Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, the son of Hirschel and Henrietta Marx, was born in Trier, Germany, in 1818. Hirschel Marx was a lawyer and to escape anti-Semitism decided to abandon his Jewish faith when Karl was a child. Although the majority of people living in Trier were Catholics, Marx decided to become a Protestant. He also changed his name from Hirschel to Heinrich.

After schooling in Trier (1830-35), Marx entered Bonn University to study law. At university he spent much of his time socialising and running up large debts. His father was horrified when he discovered that Karl had been wounded in a duel. Heinrich Marx agreed to pay off his son's debts but insisted that he moved to the more sedate Berlin University.

The move to Berlin resulted in a change in Marx and for the next few years he worked hard at his studies. Marx came under the influence of one of his lecturers, Bruno Bauer, whose atheism and radical political opinions got him into trouble with the authorities. Bauer introduced Marx to the writings of G. W. F. Hegel, who had been the professor of philosophy at Berlin until his death in 1831.


Karl Marx was especially impressed by Hegel's theory that a thing or thought could not be separated from its opposite. For example, the slave could not exist without the master, and vice versa. Hegel argued that unity would eventually be achieved by the equalising of all opposites, by means of the dialectic (logical progression) of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This was Hegel's theory of the evolving process of history.

Heinrich Marx died in 1838. Marx now had to earn his own living and he decided to become a university lecturer. After completing his doctoral thesis at the University of Jena, Marx hoped that his mentor, Bruno Bauer, would help find him a teaching post. However, in 1842 Bauer was dismissed as a result of his outspoken atheism and was unable to help.

Rhenish Gazette

Karl Marx now tried journalism but his radical political views meant that most editors were unwilling to publish his articles. He moved to Cologne where the city's liberal opposition movement was fairly strong. Known as the Cologne Circle, this group had its own newspaper, The Rhenish Gazette. The newspaper published an article by Marx where he defended the freedom of the press. The group was impressed by the article and in October, 1842, Marx was appointed editor of the newspaper.

While in Cologne he met Moses Hess, a radical who called himself a socialist. Marx began attending socialist meetings organised by Hess. Members of the group told Marx of the sufferings being endured by the German working-class and explained how they believed that only socialism could bring this to an end. Based on what he heard at these meetings, Marx decided to write an article on the poverty of the Mosel wine-farmers. The article was also critical of the government and soon after it was published in The Rhenish Gazette in January 1843, the newspaper was banned by the Prussian authorities.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Warned that he might be arrested, Marx quickly married his girlfriend, Jenny von Westphalen, and moved to France where he was offered the post of editor of a new political journal, Franco-German Annals. Among the contributors to the journal was his old mentor, Bruno Bauer, the Russian anarchist, Michael Bakunin and the radical son of a wealthy German industrialist, Friedrich Engels.

In Paris he began mixing with members of the working class for the first time. Marx was shocked by their poverty but impressed by their sense of comradeship. In an article that he wrote for the Franco-German Annals, Marx applied Hegel's dialectic theory to what he had observed in Paris. Marx, who now described himself as a communist, argued that the working class (the proletariat), would eventually be the emancipators of society. When published in February 1844, the journal was immediately banned in Germany. Marx also upset the owner of the journal, Arnold Ruge, who objected to his editor's attack on capitalism.


In 1844 Marx wrote Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In this work he developed his ideas on the concept of alienation. Marx identified three kinds of alienation in capitalist society. First, the worker is alienated from what he produces. Second, the worker is alienated from himself; only when he is not working does he feel truly himself. Finally, in capitalist society people are alienated from each other; that is, in a competitive society people are set against other people. Marx believed the solution to this problem was communism as this would enable the fulfilment of "his potentialities as a human."

Karl Marx and Engels

While in Paris he become a close friend of Friedrich Engels, who had just finished writing a book about the lives of the industrial workers in England. Engels shared Marx's views on capitalism and after their first meeting Engels wrote that there was virtually "complete agreement in all theoretical fields". Marx and Engels decided to work together. It was a good partnership, whereas Marx was at his best when dealing with difficult abstract concepts, Engels had the ability to write for a mass audience.

