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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

Karl Marx

Father of Communism

​Meet Karl Marx

 

It would be hard to find a historical figure more controversial and more misunderstood than Karl Marx. His writing inspired revolutions that changed the world, led to some of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century, and created the ultimate show-down between Capitalism and Communism in a little global contest known as the Cold War. By the 1960s, half of the world’s population was ruled by governments- from China to Cuba- whose leaders were inspired by Marx.

 

This was the Industrial Age. Enlightenment thinkers were asking  why so few held so much wealth while the masses lived in abject poverty. Their homes were in rat infested hovels without running water, and often were little more than fire traps. The laws of the 19th century favored the rich and powerful. Strikes and Labor Unions were often broken up using police force. The workers had few rights to protest their condition. Those who did were fired and blacklisted, which meant that their name was spread around to other employers as being trouble makers. Workers who got sick or were injured on the job could, and often were, fired without compensation. There are more than a few stories of some poor worker who got her hand caught in the gears of the machine. She would never work again, was given no compensation, hardly even an apology.

 

One group of people who spoke out against the abuses of this capitalist system, were the socialists. Throughout Europe there were many groups who followed the call of socialism but not all socialists shared the same ideas. Some believed in creating a Utopian community where all property was shared. These people chose to live on communes separate from the rest of society. Others like Marx thought that for socialism to succeed it had to be revolutionary, sweeping across the entire world, not just on some isolated farm. Marx, working as editor of various magazines, used his position to call for revolutionary change. He slammed capitalism and the Robber Barons who grew enormously wealthy at the expense of the millions of poor masses.

​The Communist Manifesto

 

Karl may not have invented socialism or communism, but alongside Frederick Engels he would become its most famous cheerleader. Marx spent most of his adult life writing, and debating- which didn’t pay very well- which is why he always bumming money from Engels- whose family was loaded. Marx and Engels wrote a lot of political pamphlets, essays, and books. Their most famous work was The Communist Manifesto, which laid out the workings of Marx’s vision for a future communist revolution.

 

The Communist Manifesto is written like a drama where the proletariats are the heroes and the bourgeois are the villains. The Manifesto starts back in the Middle Ages when feudalism produced only two classes: the nobles and everyone else. Over the years, the Bourgeois came into being replacing the old feudal system with a new capitalist system where money- not noble birth- determined your status. Marx claimed that the Bourgeois used their wealth and power to keep the poor down.

 

The Bourgeois were guilty of four crimes. The first is that they spread their cheap manufactured goods around the globe destroying local industries. The second crime is that all of these cheap products were destroying local cultures. The third crime was that capitalism kept the rural areas in poverty by drawing away people from farming to work in those horrible factories. The last crime of the Bourgeois was that all of these cheap goods was trashing the environment. If all of these arguments sound familiar, that’s because they are. People who in the 21st century are fighting against globalization are using the same arguments (whether they realize it or not) that Marx used 150 years ago! You might call him the original “Buy American” spokesman, except that he wasn’t living in America.

The Legacy of Marx

 

The Communist Manifesto wasn’t done with capitalism just yet. In fact, it was just getting started. Over ninety-six pages, Marx attacked the capitalist system for keeping wages low in order to produce cheap goods and therefore keep profits high.

 

This cycle of exploitation would never end until the proletariats joined together and rose up to overthrow the system. Marx had no problem with using violence if the Bourgeois would not give up their power peacefully. With capitalism overthrown, the government would step in to spread the wealth in a system known as socialism. Socialism was just the bridge between capitalism and the final stage of communism where all workers would be equal and productive members of society, and no one had the power to exploit anyone else.The final stage of Marx's vision was communism  where people would become equal by abolishing private property.

 

Now many people misunderstand Marx and believe he was talking about not being allowed to own your own home or being forced to share your underwear with your comrades. That’s taking things too far. What Marx meant is that the proletariat would be the owners of the Means of Production: the land, factories, and machines that made industry work. Rather than having a boss, the factory would run like a democracy where all workers had a voice.  

 

Marx urged workers to rise up against the governments that supported the capitalist system. “The only thing you have to lose is your chains” he claimed. Well, all of this talk about revolution didn’t win Marx too many friends in high places. He was arrested and run out of every country he lived in except Great Britain who had a higher tolerance for freedom of the press. In the Communist Manifesto Marx believed that soon Communism would unite Europeans in a world where not even national boundaries were necessary.

 

 The key to the success of communism was what he called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Basically, Marx was arguing for democracy- but not the so-called 'bourgeois democracy' of Great Britain or America where a few rich people held the real power. Marx believed in a society where the government was formed to look after the interests of the workers by controlling the banks, transportation networks, schools, and means of production. In the  20th century dictators like Chairman Mao, Josef Stalin, and Fidel Castro would create their own dictatorships in the name of the proletariat masses. Like Marx, they dreamed of a world wher religion and private property were abolished. But so too was freedom of speech and the press which is where they differed from Marx. Under these communist regimes, untold millions who spoke out against their communist oppressors were sent to die in “re-education camps”. Whether or not this is what Marx had in mind is up for debate. But one thing is for sure, Marx and his teachings would forever change the world- for good and for bad.

Countries that at one time or another have had communist governments... 

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