The German philosopher, radical economist, and revolutionary leader Karl Marx (1818-1883) founded modern "scientific" socialism. His basic ideas—known as Marxism—form the foundation of socialist and communist movements throughout the world.
Karl Marx spent most of his life in exile. He was exiled from his native Prussia in 1849 and went to Paris, from which he was expelled a few months later. He then settled in London, where he spent the rest of his life in dire poverty and relative obscurity. He was hardly known to the English public in his lifetime. His reputation as a radical thinker began to spread only after the emergence of the socialist parties in Europe, especially in Germany and France, in the 1870s and 1880s. From then on, Marx's theories continued to be hotly debated in the growing labor and socialist movements everywhere, including Czarist Russia.
By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, socialist parties everywhere had by and large accepted a considerable measure of Marxism, even though with modifications. This was especially true of the idea of the class struggle and the establishment of a socialist society, in which economic exploitation and social inequality would be abolished. Marxism achieved its first great triumph in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when its successful leader, V. I. Lenin, a lifelong disciple of Marx, organized the Soviet Union as a proletarian dictatorship based on Marx's philosophy, as Lenin interpreted it. Henceforth, Marx became a world figure and his theories a subject of universal attention and controversy.
Marx was born in Trier, Rhenish Prussia, on May 5, 1818, the son of Heinrich Marx, a lawyer, and Henriette Presburg Marx, a Dutchwoman. Both Heinrich and Henriette were descendants of a long line of rabbis. Barred from the practice of law as a Jew, Heinrich Marx became converted to Lutheranism about 1817, and Karl was baptized in the same church in 1824, at the age of 6. Karl attended a Lutheran elementary school but later became an atheist and materialist, rejecting both the Christian and Jewish religions. It was he who coined the aphorism "Religion is the opium of the people," a cardinal principle in modern communism.
Karl attended the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier for 5 years, graduating in 1835, at the age of 17. The gymnasium curriculum was the usual classical one—history, mathematics, literature, and languages, particularly Greek and Latin. Karl became proficient in French and Latin, both of which he learned to read and write fluently. In later years he taught himself other languages, so that as a mature scholar he could also read Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Scandinavian, Russian, and English. As his articles in the New York Daily Tribune show, he came to handle the English language masterfully (he loved Shakespeare, whose works he knew by heart), although he never lost his heavy Teutonic accent in speaking.
In October 1835 Marx matriculated in Bonn University, where he attended courses primarily in jurisprudence, as it was his father's ardent wish that he become a lawyer. Marx, however, was more interested in philosophy and literature than in law. He wanted to be a poet and dramatist, and in his student days he wrote a great deal of poetry—most of it preserved—which in his mature years he rightly recognized as imitative and mediocre. He spent a year at Bonn, studying little but roistering and drinking. He spent a day in jail for disturbing the peace and fought one duel, in which he was wounded in the right eye. He also piled up heavy debts.
Marx's dismayed father took him out of Bonn and had him enter the University of Berlin, then a hub of intellectual ferment. In Berlin a galaxy of brilliant thinkers was challenging existing institutions and ideas, including religion, philosophy, ethics, and politics. The spirit of the great philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was still palpable there. A group known as the Young Hegelians, which included teachers such as Bruno Bauer and bright, philosophically oriented students, met frequently to debate and interpret the subtle ideas of the master. Young Marx soon became a member of the Young Hegelian circle and was deeply influenced by its prevailing ideas.
Marx spent more than 4 years in Berlin, completing his studies there in March 1841. He had given up jurisprudence and devoted himself primarily to philosophy. On April 15, 1841, the University of Jena awarded "Carolo Henrico Marx" the degree of doctor of philosophy on the strength of his abstruse and learned dissertation, Difference between Democritean and Epicurean Natural Philosophy, which was based on Greek-language sources.
Marx's hopes of teaching philosophy at Bonn University were frustrated by the reactionary policy of the Prussian government. He then turned to writing and journalism for his livelihood. In 1842 he became editor of the liberal Cologne newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, but it was suppressed by the Berlin government the following year. Marx then moved to Paris. There he first came in contact with the working class, gave up philosophy as a life goal, and undertook his serious study of economics.
In January 1845 Marx was expelled from France "at the instigation of the Prussian government," as he said. He moved to Brussels, where he lived until 1848 and where he founded the German Workers' party and was active in the Communist League. It was for the latter that he, with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, published, in 1848, the famous Manifesto of the Communist Party (known as the Communist Manifesto). Expelled by the Belgian government for his radicalism, Marx moved back to Cologne, where he became editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in June 1848. Less than a year later, in May 1849, the paper was suppressed by the Prussian government, and Marx himself was exiled. He returned to Paris, but in September the French government expelled him again. Hounded from the Continent, Marx finally settled in London, where he lived as a stateless exile (Britain denied him citizenship and Prussia refused to renaturalize him) for the rest of his life.
