenford)

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” (Marx 1845, Thesis 11, pg.8)


Marx practiced what he preached. His aim was to provide the tools for a revolution he saw as inevitable. Although he came from a middle class background, he chose an occupation that resulted in abject poverty and endured great suffering. Morality was the underlying thread through all his work and in this sense his lifestyle had to necessarily be commensurate with his work. Throughout his career, he was persecuted endlessly for his activism, much of which he promoted by publishing radical journals which were largely marginalized. Eventually he became stateless and lived in London to pursue his work in relative safety, but by no means in comfort. Marx’s life ended with a slow decline in health and his family suffered alongside him, only three of his daughters surviving into adulthood out of seven children.


The breadth of his work was staggering, studying philosophy and law before going on to make significant contributions to sociology and economics. His work continues to have a profound influence on society today. His disdain for any theory without application guided his philosophical inquiry that eventually led him to create his own philosophy of science and nature — “dialectical materialism”. This school of thought grounds what he considered to be the overly abstract Hegelian dialectic by positing that social problems are caused by material failures — like wealth inequality — rather than religious alienation. The second half of Marx’s “diamat” builds on Feuerbach’s materialism — the opposition of idealism, or in other words, that matter precedes mind rather than vice versa.


Influenced by these thinkers, Marx sought to develop a new structure to describe the class conflict of his time. The crucial difference between Hegel’s thought process and Marx’s is that Marx, although agreeing with Hegel’s methodology, saw explaining the workings of society as a manifestation of mystical or religious phenomena as a superfluous obfuscation to the world’s real nature. This led him to create a revised holistic historical narrative to counter the religious narrative that dominated the Western worldview to date. This new worldview, at its core a theory of history and nature, informed Marx’s economic analysis. It also provided a useful precedent for questioning the metaphysical and narrative foundations of our understanding of the economic process. Such a rethinking is again becoming critical in today’s global society.


Marx was also one of the first economists to pour over troves of data, spending years collecting and analyzing socioeconomic data in addition to his comprehensive survey of political economic literature of the time. From this spawned Capital and its satellite works. Torn between organizing and building up the new communist group of thinkers around Europe and then New York and America, Marx devoted most of his time studying capitalism.


One of Marx’s critical realizations was that labor is in itself a commodity, one that the capitalist buys from the laborer. He saw this exchange as a perversion of healthy social relations, one bound to foster class stratification and exploitation of the working class. Marx’s labor theory and his insights into the value of commodities in terms of labor and exchange value are fundamental to heterodoxical economics today.


One of Marx’s later works, the Critique of the Gotha Program, offers a roadmap for revolution from capitalism to communism, along increasing stages of socialism. The epitomic maxim from the Critique characterizes the latest stage of communism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. This principle is so intuitively ethical that when surveyed, nearly half of Americans believed it was enshrined in their constitution (Miller, 2002).


Marx’s influence can be felt today around the world, many governments in Asia, Eastern Europe, and even the Middle East and Africa, have been governed by self-identified followers of Marx. It is likely that Marx would never have supported the self-proclaimed socialist governments that became authoritarian and committed mass murders against its own people, most notably the Soviet Union under Stalin, and China under Mao. It would be interesting to hear what he would have envisioned and what he would have to say if he were alive to see the adoption and subsequent cooption of his ideas, ironically abused in many cases, to further concentrate power and wealth into the hands of few. While the history of communism in the 20th century is not a story of success, many of Marx’s criticisms of the internal contradictions of capitalism remain valid and important for the present day.


Marx also was a defender of the intrinsic value of nature and a harsh critic of Locke’s empty-world conception of value. Many have followed in Marx’s footsteps to extend his theories to the world of ecological limits we occupy today. A notable example is the field of social ecology, which posits that it may be ecological limits, rather than class tensions between the labour and ownership classes, which will bring about the end of capitalism.


One fun fact about Marx: he was known to be quite the hell raiser, often getting into fights and scandalizing those more conservative around him. He and his friend Max Bauer would get drunk, laugh in church and ride donkeys during their time as students in Berlin (Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen, pg. 38–45). He must’ve been quite the life of the party.



Marx, K. (1845). “Theses on Feuerbach,” contained in the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Volume 5.

Marx, K. (1978)[1875]. “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 525–541.

Miller, H. (2002). Americans’ Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. Columbia Law School. http://www2.law.columbia.edu/news/surveys/survey_constitution/ (retrieved January 22, 2017)

Nicolaievsky, B., Maenchen-Helfen, O. (1976) [1936]. Karl Marx: Man and Fighter. trans. Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher. Harmondsworth and New York: Pelican. ISBN 978-1-4067-2703-6.



Daniel Horen Greenford is an E4A PhD student based at Concordia University. His research aims to define and quantify responsibility for climate change.


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