Karl Marx

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Karl Marx (May 5th, 1818-March 14th, 1883) was a German Political economist, Revolutionary Socialist, and philosopher. Today, Marx is considered one of the most influential figures in human history, due to his role in founding the Marxist school of thought, and as one of the three architects of modern social science, alongside Émile Durkheim and Max Weber.

Born into a wealthy upper middle class family in Trier, Prussia. His father was of Jewish descent, coming from a long line of Rabbis, but changed his faith to Lutheranism in order to keep his job as a lawyer, thus Marx was baptized as a Protestant. At the age of 17, he went to study law at the University of Bonn, originally intending to become a lawyer. There, he became engaged at the age of 25 to Jenny von Westphalen, age 29, whose father, Baron Johann Ludwig von Westphalen, introduced him to philosophy and the politics of Saint-Simon, a French utopian socialist. A year later, Marx's father moved him to the University of Berlin, where he studied Hegelianism, a school of philosophy that envisioned human history as being a logical progression with the ultimate end of abolishing all that hindered man's freedom[1]. While Marx admired Hegel and Feuerbach's philosophy due to their belief in historical inevitability, but questioned what he saw as their philosophy's abstract and Idealist thought, as he believed that reality lies more in material economic conditions.

In 1841, Marx earned his doctorate at Jena with a thesis on the atheistic and materialist thought of Greek atomists. Due to his radical political views, Marx had difficulty finding publishers for any of his works, so he moved to Cologne, which had a strong liberal movement. In 1842, the liberal group the Cologne circle published an article in the Rhenish Gazette made by Marx defending freedom of the press and criticizing Prussian censorship[2]. In 1843, he met Moses Hess, a socialist who organized meetings on the struggle of the German working class, and based on information gathered from those present at the meetings, wrote an article detailing the struggle of Mosel wine-farmers, in which he criticized the government's policies. Following this, the Prussian authorities banned the Rhenish Gazette and threatened to arrest Marx, causing him and Jenny to flee to Paris. While editing the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (Franco-German Annals, which only lasted for one issue), he met his contemporary Friedrich Engels. Other contributors to the newspaper included his old mentor from Berlin, Bruno Bauer (whose antisemitism Marx would later criticize in his controversial article On the Jewish Question[3][4]) and the Russian Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

While in Paris, Marx declared himself a Communist (he chose the term "communist" so as to distinguish himself from the still popular Utopian socialist movement) and studied political economy and the French Revolution. There he wrote his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts[5], which were not published until the 1930s. In 1845, he was expelled from France by conservative statesman François Guizot, and fled to Brussels (Belgium was a country with more liberal laws on the press) with Engels. There, they made occasional trips to England to visit Engels' family, who owned cotton mills in Manchester. While in Brussels, Marx published a polemic against Pierre Joseph Proudhon's idealistic socialist text The Philosophy of Poverty[6], in the Poverty of Philosophy[7]. It was also here that he worked on the Materialist Conception of History in the manuscript published after his death as The German Ideology[8]. It was also in Brussels that Marx joined the communist league, where he an Engels where commissioned in 1847 to write a manifesto for the league. This they did in 1848, and the resulting Communist Manifesto became one of their most famous works. After the panic caused by the "Springtime of Nations," Marx was expelled from Brussels, and invited by the French provisional government to return to Paris, where he moved to cologne to write a newspaper with some friends. He was summarily expelled from cologne in 1849, moved again to Paris, and would face his final expulsion there, moving to London, his final home.

Yet Marx was still confident of further revolutionary action in Europe, and rejoined with the Communist League. He wrote two pamphlets on the 1848 revolution in France and its effects, titled the Class Struggles in France[9] and the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte[10]. In the early 1850s, his family of himself, his wife, and four children fell into poverty, living in a three room flat in Soho, London. They would have two more children, but only three of their six survived. They survived on monetary gifts from Engels, whose own income came from his family's cotton mill in Manchester, and a small amount of money Marx received from articles he wrote to the New York Tribune as its European correspondent. But despite his hardships, Marx remained politically active, and in 1864 he and Engels formed the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA) or the First International. By 1857, he finished the first volume of Das Kapital[11], his largest and most significant work on political economy. He would spend the rest of his life working on the second and third volumes (which would be published by Friedrich Engels after Marx's death), and took a 3 year break from Capital to write Theories of Surplus Value[12], a work detailing the various theories of political economy, particularly those of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. By 1871, his 17 year old daughter, Eleanor Marx, was helping Marx with his work, and the deep understanding of capitalism that she gained from this would result in her playing in important role in the British labor movement.

