On the 5th May 1818 Karl Marx was born into a Jewish, Bourgeois household in Trier, Germany. His father was a rising lawyer, with both parents coming from a long line of rabbi’s, but with the Jewish population now getting equal treatment after years of persecution, many other options became available. Young Karl was to grow up to be arguably the most influential person on modern day society, with many important figures adopting his beliefs. Important people such as Lenin and succeeding soviet leaders, Chairman Mao Zedong in China and many other all around the world.
Without Marx, then there would have been no Marxism (or Communism as we understand it) and then no Cold war, and possibly no Second World War either. But why was this young child to grow up to be so influential? What influenced him and set him in his path? In this essay I aim to explain the factors throughout Marx’s life that led him to belief the things he did and to write them down in texts such as The Communist Manifesto (1848) and the first of Das Kapital (1867) shortly before his death in 1883.
The first and obvious starting point is Marx’s family to which he was born. His family had a great deal of influence over Marx and set him in his way of wanting to learn and educate. Although fond of his mother, it was his father who taught him the most as he was an educated man. His father taught him about the French revolution, teaching him about the benefits of an egalitarian society, and that people are generally good and rational with the possibility of developing into a perfect society (Grabb, p. 15).
His father was also a disciple of the enlightenment and liked to read many philosophical texts and literature, often explaining to Marx what he was reading and having small debates with him over a point in question. As well as his father, his neighbour, a Freiherr Ludwig von Westphalen had an influence on young Marx and was a family friend. Despite being socially superior to the Marx’s Westphalen took a liking to young Marx and the pair got on very well, going on long walks and meeting up often. Westphalen was extremely well educated and liked to lend Marx books, especially foreign books about anything that he thought would help.
Mostly, they read and talked about philosophy and literature, but also liked to debate in length social doctrines and problems with society. This was to form an essential foundation for Marx, as he saw injustices in the world and began to think about a completely egalitarian and just society where all the people ruled themselves, however at this early stage he didn’t link this to ownership of property. All this encouraged him not only to learn but to question and seek answers – without his upbringing it is unlikely that Marx would ever have tackled society and formed the beliefs he did.
When the time came, Marx enrolled to study law in Bonn. At university Marx met many people he found interesting who also looked at the injustices with society and possible alternatives. However, at this point this did not have a great influence on Marx, but he did get to know two of his professors quite well, Savigny in jurisprudence and Gans in criminal law. The two professors taught Marx the erudition of history, the power of argument and theoretical criticising. This now gave Marx the tools he needed to develop his views and then to explain them to others.
He then decided to switch to the University of Berlin, motivated by the attraction of living in the capital surrounded by many more people. Here, Marx was to meet the people that would change the rest of his life and set him on his path. The group, called the Young Hegelians was group of radicals and freethinkers and converted Marx to Philosophy as they talked and raised critical questions on points of philosophy, especially of the dominant thinker of the time, Hegel (1770 – 1831). Although dead by the time Marx moved to Berlin, Hegel’s views were dominant in the academic sphere (Hadden, P. 1) and became known as German idealist philosophy. Hegel believed that life was one big quest for the greater understanding, and ultimately the meaning, however in order to find this meaning you must first loose everything you are accustomed to and not be yourself. This he termed “alienation”. Hegel also believed that in this search, people passed through as series of epochs, or stages which were identifiable by ideas and things. The stage could also be looked at by analysing the master and slave relationships that existed.
Hegel saw that in any period, it is the slave that is learning the fastest as they are the ones who are working, thus it is the slave which can make a change and progress to the next epoch. Marx took much of Hegel’s beliefs on board, but also dismissed a great deal. He retained the beliefs that society is under constant change, the importance of history, human labour being the essence of humanity itself and another concept, dialectical change – that is that change is brought about through a series of conflicts, leading to a victor and thus the adoption of their society.
Hegel’s philosophy became the framework for much of Marx’s work. However Hegel believed that “Reason is not, as the Philosophes had regarded it, a mere abstraction from the real; it is an imminent force which determines the structure and development of the universe. … The idea is not an unchangeable essence, but is continually developing and becoming” (Zeitlin, p. 50). Thus, despite change, perfection would not be reached. Marx disregarded this, believing that perfection was possible and continued to search for it.
As well as the Young Hegelians, Marx became a member of the very informal Doktorklub which was a bohemian group of radicals. Marx became a regular of the pubs and cafes that these freethinkers frequented, constantly meeting and debating. In among this group were two exceptional brothers, Bruno and Edgar Bauer, who believed that the answer to society’s problems was socialism. Under the pairs influence, Marx was encouraged to abandon law and concentrate on philosophy, to which he eventually succumbed to.
