Karl Marx was a historian, economist and philosopher whose theories were the foundation of the Communist revolutions that erupted all over the world in the 20th century. It’s particularly ironic that the Russian censors only allowed his work to be published because they thought it was a dull scientific work, heavy on the maths and economics, which most people wouldn’t understand or even read.
The first book Marx published explaining his ideas was called Das Kapital. In it he held that all value in commodities (things people trade) comes from labour. Capitalists, he said, derive their gains in capital (money invested) from the labour of their workers. The capitalist system relies on the workers being paid less than the wealth they create while at work. This is the origin of profit; and since in the capitalist system owners always seek more profit, the workers are doomed to be increasingly exploited.
Marx viewed history as a constant evolution of this conflict, where the workers are exploited until they revolt. His explanations rang true with the working class of the time who often suffered awful conditions. The Communist call was taken up in many countries in the hope of a better life. The capitalist nations were terrified by this, and their face-offs shaped modern world history.
At its peak, over a third of the world population lived under nominally Communist regimes. Although many of these caused more misery than they prevented, Marxists claim that they were not true implementations of Marxist principles and so Marx’s ideas have not yet been properly tested. Whether this is true or not, Marx’s attempts to quantify labour and value and to prescribe a fair society had a huge impact on the course of world history. His maxim ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ remains one of the few attempts at setting up a truly fair society.