While working on their first article together, The Holy Family, the Prussian authorities put pressure on the French government to expel Karl Marx from the country. On 25th January 1845, Marx received an order deporting him from France. Marx and Engels decided to move to Belgium, a country that permitted greater freedom of expression than any other European state. Marx went to live in Brussels, where there was a sizable community of political exiles, including the man who converted him to socialism, Moses Hess.

Friedrich Engels helped to financially support Marx and his family. Engels gave Marx the royalties of his recently published book, Condition of the Working Class in England and arranged for other sympathizers to make donations. This enabled Marx the time to study and develop his economic and political theories. Marx spent his time trying to understand the workings of capitalist society, the factors governing the process of history and how the proletariat could help bring about a socialist revolution. Unlike previous philosophers, Marx was not only interested in discovering the truth. As he was to write later, in the past "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it".

In July 1845 Marx and Engels visited England. They spent most of the time consulting books in Manchester Library. Marx also visited London where he met the Chartist leader, George Julian Harney and political exiles from Europe. Marx also took an interest in the subject of women's rights. He wrote: "Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included."

German Ideology

When Karl Marx returned to Brussels he concentrated on finishing his book, The German Ideology. In the book Marx developed his materialist conception of history, a theory of history in which human activity, rather than thought, plays the crucial role. Marx was unable to find a publisher for the book, and like much of his work, was not published in his lifetime.

In January 1846 Marx set up a Communist Correspondence Committee. The plan was to try and link together socialist leaders living in different parts of Europe. Influenced by Marx's ideas, socialists in England held a conference in London where they formed a new organisation called the Communist League. Marx formed a branch in Brussels and in December 1847 attended a meeting of the Communist League' Central Committee in London. At the meeting it was decided that the aims of the organisation was "the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society based on class antagonisms, and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property".

Communist Manifesto

When Karl Marx returned to Brussels he concentrated on writing The Communist Manifesto. Based on a first draft produced by Friedrich Engels called the Principles of Communism, Marx finished the 12,000 word pamphlet in six weeks. Unlike most of Marx's work, it was an accessible account of communist ideology. Written for a mass audience, the book summarised the forthcoming revolution and the nature of the communist society that would be established by the proletariat.

(If you find this article useful, please feel free to share. You can follow John Simkin on Twitter, Google+ & Facebook or subscribe to our monthly newsletter)

The Communist Manifesto begins with the assertion, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marx argued that if you are to understand human history you must not see it as the story of great individuals or the conflict between states. Instead, you must see it as the story of social classes and their struggles with each other. Marx explained that social classes had changed over time but in the 19th century the most important classes were the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. By the term bourgeoisie Marx meant the owners of the factories and the raw materials which are processed in them. The proletariat, on the other hand, own very little and are forced to sell their labour to the capitalists.

Marx believed that these two classes are not merely different from each other, but also have different interests. He went on to argue that the conflict between these two classes would eventually lead to revolution and the triumph of the proletariat. With the disappearance of the bourgeoisie as a class, there would no longer be a class society. As Engels later wrote, "The state is not abolished, it withers away."

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

The Communist Manifesto was published in February, 1848. The following month, the government expelled Marx from Belgium. Marx and Engels visited Paris before moving to Cologne where they founded a radical newspaper, the New Rhenish Gazette. The men hoped to use the newspaper to encourage the revolutionary atmosphere that they had witnessed in Paris.

After examples of police brutality in Cologne, Marx helped establish a Committee of Public Safety to protect the people against the power of the authorities. The New Rhenish Gazette continued to publish reports of revolutionary activity all over Europe, including the Democrats seizure of power in Austria and the decision by the Emperor to flee the country.

