As we approach Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, Alex Snowdon summarises Marx’s key ideas in as few words as possible

Marx famously wrote that philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. He provided powerful analysis and critique, but also wanted to guide political action. On Saturday activists and writers will be gathering to discuss Marx and the revolutionary tradition at Why Marx Was Right. We thought we’d repost this brilliant attempt by Alex Snowdon in 2011 to summarise Marx’s ideas in as few words as possible – so here’s around 800 words on the ABC of Marxism.

Capitalism now dominates the world. It emerged from the 1500s or 1600s onwards in northern Europe, and represented a new kind of society. It is one based on a division into two main classes: ruling class (a tiny minority) and working class (the great majority in modern industrial societies).

Workers need to work in order to survive, as the ruling class owns and controls the means of production. It is exploitation of the vast majority by a tiny minority. This division into classes is a key feature of capitalism.

Another key feature of capitalist society is competition. Different companies or businesses compete with each other. Profit comes before all else – there is a race to the bottom in workers’ pay and conditions as competing employers chase maximum profit at the expense of those who do the work. 

This also means there is little planning in the economy – instead there is the anarchy of the market. So, the key features of capitalism economically are the division into classes (inequality, exploitation) and competition (pursuit of profit, market anarchy). 

The ruling class also owns the means of ‘mental production’ – it controls education, media, etc. The ruling ideas of any age, as Marx said, are the ideas of the ruling class. Economic control brings ideological domination, whether directly (for example by owning newspapers) or indirectly (through the state reflecting dominant interests). 

But that doesn’t mean capitalist ideas dominate completely and no resistance is possible. Alternative ideas circulate. The dominant ideas clash with people’s lived experiences: people revolt and fight back, perhaps because they are forced to by necessity, or they see a drop in living standards due to a crisis in the system, or in response to injustice. The ruling class doesn’t have it all its own way. 

The system grows and expands. It colonises new areas of society and new lands. Imperialism in its modern form emerges from capitalism – rival national capitalisms fight for greater power, land and wealth. 

War is thus endemic to capitalism. So are racism, nationalism and all the other divisions and prejudices that divide working class people against each other, therefore weakening the working class and strengthening our rulers’ power. 

But the system’s huge expansion since 1848 – a year of revolution in Europe, and the year Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto – means capitalism is now a truly global system, with a global working class capable of resistance. 

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and revolts in other Arab countries, are revolts against capitalist neoliberal policies as well as struggles for democracy. The system is unstable, crisis-ridden and generates revolt. We have seen many revolutions, uprisings and general strikes – plus a mass of action on a lower scale – in response to global capitalism. 

Socialism is the political expression of the working class resisting the system, and organising a response. There are different strands in socialist thought – there are a number of variants of socialism from above (reformism) and socialism from below (revolution). 

Marx was a revolutionary. We build revolutionary organisations today – in the context of wider movements and struggles – in his tradition. This revolutionary tradition is founded on Marx’s conviction that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. We have to liberate ourselves, through collective resistance. 

Reformism reflects workers’ desire for protection against many elements of the system, and their contradictory ideas. But it ultimately offers no solution because we have to change society ourselves, not rely on others, and it can only modify the worst excesses of capitalism not overturn the system entirely and create a different society. 

Transforming society is only possible if we seize control of the means of production, i.e. if we control our workplaces and the resources our economy depends upon, as well as political institutions, to create a truly democratic and equal society. That is the beginnings of socialism. 

If the ruling class retains economic control then poverty and inequality remain. The current wave of revolutions and popular uprisings in the Middle East and Africa indicate how people, exploited for generations, can move swiftly into action. They show what is possible through mass action, how people can overcome divisions and unite. 

But it is ultimately necessary to extend revolution to the economic sphere: the working class, as the majority in society, must take control of our shared resources. Socialism is co-operation in place of competition, bringing equality where there was inequality. We can create – through the collective mass action of the great majority in society – the potential for realising justice and liberation for the whole of humanity.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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