Marx, Karl Heinrich

(1818–1883)
   The founder of Marxism through his extensive writings and his political activism, Karl Marx is one of the most influential political thinkers of all time. He was born in Trier, Germany, to a comfortably off middle-class family that had converted from Judaism to Protestantism in order for his father Heinrich Marx to keep his post in the Prussian civil service. He was educated at the universities of Bonn, Berlin and Jena, receiving his doctorate in philosophy from the last of these. While at Berlin Marx came under the influence of the “Young Hegelians,” disciples of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who had taught for many years there. The radical political and atheistic views of Marx and his academic mentor, Bruno Bauer, prevented him from gaining an academic post and he turned to journalism, working for the liberal Cologne paper Rheinische Zeitung from 1842 until its suppression by the government the following year. In June 1843 he married Jenny von Westphalen with whom he had six children, Guido, Franziska, Edgar, Jenny, Laura and Eleanor, though only the latter three lived beyond childhood. In the same year that he married Jenny von Westphalen he made his intellectual divorce from Hegel writing Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in which he developed his views on political philosophy through a fierce critique of Hegel’s ideas. He continued his critique of Hegel and Hegelianism in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction written in 1844 and in The German Ideology written in 1846, although the influence of Hegel on Marx’s thought is evident in later works such as the Grundrisse (written 1857/8), Theories of Surplus Value (written 1862/3) and the introduction to Capital volume I (1867).
   In 1844 Marx met Friedrich Engels in Paris who was to become his lifelong friend and collaborator. They had briefly met two years earlier but did not establish a friendship at the time. However, from 1844 onwards they were extremely close personally, politically and in their working relationship. Engels directed Marx toward a study of economics, which was crucial in his intellectual and political development, and provided financial, psychological and intellectual support to Marx throughout his life. As well as jointly writing The Holy Family (1845), The German Ideology (1845/46) and the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels discussed all the major concepts of Marxism as they developed, and exchanged some 1,350 letters in the course of their collaboration. 1844 also saw Marx write Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in which he discussed alienation and put forward a humanist conception of communism. At the time he was strongly influenced by the materialist and atheist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, an influence he was to outgrow the following year when he wrote his Theses on Feuerbach. This work saw him move beyond Feuerbach as well as Hegel and was the first writing in which Marx outlined the foundation of the materialist conception of history (historical materialism), albeit in a very terse and schematic form. Historical materialism along with his analysis of capitalism contained in the three volumes of Capital represent Marx’s greatest intellectual achievement.
   Forced to move from Paris because of his revolutionary views and activities, Marx went to Brussels where he was involved with a network of revolutionary groups, most notably the League of the Just, which became the Communist League in 1847. In 1848 Marx and Engels, at the behest of the Communist League, wrote the Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto expressed key ideas of Marx as well as a call for revolution in a straightforward manner. For example, it begins with the words, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” which conveys the heart of Marx’s approach to history. Elsewhere the Manifesto describes the relation between the development of capitalism and the advent of communism, the former creating the preconditions for the latter, and the relation between socio-economic conditions and the development of ideas (“What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”). The Manifesto ends with a call for revolution: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!”
   Unsuccessful revolutions in various places across Europe, most notably Paris and Berlin, did follow the publication of the Manifesto, but the Manifesto itself was not responsible for these and only achieved its fame/notoriety and huge influence subsequently. The revolutionary unrest elsewhere led the Belgian authorities to expel Marx and he moved to Paris and then Cologne. In Cologne Marx worked to establish a new radical periodical the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which he edited and for which he wrote some 80 articles until he was arrested and tried on a charge of inciting armed insurrection. He was acquitted but expelled from Germany and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung closed in 1849. Marx then moved to London via Paris, and continued to live in England for the rest of his life. In London during the 1850s Marx and his family lived for much of the time in poverty, and relied on the generosity of Engels for an income, supplemented with earnings from articles written for the New York Daily Tribune. During his time in England he wrote his major historical studies, The Class Struggles in France (1850), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) and The Civil War in France (1871), as well as his major economic works, the three volumes of Capital (written 1861–1879). In the former works he applied his theory of historical materialism and developed aspects of his theories of the state, class and revolution. In his economic works he elaborated his theory of exploitation and introduced his key notions of the commodity and surplus value. Marx’s political activities also continued in England. The Communist League dissolved in 1852, but Marx remained in contact with radicals and revolutionaries throughout Europe and in 1864 he helped to found the First International, a loose association of socialist and workers’ political parties and trade unions. Marx served on the International’s General Council and was active in the preparations for the annual Congresses. He also devoted considerable time and energy to fighting against the influence of the anarchists in the International led by Michael Bakunin.
   In his later years Marx began to withdraw from his political activities, spending more time with his family. Persistent health problems contributed to this withdrawal, hindering his work in the final decade of his life and worsening his already marked tendency to procrastinate and leave work incomplete. Nevertheless, he still contributed to debates on contemporary politics, most notably his intervention in the affairs of the German labor movement in the form of his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). In this he criticized the state socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle and elaborated various points about equality, communism and the state. In 1881 Marx’s wife Jenny died, and this was followed by the death of his eldest daughter Jenny in January 1883. Marx only lived two months after his daughter’s death and was buried in Highgate cemetery on 17 March 1883.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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