Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, Germany, and he died on March 14, 1883, in London. Both of his parents were Jewish, but a year before Karl was born, his successful lawyer father had converted to Protestantism. His mother, born Henrietta Pressburg, took care of the household. From 1830 to 1835, Marx attended high school in Trier. At 17 years of age, he matriculated at the Faculty of Law of the University of Bonn, but he also attended courses in the humanities.
During his year in Bonn, Marx was a heavy drinker, fought a duel, and wrote poetry for Jenny von Westphalen, whom he married in 1843. She was the daughter of Baron von Westphalen, a city counselor in Trier. In 1836, Marx’s father sent him to the University of Berlin, where Romanticism was less dominant than in Bonn. There he studied law as well as philosophy. He came into contact with Georg Hegel’s philosophy and joined the left-wing Hegelian society, the Doctor Club, which was led by the theologian Bruno Bauer. Because it was supposed to be easier to receive a doctorate from the University of Jena at that time, he submitted his thesis, which dealt with the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus, and was awarded his degree in 1841. In January 1842, he began writing for the newly founded liberal democratic newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. Because the newspaper was suppressed in 1843, Marx decided to move to Paris, where he began to coedit the Deutsch—Franzoesischen Jahrbuecher together with the liberal Hegelian Arnold Ruge. Only one issue of the yearbooks was published, but through its publication Marx got to know Friedrich Engels, who contributed to the work. Engels became one of Marx’s closest friends throughout his lifetime. Together with Engels, Marx wrote the book Die heilige Familie (1845), in which they attacked Bauer. In Paris, Marx also met the poet Heinrich Heine, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and the French socialist PierreJoseph Proudhon. After having to leave Paris due to subversive journalism, in 1845 he settled in Brussels, where he further developed his views and founded a network of German, English, and French socialists. In 1847, the London-based League of the Just, a working-class movement, was in need of a solid theoretical foundation and so approached Marx and Engels. Both joined the organization, which was then renamed the Communist League. Marx wrote the Manifest der kommunistischen Partei for the organization. As a consequence of his political activities, Marx had to leave Brussels. He then stayed in Paris and Cologne, where he became editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was strongly in favor of the democratic forces. However, after the conservatives became stronger in 1849, Marx was expelled from Germany. Then he went to London via Paris. After a few temporary lodgings, Marx and his family moved to Dean Street in Soho, where they lived until 1856. Those years were destined to be full of worries. Marx was constantly in need of money, three of his children died, and he fathered an illegitimate son with the family’s German maid, Helena Demuth. Engels, who was well known as a womanizer, agreed to accept paternity and the child was sent to foster care. Marx’s financial worries, at least, were caused by his inability to manage his income. He had sufficient income, although his sole regular source of income were the articles he wrote for the radical New York Tribune, in which he dealt with all aspects of contemporary politics. In 1856, Marx received a small legacy that enabled the family to rent a house just off Haverstock Hill. Gradually, his financial worries receded, but at the same time his health got worse (boils all over his body) and he tried to treat himself with medicines such as opium and arsenic. Nevertheless, he slowly but persistently worked at his various projects, and in 1867 the first part of his main work, Das Kapital, was published. The other two volumes were compiled and published by Engels after Marx’s death. Originally, Marx had planned to compose an additional five volumes, but these were never even drafted. One of the reasons why Marx was not able to finish his works was that he was committed to the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), which took up a lot of his time from 1864 onward. At the beginning of the 1870s, there was strong conflict within this organization between Engels and Marx, on the one hand, and between the anarchists Proudhon and Bakunin, on the other. From then on, Marx’s energies declined, he withdrew from active politics, and he further dedicated himself to his family. Marx managed to live a fairly luxurious lifestyle because Engels, after selling the partnership in a firm he partly owned, decided to support him with a certain amount of money each year. Marx moved into a large house on Maitland Park Road and began gambling on the stock exchange. In 1873, he suffered a kind of stroke, and thereafter he also dedicated a lot of time to improving his health. During the last years of his life, Marx had to cope with some misfortunes. In 1881 his wife died, and in 1883 his daughter Jenny died. Marx died in 1883 while sitting in his armchair.
