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Introduction

As a university student, Karl Marx (1818-1883) joined a movement known as the Young Hegelians, who strongly criticized the political and cultural establishments of the day. He became a journalist, and the radical nature of his writings would eventually get him expelled by the governments of Germany, France and Belgium. In 1848, Marx and fellow German thinker Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto,” which introduced their concept of socialism as a natural result of the conflicts inherent in the capitalist system. Marx later moved to London, where he would live for the rest of his life. In 1867, he published the first volume of “Capital” (Das Kapital), in which he laid out his vision of capitalism and its inevitable tendencies toward self-destruction, and took part in a growing international workers’ movement based on his revolutionary theories.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Prussia; he was the oldest surviving boy in a family of nine children. Both of his parents were Jewish, and descended from a long line of rabbis, but his father, a lawyer, converted to Lutheranism in 1816 due to contemporary laws barring Jews from higher society. Young Karl was baptized in the same church at the age of 6, but later became an atheist.

After a year at the University of Bonn (during which Marx was imprisoned for drunkenness and fought a duel with another student), his worried parents enrolled their son at the University of Berlin, where he studied law and philosophy. There he was introduced to the philosophy of the late Berlin professor G.W.F. Hegel and joined a group known as the Young Hegelians, who were challenging existing institutions and ideas on all fronts, including religion, philosophy, ethics and politics.

After receiving his degree, Marx began writing for the liberal democratic newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, and he became the paper’s editor in 1842. The Prussian government banned the paper as too radical the following year. With his new wife, Jenny von Westphalen, Marx moved to Paris in 1843. There Marx met fellow German émigré Friedrich Engels, who would become his lifelong collaborator and friend. In 1845, Engels and Marx published a criticism of Bauer’s Young Hegelian philosophy entitled “The Holy Father.”

By that time, the Prussian government intervened to get Marx expelled from France, and he and Engels had moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Marx renounced his Prussian citizenship. In 1847, the newly founded Communist League in London, England, drafted Marx and Engels to write “The Communist Manifesto,” published the following year. In it, the two philosophers depicted all of history as a series of class struggles (historical materialism), and predicted that the upcoming proletarian revolution would sweep aside the capitalist system for good, making the workingmen the new ruling class of the world.

With revolutionary uprisings engulfing Europe in 1848, Marx left Belgium just before being expelled by that country’s government. He briefly returned to Paris and Germany before settling in London, where he would live for the rest of his life, despite being denied British citizenship. He worked as a journalist there, including 10 years as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, but never quite managed to earn a living wage, and was supported financially by Engels. In time, Marx became increasingly isolated from fellow London Communists, and focused more on developing his economic theories. In 1864, however, he helped found the International Workingmen’s Association (known as the First International) and wrote its inaugural address. Three years later, Marx published the first volume of “Capital” (Das Kapital) his masterwork of economic theory. In it he expressed a desire to reveal “the economic law of motion of modern society” and laid out his theory of capitalism as a dynamic system that contained the seeds of its own self-destruction and subsequent triumph of communism. Marx would spend the rest of his life working on manuscripts for additional volumes, but they remained unfinished at the time of his death, of pleurisy, on March 14, 1883.