Who was Karl Marx? Biography and economic thought

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a philosopher, author, social theorist, and economist. He is famous for his theories about capitalism and communism. Marx, together with Friedrich Engels, published  The Communist Manifesto in 1848. At the end of his life, he wrote  Capital  (the first volume was published in Berlin in 1867; the second and third volumes were published posthumously in 1885 and 1894 respectively). ), in which he discussed the labor theory of value. Ironically, Marx was eloquent in describing the exploitation of the working class, while he personally failed to hold a steady job for any significant period of time.


Karl Heinrich Marx was the oldest surviving child of nine children. His father, Heinrich, a successful lawyer, was a man of the Enlightenment, dedicated to Kant and Voltaire, who participated in agitations for a constitution in Prussia. His mother, born Henrietta Pressburg, was from the Netherlands. Both parents were Jewish and descended from a long line of rabbis, but about a year before Karl was born, his father, probably because his professional career required it, was baptized in the Evangelical Established Church. Karl was baptized when he was six years old. Although in his youth Karl was less influenced by religion than by the critical, sometimes radical social policies of the Enlightenment,

Karl Marx was educated from 1830 to 1835 at the high school in Trier. Suspected of harboring liberal teachers and students, the school was under police surveillance. Marx’s writings during this period exhibited a spirit of Christian devotion and a yearning for self-sacrifice on behalf of humanity.

In October 1835 Karl Marx enrolled at the University of Bonn. The courses he attended were exclusively in the humanities, on topics such as Greek and Roman mythology and art history. He participated in regular student activities, fought a duel, and spent a day in jail for being drunk and disorderly. He presided over the Tavern Club, which was at odds with the more aristocratic student associations, and joined a poets’ club that included some political activists. A politically rebellious student culture was, in fact, part of life in Bonn. Many students had been arrested; some were still being expelled in Marx’s time, particularly as a result of the effort by students to disrupt a session of the Federal Diet in Frankfurt.

Karl Marx, however, left Bonn after a year and in October 1836 enrolled at the University of Berlin to study law and philosophy.

Marx’s crucial experience in Berlin was his introduction to the Hegelian philosophy prevailing there and his adherence to the Young Hegelians. At first, he felt repugnance towards Hegel’s doctrines; when Marx fell ill, he went partially, as he wrote to his father, “Because of the intense annoyance of having to make an idol image that he detested. ” However, the Hegelian pressure on revolutionary student culture was powerful, and Marx joined a society called the Doctor Club, whose members were intensely involved in the new literary and philosophical movement. Its leading figure was Bruno Bauer, a young professor of theology, who was developing the idea that the Christian Gospels were not a record of history but of human fantasies stemming from emotional needs and that Jesus had not been a historical person. Karl Marx signed up for a course of lectures given by Bauer on the prophet Isaiah. Bauer taught that a new social catastrophe was brewing “more tremendous” than that of the advent of Christianity. The Young Hegelians began to move rapidly towards atheism and also spoke vaguely of political action.

The Prussian government, fearful of the subversion latent in the Young Hegelians, soon undertook to expel them from the universities. Bauer was dismissed from his post in 1839. Marx’s “closest friend” of this period, Adolph Rutenberg, an older journalist who had served a prison sentence for his political radicalism, pushed for deeper social involvement.

By 1841 the Young Hegelians had become Left Republicans. Studies of Karl Marx, meanwhile, lagged behind. Urged by his friends, he submitted a doctoral dissertation to the University of Jena, which was known to be lax in its academic requirements, and received his degree from him in April 1841. His thesis analyzed in a Hegelian way the difference between the natural philosophies of Democritus. and Epicurus. More distinctively, he sounded a Promethean note of defiance:

Philosophy does not hide it. Prometheus’s admission: “Verily all the gods I hate,” is his own admission, his own motto against all gods… Prometheus is the noblest saint and martyr in the calendar of philosophy. Karl Marx.

In 1841, Karl Marx, along with other Young Hegelians, was greatly influenced by the publication of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity). Its author, in Marx’s opinion, successfully criticized Hegel, an idealist who believed that matter or existence was inferior and dependent on mind or spirit, from the opposite or materialistic point of view, showing how “Absolute Spirit “was a projection of” the real man standing on the foundations of nature “. Henceforth, Marx’s philosophical efforts were directed to a combination of Hegel’s dialectics, the idea that all things are in a continual process of change resulting from conflicts between their contradictory aspects, with Feuerbach’s materialism, which placed material conditions above ideas.