Social Theory and Materialism
“Just as religion does not create man but man creates religion, so the constitution does not create the people but the people the constitution.” This was Marx’s main criticism of Hegel, who started his social analysis from the idea of the state, and with this critique Marx was also following Ludwig Feuerbach, but this is not all. Marx had always started his analyses from the individual humans, and the main basis for the decisions of humans, according to Marx, is the class to which they belong (by “class,” he was referring mainly to the economic sphere). “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Engels at some stage admitted, “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it.”
Marx also applied these insights to his conception of history. It needs to be stressed that Marx himself never used the expression “historical materialism” or “dialectical materialism”; instead, he preferred to call it the “materialist conception of history.” That conception was based on the insight that, for an understanding of history, one must focus on the productive activity of humans: “History was the— mostly unconscious—creation of laboring men.” “Labor is a process in which both man and nature participate and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature.” Marx referred to the movement necessary for establishing an appropriate relationship between humans and nature as “dialectic.” Humans and nature were the two extreme poles of the dialectical movement.
Because he regarded the material conditions of humans as central, Marx claimed that he was a materialist. His understanding of materialism was, however, not connected to a specific metaphysical or epistemological conception of the world. The most detailed account of his materialist conception of history can be found in Die deutsche Ideologie, which he wrote together with Engels, who made the perceptive remark, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” In their letters, Marx and Engels regularly compared their hypotheses to those in the natural sciences, in particular Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends,” and the activities of humans are always related to the social group, or class, to which they belong. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Although Marx referred to several types of classes in various passages, his treatment was not systematic. In Das Kapital, he distinguished among wage laborers (proletariat), capitalists, and landowners, and it is this distinction of classes that can be found most often in Marx’s work. Concerning his times, he claimed in the Kommunistischen Manifest that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” However, he also noted the “constantly growing number of the middle classes.” In addition, the extension of the various classes often was unclear, in particular concerning the group of landowning peasants and the intelligentsia. Another subclass that he mentioned was the lumpenproletariat, to which “thieves and criminals of all kinds” as well as “vagabonds, people without a hearth or a home” belong. What unites people within a class is always their relationship to the prevailing mode of production.
Given the fact that each human individual always belongs to a specific social and therefore economic realm, Marx denied the possibility of any objective account of the world. Of course, this theory also applied to his own account. Nevertheless, Marx distinguished between ideologies that were related to idealist philosophies and an unjust distribution of power and materialist conceptions. If a philosophy concealed the social contradictions, it was supposed to be ideological. Therefore, he justified the superiority of his own philosophical outlook by reference to the quality that it lays open social contradictions. However, this distinction is far from unproblematic. In addition, it was not theory alone that was important for Marx: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Marx’s believed that laborers in a capitalist society were alienated, and his goal was to free laborers from alienation. He referred to alienated labor as that which occurred when workers were unrelated to the product of their labor and, as such, were alienated from themselves. As a consequence of their labor, there was a strong distinction between the social lives and personal lives of workers, and the workers are alienated from other humans. A central cause of the alienation was the division of labor, and Marx hoped that in a future community it would be dissolved and, as a consequence, that all humans would “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner.” He expected and wished for a rural community to replace the mass societies of isolated individuals living in big cities.
Marx was not a prophet who described in detail what the future would be like. Rather, he tried to put forward a utopian ideal in which those aspects he criticized concerning his contemporary society would be dissolved. Such a better social order could be brought about only by revolution, and a revolution could come about peacefully as well as by means of physical force but never via terror. Yet a revolution always presupposes a class consciousness that the proletariat, according to Marx, had not yet developed sufficiently. He expected that eventually the “class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; that this dictatorship itself is only a transitional stage towards the abolition of all classes.”
- Carver, T. (1987). A Marx dictionary. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
- Carver, T. (Ed.). (1991). The Cambridge companion to Marx. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). Collected works. New York: International Publishers.
- McLellan, D. (1980). The thought of Karl Marx: An introduction. London: Macmillan.
- Megill, A. (2002). Karl Marx. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.