Marx’s Early Life and Education
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was born in Trier, Germany, in the Rhineland-Palatinate near the Moselle River, which forms the border between Germany and Luxembourg.
Marx’s father was a lawyer and the family well-off. Although both of his grandfathers were Jewish rabbis, Marx’s father had converted to Christianity, changing his birth name from Herschel to Heinrich, before Karl’s birth.
The seven-year-old Karl, along with his mother and six brothers and sisters, was baptized a Lutheran in 1825.
In addition to rabbis, Marx’s mother’s family included wealthy industrialists, who would later found the world-famous company now known as Philips Electronics. For many years, Lion Philips—Marx’s mother’s brother-in-law—supplied the impecunious founder of the communist First International with financial handouts.
Marx was educated at home until entering the local Trier Gynasium (secondary school).
In 1835, at the age of 17, Marx matriculated at the University of Bonn. He wanted to study literature and philosophy, but his father insisted on the law.
At Bonn, Marx fell in with a politically radical group of students, who spent most of their time drinking and brawling. At one point, Marx himself engaged in a duel.
When Marx’s grades began to suffer, his father decided to transfer him to the University of Berlin, which had a reputation for greater academic seriousness.
Marx spent the summer of 1836 at home in Trier, where he became engaged to a childhood acquaintance, Jenny von Westphalen. Marx’s Jewish and bourgeois background made his suit of Jenny unwelcome to many among her aristocratic family.
However, Jenny’s father was a liberal-minded man who gave the couple his blessing. Marx would later dedicate his doctoral dissertation to his father-in-law. After a long, seven-years’ engagement, Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were finally wed in 1843.
In the fall of 1836, Marx arrived in Berlin and knuckled down to the serious study of the law. One of his teachers was the celebrated jurist, Karl von Savigny.
In Berlin, Marx also became fascinated by the ideas of the famous objective-idealist philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who had taught at the university there until his death in 1831.
In 1837, Marx made contact with a group of young political radicals in Berlin who called themselves the “Young Hegelians.” Their leaders were the philosophers Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer.
The Young Hegelians were especially enamored of Hegel’s “dialectical” understanding of the development of mind or spirit (Geist) through the process of history. However, they did not share Hegel’s fundamentally idealist metaphysics. Rather, as Marx would later say, they wished to “turn Hegel on his head,” by making history the dialectical development of matter, rather than spirit—whence the famous phrase “dialectical materialism.”
Marx submitted his doctoral dissertation, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, to the University of Berlin, but the conservative Berlin professors rejected it. Marx then resubmitted it to the more-liberal University of Jena (a not-uncommon practice at the time in Germany), which accepted it in 1841. In this manner, Marx was able to take his doctoral degree.
After some early experiments with writing poetry and fiction, Marx became involved with journalism. In 1842, he moved to Cologne to work on the left-wing Rheinische Zeitung [Rhineland News]. However, the German police shut it down for sedition the following year.
Next, a friend of Marx’s from Berlin, Arnold Ruge, invited him to co-edit a new radical newspaper he was founding in Paris, to avoid the German police: Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher [German-French Annals], with the aim of providing a vehicle for unifying French and German militants.
In 1843, Marx settled in Paris, in what was to become the formative period of his life. It was around this time that he penned one of his most lyrical and moving sayings, which was originally intended for the introduction to his book Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but was detached from the book (which would only appear posthumously, in 1927) and published separately in 1844 in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
That same year, 1844, he made the acquaintance of Friedrich Engels, the radicalized son of a wealthy industrialist who would become Marx’s closest friend, frequent co-author, trusted comrade in political conspiracy, and main financial backer for the rest of his life.
The two new friends immediately set to work with enthusiasm and produced the book, The Holy Family, a critique of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer, in 1845.
Marx’s mind at this time was in great creative ferment, as is shown by the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.These manuscripts, which were first published in 1932, are important because they contain both the nucleus of Marx’s later economic thought and an elaboration of his ideas on dialectical materialism.
In 1845, Marx was arrested and deported from France. He then took up residence in Brussels, Belgium. It was in Brussels that he penned what is now one of his most famous brief texts, the so-called “Theses on Feuerbach.”
These eleven Theses were notes for yet another book of his, The German Ideology, that would only see the light of day long after Marx’s death, in 1932. However, the Theses were first published separately by Engels in 1888 as an appendix to his own book, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.
The most famous of the Theses on Feuerbach, the eleventh and last thesis, reads:
Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
Also while living in Brussels, Marx published a diatribe against the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, called The Poverty of Philosophy. The title of Marx’s book, which appeared in 1847, alluded to Proudhon’s own work, The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty, which had been published the previous year.