Marx's excitement about the possibility of world revolution began to subside in 1849. The army had managed to help the Emperor of Austria return to power and attempts at uprisings in Dresden, Baden and the Rhur were quickly put down. On 9th May, 1849, Marx received news he was to be expelled from the country. The last edition of the New Rhenish Gazette appeared on 18th May and was printed in red. Marx wrote that although he was being forced to leave, his ideas would continue to be spread until the "emancipation of the working class".

Living in London

Marx now went to France where he believed a socialist revolution was likely to take place at any time. However, within a month of arriving, the French police ordered him out of the capital. Only one country remained who would take him, and on 15th September he sailed for England. Soon after settling in London Jenny Marx gave birth to her fourth child. The Prussian authorities applied pressure on the British government to expel Marx but the Prime Minister, John Russell, held liberal views on freedom of expression and refused.

With only the money that Engels could raise, the Marx family lived in extreme poverty. In March 1850 they were ejected from their two-roomed flat in Chelsea for failing to pay the rent. They found cheaper accommodation at 28 Dean Street, Soho, where they stayed for six years. Their fifth child, Franziska, was born at their new flat but she only lived for a year. Eleanor Marx was born in 1855 but later that year, Edgar became Jenny Marx's third child to die.

Marx spent most of the time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he read the back numbers of The Economist and other books and journals that would help him analyze capitalist society. In order to help supply Marx with an income, Friedrich Engels returned to work for his father in Germany. The two kept in constant contact and over the next twenty years they wrote to each other on average once every two days.

Friedrich Engels sent postal orders or £1 or £5 notes, cut in half and sent in separate envelopes. In this way the Marx family was able to survive. The poverty of the Marx's family was confirmed by a Prussian police agent who visited the Dean Street flat in 1852. In his report he pointed out that the family had sold most of their possessions and that they did not own one "solid piece of furniture".

Jenny helped her husband with his work and later wrote that "the memory of the days I spent in his little study copying his scrawled articles is among the happiest of my life." The only relief from the misery of poverty was on a Sunday when they went for family picnics on Hampstead Heath.

In 1852, Charles Dana, the socialist editor of the New York Daily Tribune, offered Marx the opportunity to write for his newspaper. Over the next ten years the newspaper published 487 articles by Marx (125 of them had actually been written by Engels). Another radical in the USA, George Ripley, commissioned Marx to write for the New American Cyclopaedia. With the money from Marx's journalism and the £120 inherited from Jenny's mother, the family were able to move to 9 Grafton Terrace, Kentish Town.

In 1856 Jenny Marx, who was now aged 42, gave birth to a still-born child. Her health took a further blow when she contacted smallpox. Although she survived this serious illness, it left her deaf and badly scarred. Marx's health was also bad and he wrote to Engels claiming that "such a lousy life is not worth living". After a bad bout of boils in 1863, Marx told Engels that the only consolation was that "it was a truly proletarian disease".

Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859. I the book Marx argued that the superstructure of law, politics, religion, art and philosophy was determined by economic forces. "It is not", he wrote, "the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." This is what Friedrich Engels later called "false consciousness".

By the 1860s the work for the New York Daily Tribune came to an end and Marx's money problems returned. Engels sent him £5 a month but this failed to stop him getting deeply into debt. Ferdinand Lassalle, a wealthy socialist from Berlin also began sending money to Marx and offered him work as an editor of a planned new radical newspaper in Germany. Marx, unwilling to return to his homeland and rejected the job. Lassalle continued to send Marx money until he was killed in a duel on 28th August 1864.

Das Kapital

Despite all his problems Marx continued to work and in 1867 the first volume of Das Kapital was published. A detailed analysis of capitalism, the book dealt with important concepts such as surplus value (the notion that a worker receives only the exchange-value, not the use-value, of his labour); division of labour (where workers become a "mere appendage of the machine") and the industrial reserve army (the theory that capitalism creates unemployment as a means of keeping the workers in check).

In the final part of Das Kapital Marx deals with the issue of revolution. Marx argued that the laws of capitalism will bring about its destruction. Capitalist competition will lead to a diminishing number of monopoly capitalists, while at the same time, the misery and oppression of the proletariat would increase. Marx claimed that as a class, the proletariat will gradually become "disciplined, united and organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production" and eventually will overthrow the system that is the cause of their suffering.

