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Karl Marx
Karl Marx
(Photograph, 1875)

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818 - 1883) was a German philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary of the 19th Century. Both a scholar and a political activist, Marx is often called the father of Communism, and certainly his Marxist theory provided the intellectual base for various subsequent forms of Communism.

Marxism, the philosophical and political school or tradition his work gave rise to, is a variety of radical or revolutionary Socialism conceived as a reaction against the rampant Capitalism and Liberalism of 19th Century Europe, with working class self-emancipation as its goal. Among other things, he is known for his analysis of history (particularly his concept of historical materialism) and the search for a systemic understanding of socioeconomic change.

Although a relatively obscure figure in his own lifetime, his ideas began to exert a major influence on workers' movements shortly after his death, especially with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Despite the numerous debates among Marxists (and among political philosophers in general) over how to interpret Marx's writings and how to apply his concepts to current events and conditions, there are few parts of the world which have not been significantly touched by Marx's ideas over the course of the 20th Century.


Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier, Prussia (modern-day Germany), the third of seven children of a Jewish family. His father, Heinrich Marx, was descended from a long line of Jewish rabbis, but converted to Lutheran Christianity in order to continue practicing law; his mother was Henriette Pressburg.

Marx was educated at home until the age of thirteen, when he attended the Trier Gymnasium. In 1835, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in the University of Bonn to study law (his father would not allow him to study philosophy and literature, as Marx would have preferred, for practical career reasons), However, he did not pursue his studies very diligently (at one point serving as the president of the Trier Tavern Club drinking society), and his father moved him the next year to the more serious and academically orientated Humboldt University in Berlin.

At Humboldt, he began to absorb the atheistic philosophy of the Young Hegelians (the more radical left-wing followers of G. W. F. Hegel) who were prominent in Berlin at the time. He earned his doctorate in 1841 with a thesis entitled "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature", although he had to submit his dissertation to the University of Jena as he was warned that his reputation among the faculty as a Young Hegelian radical would lead to a poor reception in Berlin. In 1843, he married Jenny von Westphalen, the educated daughter of a Prussian baron, despite the objections of both families.

In 1843, Marx moved to Paris, (then the hotbed of German, British, Polish and Italian revolutionaries) in order to work with Arnold Ruge (1802 - 1880), another German revolutionary, on the political journal "Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher" ("German-French Annals"). However, the next year he met Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895), and began the most important friendship of his life (and arguably one of the most important in history). Engels had come to Paris specifically to see Marx, and to discuss with him Engels' greatest individual work, "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844". Engels, a committed communist, kindled Marx's interest in the situation of the working class and guided Marx's interest in economics.

The "Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher" soon failed and Marx started to write for "Vorwärts", the most radical of all German newspapers in Paris, generally on Hegel and on the Jewish question, and he published "Zur Judenfrage" ("On the Jewish Question") in 1844. The same year, Marx himself became a communist, and set down his views in a series of writings known as the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844" (which remained unpublished until the 1930s), in which he outlined a humanist conception of Communism, influenced by the philosophy of the Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 - 1872), and based on a contrast between the alienated nature of labor under Capitalism and a communist society in which human beings freely developed their nature in cooperative production.

In January 1845, Marx and Engels and many others were ordered to leave Paris (after their approval in "Vorwärts" of the assassination attempt on King Frederick William IV of Prussia), and he and Engels moved to Brussels, Belgium. There, Marx devoted himself to an intensive study of history and elaborated on his idea of historical materialism, particularly in a manuscript published posthumously as "Die Deutsche Ideologie" ("The German Ideology").

Marx and Engels' published their most famous work, "The Communist Manifesto" in early 1848, as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by them. 1848 saw tremendous revolutionary upheaval in Europe and Marx was arrested and expelled from Belgium. He was invited to return to Paris by the radical movement that had seized power from King Louis-Philippe in France, and he witnessed the revolutionary "June Days Uprising" first hand. When the uprising collapsed in 1849, Marx moved back to Cologne and started the "Neue Rheinische Zeitung" ("New Rhenish Newspaper"). The paper was suppressed and Marx, after two arrests and acquittals, returned to Paris again, but was forced out yet again.

This time, in May 1849, he sought refuge in London, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During the first half of the 1850s, the Marx family lived in poverty and constant fear of creditors in a three room flat in Soho, London. They already had four children and three more were to follow (although only three survived to adulthood). Marx worked for a time as a correspondent for the New York Tribune in London, but their major source of income was Engels, who was drawing a steadily increasing income from his family's business in Manchester and, later, some small inheritances from Jenny's family.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Marx continued the laborious task of writing his huge works on political economy, spending day after day in the reading room of the British Museum. The most important of these was his masterwork "Das Kapital" ("Capital"), the first volume of which was published in 1867, well behind schedule. Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life, and which were published posthumously (as were several of his other works) by Engels.