In the last ten years of his life, Marx's health rapidly declined, and he could no longer work at the pace he could previously. Yet he still paid attention to the politics of his time, particularly concerning Russia and Germany. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme[13], Marx criticizes his followers Karl Liebknecht and August Bebel for their compromises with state socialism in order to bring about a unified socialist party, and outlines the Dictatorship of the Proletariat stage of socialist development. He also wrote letters to Russian Menshevik Vera Zasulich in which he suggested the possibility of an early realization of socialism in Russia if the peasants reformed their economy on the basis of common ownership of land on the basis of the village[14] (this has often been used as justification by Leninists for the Russian Revolution of 1917). In 1881, Marx and his wife became ill, with Marx suffering but surviving from a swollen liver, but Jenny died later that year. In January of 1883, his eldest daughter died from bladder cancer, casting Marx into a deep depression, and on March 14th, 1883, Marx was found passed away in his armchair. His last words, having become a sad, broken old man by this point, were roared to his servant as "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who have not said enough!" He was subsequently buried at High gate cemetery in London, where the Communist Party of Great Britain commissioned a new monument in his honor featuring a giant bust of himself, engraved with a line from the Communist Manifesto, "Workers of all lands unite!" and thesis eleven from his Theses on Feuerbach[15]: "Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however, is to change it."

Early Life[edit]

Karl Heinreich Marx was born in Trier, Rhenish Prussia (present-day Germany), on May 5, 1818, the son of Heinrich Marx, a lawyer, and Henriette Presburg Marx, a semi-illiterate Dutchwoman, as one of 8 children (Henriette Marx, Eduard Marx, Mauritz David Marx, Hermann Marx, Emilie Conradi, Caroline Marx, and Louise Juta). Little else is known about his childhood other than the fact that he became the oldest son when his brother Mauritz died in 1819.

Both Heinrich and Henriette were descendants of a long line of rabbis. The Prussian authorities barred him from the practice of law because he was Jewish following an anti-Semitic law passed in 1815. Heinrich Marx converted to Lutheranism in about 1817. Yet he was largely irreligious, specifically choosing Lutheranism over Catholicism because he equated Protestantism with intellectual freedom[16], and was also a passionate liberal activist, being an admirer of the works of Immanuel Kant and Voltaire. However, he was still fiercely patriotic and monarchistic, and educated his family as liberal Lutherans rather than atheists. Karl was baptized in the same church in 1824 at the age of six.

Family Background[edit]


Karl attended the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier for five years, graduating in 1835 at the age of seventeen[17]. The gymnasium's program was the customary classical one—history, mathematics, literature, and languages, especially Greek and Latin. His father had chosen the school in particular because the school's principal was a friend of his, as well as a liberal, Kantian, and held in respect by the Rhenish people. Karl became very skilled 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 wield the English phraseology masterfully (he loved Shakespeare , whose works he knew by heart), although he never lost his strong German accent when speaking. The Prussian authorities grew suspicious of the school, in 1832, the school was raided. However, the school remained in operation, and Marx was able to graduate in 1835.

Lithograph from the Trier Student's Club of Karl Marx at the age of 18.

In October 1835 Marx enrolled in Bonn University in Bonn, Germany, where he attended courses primarily in law, as it was his father's desire that he become a lawyer. Marx, however, was more interested in philosophy and literature than in law[18]. He wanted to be a poet and dramatist. In his student days he wrote a great deal of poetry—most of it preserved—such as "The Fiddler," "Nocturnal Love," and "Transformation,"[19] many written to express his affection for Jenny Von Westphalia, his childhood sweetheart whom he became engaged to in 1836. He spent a year at Bonn, studying little but partying and drinking a lot. 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 center of intellectual debate. In Berlin a coterie of brilliant thinkers was challenging existing institutions and ideas, including faith, philosophy, ethics, and politics[20]. He spent more than four years in Berlin, completing his studies with a doctoral degree in March 1841, having written a thesis entitled "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature"[21], in which he compared the atomist philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus regarding contingency (statement that is neither necessarily undeniably true or undeniably false). However, he had to submit this dissertation to the University of Jena, as it would not be well-received in Berlin, where he had a reputation as a Young Hegelian Radical.

