It is Karl Marx’s 200th birthday on the 5th of May 2018. Following on from the many anniversary events last autumn celebrating 150 years of Capital and 170 years of The Communist Manifesto, Marx’ theories seem to be more alive than ever. Especially with capitalism creeping from crisis to crisis and developing paradigmatic counterfeits which seem to sneak into every part of Western society, Marxism is fuel for revolutionaries. Yet, it is a huge step from Marx to Marxism. When cutting through the latter, there is a lot to learn from Marx.

From Liberal to Socialist

Marxist thought and Marxism tell a good story of how the uptake of revolutionary ideas can lead to a justification of utter nonsense or even calamity. Communism failed many times. Drawing from this that Karl Marx was wrong is likewise failing. Marx’s key publications are critiques of religion, historical progress, or the political economy. He never called for authoritarian socialism, anarchy, or even small scale communal living.

Instead, Karl Marx developed one of the most substantial examinations of capitalism in a long process of philosophical enquiry, starting with German Idealism’s mastermind Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s metaphysics and seeing major shifts in his thinking through works such as On the Jewish Question or Grundrisse. Marx himself took years to develop from a liberal to a socialist.

Separating Marx from Marxism

Karl Marx in 1882

Karl Marx in 1882

Yet, shortly after the first and years before the other volumes of Capital were published, Marx and, partly also his ingenious companion Friedrich Engels, were perceived as the originators of a ground-breaking theory. This being true, the theory provided the foundation for the formation of gradually separating paths among social democrats and revolutionary circles; a circumstance that has led Marx to insist: “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist,” Karl has said to Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law) regarding what was in the 1870ies discussed as Marxism in France. The identity and often thoughtful analysis of Marx’ original theory is burdened by the clutter that came after. Surely, Marx was a strict theorist and he failed to deduce from his detailed analysis to the real world. That makes the theory vulnerable. But it still is a great theory.

The Materialist Conception of History

Take for instance alienation, a recurring theme in Marx’ work. It starts with religion, with the idea that not God created man, but man created God. God is the essence of the best of the human species, purified and projected. Ludwig Feuerbach developed the idea that existence preceded thought, rejecting Hegel’s theory that the mind is driving history. Thus, philosophy must turn to the materialist conception to understand the position and consciousness of societies and individuals.

CapitalismMarx applied this to the social, political, and economic systems of his day. They don’t have forces on their own, they’re man-made. For him, the whole point of philosophy was to question the context, understand it, and then change it. Understanding any system as created by humans through history—and likewise acknowledging the developmental changes these systems underwent—is crucial for considering any individual’s position within this system. Thus, individuals are acting subjects in their respective context, rather than subjugated objects. Subjects have the power to change history, objects are merely changed by history. From this standpoint, societies developed capitalism, a system with the tendency to subjugate individuals who may eventually perceive this mode of production as inevitable; capitalism looks like a force on its own. Only it isn’t.

Capitalism’s Habit of Subjugating Individuals

With defining capitalism’s habit of subjugating individuals, Marx shaped a central idea of how the freedom of individuals is being hollowed out. This describes the funnelling of classes as well as tendentious politics benefitting the few rather than the many. However, all these individuals act according to their own beliefs, not forced by a system. Revolutionary processes—the class struggle—happen based on real world experiences and the will to change them. Likewise, ruling actors in a commercial market society—tendentious politicians or profit-seeking employers—are acting according to their belief that the society is best served with its current mode, and a good portion of self-interest.

Marx posed to this a persisting question in his work: How can a social world be facilitated in which the freedom of others is a requirement of one’s own freedom? He didn’t succeed in providing a stable alternative, an alternative with an answer to his maxima; but he inexorably showed that there is potential for change—how this change looks like is shaped by the individuals of a society, not imposed upon them. That is where Marx’s famous quote comes into play (originally stated in a critique of Ludwig Feuerbach): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” In other words, anticipating change as a possible process and how it can be facilitated.

Quote of Karl Marx' in the entrance hall of Humboldt University of Berlin

Quote of Karl Marx in the entrance hall of Humboldt University of Berlin

Marx and Scholarly Communication

How would that look like in scholarly communication? That is, without all the rhetoric clutter of openness, impact, and moral requirements, how can we anticipate what research and the communication of it will look like as the optimal version of it regarding those who do the research? Marx aim came close to this, as Gregory Claeys writes: “Marx […] aimed to provide a framework that makes possible human self-development on the largest scale and in a collective setting where fulfilment for the few does not require exploiting the many” (2018, p.28).

SocialismImagining this for scholarly publishing comes close to seeing a large diversity of small presses which run specialist programmes and return any surpluses back to the community. The socialist press, so to say. Or the ideal of a publishing industry full of university presses?

The Morale of Openness and Impact

Not ideal for journals, one could say. Well then, think of a collaborative journal effort. It’s too simplistic, but it’s well worth a thought: Imagine the whole business would run as it currently does, only that all publications are put into one large platform (call it GOMP—Green Open Mega Platform). No APC, no accessibility crisis, no affordability crisis. What sounds like one large partnership model—fundamentally a socialist effort—would not work because the business side of it would stop growing above inflation rate. Most of the for-profits would pull out of the market. Does this give us a normative insight into the not-for-profit/for-profit dilemma, that is so often talked about in scholarly communication?

Probably not. Though, honouring Karl Marx’s bicentenary, it may be good to re-assess the essential Marx and apply some of his work onto scholarly communication. Many of Marx’ theoretic principles of capitalism are visible in scholarly communication and research today, starting with accumulation (Those who do not accumulate get accumulated) and going all the way to the theory of surplus value (Ever seen researchers as the workers of publishers?).

Accumulation MarxRobert Heilbroner describes as the great merit of Marx’ Capital its “utter detachment from all considerations of morality. The book describes with fury, but it analyzes with cold logic.” Even a bit of that could stand scholarly communication debates quite well, where the morale of openness and impact is always held high, but its possible achievement detached from the works of many researchers.


Karl Marx: Further Reading

Marxl Greatness

Stedman Jones, G. (2017) Karl Marx – Greatness and Illusion, Penguin Books Ltd.

The essential Marx. Gareth Stedman Jones, Professor of the History of Ideas, provides a detailed biography of Karl Marx. Most remarkable about this book is its ability to introduce the struggles of the 19th century as well as the philosophical foundations of German Idealism which provide the basis of Marx’ thinking.


Capitalism MarxismWood, E. M. (2017) The origin of capitalism: A longer view, London, Verso.

“In the past, capitalism has always pulled out of its recurrent crises, but never without laying a foundation for new and even worse ones,” writes Ellen Meiksins Wood in the introduction to this famous history of capitalism, commercial societies, and the economic basis of the forming of the modern nation state.


Economic ThoughtHeilbroner, R. L. (2000) The worldly philosophers: The lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers, 7th edn, London, Penguin.

Robert Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers is the classic introduction to the history of economic thought. Including theorists such as Smith, Malthus, Marx, and Keynes, Heilbroner connects ideas and paradigms in compelling prose (compelling! an economics book!).


Marx Penguin

Claeys, G. (2018) Marx and Marxism, London, Pelican.

Gregory Claeys’ handy companion answers many of the questions regarding Marx that you don’t find because of the blend of marxism, communism, socialism, and philosophical rhetoric that make Karl Marx’ ideas at times unrecognisable. In here, they become clear again.