However, Marx was also devoting much of his time and energy during this period to the First International, to whose General Council he was elected at its inception in 1864. He was particularly active in preparing for the annual Congresses of the International, and in leading the struggle against the anarchist wing led by Mikhail Bakunin (1814 - 1876). One of the most important political events during the existence of the International was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the citizens of Paris rebelled against their government and held the city for two months. Marx wrote one of his most famous pamphlets, "The Civil War in France" in enthusiastic defense of the Commune after its bloody suppression.

During the last decade of his life, Marx's health declined and he was incapable of the sustained effort that had characterized his previous work. Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last fifteen months of his life, and that eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy from which he died in London on 14 March 1883. He died a stateless person and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, his tombstone carved with the final line of "The Communist Manifesto": “Workers of all lands unite".

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As a philosopher, Marx was influenced by a number of different thinkers, including the Kantian and German Idealist Immanuel Kant; the Hegelianists Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 - 1872); the British political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo (1772 - 1823); and the French social theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Fourier (1772 - 1837), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 -1825), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 - 1865), Flora Tristan (1803 -1844) and Louis Blanc (1811 - 1882).

Some have argued that Marx's original contributions to philosophy were extremely limited or even zero, and that all he did was to adapt Hegel's work to his own political, social and economic ends. As a young man at Humboldt and Jena Universities, Marx became involved with the atheistic Young Hegelians, particularly Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 - 1872), Max Stirner (1806 - 1856) and Moses Hess (1812 - 1875), who had begun to adapt Hegelianism and to criticize Hegel's metaphysical assumptions, but also to make use of his dialectical method (separated from its theological content) as a powerful weapon for the critique of established religion and politics.

Stirner in particular inspired Marx's "epistemological break", and he developed the basic concept of Historical Materialism in "Die Deutsche Ideologie" ("The German Ideology") as early as 1845, although the manuscript was not actually published until long after his death. This was the work in which he first noted that the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production, and in which he traced the history of the various modes of production and predicted the collapse of the present one (industrial ) and its replacement by Communism.

Essentially, Historical Materialism (or the Materialist Conception of History) is Marx's theory of history, his attempt to make history scientific, and it underlies much of the rest of his work. It is based on the principle of Dialectical Materialism (a synthesis of Hegel's theory of Dialectics and the idea that social and other phenomena are essentially material in nature, rather than ideal or spiritual, hence the link with Materialism) as it applies to history and societies. It holds that class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) is the means of bringing about changes in a society's mode of production, and that it structures each historical period and drives historical change. Material conditions and social relations are therefore historically malleable because developments and changes in human societies are dependent on the way in which humans collectively produce the means to live.

"The German Ideology", as well as "The Poverty of Philosophy" of 1847 (a critique of French socialist thought), laid the foundation for Marx and Engels' most famous work, "The Communist Manifesto", the defining document of Marxism and Communism. It was first published on 21 February 1848 as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by Marx and Engels.

According to Marx, it is class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) that is the means of bringing about changes in a society's mode of production, and that structures each historical period and drives historical change. He believed that the Capitalist mode of production enables the bourgeoisie (or owners of capital) to exploit the proletariat (or workers) , and that a socialist revolution must occur in order to establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat" with the ultimate goal of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the self-emancipation of the working class.

During his time in London in the 1850s, Marx continued to make slow progress on a major work on political economy, and by 1857 he had produced a gigantic 800 page manuscript on capital, landed property, wage labor, the state, foreign trade and the world market, which would be published only in 1941 under the title "Grundrisse er Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie" ("Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy"). In 1859, he produced the "Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy", his first serious economic work to be published. In the early 1860s, he worked on three large volumes of the "Theories of Surplus Value" (also published posthumously), one of the first comprehensive treatises on the history of economic thought, which discussed the classical theoreticians of political economy such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo (1772 - 1823).

In 1867, well behind schedule, the first volume of his masterwork "Das Kapital" ("Capital") was published, which analyzed the capitalist process of production (arguing that the alienation of human work and the resulting "commodity fetishism" was the defining feature of Capitalism), and in which he elaborated his labor theory of value and his conception of surplus value and exploitation (which he argued would ultimately lead to a falling rate of profit and the collapse of industrial Capitalism). Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life, and which were edited and published posthumously by Engels.

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