Marx now began work on the second volume of Das Kapital. By 1871 his sixteen year old daughter, Eleanor Marx, was helping him with his work. Taught at home by her father, Eleanor already had a detailed understanding of the capitalist system and was to play an important role in the future of the British labour movement. On one occasion Marx told his children that "Jenny (his eldest daughter) is most like me, but Tussy (Eleanor) is me."

Paris Commune

Marx was encouraged by the formation of the Paris Commune in March 1871 and the abdication of Louis Napoleon. Marx called it the "greatest achievement" since the revolutions of 1848, but by May the revolt had collapsed and about 30,000 Communards were slaughtered by government troops.

This failure depressed Marx and after this date his energy began to diminish. He continued to work on the second volume of Das Kapital but progress was slow, especially after Eleanor Marx left home to become a schoolteacher in Brighton.

Eleanor returned to the family home in 1881 to nurse her parents who were both very ill. Marx, who had a swollen liver, survived, but Jenny Marx died on 2nd December, 1881. Karl Marx was also devastated by the death of his eldest daughter in January 1883 from cancer of the bladder. Karl Marx died two months later on the 14th March, 1883.

Primary Sources

(1) Karl Marx, speech in London to the Fraternal Democrats (29th November, 1847)

The unification and brotherhood of nations is a phrase which is nowadays on the lips of all parties, particularly of the bourgeois free traders. A kind of brotherhood does indeed exist between the bourgeois classes of all nations. It is the brotherhood of the oppressors against the oppressed, of the exploiters against the exploited. Just as the bourgeois class of one country is united in brotherhood against the proletarians of that country, despite the competition and struggle of its members among themselves, so the bourgeoisie of all countries is united in brotherhood against the proletarians of all countries, despite their struggling and competing with each other on the world market. In order for peoples to become really united their interests must be common. For their interests to be common the existing property relations must be abolished, since the exploitation of one nation by another is caused by the existing property relations.

And it is only in the interests of the working class to abolish existing property relations; only they have the means to achieve it. The victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie represents at the same time the victory over national and industrial conflicts, which at present create hostility between the different peoples. Therefore, the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie also signifies the emancipation of all downtrodden nations.

The old Poland is certainly lost, and we should be the last to wish for its restoration. But not only is the old Poland lost. The old Germany, the old France, the old England, the old social order in general is lost. The loss of the old social order, however, is not a loss for those who have nothing to lose in the old society, and at the same time this is the case for the large majority of people in all countries. They have, in fact, everything to gain from the destruction of the old society, for it is a precondition for the formation of a new society no longer based on class antagonisms.

Of all countries it is England where the opposition between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is most highly developed. Thus the victory of the English proletariat over the English bourgeoisie is of decisive importance for the victory of all oppressed peoples over their oppressors. Poland, therefore, must be freed, not in Poland, but in England. You Chartists should not express pious wishes for the liberation of nations. Defeat your own enemies at home and then you may be proudly conscious of having defeated the old social order in its entirety.

(2) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

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!

(3) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition of whose existence is the nonexistence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolized, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes.

You must, therefore, confess that by "individual" you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power.

(4) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

All objections urged against the communistic mode of producing and appropriating material products have, in the same way, been urged against the communistic mode of producing and appropriating intellectual products. Just as, to the bourgeois, the disappearance of class property is the disappearance of production itself, so the disappearance of class culture is to him identical with the disappearance of all culture.

That culture whose loss he laments is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.

But don't wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of existence of your class.

The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property - historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production - this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you. What you see clearly in the case of ancient property, what you admit in the case of feudal property, you are of course forbidden to admit in the case of your own bourgeois form of property.

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

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.

(5) Karl Marx, New Rhenish Gazette (January, 1849)

The liberation of Europe is dependent on a successful uprising by the French working class. But every French social upheaval necessarily founders on the English bourgeoisie, on the industrial and commercial world-domination of Great Britain.