In January 1842, Karl Marx began contributing to a newly founded newspaper in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung. It was the liberal democratic organ of a group of young merchants, bankers and industrialists; Cologne was the center of the most industrially advanced section of Prussia. To this stage of Marx’s life belongs an essay on freedom of the press. Since then he took for granted the existence of absolute moral standards and universal principles of ethics, he condemned censorship as a moral evil that involved spying on people’s minds and hearts and assigned weak and malevolent mortal powers that presupposed an omniscient mind. He believed that censorship could only have bad consequences.

On October 15, 1842, Karl Marx became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung. As such, he was forced to write editorials on a variety of social and economic issues, ranging from the housing of the poor in Berlin and the peasants’ theft of wood from the forests to the new phenomenon of communism. He found Hegelian idealism of little use in these matters. At the same time, he was distancing himself from his Hegelian friends for whom surprising the bourgeoisie was a sufficient mode of social activity. Marx, friendly at this time to “practical liberal-minded men” who “fought step by step for freedom within constitutional limits”, managed to triple the circulation of his newspaper and make it a leading magazine in Prussia. However, the Prussian authorities suspended it for being too open, and Marx agreed to co-edit with the liberal Hegelian Arnold Ruge a new revision, the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher (“German-French Yearbooks”), to be published in Paris.

First, however, in June 1843, Marx, after a seven-year engagement, married Jenny von Westphalen. Jenny was an attractive, intelligent, and much-admired woman four years older than Karl; she came from a family of military and administrative distinction. Her half-brother later became a very reactionary Prussian interior minister. Her father, a follower of the French socialist Saint-Simon, was fond of Karl, although other members of his family opposed the marriage. Marx’s father also feared that Jenny was destined to become a sacrifice to the demon that possessed her child.

Four months after their marriage, the young couple moved to Paris, which was the center of socialist thought and the most extreme sects called communism. There, Marx first became a revolutionary and a communist and began associating with French and German communist workers’ societies. His ideas were, in his opinion, “completely crude and unintelligent “, but his character moved him: “The brotherhood of man is not a mere phrase with them, but a fact of life and the nobility of man enlightens us from his work hardened bodies”, he wrote in his so-called ” Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844″ (written in 1844; Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 [1959]). (These manuscripts were not published for about 100 years, but they are influential because they show the humanistic antecedents of Marx’s later historical and economic theories.)

The “German-French Yearbooks” proved to be short-lived, but through their publication, Marx befriended Friedrich Engels, a collaborator who was to become his lifelong collaborator, and in its pages appeared Marx’s article ” Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie” (“Towards Criticism” of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right”) with his oft-quoted claim that religion is the “opium of the people.” It was there, too, that he first called for an “uprising of the proletariat.” to realize the conceptions of philosophy. Once again, however, the Prussian government intervened against Marx. He was expelled from France and went to Brussels, followed by Engels, in February 1845. In Belgium that year he renounced his Prussian nationality.


The next two years in Brussels saw the deepening of Marx’s collaboration with Engels.

Engels had seen firsthand in Manchester, England, where a branch of his father’s textile company was located, all the dismal aspects of the Industrial Revolution. He too had been a Young Hegelian and had been converted to Communism by Moses Hess, being called a “communist rabbi.”

In England Engels associated with the followers of Robert Owen. Now he and Marx, discovering that they shared the same views, combined their intellectual resources and published Die heilige Familie (1845; The Holy Family), a long-winded critique of Hegelian idealism by the theologian Bruno Bauer. His next work, The German Ideology (written 1845-1846, published 1932; The German Ideology), contained the fullest exposition of his important materialist conception of history, which set out to show how, historically, societies had been structured. to promote the interests of the economically dominant class. But Marx did not find a publisher and the text remained unknown during the lifetime of its authors.

During his years in Brussels, Marx developed his views and, through confrontations with the main leaders of the working-class movement, established his intellectual position. In 1846, he publicly criticized the German leader Wilhelm Weitling for his self-righteous appeals. Marx insisted that the stage of bourgeois society could not be ignored; the proletariat could not simply jump into communism; The labor movement required a scientific basis, not moralistic phrases. He also polemicized French socialist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Misère de la philosophie (1847; The Poverty of Philosophy), a scathing attack on Proudhon’s book subtitled Philosophie de la misère (1846; The Philosophy of Poverty). Proudhon wanted to unite the best features of opposites like competition and monopoly; he hoped to salvage the good features of economic institutions and eliminate the bad ones. Marx, however, declared that a balance between the antagonisms in a given economic system was not possible. Social structures were transitory historical forms determined by the productive forces:“The hand-mill gives you the partnership with the feudal lord; the steam mill, partnership with the industrial capitalist’. Proudhon’s mode of reasoning, Marx wrote, was typical of the petty bourgeoisie, who failed to see the underlying laws of history.

