A utopian vision of a just society for some, a project of totalitarian regimes for others, Marxist thought is expressed in the Communist Manifesto and in Das Kapital in three volumes.

The work of Karl Marx “can be explained in five minutes, five hours, in five years or in half a century”, wrote the French political thinker Raymond Aron.

A utopian vision of a just society for some, a project of totalitarian regimes for others, Marxist thought is expressed in the Communist Manifesto and the three volumes Das Capital.

Here are five core ideas from the influential and highly controversial German thinker, on the 200th anniversary of his birthday.

‘Class struggle’

“The history of any hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggle,” says the Communist Manifesto, co-written with Friedrich Engels and published in 1848.

Marx believed that the central conflict of humanity rages between the ruling class, or bourgeoisie, which controls the means of production such as factories, farms and mines, and the working class, or proletariat, which is forced to sell his work.

A man adjusts a portrait of German philosopher Karl Marx by German artist Walter Womacka at Karl Marx's birthplace in Trier, southwestern Germany, May 3, 2018.

A man adjusts a portrait of German philosopher Karl Marx by German artist Walter Womacka at Karl Marx’s birthplace in Trier, southwestern Germany, May 3, 2018. | Photo credit: AFP

According to Marx, this conflict at the heart of capitalism – slaves against masters, serfs against landowners, workers against bosses – would inevitably lead to its self-destruction, followed by socialism and finally communism.

“Dictatorship of the proletariat”

This idea – coined by early socialist revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer and adopted by Marx and Engels – refers to the working class’ goal of gaining control of political power.

It is the stage of transition from capitalism to communism where the means of production pass from private ownership to collective ownership while the state still exists.

The concept, including the suppression of “counter-revolutionaries”, was proclaimed by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918.

Vladimir Lenin wrote that he is “won and maintained by the use of violence”, signaling the authoritarian drift that began after October 1917 Revolution in Russia.

Communism

Marx and Engels wrote the “Communist Manifesto” in 1848, at a time of revolutionary turmoil in Europe.

It did not reach a wide readership until 1872, but became part of the Soviet bloc canon in the 20th century.

For Marx, the goal was the conquest of political power by the workers, the abolition of private property and the eventual establishment of a communist society without classes and without a state.

A copy of

A copy of ‘Das Kapital’ is seen May 3, 2018 ahead of the opening of an exhibition exploring the works and life of German philosopher Karl Marx at his birthplace in Trier, southwestern Germany. | Photo credit: AFP

According to Marx’s theory of historical materialism, societies pass through six stages: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally stateless world communism.

In reality, the abolition of private property and the collectivization of land caused millions of deaths, especially under Joseph Stalin in Russia and Mao Zedong in China.

‘Internationalism’

“The workers of the world unite!” is the famous rallying cry that concludes the Manifesto and seeks to create a political structure that transcends national borders.

Visitors look at a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in a public park in Berlin on May 4, 2018.

Visitors look at a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in a public park in Berlin on May 4, 2018. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The idea was at the heart of Soviet internationalism, uniting the destinies of countries as geographically distant as the USSR, Vietnam and Cuba, and revolutionary groups like the Colombian FARC or the Kurdish Workers’ Party PKK, as well as movements alterglobalists.

‘People’s Opium’

Marx believed that religion, like a drug, helps the exploited to suppress their immediate pain and misery with pleasurable illusions, for the benefit of their oppressors.

The quote usually paraphrased as “religion is the opium of the people” originates in the introduction to Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”.

Participants stand as the international anthem is played during an event marking the bicentenary of Karl Marx's birth at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2018. During the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Marx as

Participants stand as the international anthem is played during an event marking the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2018. During the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Marx as “the greatest thinker of modern times”, calling his theories a tool for China to “win the future”. | Photo credit: AP

In its entirety, it reads: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The idea has been used to justify the brutal purges of religions in Russia, China and throughout Eastern Europe.

Some scholars point out that Marx saw religion as one of many factors explaining the enslavement of the proletariat and were perhaps surprised to see radical atheism become a fundamental tenet of communist regimes.