Early Intellectual Development[edit]

Liberal Agitation[edit]

At the age of 24, Marx decided to turn to journalism to make a living, and in 1842 he became the editor of the radical-democratic newspaper in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung or Rhenish Gazette, which was financed by wealthy liberals from the Rhineland. It ran for less than a year, only from October 1842 to the Spring of 1843, at which point it was censored by the government, yet in it he published a very important article "On Freedom of the Press." In it, he not only criticizes the Prussian government's censorship, but also the role of the press in society, as well as the relation between journalists and those who finance the press. He concludes that not only is the Prussian rationale behind censorship illogical, supposing that "to fight freedom of the press, one must maintain the thesis of the permanent immaturity of the human race... If the immaturity of the human race is the mystical ground for opposing freedom of the press, then certainly censorship is a most reasonable means of hindering the human race from coming of age," but also even the traditional liberal demand for a free press must go beyond simply defending newspapers from censorship by the state, but also beyond the control of newspapers and the means of communication for private interest.[22]

Socialist Agitation[edit]

In Cologne he also met Moses Hess, a radical who organized socialist meetings, and whom Marx would associate with in the future. Hess, however, was one of the German "true" socialists," a group whose philosophy Marx would later criticize for their failure to adequately explain the social conditions of communism, and for merely dealing with their righteousness.[23] Yet Hess would play a critical part in Marx's intellectual development, with him himself becoming a Marxist in 1847, as it was at his socialist meetings that Marx would first learn the struggles of the German working class. Marx would first learn of the struggle of the Mosel wine farmers, who at first benefited from Prussian rule after Prussia gained the territories it had occupied in the Napoleonic Wars west of the Rhine river following the Vienna Peace Congress in 1815, since they could export their wine to Prussia tax free. However this ended with the establishment of the German Customs Union, or Zollverein, giving Prussian wine merchants an advantage over their competitors west of the Rhine. A bad harvest coupled with Prussia's unfavorable tax policy led to the many wine farmers in Mosel being reduced to poverty. Accounts of their suffering appalled Marx, who condemned the Prussian government in a newspaper article published in 1843 in the Rhenish Gazette.[24] Following this, the Gazette was banned, and Prussian authorities threatened to arrest Marx. Marx quickly married Jenny Von Westphalen, despite the objections of both families, and fled to Paris.

Laying the Groundwork of Marxism[edit]

Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher[edit]

While in Paris, Marx started a newspaper titled the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, or Franco-German Annals[25]. It only ran for one issue, published in February 1844, ending due to the difficulty of evading censorship while distributing it from Germany to France, as well as from a disagreement between Marx and his friend and fellow Young Hegelian, Arnold Ruge. but it marked a turning point in Marx's lifetime, as while editing it, he met his lifelong companion and fellow Marxist Friedrich Engels. He also met the Russian Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, whom he would butt heads with in the future over the issue of state power in the transition to socialism.

The issue would contain some of Marx's most critical works, including "On the Jewish Question", "Contribution to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," as well as Engels' "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy."

On the Jewish Question[edit]

"On the Jewish Question," is one of Marx's most controversial works, as towards the end of it he introduced seemingly antisemitic language regarding the Jewish population. It is of course important to remember when making a study of Marxism that the possible antisemitism of Marx's article is by know means necessarily a reflection of Marxist beliefs, as he analyzes the Jews outside of the Historical Materialist outlook, simply within his prejudice. However, On the Jewish Question is still an important document in Marxist literature, as Marx uses the "Jewish Question" of Germany (that is, the extension of rights to German Jews, not the extermination of Jews as in Hitler's "Jewish Question" about a century later) in order to present a larger debate about the difference between "political emancipation" and "human emancipation."

The article is written as a critique of his fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer's essay, "The Jewish Question," in which Bauer criticizes the Jewish struggle for political emancipation by arguing that the Jews care only for their own freedom, rather than the freedom of gentiles, as they argue their case for emancipation while all Germans are under the collective oppression of Prussian absolutism. As he says, "Why should the German be interested in the liberation of the Jew, if the Jew is not interested in the liberation of the German." He also notes that Prussia, enforcing a state church of Christianity, hence being a Christian State, it would be impossible for the state to grant the Jew emancipation, except "he Christian state can behave towards the Jew only in the way characteristic of the Christian state – that is, by granting privileges, by permitting the separation of the Jew from the other subjects, but making him feel the pressure of all the other separate spheres of society, and feel it all the more intensely because he is in religious opposition to the dominant religion."