In London, Marx's sole means of support was journalism. He wrote for both German-and English-language publications. From August 1852 to March 1862 he was correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, contributing a total of about 355 articles, many of which were used by that paper as leading (unsigned) editorials. Journalism, however, paid wretchedly (£2 per article); Marx was literally saved from starvation by the continuous financial support of Engels. In 1864 Marx helped to found in London the International Workingmen's Association (known as the First International), for which he wrote the inaugural address. In 1872 he dissolved the International, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the anarchists under the leadership of Mikhail Bakunin. Thereafter, Marx's political activities were confined mainly to correspondence with radicals in Europe and America, offering advice and helping to shape the socialist and labor movements.
Appearance and Personal Life
Marx was short and stocky, with a bushy head of hair and flashing eyes. His skin was swarthy, so that his family and friends called him Mohr in German, or Moor in English. He himself adopted the nickname and used it with intimates. His physique gave an impression of vigor, despite the fact that he was a latent tubercular (four of his younger siblings died of tuberculosis). A man of immense learning and sharp intellectual power, Marx, often impatient and irascible, antagonized people by his sardonic wit, bluntness, and dogmatism, which bordered on arrogance. His enemies were legion. Yet, despite his deserved reputation as a hard and disagreeable person, he had a soft spot for children; he deeply loved his own daughters, who, in turn, adored him.
Marx was married to his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen, who was known as the "most beautiful girl in Trier," on June 19, 1843. She was totally devoted to him. She died of cancer on Dec. 2, 1881, at the age of 67. For Marx it was a blow from which he never recovered.
The Marxes had seven children, four of whom died in infancy or childhood. Of the three surviving daughters—Jenny (1844-1883), Laura (1845-1911), and Eleanor (1855-1898)—two married Frenchmen: Jenny, Charles Longuet; Laura, Paul Lafargue. Both of Marx's sons-in-law became prominent French socialists and members of Parliament. Eleanor lived with Edward Aveling and was active as a British labor organizer. Both Laura and Eleanor committed suicide.
Marx spent most of his working time in the British Museum, doing research both for his newspaper articles and his books. He was a most conscientious scholar, never satisfied with secondhand information but tracing facts and figures to their original sources. In preparation for Das Kapital, he read virtually every available work in economic and financial theory and practice in the major languages of Europe.
At home, Marx often stayed up till four in the morning, reading and making voluminous notes in his tight handwriting, which was so crabbed as to be almost unreadable. He was a heavy smoker of pipes and cigars, using up quantities of matches in the process. His workroom was densely smoke-filled. "Das Kapital," he told his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, "will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it."
Marx's excessive smoking, wine drinking, and consumption of heavily spiced foods may have been contributory causes to his illnesses, most of which would appear to be, in the light of modern knowledge, allergic and psychosomatic. In the last two decades of his life he was tormented by a mounting succession of ailments that would have tried the patience of Job. He suffered from hereditary liver derangement (of which, he claimed, his father died); frequent outbreaks of carbuncles and furuncles on his neck, chest, back, and buttocks (often he could not sit); toothaches; eye inflammations; lung abscesses; hemorrhoids; pleurisy; and persistent headaches and coughs that made sleep impossible without drugs. In the final dozen or so years of his life, he could no longer do any sustained intellectual work. He died in his armchair in London on March 14, 1883, about two months before his sixty-fifth birthday. He lies buried in London's Highgate Cemetery, where the grave is marked by a bust of him.
Marx's writings fall into two general categories, the polemical-philosophical and the economic-political. The first reflected his Hegelian-idealistic period; the second, his revolutionary-political interests.
Marx wrote hundreds of articles, brochures, and reports but few books as such. He published only five books during his lifetime. Two of them were polemical, and three were political-economic. The first, The Holy Family (1845), written in collaboration with Engels, was a polemic against Marx's former teacher and Young Hegelian philosopher Bruno Bauer. The second was Misère de la philosophie (The Poverty of Philosophy), written by Marx himself in French and published in Paris and Brussels in 1847. As its subtitle indicates, this polemical work was "An Answer to the Philosophy of Poverty by M. Proudhon."
Marx's third book, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, published serially in a German publication in New York City in 1852, is a brilliant historical-political analysis of the rise and intrigues of the Bonaparte who became Napoleon III. The remaining two books, both on economics, are the ones on which Marx's worldwide reputation rests: Critique of Political Economy and, more particularly, Das Kapital (Capital).
Critique was published in 1859, after about 14 years of intermittent research. Marx considered it merely a first installment, expecting to bring out additional volumes, but he scrapped his plan in favor of another approach. The result was Das Kapital, subtitled Critique of Political Economy, of which only the first volume appeared, in 1867, in Marx's lifetime. After his death, two other volumes were brought out by Engels on the basis of the materials Marx left behind. Volumes 2 (1885) and 3 (1894) can be properly regarded as works by Marx and Engels, rather than by Marx himself. Indeed, without Engels, as Marx admitted, the whole monumental enterprise might not have been produced at all. On the night of Aug. 16, 1867, when Marx completed correcting the proof sheets of volume 1, he wrote to Engels in Manchester: "I have YOU alone to thank that this has been made possible. Without your sacrifices for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks!"
