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Karl Marx (1818–1883)


Karl Marx was born in Trier, Prussia, the son of a lawyer who had converted to Christianity from Judaism for professional reasons. In 1835 Marx began to study Law at the University of Bonn, but he proved to be a dissolute student—he even took part in a duel—and his father transferred him to a university in Berlin. At this stage, apart from alcohol, his main influence was the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Despite his distractions, Marx eventually completed his undergraduate studies and went on to earn a doctorate in 1841.

However, Marx’s radical views were hardly compatible with an orthodox academic career. In 1843 he moved to Paris, to work as a journalist. Here he met Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy industrialist. Engels contributed to Marx’s developing ideas and remained a friend and benefactor for the rest of his life. Marx’s writings in these years remained unpublished for many years after his death but they showed a deep sympathy for the sufferings of the working poor.

In 1848 there was a revolution in France, but its outcome merely exchanged one “bourgeois” regime (that of King Louis-Philippe) for another (the Second Empire, under Louis Napoleon). Marx returned to Germany, but the authorities were well aware of his trouble-making potential and on two occasions he was put on trial. In 1849 he settled in London, where he experienced severe poverty while keeping up the role of revolutionary agitator and occasional journalist for the rest of his life.


Marx’s writings are the subject of endless contestation, among both admirers and detractors. His main contribution to revolutionary thought was a radical revision of Hegel’s ideas. The latter had argued that history moves in a “dialectical” process, arising from the clash of contradictory ideas. Marx accepted the Hegelian idea of a dialectic, but his version was different for two main reasons. First, Hegel’s thought was underpinned by religion—for him, progress towards perfection was part of a mystical purpose. Marx dethroned ideas from Hegel’s system, and argued instead that historical change was driven by material forces. On his view, ideas (whether religious or secular) were merely by-products of technological and economic developments which also generated social and political change.

Second, although he was by no means a “reactionary,” Hegel could not envisage a much better socio-political arrangement than that of the Prussian state that employed him. By contrast, Marx was a passionate proponent of social justice who believed that the state in any form was likely to act as an agent of social oppression. In his view, the final victory of the proletariat would ensure the liberation of the human spirit, since the proletariat (unlike other classes) had no interest in the continuation of oppression. At times, indeed, Marx could sound like an anarchist, envisaging a state of social progress which would allow the state to “wither away” (for discussion of this, see pages 42–43, Chapter 1). Economic activity could be organized spontaneously by people who are willing to place their abilities at the service of society as a whole, confident that their own needs will be catered to. In such an idyllic society, humans could realize their full potential, using their leisure hours constructively. The ideal life sketched by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1845) would have been congenial to the more enlightened aristocrats of the time (Marx himself married an aristocrat, the long-suffering Jenny von Westphalen). In Marx’s Utopia, everyone would have access to that enviable lifestyle.

In his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx wrote that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” However, Marx’s work was neglected during his lifetime, and after his death it suffered the worse fate of being distorted. The 1917 Russian Revolution was carried out by his supposed followers, but not in accordance with the spirit of his teaching (Marx expected successful revolutions to take place in highly developed capitalist societies, whereas the Russia of 1917 had scarcely embarked on a capitalist phase of economic development). To the last, Soviet presidents paid lip-service to Marxist idealism, claiming that state oppression was on the verge of disappearing even though any objective observer could see that the Bolshevik project had long ago departed from Marx’s humanistic intentions. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, a more objective assessment of Marx ought to have become possible. However, Marx’s writings—which were not widely consulted even at the height of his supposed influence—were buried in deeper obscurity after the end of the Cold War. Even for postmodernists who shared his broad objectives, he could only be regarded as a relic from “modernity”; in particular, postmodernists rejected his view that historical change in his preferred direction was “inevitable,” discoverable by “scientific” laws. Even so, at the end of the twentieth century Marx’s critique of capitalism was as relevant as ever. It had particular resonance in the field of international political economy, since it could be argued that capitalism had only survived for so long because the misery experienced by workers in countries like Britain, Germany, and America had been exported to developing nations such as China (for analysis, see pages 319, Chapter 16, and 410–413, Chapter 20).

Further Reading

David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, Harpercollins, 1978.

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life, Fourth Estate, 1999

See also: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/

Next: John Stuart Mill