Economics and Karl Marx

History is economics in action.” – Karl Marx

The discipline of Economics has been improved upon by many individuals who have not been economists. One among them is Karl Marx (1818-83). Marx contributed to sociology, history, philosophy, literature and even arts. This article tries to bring out to the fore a few of his contributions and criticisms regarding Economics.

Marx’s theories revolved around the relationship between capitalist and worker. He posited that this relationship is an unstable one, as each sees the other as a rival. During his time, money and bargaining was associated with the Jews and they dominated the society. Marx suggested a reorganisation of society so as to do away with the evils of bargaining, which almost eventually resulted in the worker getting exploited.

The property owning middle class could win freedom for themselves on the basis of rights to poverty- thus excluding others from the freedom they gain- the property less working class possess nothing but their title as humanity. Such was Marx’s view of the exploited proletariat. Marx claimed that ‘total deprivation’ was a universal characteristic of the proletariat. [Singer 2006]

Marx began his critical study of economics in 1844. Marx criticised classical economic theories stating that they characterised worker as a commodity, the production of which is subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. [Singer 2006]

Marx contended that the main problems in the economy were caused due to the unequal ownership of private property. He wanted to abolish private property and to also regulate production. The solution he gave was ‘Communism’ in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ written jointly with Friedrich Engels. He also viewed the labourer and their labour as one. And one of the questions he posed was whether the labour was more important than the labourer.

Theory of Surplus value

Surplus-value is the social product which is over and above what is required for the producers to live.

The measure of value is labour time, so surplus value is the accumulated product of the unpaid labour time of the producers. In bourgeois society, surplus value is acquired by the capitalist in the form of profit: the capitalist owns the means of production as Private Property, so the workers have no choice but to sell their labour-power to the capitalists in order to live. The capitalist then owns not only the means of production, and the workers’ labour-power which he has bought to use in production, but the product as well. After paying wages, the capitalist then becomes the owner of the surplus value, over and above the value of the workers’ labour-power.

The capitalists may increase the amount of surplus value extracted from the working class by two means: (1) by absolute surplus value – extending the working day as long as possible, and (2) by relative surplus value – by cutting wages.

On Division of Labour

Marx talked about the ill effects of Specialization. He posited that increasing division of labour eliminates intellectual and manual skill and reduces the labourer to a mere appendage to a machine. [Singer 2006]

Looking at this statement, I feel it holds good even now. If a labourer could learn two or more trades, it is possible for him to perform efficiently in all the trades, except for the fact that, he would not be able to devote his entire time to a single trade. In this age, seldom do we come across people who are economists as well as physicists or historians as well as doctors, etc. ‘Specialization’ is said to be the need for the day.

Taking the case of a manual labourer in India, if he knows two trades, he would be better off. The labourer will be in a better bargaining position than otherwise.


Marx was of the view that we need to produce things for their use-value and not for their exchange-value. This is what he tried to achieve by Communism. But Communism rendered human inventions and innovations as useless. Though, people all had the basic necessities of life, they did not have the motivation or the zeal to bring out the best in them.

His insights of Classical Political Economy are laudable. A science progresses when it is criticized and when it gets defended.

Writings in Economics

1) Das Kapital
2) Critique of Political Economy
3) Grundrisse


1] Marx: A very short introduction-Peter Singer
2] Encyclopedia of Marxism