Karl Marx

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Portait of Karl Marx



The body of ideas and practices developed by Karl Marx (1818-1883), Marxism, was overtly turned to capitalism, but in fact it embraces a much broader set of questions than the economy. It all starts with the Paris Manuscript (1844), where he and Engels insisted that the development of the forces of production was the essential historical function of capitalism.(Brewer, 1990: 42) From Paris Manuscript onwards, Marx worked with two scientific theories of Capitalism: bourgeois and proletarian. Or, to put in other words Marx defined capitalism in terms of the relation between a class of free wage laborours and a class of capitalists.(Brewer, 1990: 57) Marx saw that the value of labor power would become a major object of struggle between classes. Such struggle have become a regular feature of capitalist societies . Yet desires for status and power exist in many human beings, they tend to surface. According to Marx it is the task of the state to oppress these (Singer, 2000: 95).For much of the second half of the twentieth century, nearly four of every ten people on earth lived under governments that considered themselves Marxist and claimed to use Marxist principles to decide how the nation should be run, although this is in contrary to Marx actual focus, since he focused much of his attention on understanding capitalism rather then developing a guide for socialist and communist countries. (Aitken & Valentine, 2009: 57 & Singer, 2000: 1) According to his own statement his purpose was not interpreting the world, or comprehend it into systems, but rather change her.(Aitken & Valentine, 2009: 57)

Marx's work

Marx’s work can be distinguished into four (main) categories:

  • Writings that develop a broad theory of history (historical materialism) as a succession of modes of production, in which changes in economic and class structures play a central role.
Signature of Karl Marx
Marx’s definition of materialism means whatever exists depends on matter. The concern for nature-society relations was at center of Marx desire to develop a materialist explanation of society. In his perspective the first nature formed a materially necessary basis for human society, concerning food, shelter and clothing. Followed by the idea that society has transformed, reshaped and commodified nature and therefore has created a second nature, like our contemporary world. (Aitken & Valentine, 2009: 58) Production is the activity of human beings working in the natural environment to modify it to meet their needs. Marx mentioned that production is always social (Brewer, 1990: 11). Marx argued that each place and time is characterized by a predominant mode of production: a socially organized way in which humans provide for the material basis of their existence, by coordinating production with the social relations necessary to support it. Marx held that any mode of production is an essential shaper of the society where that mode prevails. The origins and rapid development of capitalism in Europe and its slow infiltration in Asia were the result of differences in the preceding modes of production in these areas. (Brewer, 1990: 58)
  • Writings that develop a more detailed political economy of capitalism as a mode of production, using the labour theory of value to explore its underlying contradictionsMarx insisted that materialism must be both dialectical and historical. The idea of historical materialism holds that any such mode of production has internal contradictions that can undermine it. (Brewer, 1990: 11) Thus according to the latter, instead of accepting global capitalism as a utopian end-state in which markets optimally allocate society’s wealth amongst its members, Marx sought to identify its contradictions and potential limits in order to improve the capitalist state.
  • Writings on dialectical philosophyMarx’s theory of dialectical reasoning (dating back to Greek philosophy) focuses on analyzing the relations between things, rather than the things themselves. Dialectical materialism focuses on relations between the material world and our ideas about it, arguing that each shapes the other, but that the mind always remains dependent on material processes supporting human life. This differs from the mainstream science whereas these try to explain the world by reducing it to a series of stable and well-defined entities connected by stable causal relations.
  • And a fourth category contains the wide range of analysis of contemporary events, often designed to illustrate broader theories, and a mass of journalistic writings for various newspapers.'’ (Gregory et al., 2005: 444). Marx tried to develop a political theory grounded on the working class, resulting in a social political theory. His political theory was tied to structural contradictions and class conflict. (Jessop & Wheatley, 1999, P. VIII) With his political theory Marx attempted to explain the workings of the capitalist social system, viewed as a historically developed structural totality. The mobilization of the working class in an effort to overthrow that system.

Marxism and geography

Marx had much less to say about space. The greater the social-economical distance between inputs, production and markets, the more time it takes for the circuit of capital to be completed, what means less yields. In effect the spatial organization of activities is important to the functioning of capitalism. (Aitken & Valentine, 2009: 66) An other point according to space is that the operation of the land market also sorts urban areas out into land use patterns in which those with more money can demand favored locations, whereas others take what is left over. According to the mode of production or the shaping of a society it can be said that people make their worlds and vice versa by thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.

Marxist Geography

However, Marxism emerged within the field of Geography in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. (Gregory et al., 2005, p. 446). The result was Marxist Geography. The Marxist Geography formed the basis for critical geography aimed at understanding and combating the production of unequal societies.

Geographical example of Marxism within geography

There are various theories within the geography which has been influenced by Marx. A known one is the world systems theory by Immanuel Wallerstein. Another theory is the Dependency Theory. The dependency theory can be related with the vision of Marxism theory. Within this theory there is a dependency between the core and periphery. The core could be the developed countries and the periphery the underdeveloped nations. The periphery is dependant of the core. Actually the periphery can be seen as the proletariat (the people without any assets) and the core as the ‘bourgeois’ (those who had assets to produce). The periphery delivers (cheap) labour to the core and is dependant of the core. The core exploits the periphery. As the bourgeois exploits the proletariat.

Declining interest of Geography in Marx

The declining interest in Marx’s approaches was by the dissolution of those regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that posited themselves as Marxist-influenced systems, with democracy on the rise everywhere, and French postmodern and poststructural thinkers were getting frustrated with the French left’s ongoing dalliance with Soviet Stalinism, which led to an increasing skepticism about the relevance of Marx’s ideas. However, the interest in Marx remained a key starting point for the grand philosophers of the post-Marxist period. (Aitken & Valentine, 2009: 57, 58)

Geographical example

An example why the thinking of Karl Marx is relevant to geography, is the way he thinks about international relations between countries(geopolitics). According to Marx people are driven by economic interests and mainly making maximum number of profit. This is also reflected in the political relations between countries. Earlier during the colonial period, core regions in the world dominated mainly African and Asian countries for their own economic benefits. Nowdays states have still their economic interest that influence the political decisions they make.

Related authors

Nowadays, Marxism is more relevant than ever according to David Harvey. In present-day David Harvey is a geographer who elaborates the ideology of Marx.


  • Aitken, S. & Valentine, G. (2009), Approaches to human geography, London, United Kingdom: Sage publications
  • Brewer, A. (1990), A guide to Marx's captial, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Press Syndicate
  • Gregory, D., Johnston, D., Pratt, G., Watts, M., & Whatmore, S. (2005/2009), The Dictionary of Human Geography, 5th edition, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Singer, P. (2009), Marx: a very short introduction, Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford Press


  • Published by Marjolein Selten & Fleur van der Zandt
  • Page edited and enhanced by --HennyLi 00:05, 25 October 2012 (CEST)
  • Pictures added by Isis Boot --IsisBoot 21:10, 25 October 2012 (CEST)
  • Geographical example added by --LarsPaardekooper 10:02, 26 October 2012 (CEST)
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