Biography of Karl Marx

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5th, 1818 in the city of Trier, Germany to a comfortable middle-class Jewish family. His father, a lawyer and ardent supporter of Enlightenment liberalism, converted to Lutheranism when Marx was only a boy in order to save the family from the discrimination that Prussian Jews endured at the time. Marx enjoyed a broad, secular education under his father, and found an intellectual mentor in Freiherr Ludwig von Westphalen, a Prussian nobleman with whom Marx discussed the great literary and philosophical figures of his day. Notably, it was Westphalen who introduced the young Marx to the ideas of the early French socialist Saint-Simon.

As a student in Bonn and Berlin, Marx was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. While Marx was impressed with the Hegelian professors under whom he studied, he ultimately found himself attracted to a group of students known as the "Young Hegelians." This group of young iconoclasts, including David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Max Stirner, were inspired by Hegel but were determined to champion the more radical aspects of the old master's system. In particular, these Left Hegelians called into question the conservatism they saw in Hegel's avowed political and religious philosophies. Although Marx desired a career as an academic at the time, his political sympathies prevented him from receiving a position in the state-controlled university system. Instead, Marx turned to journalism where his radical politics attracted the attention of Prussian censors. The publication for which he worked was shut down for its politically incorrect commentary, and the frustrated Marx traveled to Paris.

Paris in 1843 was an international center of social, political, and artistic activity and the gathering place of radicals and revolutionaries from all over Europe. In Paris Marx became involved with socialists and revolutionaries such as Proudhon and Bakunin. Most significantly, though, it was in Paris that Marx met Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer in England who had become a socialist after observing the deplorable condition of workers in his father's factories. Together, Marx and Engels began to develop the ideas which became Revolutionary Proletarian Socialism, or, as it is better known, Communism. Eventually, Marx was exiled from France in 1845 at the behest of the Prussian government for antiroyalist writings.

After leaving Paris, Marx traveled to Belgium where he became involved with a group of artisans calling themselves the Communist League. In 1847 the Communist League commissioned Marx and Engels to pen a statement of their beliefs and aims. This statement became the Communist Manifesto, which Marx zealously composed in anticipation of the revolutions of 1848. When revolution did begin in Germany in 1848, Marx traveled to the Rhineland to encourage its progress. When the revolution failed, Marx returned to Paris but soon left for London, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Marx waited in London for the fires of revolution to ignite again. In preparation for this, he spent his time in correspondence with revolutionary leaders on the Continent, ignoring the English Chartists and Trade Unionists whom he thought simpleminded and ineffectual. Eventually, Marx realized that the revolution was not imminent, and he withdrew from his associations, burying himself in the British Museum to research the history of class conflict. The fruit of this research was Marx's masterwork Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published in 1867.

Things began to turn around for Marx in 1863 when French workers traveled to England in order to establish a federation of working men pledged to overthrow the economic status quo. Although Marx disagreed with many of the ideological factions in the group, he recognized the significance of this event and left his self-imposed exile to join them. Marx successfully insinuated himself into the leadership of the group, now known as the International, and delivered his famous Inaugural Address to the First International as a triumphant proclamation of his principles. At last Marx had what he had desired since 1847; he had provided the intellectual foundation for a socialist movement over which he exercised full organizational control.

Marx's satisfaction soon ended, however, as the Paris Commune of 1871, the first true instance of workers achieving power for themselves, turned into a bloody disaster. The more pacifistic English workers became frightened and the French movement fell to infighting. The anarchist supporters of Bakunin tried to wrest control of the International from Marx, and the struggle between Marx and the anarchists finally lead to the dissolution of the group in 1876.

In the few remaining years of his life, Marx wrote almost no significant works. His stature as the former leader of the International, though, did make him a sought after resource for new revolutionary groups throughout Europe and, in particular, in Russia. Although Marx helped these new leaders as much as he could, he did not take on any leadership roles in any movement again. Marx died in London in 1883, still awaiting the inevitable revolution which he had predicted.

Study Guides on Works by Karl Marx

Published in 1846, The German Ideology is Marx and Engels’s first public attempt to outline the basics of Marxist theory as we now understand it. Here we find both the familiar political polemics around class warfare and proletarian revolution,...