Marx responds to Bauer's analysis by pointing out that "only the criticism of political emancipation itself would have been the conclusive criticism of the Jewish question and its real merging in the general question of time." Marx writes how Bauer never brings the question to this level of complexity, and at many points simply criticizes the Jew as a person, rather than his actual emancipation. The central error is that Bauer "subjects to criticism only the 'Christian state', and not the 'state as such,' that he does not investigate the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation." Marx argues that Bauer's position that the renouncement of religion by a group of people whose religion is against that of the state is necessary for them to achieve political emancipation (specifically referring to the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen"), citing observations of the secular government of the United States, which, while its inhabitants and even much of the government maintains its religiosity, political freedom is available to all regardless of religious denomination.

However, Marx also uses the opportunity to argue that political emancipation is only a form of emancipation, and total, complete human emancipation could come "Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being (a term from Feuerbach's philosophy, meaning the point a human capable of shaping his or her own nature independent of other forces) in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished." In other words, only when man could shape his own will, personality, and existence only to what he as a human being is capable of. Marx also outlines how a man's true freedom is often determined by economic factors rather than simply political ones, which would form part of the basis of his critique of capitalism in the future.

Therefore, the first section of his work is essentially a critique of both Bauer's narrow minded, anti-theistic view of freedom, as well as a stage for Marx's own critique of Liberalism on the grounds that the "Rights of Man," even when applied to their fullest extent, do not fully guarantee freedom.

The second section of his work is where Marx's antisemitism kicks in, as it is where Marx challenges Bauer's view of Judaism, which Bauer argues is a primitive stage of Christianity, and having "at the end of his work on the Jewish Question, had conceived Judaism only as a crude religious criticism of Christianity, and therefore saw in it 'merely' a religious, it could be foreseen that the emancipation of the Jews, too, would be transformed into a philosophical-theological act." Marx writes that Judaism does not need to be viewed so complexly, as it is simply the spiritual expression of "Practical need and self-interest." Marx then launches into a prejudiced description of European Jewry, in which he regards them as hucksters and that "practical Judaism," which to him was greed and self-interest, was the backbone of capitalist society, and that therefore, "the social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism."

Unfortunately, the first section's significance in Marxism is often overshadowed by the latter's antisemitism. It is important to note however, that labeling Marx as antisemitic would be anachronistic, as antisemitic views were common at the time, and the term antisemitism had not even come into use so as to label a negative mode of thought. A good article on the subject is Hal Draper's "Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype."[26]

A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law[edit]

"A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law" or "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" and written throughout 1843-1844, was Marx's critique of Hegelian Idealism, a philosophy whom he once followed, but later strayed from and criticized. In his critique, Marx focuses on Hegel's theory of the state, which argued in abstract terms that states were the embodiment of all that society considered rational, and were guided by a metaphysical "World Spirit."


Marx begins by discussing the role of religion in society, that is, as a relief from pain, and it is here that his famous quote, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people." He discusses criticism of religion, accepting its basic arguments, but argues that religion, being a relief from human suffering, is a reflection of the real world, and thus, "The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

The rest of the introduction is devoted to a criticism of Germany's current political and intellectual state, which he views as backwards, as well as a criticism of philosophical political movements, specifically the Hegelian, which he views as using only insufficient philosophical criticism rather than concrete political action, their mistake being summed up "In a word – You cannot abolish philosophy without making it a reality."


  1. http://www.iep.utm.edu/hegelsoc/
  2. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_On_freedom_of_the_Press.pdf
  3. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
  4. http://links.org.au/node/3429
  5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm
  6. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/proudhon/philosophy/
  7. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/
  8. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/
  9. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Class_Struggles_in_France.pdf
  10. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/
  11. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/
  12. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1863/theories-surplus-value/
  13. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/index.htm
  14. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/zasulich/
  15. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm
  16. http://www.biography.com/people/karl-marx-9401219#synopsis
  17. http://biography.yourdictionary.com/karl-marx
  18. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ma-Mo/Marx-Karl.html
  19. http://homepages.which.net/~panic.brixtonpoetry/marxpoetry.pdf
  20. http://atheism.about.com/od/philosophyofreligion/a/marx_2.htm
  21. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1841/dr-theses/
  22. http://socialistreview.org.uk/376/marx-freedom-press
  23. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/hook/1934/12/hess-marx.htm
  24. http://themanfrommoselriver.com/2007/09/26/karl-marx-and-mosel-wine/
  25. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/df-jahrbucher/
  26. https://www.marxists.org/subject/marxmyths/hal-draper/article.htm