A fourth volume of Das Kapital was brought together by Karl Kautsky after Engels's death. It was based on Marx's notes and materials from Critique of Political Economy and was published in three parts, under the title Theories of Surplus Value, between 1905 and 1910. A Russian edition, also in three parts, came out between 1954 and 1961, and an English translation in 1968.
Two of Marx's books were published posthumously. The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, written in 1871, appeared in 1895. It was, Engels wrote in his introduction, "Marx's first attempt, with the aid of his materialist conception, to explain a section of contemporary history from the given economic situation." The second posthumous work, The German Ideology, which Marx wrote in collaboration with Engels in 1845-1846, was not published in full until 1932. The book is an attack on the philosophers Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach and Max Stirner and on the so-called true socialists.
The rest of Marx's publications, mostly printed posthumously, consist of brochures. Herr Vogt (1860) is a furious polemic against a man named Karl Vogt, whom Marx accused of being a police spy. Wage-Labor and Capital (1884) is a reprint of newspaper articles. Critique of the Gotha Programme (1891) consists of notes which Marx sent to the German Socialist party congress in 1875. Wages, Price and Profit (1898) is an address that Marx delivered at the General Council of the International in 1865.
Marx's world importance does not lie in his economic system, which, as critics point out, was not original but was derived from the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Das Kapital, indeed, is not primarily a technical work on economics but one that uses economic materials to establish a moral-philosophical-sociological structure. Marx's universal appeal lies in his moral approach to social-economic problems, in his insights into the relationships between institutions and values, and in his conception of the salvation of mankind. Hence Marx is best understood if one studies, not his economics, but his theory of history and politics.
The central idea in Marx's thought is the materialistic conception of history. This involves two basic notions: that the economic system at any given time determines the prevailing ideas; and that history is an ongoing process regulated—predetermined—by the economic institutions which evolve in regular stages.
The first notion turned Hegel upside down. In Hegel's view, history is determined by the universal idea (God), which shapes worldly institutions. Marx formulated the reverse: that institutions shape ideas. This is known as the materialistic interpretation of history. Marx's second notion, that of historical evolution, is connected with his concept of dialectics. He saw in history a continuing dialectical process, each stage of development being the product of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
Thus thesis corresponds to the ancient, precapitalist period, when there were no classes or exploitation. Antithesis corresponds to the era of capitalism and labor exploitation. Synthesis is the final product—communism, under which capital would be owned in common and there would be no exploitation.
To Marx, capitalism is the last stage of historical development before communism. The proletariat, produced by capitalism, is the last historical class. The two are fated to be in conflict—the class struggle, which Marx proclaimed so eloquently in the Communist Manifesto—until the proletariat is inevitably victorious and establishes a transitional order, the proletarian dictatorship, a political system which Marx did not elaborate or explain. The proletarian dictatorship, in turn, evolves into communism, or the classless society, the final stage of historical development, when there are no classes, no exploitation, and no inequalities. The logical implication is that with the final establishment of communism, history comes to a sudden end. The dialectical process then presumably ceases, and there are no more historical evolutions or social struggles. This Marxist interpretation of history, with its final utopian-apocalyptic vision, has been criticized in the noncommunist world as historically inaccurate, scientifically untenable, and logically absurd.
Nevertheless, Marx's message of an earthly paradise has provided millions with hope and new meaning of life. From this point of view, one may agree with the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter that "Marxism is a religion" and Marx is its "prophet."
Further Reading on Karl Marx
The first volumes in the 13-volume Karl Marx Library, edited and translated by Saul K. Padover, have been published: Karl Marx on Revolution, vol. 1 (1971) and Karl Marx on the First International, vol. 2 (1972).
There are no scholarly, comprehensive, or objective biographies of Marx. The best is Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (1935), but it is now outdated. Also outdated are Otto Rühle, Karl Marx: His Life and Work (1929), and Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (1938). A more recent book, Robert Payne, Marx (1968), lacks analysis, and John Lewis, The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx (1965), is slanted. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939), is recommended as an acute interpretation of Marx's life, although it is not a biography. A political and intellectual biography of Marx and Engels is Oscar J. Hammen, The Red '48ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1969). See also Edward Hallett Carr, Karl Marx: A Study in Fanaticism (1934), and Leopold Schwarzschild, The Red Prussian: The Life and Legend of Karl Marx (1947).
Recommended for the treatment of various aspects of Marxism are Sidney Hook, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (1933); Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942); Henry B. Mayo, Democracy and Marxism (1955; published in 1960 as Introduction to Marxist Theory); Erich From, ed., Marx's Concept of Man (1961); Henry Collins and Chimen Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement: Years of the First International (1965); Bertram D. Wolfe, Marxism: One Hundred Years in the Life of a Doctrine (1965); Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1968); Henry Lefebvre, The Sociology of Marx (1968); Raymond Aron, Marxism and the Existentialists (1969); and Louis Althusser, For Marx (1969).