Throughout 1847, Marx and Engels were discussing the best way to advance their radical social and economic plan, not just through their writings, but through action. By now, they were in touch with a wide clandestine network of likeminded individuals. They concluded that more political pressure could be applied by a visible, above-ground organization and that the time was ripe to go public.
As an adjunct to the announcement of their new Communist League, they prepared a programmatic statement for publication in the form of the famous pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, which was released early in 1848.
The timing of the publication of their program could hardly have been better. Later that same year of 1848, revolutionary uprisings broke out all over Europe. In this way, when the barricades went up, The Communist Manifesto was on-hand with a fully developed economic program and philosophical rationale for the rebels to adopt as the expression of their own aims.
The Belgian government now accused Marx of supplying money (from his inheritance) to local revolutionaries for the purchase of weapons. Historians still dispute the truth of these allegations, but in any case, Marx was expelled from Belgium.
After a short stay in revolutionary Paris, Marx returned to Cologne in 1848 in order to revive the periodical he had run six years previously, in 1842. Thanks to his recent inheritance, he was now able to publish the Neue Rheinische Zeitung [New Rhineland News]—as he now called it—as a daily newspaper.
However, Marx was immediately beset by the local authorities, who preferred charges of inciting armed rebellion against him on several occasions. Each time, he successfully fought the charges, opted for a jury trial, and was acquitted.
However, the democratic parliament that had been established in Prussia as a result of all the political turmoil and which had pursued more liberal policies, fell from power. Thereupon, the rejuvenated conservative monarchy decided to crack down on sedition (as they saw it) throughout the realm. The upshot was that in 1849 Marx was once again forced into exile—his fourth expulsion from a country in six years.
This time, Marx took his family to London, which was the most-liberal country in Europe, with strong guarantees of freedom of the press. Marx was to live in London for the rest of his life.
Although Marx was able to make a little money from journalism—including acting for a time as European correspondent for the New-York Daily Tribune—he basically devoted the rest of his life to intense scholarly endeavor, as a result of which his family endured extreme poverty. Only irregular gifts of money from his bosom friend, Engels, kept Marx, his wife, and their two daughters from going under altogether.
In 1852, Marx published a long essay, entitled “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in an expatriate German revolutionary magazine called Die Revolution, based in New York City. In this piece, he first began to assemble and articulate the many ideas inchoate in the Communist Manifesto into a systematic theory of violent revolution in the name of the working class (the “proletariat”).
Marx’s life in London continued to be divided between political activism and scholarly research and writing. However, as the years went by, the balance increasingly tipped toward scholarship.
Almost every day, Marx would spend long hours researching history, sociology, and economics in the public Reading Room of the British Museum library. He would then spend additional long hours writing in his study at home every evening. While Marx remained deeply involved in ongoing, pan-European, political organization and conspiracy, he gradually withdrew himself from the life of a militant in order to assume that of a scholar, philosopher, and author.
In 1859, Marx published the first substantial fruit of his immense intellectual labors, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This was his first work solely devoted to economic theory. It received favorable reviews and sold well.
Five years later, in 1864, he helped to organize the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association, better known as the “First International.”
In 1867, Marx published the first installment of his magnum opus, titled simply Capital [Das Kapital]. The remaining two volumes would be assembled from the voluminous notes he left at the time of his death and published posthumously by Engels (for details, see Marx’s Main Works below).
Marx’s last work, apart from his continuing efforts to finish Capital, was a treatise entitled Critique of the Gotha Program.Marx composed the volume in 1875 but it was only published after his death. In it, Marx chastised his followers for deviating from the truth path. This small book is perhaps most notable for containing one of Marx’s best-known apothegms:
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Karl Marx died in 1883 and was buried in London. Despite approximately 100,000,000 dead owing to his utopian vision—in Russia, in Ukraine, in China, in Cambodia, and elsewhere—to this day grizzled guerillas and idealistic youth continue to stream from the four corners of the globe to Highgate Cemetery to lay flowers on his grave.
Marx developed his intellectual preoccupations through a long process lasting many years. For this reason, his thought is many-sided and not easily reduced to a brief summary.
However, since there is space here to mention only the most influential of his characteristic claims, we shall lay out his teachings in the form of a bulleted list:
- Dialectical materialism: The idea that the totality of human history—including all human institutions, beliefs, and intellectual and artistic accomplishments—is an epiphenomenal “superstructure” whose deeper reality is contained in the material base, or “infrastructure,” of human existence. The basic material reality driving human history is the need to produce the means of subsistence (food, clothing, shelter).
- Labor Theory of Value: Marx’s labor theory of economic value is based on the idea that there is a “real” (or “natural”) value of a commodity that is determined, not by the market, but rather by the amount of labor that went into producing it.
