Socialist thinker and revolutionary activist of German origin. Rarely has a philosopher’s work had such vast and tangible historical consequences as that of Karl Marx: from the Russian Revolution of 1917 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, half of humanity lived under political regimes that declared themselves heirs of his thought.
The gradual and almost obvious failure of the supposed practical applications of his political and economic ideas should not overshadow the stature as revolutionary thinker of Karl Marx, whose work in the socioeconomic sciences was similar to that of Freud in psychology or Einsteinin physics. Marx unmasked the dogmas of classical economics and revealed from an eminently scientific perspective the injustices inherent in the capitalist system; with him, economic doctrine ceased to be a veiled defense of particular interests, and political ethics a kind of infused science. To hold Marx accountable in the establishment of communist regimes is to forget that he died in 1883, and that the revolutionary praxis of the next century was based on derivations of his ideas which he would never have endorsed.
Biography of Karl Marx
- Born:- 5 May 1818, Trier, Germany
- Died:- 14 March 1883, London, United Kingdom
- Spouse:- Jenny von Westphalen (m. 1843–1881)
- Influenced by:- Friedrich Engels, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- Children:- Eleanor Marx, Laura Marx, Jenny Marx Longuet, Edgar Marx, Henry Edward Guy Marx, Jenny Eveline Frances Marx
- Education:- University of Jena, University of Bonn, Humboldt University of Berlin
Karl Marx was born in the Prussian Rhineland (now Germany), in the city of Trier (formerly Treves, in Spanish Trier) on May 5, 1818. He was one of seven children of the Jewish lawyer Heinrich Marx and his Dutch wife Henrietta Pressburg. The father was a man inclined to the Enlightenment and moderately liberal ideas, devoted to Kant and Voltaire. Little Karl had a habitual childhood in the cultured bourgeoisie of his time, and attended the school and attended the baccalaureate in its native city.
In October 1835, at age seventeen, he enrolled in the humanities courses at the University of Bonn. He spent only a year there, studying Greek and history and leading a hectic student life, including a duel and a day of imprisonment for alcoholism and disorders (it was the only time the founder of scientific communism was in prison). The university environment of Bonn was rebellious and politicized, reason why Karl became member of a circle in which was discussed of politics and poetry, and go to preside the Club of Tabernas, that had other ends.
Despite so many activities, he suddenly decided to move to the University of Berlin, where he entered the following year, also in October. In Berlin he enrolled to study laws and philosophy, without abandoning his inclination for history. He met many friends and a girlfriend, Jenny von Westphalen, an intelligent and attractive young man of twenty-two (four more than Karl Marx) from a family of newly-ordained officials who would never swallow Jenny’s Jewish and intellectual “little boy”.
A Young Hegelian
Georg WF Hegel had just died and the Berlin university environment was fervently Hegelian, although each student group or cenacle interpreted the ideas of the creator of dialectics in his own way. The young Marx was immersed in these discussions, which led to a deep depression and the first collapse of his fragile health. In pledge of his intellectual rigor, he agreed to join “a conception he hated” (according to his father’s letter of November 1837) and joined the group of followers of the young professor Bruno Bauer, who supported the most progressive and democratic ideas of the Hegel’s work and the questioning of mathematical and formal thought.
Bauer was expelled from the university by “radical” in 1839, but young Hegelians were already left-wing republicans who used philosophy and dialectics as a critical instrument of the rigid Prussian society in which they lived. Nevertheless, Marx and his companions were still idealistic and quite romantic, trusting that society would change thanks to the development of culture and education. This position was not shared by the journalist Adolph Rutemberg, Karl’s closest friend at that time, who impelled him to know the gloomy reality of the workers and the needy.
At the behest of his friends and Jenny, in April 1841 he presented a brilliant doctoral thesis that contrasted Democritus ‘ and Epicurus’ philosophies (including the later famous phrase “Critique is also theory”), with which he obtained a doctorate in philosophy when he had not yet turned twenty-three. They would not go far beyond their academic achievements. At the beginning of the following year it was incorporated to a publication founded by the most progressive forces of Cologne, then industrial capital of Prusia.
As the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx made contact with social realities and the crudely classis tic nature of Prussian legislation. Appointed again director of the magazine in October 1842, his parliamentary chronicles from the Rhenish Diet denounced the State as guardian and champion of the interests of the businessmen and expressed their radical interpretation of the Hegelian thought, whereas the State did not fulfill its function essential as an ethical realization of human specificity.