An unusual sequence of events led Marx and Engels to write their pamphlet The Communist Manifesto. In June 1847, a secret society, the League of the Righteous, composed mainly of émigré German craftsmen, met in London and decided to formulate a political program. They sent a representative to Marx to ask him to join the league; Marx overcame his doubts and, with Engels, joined the organization, which later changed its name to the Communist League and promulgated a democratic constitution. Charged with the task of composing their program, Marx and Engels worked from mid-December 1847 to the end of January 1848.

The London Communists were already impatiently threatening Marx with disciplinary action when he sent them the manuscript; they quickly adopted it as their manifesto. In it he enunciated the proposition that all history had hitherto been a history of class struggles, concisely summarized the materialist conception of history elaborated in The German Ideology, and asserted that the coming victory of the proletariat would put an end to society. of classes forever. He mercilessly criticized all forms of socialism founded on philosophical “cobwebs” such as “alienation.” He rejected the path of “social utopias,” little experiments in the community, as buffers against class struggle and thus as“reactionary sects ” He laid out 10 immediate measures as first steps toward communism, ranging from a progressive income tax and the abolition of inheritances to free education for all children. The text closed with the words: “The proletarians have nothing to lose except their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!

Revolution broke out suddenly in Europe in the first months of 1848, in France, Italy, and Austria. Marx had been invited to Paris by a member of the provisional government just in time to prevent the expulsion of the Belgian government.

As the revolution won in Austria and Germany, Marx returned to the Rhineland. In Cologne, he advocated a coalition policy between the working class and the democratic bourgeoisie, for this reason opposing the nomination of independent candidates for the workers to the Frankfurt Assembly and argued vigorously against the program of proletarian revolution advocated by the leaders of the Workers Union. Karl Marx agreed with Engels’ judgment that the Communist Manifesto should be shelved and the Communist League dissolved.

Marx pressed his policy through the pages of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (The New Rhenish Gazette), newly founded in June 1849, urging constitutional democracy and war with Russia. When the most revolutionary leader of the Workers’ Union, Andreas Gottschalk, was arrested, Marx supplanted him and organized the first Democratic Congress of the Rhineland in August 1848. When the Prussian king dissolved the Prussian Assembly in Berlin, Marx asked for arms and men to help the resistance. The bourgeois liberals withdrew their support from Marx’s paper, and he himself was indicted on various charges, including advocating the nonpayment of taxes. In his trial, he defended himself with the argument that the crown was committed to carrying out an illegal counterrevolution. The jury acquitted him unanimously and with gratitude. However, when the last desperate fighting broke out in Dresden and Baden, Marx was exiled as a foreigner on May 16, 1849. The last issue of his paper, printed in red, caused a great sensation.


Once again expelled from Paris, Karl Marx went to London in August 1849. This would be his home for the rest of his life. Disgusted by the failure of his own collaborative tactics with the liberal bourgeoisie, he joined the Communist League in London and for about a year advocated a bolder revolutionary policy.. A “Speech of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” written with Engels in March 1850, urged that in future revolutionary situations they strive to make the revolution “permanent” by avoiding subordination to the bourgeois party and establishing “their own revolutionary governments.” workers” along with any new bourgeois. Marx hoped that the economic crisis would soon lead to a revival of the revolutionary movement; When this hope faded, he came into conflict once again with those whom he called “the alchemists of the revolution,” such as August von Willich, a communist who proposed to hasten the advent of the revolution by undertaking direct revolutionary endeavors. Such people, Marx wrote in September 1850, substitute “idealism for materialism” and regard pure will as the motivating power of revolution rather than actual conditions. While we say to the workers: “You have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and national wars not only to change your conditions but to change yourself and qualify for political power.” on the contrary, they are told: “We must come to power immediately.”

The militant faction in turn ridiculed Marx as a revolutionary who limited his activity to lectures on political economy to the Educational Union of Communist Workers. The result was that Marx gradually stopped attending the meetings of the London Communists. In 1852 he devoted himself intensely to work for the defense of 11 communists arrested and tried in Cologne on charges of revolutionary conspiracy and wrote a pamphlet on his behalf. The same year he also published, in a German-American newspaper, his essay “Der Achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Napoleon” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), with his acute analysis of the formation of a bureaucratic absolutist state with the support of the peasant class In other respects, the next 12 years were, in Marx’s words, years of ‘isolation’ for both him and Engels in their Manchester factory.