- Surplus Value and Exploitation: According to the labor theory of value, if the amount of money an owner obtains for some commodity exceeds its real value, then the difference represents a “surplus value.” If the owner pockets this surplus value as “profit,” then he engages in immoral “exploitation” of the worker. Surplus value properly belongs to the worker, not the owner.
- Class Struggle: Perhaps Marx’s most important thesis, this is the claim that human history is best understood as resulting from the continuous struggle of the exploited working class against the exploitative owner class.
- Theory of alienation: One of the most harmful effects of capitalism is its totalistic reduction of human life to the mere struggle for existence. Thus, the capitalist mode of production reduces each man to a mere instrument of other men’s desires and interests. In this way, under capitalism man is “alienated” from his own best or true nature
- False consciousness: Alienation in fact works to support capitalism. It does so through what Marx calls “commodity fetishism,” meaning that the working class becomes so enamored of the thrill of buying commodities (“shopping”) that it loses sight of its own economic interests. This self-undermining then produces “false consciousness”—a false identification of the exploited working class with the exploitative capitalist owner class.
- Dictatorship of the Proletariat: When the communist intellectual avant-garde succeeds in helping the working class to liberate itself from its false consciousness, the latter will understand how badly it is exploited by the owners and by the whole capitalist system. At that time, real revolution will become possible and “the expropriated will expropriate the expropriators” in an act of righteous revolutionary violence. A “dictatorship of the proletariat” will then be established—Marx’s atheistic vision of paradise realized, not in heaven, but upon the material earth.
Marx’s Main Works
Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (composed in 1943; first published in 1927).
The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (composed in 1844; first published in 1932).
The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company, with Friedrich Engels (1845)
The German Ideology, with Friedrich Engels (composed in 1845; first published in 1932).
The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).
The Communist Manifesto, with Friedrich Engels (1848).
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume II, edited by Friedrich Engels (1885).
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume III, edited by Friedrich Engels (1894).
Critique of the Gotha Program (composed in 1875; first published in 1890).
The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, edited by Robert C. Tucker (1978).
The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka (1983).
Selected Works on Marx and Marxism
Acton, H.B., The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (1955).
Althusser, Louis, For Marx (1965).
Althusser, Louis, et al., Reading Capital (1965).
Anderson, Perry, Considerations on Western Marxism (1976).
Avineri, Shlomo, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1968).
Berlin, Isaiah, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1952); fifth edition (2013).
Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen von, Karl Marx and the Close of His System (1896).
Carver, Terrell, Marx’s Social Theory (1982).
Carver, Terrell, Karl Marx (2018).
Carver, Terrell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Marx (1991).
Carver, Terrell and James Farr, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Communist Manifesto (2015).
Cleaver, Harry, 33 Lessons on Capital: Reading Marx Politically (2019).
Cohen, G.A., Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978); second edition (2001).
Desai, Meghnad, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (2002).
Eagleton, Terry, Why Marx Was Right (2018).
Elster, Jon, Making Sense of Marx (1985).
Foley, Duncan K., Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory (1986).
Fornäs, Johan, Capitalism: A Companion to Marx’s Economy Critique (2013).
Fromm, Erich, Marx’s Concept of Man (1961).
Geras, Norman, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983).
Harvey, David, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (2017).
Harvey, David, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2018).
Heinrich, Michael, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (2012).
Kamenka, Eugene, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism, revised edition (1972).
Kandiyali, Jan, ed., Reassessing Marx’s Social and Political Philosophy: Freedom, Recognition, and Human Flourishing (2018).
Kengor, Paul, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism’s Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration (2020).
Kołakowski, Leszek, Main Currents of Marxism, three volumes (1976).
Lukes, Steven, Marxism and Morality (1985).
Maltsev, Yuri N., ed., Requiem for Marx (1993).
Mattick, Paul, Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy (2020).
McBride, William L., The Philosophy of Marx (1977).
McLellan, David, Karl Marx (1976).
McLellan, David, Karl Marx: A Biography, fourth edition (2006).
Miller, Richard W., Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History (1984).
Pitts, Frederick Harry, Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx (2018).
Roberts, William Clare, 2017, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (2017).
Robinson, Joan, An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942).
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (1995).
Sowell, Thomas, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985).
Sperber, Jonathan, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013).
Stedman Jones, Gareth, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (2016).
Sweezy, Paul M., The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian Political Economy (1942).
Thier, Hada, A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics (2020).
Veblen, Thorstein, The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers (1906).
Vidal, Matt, et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx (2019).
Wheen, Francis, Karl Marx: A Life (2000).
Wolff, Jonathan, Why Read Marx Today? (2002).
Wood, Allen W., Karl Marx, second edition (2004).