His work as a political journalist led him to take cognizance of the labor movements in France and England, especially the Heine chronicles from Paris and Lyon, and the ideas of utopian socialism held by Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon and Wilhelm Weitling. For some time he was strongly influenced by the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, a disciple of Hegel who elaborated what is usually summarized as an “atheistic humanism”. Marx began to try to marry this materialism with the Hegelian dialectic without even considering anything that could be called class struggle. He justified in his articles the European proletarian claims as a rebellion of “the class which until now has possessed nothing,” a natural and circumstantial phenomenon motivated by the insensitivity of the dominant state, which did not adequately fulfill its leading role. He even openly criticized the ideas of utopian communism for its class bias, which set aside “objective understandings” of reality. Ultimately, he continued to defend Hegel’s integral humanistic state, in the face of the “state of artisans” which, in his opinion, favored the proto-communists.
The Prussian censorship seriously pressed against the editors of the Rheinische Zeitung and Marx was forced to resign. He did not want to return to the academic career because of the rigid ideological control implanted by the government in the university. After seven years of courtship, he married Jenny in June 1843 and both joined the German political emigration to Paris. There he would meet prominent representatives of the cream of revolutionary European youth, such as Heinrich Heine, Pierre Joseph Proudhon and, above all, Friedrich Engels.
The Communist Manifesto
Marx continued to work on the basis of Feuerbach’s abstract humanism, which criticized religion and speculative philosophy. For his part, Engels convinced him of the importance of deepening economic studies. Together with the Hegelian Arnold Ruge he edited in 1844 the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher , which included two extensive articles by Marx: “The Jewish Question” and “The Hegelian Philosophy of Law”, in which he wrote the famous statement “Religion it is the opium of the peoples “(metaphor of great actuality then, since England had just invaded China in the so-called” opium war “). Also it worked in that time in an Economic Philosophical Manuscripts, which he left in draft and did not publish during his lifetime. They reflect in particular the moment of transition that crossed his thinking, and the process of elaboration of what he would call the “mixture” between the critical analysis of ideas and the study and interpretation of real data.
The pressure of Prusia on the government of François Guizot caused that Karl Marx left Paris. On February 5, 1845, he settled in Brussels, where he spent two years of fruitful work in collaboration with Engels. It was in this period that they made the first formulation of dialectical materialism and wrote The Holy Family, The German Ideology and Misery of Philosophy, the latter questioning Proudhon’s Philosophy of Misery.
In 1847 Marx arrived in London and made contact with a secret society in formation, the League of the Righteous, consisting mainly of German emigrant craftsmen, who asked him to write his statutes. Engels related them to the English leftist workers, and both worked from December to January 1848 in the founding charter of the League, which was published as Communist Manifesto. The statement begins with a phrase that became famous: “The history of any society that has existed until today is the history of a class struggle.” And among his considerations he affirms that the productive forces are in constant tension with “the relations of production, with the relations of property, which are the living conditions of the bourgeoisie and its dominion.”
As Engels later wrote, it was in this period that the conceptual turning point that overtook Feuerbach occurred, going from “the cult of abstract man to the science of the real man and his historical evolution.” Then comes the idea of ”superstructure”, composed of ideological institutions and formations, against the Verhaltnisse (German word for both conditions and relations) of production and appropriation of the social product.
At that moment a series of popular revolutions broke out in Europe that affected France, Italy and Austria, with social repercussions in Germany and England. Marx was invited to Paris by the provisional government and vehemently opposed the “liberating” expedition on Germany proposed by the poet Georg Herwegh. This earned him great unpopularity among the revolutionaries, even though he and Engels passed in April 1848 to Germany to collaborate with the democratic forces. Marx’s proposal was an alliance of the workers with the progressive bourgeoisie, which would lead to frontal confrontations with the workers’ leaders.
Marx resurrected in Cologne the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which had a short life due to the repressive counterattack of the Prussian government. In its last issue, dramatically printed in red ink, the magazine belatedly called for armed resistance. In 1849, before the revolution failed, Marx returned to Paris, from where he was expelled again; he then went to London, where he would live the rest of his days. The disenchantment with regard to political activism and his rejection of the utopian radicalism of some comrades led him to dissolve in 1850 the League of Communists.
The Brain of the International
The first period in London was quite hard for Karl Marx, plunged into poverty, afflicted by his ill health and stalked by creditors. The family survived six long years in two miserable quarters of Soho, thanks to the help Engels sent from his father’s factory in Manchester, where he worked as an accountant. Also contributing to his livelihood was Wilhelm Wolff, Karl’s friend, and sporadic shipments of Jenny’s relatives. Two of the four children of the Marx died in those years of deprivation and suffering.