However, a problem occurred whilst writing his dissertation “The Differences between the Natural Philosophy of Democritus and Empiricus” because it contained a deeply anti-religious preface and was not submitted to be marked, effectively ending his educational career. This fuelled Marx’s fire as he sought to make a difference and became passionately involved in developing his ideas and persuading others to follow. His belief in the problem of class division was encouraged in 1843 when he married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen, much to the dismay of her family as Marx was socially an ‘inferior’.
The next important step in Marx’s life came when he moved to Paris, which at the time due to a liberal government was a centre of social, political and artistic activity and became infamous as a place of gathering for intellectuals (especially radical) where they would discuss and work on new ideas. Marx spent all his time studying and became fascinated with new areas that were open in France, especially that of political economics which mainly consisted of British writers such as Adam Smith and Ricardo. He also began to study French reformists and socialists such as Saint-Simon and Cabet.
Saint-Simon believed that “the study of social phenomenon should employ the same scientific techniques that are used in the natural sciences” (Ritzer, p. 14). This taught Marx to employ a scientific approach to his study and that everything had a reason that could be explained and justified. Also in Paris he actually got to meet a great deal of highly regarded radical writers, with Proudhorn having possibly the biggest impact. It was Proudhorn who introduced Marx to the links with property, believing that it was this that caused many problems and that ownership should be banned.
The pair was friends for a while, but there relationship faded away. Paris also provided Marx with a loyal proti?? gi?? and close friendship that was to last him for the rest of his life – Freidrich Engels. Engels was the son of a cotton mill owner in England who was an avid socialist and explained to Marx the poor conditions which the working class lived in at home in the Rhineland and in England. Engels was later to prove essential to Marx’s development. Soon, Marx began writing radical articles which brought him to the attention of the French government which then sought to expel him.
Following expulsion, Marx moved to Brussels where he met revolutionaries who conspired to spread socialism. As Berlin commented, “His personal history which up to this point can be regarded as a series of episodes in the life of an individual [became] inseparable from the general history of socialism in Europe”. After several months in Brussels, Marx met a new group called the Communist League, and Marx was soon commissioned to write a list of the Leagues aims and objectives.
This inspired Marx to state all his beliefs and in a series of creative outbursts Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848) which was sent to London to be published. Shortly after the release of the manifesto, revolutions broke out throughout Europe with workers trying to seize control. Marx (and Engels) took part, believing the revolutionary flame had been lit and it was their time, however the revolutions all failed and after bloodshed in Paris, Marx and Engels moved to England in exile, believing this would be a short stop as a revolution would occur again soon.
It is important to note that the choice of England is important as England was furthest along the Capitalist development with the largest economy and the greatest issues – especially with class division and the appalling condition of the working class. It was here that Marx gained admission to the British museum where he spent most of his time researching and filling notebooks as Marx, in his own words, became bogged down in economics.
Marx began to analyse the class division and he began to read and absorb the theories of Classical Political Economists, who believed that the true value of something should be deemed by how much labour went into it. It was this that made Marx come up with the belief of the injustice of the capitalist system as it should be the workers that gain the most as it is them putting in the labour. He saw the labourers ‘surplus value’ (that is the difference between profit on a good and the labour that went into it) as unfair exploitation.
He realised that this would eventually lead to the downfall of capitalism as the whole principle is in competition, this would in turn drive down the cost of items, and thus wages. This coupled with mechanisation and economic slumps would cause unemployment and poverty – so no one to purchase the goods, and then capitalism would have failed. This would then leave society open for the next epoch and be closer to perfection – communism. Also important at this time was that Marx was living in poverty, and for the first time actually experiencing life as one of the working class, again fuelling his want for revolution.
An opportunity came in 1863 when a group of labour leaders from throughout the world met and aimed to change the current system. The International as it was known became Marx’s focal point after being chosen as a representative by a group of German artisans in London, and although it constituted many differing beliefs he offered his full energies to making it work, and in a way he wanted. After gaining some control of the international, he turned it from a bunch of loosely linked reformists into a powerful organisation with one revolutionary ideology.
This shoved Marx hastily into the limelight and offered a good way of publicising his book Das Kapital (1867) which became widely popular and was translated into four languages. This provided the intellectual basis, and the knowledge of possibility, for any future socialist reformation. The following failure of the Paris commune led to the demise of the International as people became weary of its connotations and Marx was left plagued by illness. Marx died on the 14th March 1883 in a comfortable lifestyle and in a position where he had started something important to which he was revered by many who sought his advice and teachings.
In conclusion Marx had a very busy life with many events guiding him to what was to become. He lived in an unstable time following the industrial revolution where the world had been shaken up and did not yet know how to settle. Many people of the time came up with theories of how it should settle and processes that would have to happen. Many of these theories have long since faded away, having no relevance now or being completely disproved, however Marx’s work is still relevant today and he is still having a dramatic impact on the world with no sight of this fading away completely.