England will only be overthrown by a world war, which is the only thing that could provide the Chartists, the organised party of the English workers, with the conditions for a successful rising against their gigantic oppressors.

(6) In a letter written in March 1850, Jenny Marx described being evicted from their home in London.

The landlady demanded £5 that we still owed her. As we did not have the money at the time two bailiffs came and sequestrated all my few possessions - linen, beds, clothes - everything, even my poor child's cradle and the best toys of my daughters, who stood there weeping bitterly.

(7) Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

(8) Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune (4th September, 1852)

In order to comprehend the character of bribery, corruption and intimidation, such as they have been practised in the late election, it is necessary to call attention to a fact which operated in a parallel direction.

If you refer to the general elections since 1831, you will find that, in the same measure as the pressure of the voteless majority of the country upon the privileged body of electors was increasing; as the demand was heard louder from the middle classes for an extension of the circle of constituencies; and from the working class to extinguish every trace of a similar privileged circle - that in the same measure the number of electors who actually voted grew less and less, and the constituencies thus more and more contracted themselves. Never was this fact more striking than in the late election.

Let us take, for instance, London. In the City the constituency numbers 26,728; only 10,000 voted. The Tower Hamlets number 23,534 registered electors; only 12,000 voted. In Finsbury, of 20,025, not one half voted. In Liverpool, the scene of one of the most animated contests, of 17,433 registered electors, only 13,000 came to the polls.

These examples will suffice. What do they prove? The apathy of the privileged constituencies. And this apathy, what does it prove? That they have outlived themselves - that they have lost every interest in their own political existence. This is in no wise apathy against politics in general, but against a species of politics, the result of which, for the most part, can only consist in helping the Tories to oust the Whigs, or the Whigs to conquer the Tories. The constituencies feel instinctively that the decision lies no longer with Parliament, or with the making of Parliament. Who repealed the Corn Laws? Assuredly not the voters who had elected a Protectionist Parliament, still less the Protectionist Parliament itself, but only and exclusively the pressure from without. In this pressure from without, by other means of influencing Parliament than by voting, a great portion even of electors now believe. They consider the hitherto lawful mode of voting as an antiquated formality, but from the moment Parliament should make front against the pressure from without, and dictate laws to the nation in the sense of its narrow constituencies, they would join the general assault against the whole antiquated system of machinery.

The bribery and intimidation practised by the Tories were, then, merely violent experiments for bringing back to life dying electoral bodies which have become incapable of production, and which can no longer create decisive electoral results and really national Parliaments. And the result? The old Parliament was dissolved, because at the end of its career it had dissolved into sections which brought each other to a complete standstill. The new Parliament begins where the old one ended; it is paralytic from the hour of its birth.

(9) In January 1883, Eleanor Marx had the task of informing her father that his eldest daughter had died of cancer.

I have lived many a sad hour, but none so bad as that. I felt that I was bringing my father his death sentence. I racked my brain to find how I could break the news to him. But I did not need to, my face gave me away. My father said at once "our Jennychen is dead".

(10) Prussian police agent report on Karl Marx in 1852.

In the whole apartment there is not one clean and solid piece of furniture. Everything is broken. There is a chair with only three legs. In private life he is an extremely disorderly cynical human being, and a bad host. He leads a real gypsy existence. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening.

(11) Frederick Lessner, first met Karl Marx at a meeting of the Communist League in December 1847.

Marx greatly impressed as all. He was of medium height, broad-shouldered, powerful in build, and vigorous in his movements. His forehead was high and finely shaped, his hair thick and pitch-black, his gaze piercing. Marx was a born leader of the people. His speech was brief, convincing and compelling in its logic. He never said a superfluous word; every sentence contained an idea and every idea was an essential link in the chain of his argument.

(12) Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated

(13) Karl Marx, The Eastern Question (1885)

The redeeming feature of war is that it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgment upon social systems that have outlived their vitality.