At the end of 1851 the New York Tribune designated him correspondent, which partially alleviated his economic situation and much his dignity. In eleven years of collaboration, Marx wrote for this newspaper more than five hundred articles and editorials, a third of them with Engels. At that stage of his intellectual work he began to prepare data and materials for the first volume of Capital (Das Kapital). Works such as Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Theories on Surplus Value or a New Outline for a Critique of Political Economy are often considered preparatory writings of his monumental theoretical work. In the meantime, he continued to fight again with what he called the “adventurers” and “alchemists” of the revolution.
Nevertheless, when in 1864 the International Association of Workers was founded in London (popularly known as the International), its leaders called on Karl Marx to participate and collaborate in the writing of his first documents. Although Marx is considered the creator of modern communism, and the International its first concrete formation for the workers of the whole world, the fact is that Marx was neither founder nor leader of this organization, but only the intellectual guide of a sector of the same.
As a member of the general council, he worked actively in the drafting of the association’s initial memory and statutes, while completing the first volume of Capital, which was published in London in 1867. It was the only published volume in life of its author (volumes II and III were announced by Engels, respectively, in 1885 and 1894); the whole of this work would have a decisive influence throughout the next century. It was not until much later that the study and knowledge of Karl Marx’s earlier and youthful work became important. The ideological core of Capital part of the denial of philosophical speculation has the basis of revolutionary political action, which must be based on positive knowledge of historical social and economic reality. In this last aspect, he introduces the concept of “surplus value” as the value of human labor from which the owner of the means of production is appropriated.
The International was born at a propitious moment, as a proposal of union and concrete organization of the labor movement, as an expression of the working class beyond national borders. By 1869 it had reached 800,000 associates, with a general council composed of representatives of the “sections” of the different countries. In 1870 Engels managed to move to London. Curiously, it was the Italians who asked him to join the council as a delegate of his section. The entrance of his close collaborator relieved Marx of the intense task as “brain” of the association and allowed him to devote more time to his studies in the British Museum and its theoretical writings.
Karl Marx was not a well-known name in the rest of Europe, partly because he wrote in German (but his works were not yet published in Germany) and partly because his conceptual elaborations and style were not precisely within reaches of the masses. It was the popular uprising of Paris in 1871, known as the Commune, which adopted Capital as a theoretical foundation, proclaimed the first historical experience of “dictatorship of the proletariat” and spread the name of Karl Marx throughout the world. Most of the revolutionaries and workers’ leaders adopted their ideas (although not all of them drank in their original source) and began to venerate their person and their work as a quintessence of revolutionary thought.
Meanwhile, the flesh-and-blood Marx was entangled in a furious factional dispute within the general counsel of the International. His adversary was Mikhail Bakunin, and the issue of confrontation was the way forward in the revolutionary struggle. The Russian anarchist leader, who had erected the Commune of Lyon in 1870, favored the destruction of national states and disagreed with the role of his rival to the party and the industrial workers as a revolutionary vanguard. The confrontation was also fed by the strong and stubborn individualities of both adversaries and their innocuous personal grudge. Marx, who was not free of prejudices, went so far as to say, “I do not trust the Russians.” There are those who, not without irony, saw in this phrase a certain prophetic intuition.
At the congress held in 1872 at The Hague, Marx’s supporters got the expulsion of Bakunin and his supporters from the International Workers’ Association. At the same meeting, Engels announced that the seat of the council would be transferred from London to New York, news that was received with justified concern by the attendees. In fact, what would happen to history as the First International languished in its American headquarters until disappearing? Then came the II, III and IV International of different ideological and unrelated to the person of Marx. He decided to withdraw from political activism in 1873 to devote him to study and theoretical work.
Several authors consider that the intellectual capacity of Karl Marx weakened notably in the last decade of its life. The truth is that he was a sick man, almost sexagenarian and deeply disillusioned by the misunderstanding or trivialization of his thinking by many who should develop it and put it into practice. In his works of maturity he recovered much of the style and terminology of Hegel’s philosophical language, according to Marx himself, by “intellectual flirtation” with the work of his former teacher and in response to the “vulgarization” shown by left-wing culture for several years. On the other hand, he also sought to express his appreciation to the founder of the dialectic, despite not having shared his “idealist mixtifications”.
In spite of this semi-retreat and the decline of his creative energies, Marx received in this final stage visits and correspondence of workers and political leaders. He never neglected and always maintained a personal magnetism about revolutionary circles (even those who did not share his views), who could not escape what Engels called his “peculiar influence.” Towards 1877, with the health very broken, it took refuge definitively in the home life. And it was precisely in the family circle that there were two consecutive misfortunes that probably precipitated his death. On December 2, 1881 his wife died, and scarcely a year later, on January 11, 1883, his eldest daughter, Jenny Longuet. Alone, dejected, with a weakened mind and seriously affected lungs, Karl Marx died or was left to die on March 14, 1883.