From 1850 to 1864, Marx lived in material misery and spiritual pain. His funds were gone and, except for one occasion, he was unable to seek gainful employment. In March 1850, he and his wife and four small children were evicted and his belongings were seized. Several of his children died, including a son Guido, “a sacrifice to bourgeois misery,” and a daughter Franziska, for whom his wife hastened to try to borrow money for a coffin. For six years, the family lived in two small rooms in Soho, often subsisting on bread and potatoes. The children learned to lie to creditors: “Mr. Marx is not up. He once had to escape them by fleeing to Manchester.

During all these years, Engels faithfully contributed to the financial support of Marx. The sums were not large at first, as Engels was just an employee of the firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. Later, however, in 1864, when he became a partner, his grants were generous. Marx was proud of Engels’s friendship and would not tolerate criticizing him. Legacies from relatives of Marx’s wife and Marx’s friend Wilhelm Wolff also helped ease his financial distress.

Marx had a relatively stable source of earned income in the United States. At the invitation of Charles A. Dana, managing editor of The New York Tribune, he became its European correspondent in 1851. The newspaper, edited by Horace Greeley, was sympathetic to Fourierism, a utopian socialist system developed by the French theorist Charles Fourier. From 1851 to 1862, Marx contributed nearly 500 articles and editorials (Engels provided about a quarter of them). Karl Marx spanned the entire political universe in these articles, analyzing social movements and upheavals from India and China to Britain and Spain.

In 1859, Marx published his first book on economic theory, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie ( A contribution to the critique of political economy). In his preface, he again summarized his materialist conception of history, his theory that the course of history depends on economic developments. At this time, however, Marx regarded his studies in economic and social history at the British Museum as his main task. He was busy producing drafts of his masterpiece, to be published later as Das Kapital. Some of these drafts, including the Schemes and Theories of Surplus Value, are important in their own right and were published after Marx’s death.


Marx was inspired by political economists of the classical school such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, although his own branch of economics, Marxist economics, is out of favor with mainstream economists of contemporary times. Nonetheless, Marx’s ideas have had a great impact on various societies, most prominently the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Among modern thinkers, Marx is still highly influential in such fields as sociology, political economy, and various branches of heterodox economics.


While many equate Marx with socialism, his work in understanding capitalism as a social and economic system remains a valid critique in the modern age. In  Capital, Marx argues that society is made up of two main classes: Capitalists who own the businesses, the means of production and organize the work in the factories, with the tools and raw materials, and those who have the right to take the winnings or profits. The other class: much larger, is made up of the workers – whom Marx called the proletariat, who do not own or have any rights to the means of production, nor to the finished goods nor to the profits generated by these products. Instead, workers receive a salary as payment for their work. Marx argued that since this is an unequal deal, the capitalists exploit the workers.


Another important theory developed by Marx is known as historical materialism. This theory posits that society at a given point in time is ordered by the type of technology used in its production. Under industrial capitalism, society is ordered with the capitalists organizing work in the factories and offices where proletarians work for wages. Prior to capitalism, Marx suggested that feudalism existed as a specific set of social relations between the lords and the peasant classes related to the power of manual or animal labor as the means of production prevalent at the time.


Marx’s ideas laid the foundation for future communist leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Operating from the premise that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, its ideas formed the basis of Marxism and served as a theoretical foundation for communism. Almost everything Marx wrote was seen through the glasses of the common worker. From Marx’s ideas comes the assumption that capitalist profits are possible because the value is “stolen” from workers and transferred to their employers. He was undoubtedly one of the most important and revolutionary thinkers of his time.


After living in Prussia, Marx lived in France for some time, and it is there that he met his great friend and patron Friedrich Engels. Marx was expelled from France and then lived briefly in Belgium, before moving to London for the rest of his life with his wife. Marx died of bronchitis and pleurisy on March 14, 1883 in London. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. His original grave was very modest, but in 1956, the Communist Party of Great Britain built a larger grave, including a bust of Marx inscribed “Workers of all Lands Unite”, an English version of his famous phrase in The Manifesto. Communist: “Workers of all countries, unite.”


The Communist Manifesto summarizes the theories of Marx and Engels about the nature of society and politics in an attempt to explain the goals of Marxism, and later Socialism. When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto they explained why they thought capitalism was unsustainable and how the capitalist society that existed at the time would eventually be replaced by a communist one.

