The Evolution of Karl Marx

James Bonnie

red painting

Painting by Rosita Fogelman

One of the first things a reader notices when reading an early work of Karl Marx compared to a later work of Marx is the difference in writing style. Marx changed his writing style to suit his audiences. Although his writing style changed with his audience, the overarching themes of Marx’s writings did not change with his audience. His early works, written to influence fellow philosophers, are wordy and cryptic; while his later works, written for newspapers and the general public, are more entertaining and present Marx’s arguments in a different light. Marx’s writing changed in tone and style as he became more important to society and changed who he wanted to influence from his teachers, to fellow philosophers, to fellow socialists and finally to general public. This paper will examine how Marx’s two key themes stressing the importance of history, the theory of historical materialism[i], and what is happening in the present is affected by the past, stayed the same throughout his Early, Middle and Later Works even though his audiences changed and his popularity grew over time.

Early Works

The early works of Karl Marx were often aimed at fellow philosophers, and written in an academic style of the day, making the reading of such works hard for the common man. Two examples of work of his early period are an article, Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Critique of Hegel) written in 1844 for Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher and the book, The German Ideology written in 1854. In his Critique of Hegel,Marx touches upon history and why history is important to society and how it affects it society in an attempt to highlight weaknesses in Hegelian philosophy and to criticize Hegel’s philosophy for not being part of the real world and yet trying to affect change on society. In both works he uses his ideas about history to attack philosophers of the day to convince them to work in the real world and not in the ideal world.

In Critique of Hegel, Marx begins by attacking religion and the idea that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man” (Marx 1843, 1) Marx proposes that religion is affected by society and the beliefs of society and not given to man through some mythical sprit existing outside of man. Marx theorizes humans use religion to justify the unfairness of the world and the wrongs of society. Since, it is man’s justification of what is wrong with society, religion is infused by society. Marx calls upon man to give up religion; because, it is merely a delusion to justify the unjust society. However, Marx notes man giving up religion does not solve the problems for which man created religion in the first place. Instead, Marx connects the job of history and philosophy to the present to explain what is wrong with society, instead of calling for the end of religion.

It is therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished to establish the truth of this worked. It is the immediate task of philosophy; which is in the service of history to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into criticism of law and the criticism of theology into criticism of politics (Marx, 1843, 2).

Marx proposes philosophers must look beneath the common assumptions of society to understand the real truths of society. They must look at history because history contains warnings and assumptions for present day society. Marx uses German history as an example, and notes Germans must look to the past to see what mistakes in the past were carried into their present nation-state. Marx criticizes history and philosophy by arguing that instead of philosophers criticizing what really happened, they use assumptions to criticize what would have happened in an ideal history, resulting in further errors. Marx claims that philosophy must study the authentic history, and what happened in the actual world instead of using Hegel’s ideal world philosophy. (Marx 1843) Marx connects Germany’s use of a theoretical history with the existing German government, arguing the same things that blinded the German people about their past, blind them their present. Marx notesGermany is a “country which shares so naively all the illusions of constitutional statehood without sharing in its realities as so-called constitutional Germany”. (Marx 1843, 9) Inhis Critique of Hegel , Marx connects religion to history to philosophy to the present in order to argue that to change society for the better, as a whole society must cast off its illusions.

Marx’s use of history in Introduction to a Critique of Hegel demonstrates the importance Marx places on the past to influence and change the present. Although the use of history is only one of his arguments that society must cast off its assumptions, it is an important one, because it links the mistakes and assumptions of the past to the present. History is rarely critiqued or judged and is often treated as fact. In Critique of Hegel, Marx’s demands that philosophers look beneath the surface to discover the true history and not the idealized one. The argument in the Critique of Hegel was designed for an audience of highly educated readers and not intended for the common man. Marx’s use of Latin is aimed at the philosophers to convince them to stop just talking about society but to demand changes in society; to stop basing their work on an idealized society and instead examine society. Although aimed at philosophers, Marx’s theme is clear: that interpretation of the past affects the present and the present affects how the past is interpreted; therefore, people must look beyond those assumptions if a person wants to change society.

In 1845, Marx wrote The German Ideology to “settle accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience” (Tucker 1978, 146). The book attacks the German philosophers of the day. Unlike the Critique of Hegel, The German Ideology begins to move Marx away from his philosopher roots and toward a main stream audience (Tucker 1978, 146). While Marx had trouble publishing The German Ideology, it is the one of the first times both of his important key uses of history appear in the same paper: the use of history in the present, and the theory of historical materialism.

