The ideas that attracted these Russians came mostly from a man named Karl Marx. Marx was born in Germany in 1818, the son of Jewish parents who had become converted to Christianity. He began the study of law, but soon dropped it to study philosophy. After receiving his degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Jena, he became the editor of a newspaper. When the German government ordered the paper to stop publication, Marx moved to Brussels. He returned to Germany to take part in the unsuccessful revolution of 1848, but by 1850 he had settled in London, where he would live until his death in 1883.
Meanwhile, in 1844, Marx had met Friedrich Engels. The two men thought very much alike and from that time on they worked closely together, studying, discussing, writing, each helping the other. Engels, too, was a German. He came from a wealthy family and he carried on his father’s business, even though he hated business and had no use for businessmen. For many years he supported Marx, who had little money and few opportunities to earn any.
Both men believed in socialism. They were not the first socialists, nor were they the only ones in Europe at that time. Other men were also looking to socialism as a way to solve the problems of the world. For a great change had taken place in Europe in the nineteenth century. Before, Europe had been agricultural; now, industry was growing at a furious rate. Before, work had been done by hand; now, many kinds of work were being done by machine. Before, Europe’s system of society had been feudalism; now, it was capitalism. People were flocking to the cities; machines were roaring; smoke was pouring out over the once green countryside. Kings and aristocrats were no longer as important as they had been in the past. The owners of factories and large businesses were the real rulers. As industry grew, these owners became rich. But most people, who owned nothing and had to work for others to make a living, were poor. It seemed as if the rich were continually getting richer, while the poor were getting poorer. Many families found it so hard to make a living that women and even small children were forced to take jobs in factories and mines.
Socialism seemed to offer a way out. If all the people owned the means of production — the factories, mines, mills, railroads and so on — and shared in the profits, there would be no rich and no poor. The socialists were not very definite about how this could be accomplished. Besides, they could not agree on the reasons for what was happening. Socialism seemed no more than an ideal — and Marx felt it should be more than that.
Day after day, Marx went through the foggy streets of London to the reading room of the British Museum. There he spent long hours studying books, pamphlets, reports, statistics. He believed that, by using the methods of philosophy he had learned in Germany, he could make socialism scientific. Working with Engels, he developed new ideas of socialism. In time, this kind of socialism would be called communism and the principles laid down by Marx would be called Marxism.
Marx and Engels were not content with writing and talking; they believed in action as well. They wanted new political parties, organizations of workingmen which would help bring about socialism. In 1847, they helped form such an organization, the Communist League. They wrote a statement of what the League stood for, the Communist Manifesto and in it they summed up their own beliefs.
All history, said Marx and Engels, is the history of class struggles. By this they meant that the people of all societies were divided into classes — roughly, the class that rules and the class that is ruled; the class that owns the wealth and the class that creates it. These two classes were opposed to each other and fought for power. Sometimes the ruling class was pushed out and the society was changed. At other times, both classes were ruined in the fight.
In the societies of the past, there had been a complicated system of classes, but in modern times, society was split into two classes. On one side was the industrial middle class — the millionaires who owned the giant industries. On the other side was the working class.
The middle class had already brought about a great revolution. It had accomplished wonders and had changed the world. It had opened the entire globe to trade, had put to use all kinds of inventions and had developed all kinds of industries. In doing this, the middle class had made itself rich but the workers remained poor.
Why? Why hadn’t the workers become rich, too? The reason, Marx and Engels said was in the way modern society produced the goods it needed. People no longer made everything they needed, with families raising their own food, building their own houses, making their own clothes and all the rest. Instead, they made certain things for sale and bought others. All goods were bought and sold, but nobody would pay money for things that were worthless. All goods, therefore, were worth a certain price; they had value. They had value because of the work that had gone into them. Iron ore, for example, was worth little while it lay in the ground, but when it had been dug up and made into iron, it had considerable value.
The workers, who did the actual work that gave goods value, got back only a small part of the value, in the form of wages. The rest went to the owners of the means of production, the middle class, in the form of profits. The workers were paid barely enough to live on. They had all they could do to keep going from day to day. Meanwhile, the middle class was gathering in more and more money. Indeed, the rich were getting richer, while the poor were getting poorer.
Furthermore, under capitalism, nothing in modern society was planned. Sometimes the manufacturers produced too much and unsold goods piled up in warehouses. Then business was bad and many people were thrown out of work. These periods of hard times were becoming more and more frequent and each was worse than the one before.
Surely there were many things wrong with a society that could not furnish its people with the necessities of life. Could nothing be done to right these wrongs? Through unions and other such organizations, workers could win better conditions for themselves, but reforms were not enough. They could not solve the basic problems of capitalism. The workers must take over the government and all the means of production and run them for the benefit of all the people and since the middle class would never willingly give up its power, that meant revolution.
Even after the workers had successfully made a revolution, the middle class would still be strong. To keep the middle class from gaining power again, a dictatorship of the working class would be set up. In time, however, all people would be workers. No man would be able to grow rich on the work of other men. The result, for the first time in history, would be a society without different classes. There would then be no need for a dictatorship. As Marx and Engels put it, the state would “wither away.” With the use of machinery and modern methods of farming and manufacturing, enough goods would be produced for all. Each person would do the kind of work he was best suited for and each would receive everything he needed to live well. Another way of putting it was: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.”
Wouldn’t a revolution turn everything topsy-turvy? Not really, said Marx and Engels. It was the middle class that had actually turned everything topsy-turvy. The people of the middle class not only owned the means of production, but with their wealth they controlled men and ideas. They controlled the government, the courts of law, the police, the army, the press. Even religion was controlled by the middle class. It was just another way of fooling people; it promised them a reward in heaven if they changed nothing on earth. Under capitalism, there could be no real freedom for the majority of men. Only under communism could poverty be abolished; only under communism could mankind be free.
Marx and Engels ended the Communist Manifesto with a call to action that rang out like the sound of a bugle on a battlefield. The workers, they said, “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!”
There was more to Marxism than this, of course. Marx explained his ideas in greater detail in three huge volumes entitled Capital. He and Engels both wrote numerous works on many topics. There was hardly a field of thought they did not touch on. History, economics, philosophy, politics — Marx and Engels wrote about them all.
Marxism taught that revolutions of the working class would take place first in the most advanced countries — those that were highly industrialized — rather than in backward countries like Russia. Surprisingly, many Russian thinkers began to believe that Marxism might be the best guide to political action in Russia. Yet, perhaps it was not so surprising, after all. There was no freedom in Russia. Everything was tightly controlled by the tsar’s government. The narodniks had failed to bring about a change; the terrorists had failed. Marxism seemed to explain what was happening in the world and to show the way to the future.
So the Russians who wanted change studied Marxism. Some of them — those who had been sent to Siberia or exiled to foreign lands as a punishment for their political beliefs — had plenty of time to study. Political prisoners in Siberia were not actually imprisoned. They were allowed to live in small, lonely settlements. It was the cold, barren land itself, the vast distance from the rest of Russia, that was their prison. They could read, study, write and Siberia became their school of Marxism. The Russians who were exiled to foreign lands could read books forbidden at home and have discussions with foreign Marxists. They wrote books and pamphlets themselves, and published newspapers and magazines, which were smuggled into Russia. These publications did not reach a great number of people, but they did reach the intellectuals — the educated and thinking people. The intellectuals would become the leaders of a movement that would end the rule of the tsars forever.