Capital (Das Kapital) – Full title: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy) was a critique of capitalism. By far the most academic work of Karl Marx. In this work, theories about commodities, the labor market, the division of labor and a basic understanding of the rate of return to the owners of capital are established. The exact origins of the term “capitalism” in English are not clear, it seems that Marx was not the first to use the term in English, although he certainly contributed to the popularization of its use. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used by author William Thackeray in 1854, in his novel  His Newcomers. (The New Comes), who tried to give meaning to the sense of preoccupation with personal possessions and money in general. While it is not clear whether William Thackeray or Marx were aware of each other’s work, respectively, both used the word in a pejorative sense.


Marxist ideas in their pure form have very few defenders in contemporary times; in fact, very few Western thinkers embraced Marxism after 1898, when the economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk produced a critique of Karl Marx titled:  Karl Marx and the Closing of the System from Him. In his damning repression of Marx’s work, Bawerk shows that Marx failed to incorporate capital markets or subjective values ​​into his analysis, rendering many of his most pronounced conclusions null and void. Still, there are some lessons that even modern economists and thinkers can learn from Marx.

Although Marx was the most ardent critic of the capitalist system, he understood that it was by far the most productive system in history or an alternative economic system. In Capital, he wrote that “capitalist production” combined “several processes into a social whole,” which included the development of new technologies. he believed that all countries should become capitalist economies and develop their productive capacity, and then the workers would naturally revolt and install communism. But, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo before him, Karl Marx predicted that because of capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit through competition and technological progress to lower production costs, the rate of profit in an economy would always go up. decreasing over time.


Like the classical economists, Karl Marx believed that the labor theory of value explained relative differences in market prices. His theory stated that the value of an economic good could be objectively measured by the average number of hours required to produce it. If a table took two hours to produce, and a chair one hour, then the table must be considered twice as valuable as the chair.

Marx understood labor’s theory of value better than his predecessors (including Adam Smith) and contemporaries, and he presented a devastating intellectual challenge to the laissez-faire economists in Capital: If goods and services tend to be sold for their objective value? of work measured in hours of work. How do capitalists make their profits? This must be, Marx concluded, because the capitalists are paying less or making their employees work more, thereby exploiting them, the workers bearing the costs of production.

While Marx’s conclusion was eventually shown to be incorrect and later economists adopted the subjective theory of value, his simple statement was enough to show the weakness of the logic of the labor theory of value and its assumptions; Marx unintentionally helped revolutionize economic thought.


Dr. James Bradford “Brad” DeLong, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, wrote in 2011  that Marx’s primary contribution to economics was to be found in a ten-paragraph stretch in The Communist Manifesto, in which he describes how growth causes shifts between social classes, often leading to struggles for political power.

This highlights an underappreciated aspect of economics: the emotions and political activity of the actors involved. This was later recalled by the French economist Thomas Piketty, who proposed that while nothing was wrong with income inequality, in an economic sense, it could create a huge blow back against capitalism by the people. Therefore, there is a moral and anthropological consideration of any economic system. The idea that social structure and transformations from one economic order to the next can be the result of technological change in how things are produced in the economy is known as historical materialism. But of course, this alone is not enough to explain economic activity or its transformation needs.



« The history of all societies prior to ours is the history of class struggles.

Free citizens and slaves, patricians and commoners, lords and serfs, in a word, oppressors and oppressed were always at odds with each other, waging an uninterrupted struggle, sometimes veiled, sometimes open; a struggle that ended in all cases with a revolutionary transformation of the entire society or with the joint destruction of the classes in struggle.

In the early epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complete structuring of society into different estates and a varied gradation of social positions. In ancient Rome, we have patricians, knights, commoners and slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild masters and officials, serfs, and, in addition, particular gradations in each of these classes.

Modern bourgeois society, emerging from the decadence of feudal society, has not abolished class antagonisms. It has simply put new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle in the place of the old.

Our age, the age of the bourgeoisie, is characterized, however, by the fact that class antagonisms have been simplified. The whole society is divided more and more into two great enemy camps, into two great classes directly opposed to each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.

From the serfs of the Middle Ages arose the villains of the first cities; From this class of citizens, the first elements of the bourgeoisie developed.

The discovery of America and the circumnavigation of Africa created a new terrain for the rising bourgeoisie. The markets of the East Indies and China, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, and the increase in the means of exchange and of merchandise in general, gave commerce, navigation and industry a boom hitherto unknown. and, with it, a rapid evolution to the revolutionary element in the decaying feudal society.

The feudal or union system of exploitation of the industry in force until then was no longer sufficient to satisfy the growing demand in the new markets. Its place was taken by manufacturing. Guild masters were displaced by the industrial middle class; the division of labor among the various corporations disappeared before the division of labor within the individual workshop itself.«

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