Marx presents the historical materialist by identifying the way a person acquires all the goods he needs to live a basic existence, his means of production. In order to do the tasks required to meet a person’s basic existence, that person does labor. Marx theorizes that throughout history there have been basic means of production to meet rudimentary existence. He theorizes that the basis of world history is the production of goods and the society and politics are derived from the way the goods are produced. Marx divides history into three past times: tribal, ancient and feudal. (Marx 1845, Part 1A, 6) He defines tribal society as large extended family groups, with no production system other than individual labor. The person and his family shared the work and wealth between all. Marx defines the period of ancient society as the age when tribes combined, slavery became widespread, and towns began to form. This brought about the growth of private property and the first class systems, with an upper class of citizens and a lower class of slaves. Along with a class system, we saw the first division of labor, because the slaves did the majority of labor. The third era, feudalism, began in the Middle Ages, with a division of labor similar to the ancient time. The lower class citizens were serfs, not slaves, and were tied to the land and not to an individual owner. The upper classes were knights and other nobles who defended the land and ruled the serfs. (Marx 1845, 6-10) While Marx defines the three different periods, he does not go into depth of why they changed from one to another, leaving that to later writings. Instead, he focuses on the means of production and how the societies were formed around the production of the goods to survive. Marx defines history as:

… nothing but the succession of separate generations each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations and thus on one hand continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and on the other modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity (Marx 1845).

Marx suggests that each generation builds on the generations before, and takes advantage of previous generation’s knowledge to change their society and the world.

In The German Ideology, Marx highlights how history is written and its importance to everyday society. Marx believes history is written by judging people in the past; and later history influences earlier history. The uses of a nation’s “goal” or “destiny” are ways history influences the future. (Marx 1845, Part 1B, 2) This use turns history from a study of the facts into propaganda, with the goal of using an assumption of history to change the present. Marx continues his attack on idealized or misrepresented history and believes “History… must always be studied according to an extraneous standard”. (Marx 1845, Part 1B, 4) Marx notes history has placed particular emphasis on nation-states and their leaders, religion, and its conflicts. It ignores the underlying reasons why nations or caste systems form and act the way they do. Marx’s believes history fails to examine the root causes of conflict and problems, instead focuses on a concept. In The German Ideology, Marx continues his attack from Critique of Hegel on German philosophers for failing to apply real history and their continuing to draw on idealist’s history to present their opinions. Marx stresses history must be viewed with an eye for the root causes of actions, and not viewed ideally or through a lens which ignores the reason an historical action took place by focusing on the main actors in the action. Marx began to make the transition toward an attempt to influence society as opposed to only philosophers, whenhe wrote The German Ideology as it was written to be read by both the philosopher and the educated man. His two common history themes are still present throughout the work: the idea that the means of production influences the makeup of society, and that history influences the future. While in later works, Marx explains historical materialism and the importance of history, the basic structure of his theories stay the same.

Middle Works

The middle works of Karl Marx highlight his move from writing exclusively for the intellectual class to writing to the common man. In both The Communist Manifesto and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (Eighteenth Brumaire) Marx simplifies his writing style and seeks to become more entertaining to capture the attention of common man while continuing to draw on his theories of history to influence the reader.

The Communist Manifesto, published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1884, was commissioned by the Communist League to unite socialists within the league and to influence those outside the league. (Bender 1988, 13-14) The work contains little of the philosophical nature of Marx’s earlier works. The Communist Manifesto begins with history and the line “All pervious history is the history of class struggle” and then continues on to name upper and lower classes in history: slaves, freemen, knights and serfs. (Marx, 1884, 55) Marx labeled capital society the “bourgeoisie epoch”, the fourth epoch in history. Marx credits the bourgeoisie for ending the third epoch, the feudal, when they transformed society from feudal lords to single monarchical power to modern state which Marx refers to as “a committee for managing the whole affairs of the bourgeoisie”. (Marx, 1884, 56) The feudal epoch fell to the bourgeoisie because the means of production for everyday life changed and the guild masters and feudal nobility who maintained their power and wealth by using the serf and apprentices lost power as the world industrialized. Serfs moved to towns to work in factories, and guild masters could not compete with industrialized manufacturing. Marx explained that the bourgeoisie tore down the foundations of feudal society, the lords and the church. Marx advises Communists that change from one means of production to another is inevitable, and Communists should look at history for examples of why epochs change. Marx predicted that change to capitalist society was imminent; because, increasingly laborers had trouble meeting their needs for every day existence. Furthermore, when laborers could no longer meet their everyday existence they would rebel. Just as in epochs before, the lower class rebelled against the upper class because of changes in the means of production and its effects on the everyday existence of man.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx continues his line of thought from The German Ideology and the Critique of Hegel about historical materialism. While The Communist Manifesto is less philosophical, he continues the underlying theme of the four epochs: that change in the means of production drive change in society as men quest for easier ways to meet their basic needs. So too at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto is Marx’s idea that man must learn from the past. The Communist Manifesto is a teaching guide, teaching Communists of the epochs that came before, and the why and how that Communists should learn from the past to push the revolution in the present. (Bender 1988),

