In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Karl Marx

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Biography
  • Theory of History
  • State and Politics
  • Marx and Anarchism
  • Economic Theory and Exploitation
  • Class, Class Struggle, and Revolution
  • Alienation and Early Writings
  • Human Nature
  • Ideology
  • Morality and Justice
  • Marx and Liberalism
  • Vision of the Communist Future
  • Women and Gender
  • Nature and the Environment
  • Dialectics and Method
  • Hegel, and Left Hegelianism
  • Engels
  • Miscellaneous

Philosophy Karl Marx
David Leopold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0265


Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883) was born into a Jewish family living in the Rhineland region of Prussia. Marx’s father was a lawyer whose conversion to Christianity allowed him to continue his career. Marx studied at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, writing a doctoral thesis in ancient philosophy (on the philosophy of nature in Democritus and Epicurus). His political radicalism made it difficult for him to stay in the German Confederation, and his adult life was made up of three successive exiles—in Paris (1843–1845), Brussels (1845–1848), and London (1849–1883). Throughout that adult life, Marx combined radical political activity, independent scholarship, and financial insecurity, in varying proportions. He was a prolific writer; his (and Engels’s) collected writings, in the most authoritative, and still ongoing, edition (the new MEGA, or Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe), will contain 114 volumes when complete. Identifying the central concerns of that body of work is controversial, but they surely include a theory of history, an account of alienation and human nature, a critique of modern capitalism, and a vision of communism. Determining the content of Marx’s views on these, and other, topics is not easy. He could produce clear and precise prose, but much of his output is opaque and less certain. In addition to the complexity and unfamiliarity of some of his ideas, Marx’s writings include texts written in a variety of languages (German, English, and French), targeting long-forgotten contemporaries, published under conditions of censorship, written only for the purposes of self-clarification, and so on. The resulting interpretative difficulties are hopefully eased by the bibliographical recommendations in this article. The literature on Marx’s life, ideas, and influence is considerable, but it has historically been rather mixed in quality. Happily, there is a growing body of interesting and scholarly work on Marx in English, and the recommendations here reflect that development. In order to remain manageable and focused, this article concentrates primarily on English-language literature, and especially on more recent and more “analytical” contributions to that literature.

General Overviews

There are a large number of single-volume introductions to Marx’s thought, but not all of them are insightful or scholarly. However, the works in this section can be recommended on those grounds. Wolff 2002 and Wolff 2010 provide genuine introductions. Elster 1985 offers a broad critical engagement, especially with Marx’s social scientific views. Wood 2004 treats Marx’s philosophical views as a whole. Carver 1991 and Vidal, et al. 2019 are edited collections of essays on central threads in Marx’s work. Kolakowski 2008 provides a survey of the subsequent Marxist tradition.

  • Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521366259

    A collection of essays, by diverse hands, typically offering reliable introductions to central areas of Marx’s thought (history, politics, and so on). The collection also includes essays on topics—such as Marx and religion (by Denys Turner), and Marx’s aesthetic views (by William Adams)—that are not otherwise well represented in this article.

  • Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Jon Elster’s book is not short, but it offers a clear, critical reconstruction of what might be called the social scientific elements of Marx’s writings. Elster is both provocative and insightful, and he covers Marx’s views on such areas as method, economics, theory of history, class, politics, and the state.

  • Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents in Marxism. New York: Norton, 2008.

    Kolakowski offers a sense of the wider Marxist tradition, providing a historical survey of the founders (Marx and Engels), the golden age (from Kautsky to Lenin), and the breakdown (Stalin and early Western Marxism). A huge intellectual achievement, combining exposition and critical comment. (Given its size, readers may prefer to treat it as a reference resource to consult, rather than a book to be read cover to cover.)

  • Vidal, Matt, Tony Smith, Tomás Rotta, and Paul Prew, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    An extensive collection of essays by diverse hands, seeking to provide an overview of Marx’s writings, together with some sense of the subsequent development, and continuing relevance, of his ideas and theories. Offers a systematic coverage of Marx’s theories of history, society, and political economy. Perhaps especially useful in providing accessible and contemporary accounts of Marx’s critique of political economy.

  • Wolff, Jonathan. Why Read Marx Today? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Jonathan Wolff offers a short but highly readable and consistently intelligent engagement with Marx’s critical and constructive views, broadly recommending Marx the social critic and skeptical of Marx the prophet of future communist society.

  • Wolff, Jonathan. “Karl Marx.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2010.

    The shortest of the general introductions to Marx recommended here, but characteristically pellucid and not lacking in sophistication.

  • Wood, Allen W. Karl Marx. 2d exp. ed. London: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203543375

    Allen Wood provides the best one-volume overview of Marx’s philosophical views as a whole, although his account of Marx’s views on morality have tended to provoke rather than persuade readers. A consistently interesting and illuminating work.

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