Philosopher and social theorist, who gave his name to one of the most important political movements and analytical perspectives of the last two hundred years. Marx’s works cover economic theory and analysis, historical analysis, philosophy and moral theory, political interventions and polemics. Over the span of his writing different phases can be made out. The early works, which were only widely available from the 1950s, such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, show a mainly humanist ethical and philosophical concentration of ideas. They particularly foreground the notion of alienation. The later works, such as Capital, consist of detailed economic analysis, aiming to expose the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. The intent, though, was political – to encourage and support revolutionary change. A third set of writings – such as the Communist Manifesto and the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, were designed to intervene in these struggles, and to comment on them. The Manifesto was written in collaboration with Frederick Engels, Marx’s long-term sponsor and co-thinker.
Marx’s aim was to understand capitalism, better to supersede it, and he drew on Hegel’s and, before him, Aristotle’s work, in order to understand the nature of that supercession. However, Marx’s dialectical approach was couched not at the level of abstract thought but in more concrete and economic terms. As such it has become the touchstone for approaches that start from an examination of the economic and class factors in explaining social change, across sociological theory, philosophy, aesthetics, media studies, amongst other fields.
Politically, the movement to which Marx gave his name went through several mutations, and it is not straightforward to argue that Marx would have endorsed the centrally controlled states of the communist world up to 1989. Despite that, the failure of those states does in some ways reflect on Marx’s work if only to make it certain that we can no longer read Marx through the eyes of his immediate contemporary readers and opponents.
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