The Eighteenth Brumaire continues Marx’s quest to bring his ideas to a wider audience and continues his message of the importance of history. Published in 1852, Karl Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire for an American Journal, Die Revolution. The journal article looks at the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte in France from 1848 until Louis Bonaparte seizes power in December of 1851. The Eighteenth Brumaire is written to an audience of the general public, trying to explain why the events in France took place and how the revolutions to remove the French monarchy lead to a counter-revolution and a totalitarian regime. The first section of Eighteenth Brumaire begins with Marx addressing history: the history of man is written by men, and the rulers of the present write the history of the past, and are in turn are influenced by the past. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1852, 1). Marx suggests while the rulers of a period, such as France in 1848, may be trying to create a new and different society, by using images of the past and placing importance on certain past events allows the past to influence the rulers. Marx argues that the past is repeated in the present. Just as the first French Revolution in 1799 took images from the Roman Empire and allowed Roman history to influence them, the “awakening of the dead in those (past) revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles not realizing the past will influence the future.” (Marx, 1852) According to Marx, the bourgeois revolutionaries in France made former heroes of France, such as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, important to society again without realizing that popularizing past heroes to support present policies would result in creating the conditions for leaders of the past to influence the future. French leaders popularized a historical tyrant and in doing so allowed a new tyrant, Louis Bonaparte, to take over their revolution; exemplifying Marx’s theory of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire: what you make important from the past will affect the future. Marx used drama and historical figures to illustrate his points in writing The Eighteenth Brumaire; it was written for a broader audience. While the underlying message of Marx’s opinion about history and man’s place in continues his previous works, his views were presented differently because he wished to engage a wider audience.

Later Works

In the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Critique of Political Economy), Marx revisited historical materialism and the importance of the past in the future. Critique of Political Economy was written in 1859, and unlike in The German Ideology, the preface is written with greater clarity: “the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs making progress in the economic development of society”. (Marx 1859, 3) This sentence highlights Marx’s historical materialism theory from both his early and middle period writings that the modes of production in the society determine the makeup of society, especially the class structure, and changes in the modes of production cause changes in society. Marx argues that progress and the use of technology carry history forward, and that no changes in social order takes place until a new means of production renders former social structure obsolete. Marx uses the same foundations found in his early works: the means of production determine the type of society and history influences the future. The difference between his writing style in Critique of Political Economy and his previous works is that the Critique of Political Economy describes Marx’s theory on historical materialism, shortly, crisply and clearly. He addressed the general reader as opposed to the philosopher, which required the reader of his earlier works to search through hyperbole to understand the root of Marx’s argument. Marx’s later writing contained none of the philosophical arguments typical of his middle period pieces because his audience was much broader and he was no longer speaking only to philosophers or even socialists.


The common themes throughout Marx’s work are historical materialism and the importance of history because of its affects on the present. Throughout his early, middle and late writings are the common historical materialist themes of the four epochs, that the modes of production determine society and that when the modes of production change, society changes. While some of his writings were more in depth as to certain aspects of historical materialism, The Communist Manifesto concentrated on the present and The German Ideology on the past, each reinforced the general foundation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Also, this is true for Marx’s theory that history is influenced by the present and the present is influenced by history. Although not a main theme in most of Marx’s works, it appears consistently throughout his writings, and is highlighted in Eighteenth Brumaire, while appearing more subtle in “Critique of Political Economy”. The major change in Karl Marx’s writing is the evolution of his writing style. As time passes his texts became easier to read and the presentation of his highlighted theory tailored to his targeted audience. The Communist Manifesto targeted Communists, and as result focused on the revolutionary times of historical materialism. Critique of Hegelcritique targeted philosophers and focused on the importance of how philosophers studied history. Marx’s writings changed and adapted to his audience. He wrote in the style of a philosopher for philosophers, in the style of a revolutionary for revolutionaries, and in the style of an entertainer for the common man; but, his concepts stayed the same.

Works Cited

[i] The theory of historical materialism states that human society flows through the use of its labor, as the modes of production change, society changes.