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Karl Marx (1818–1883)

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Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the ancient city of Trier, in western Germany (then Prussia). Marx’s father was a prosperous lawyer, a Jew who converted to Lutheranism to advance his career at a time when unbaptized Jews did not have full rights of citizenship. Marx studied law at the University of Bonn and later at Berlin, where he switched to studying philosophy. He moved again to the University of Jena, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on ancient Greek natural philosophy. Following the death of his father in 1838, Marx attempted to find a job as lecturer but ran into difficulties because of controversies surrounding his teacher and mentor Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), who had lost his professorship due to his unrepentant atheism. Marx decided instead to try journalism and became editor of the Rhenish Gazette, a liberal newspaper in Cologne but the paper ran afoul of government censors and closed in 1843. Marx then married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and moved to the more politically hospitable atmosphere of France. There he encountered another German émigré, Friedrich Engels, with whom he took up an interest in economics and class struggle.

One of Marx’s most important intellectual influences was the philosophy of George Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel’s signature concept was that of the dialectic, a word that originally referred to the process of logical argumentation and refutation. Whereas earlier philosophers had treated dialectic as a process for arriving at true ideas, Hegel maintained that ideas themselves evolve according to a continual process of contradiction and resolution and that human history is driven by this dialectical evolution of ideas. Hegel’s influence on Marx is evident in Marx’s belief that history is evolving through a series of conflicts in a predictable, unavoidable direction. Hegel also influenced Marx in his characterization of the modern age. Hegel once famously declared that “man is not at home in the world,” by which he meant that while human beings had achieved an unprecedented degree of personal autonomy and self-awareness in the modern age, this accomplishment had resulted in the individual’s alienation from collective political and cultural institutions.

The more conservative of Hegel’s followers, the so-called Right-Hegelians, looked to Hegel’s writings on politics and the state to justify the political status quo in contemporary Prussia, arguing that the modern state represents the height of historical evolution and the final resolution of historical contradictions. The Left-Hegelians, including Marx, believed that society is far from fully evolved and for proof looked not only to the authoritarianism of the Prussian government but also to the social divisions and civil unrest created by industrialization and the increasing polarization of society into rich and poor. Socialism, an ideology advocating the abolition of private property, was then gaining influence among the more politically radical European intellectuals. Although he was attracted to socialism, Marx was dissatisfied with the quality of socialist thought that he encountered in France, such as that of the utopian Socialist Saint-Simon (1760–1825). Feeling that most Socialists were naïvely idealistic, Marx, following his meeting with Engels, set out to develop a theory of Socialism grounded in a better understanding of both economics and philosophy. From that point on, Marx’s project synthesizes these two distinct intellectual approaches, combining a Hegelian, philosophical view of historical evolution with an interest in capitalism that builds on the insights of classical economic theorists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Together with his coauthor Engels, Marx produced such important early works as The German Ideology (1846), which was a critique of Hegel and his German followers, and The Communist Manifesto (1848), in which Marx and Engels distinguish their idea of socialism from other currents of socialism and demonstrate how socialism arises naturally from the social conflicts inherent within capitalism. Shortly after the publication of The Communist Manifesto, revolutionary unrest broke out in much of Europe. Although the Communist League of which Marx and Engels were leaders was in a state of disorganization, Marx took part in the revolution in Germany as editor of a the New Rhenish Gazette in Cologne, which became a platform for radical political commentary. Following the unrest, Marx left Germany with his family and settled in London. The tumultuous events of 1848 and 1849 had impressed Marx deeply and formed the subject matter of later historical studies such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

While in London, Marx participated in the growing international workers’ movement while working toward a new synthesis of his economic and social theories. In 1867, he published the first volume of Capital (Das Kapital), his mammoth treatise on economics. Having mastered all of the classical political–economic theorists, Marx intended in Capital to explain the modern class struggle in terms of economic principles. Capital remains Marx’s greatest achievement, a powerfully insightful analysis of the nature of capitalism and its effects on human beings. Although most people no longer accept Marx’s conclusion that the contradictions within capitalism will lead inevitably to a worker’s revolution and the worldwide establishment of Socialism, Capital nonetheless remains a uniquely compelling book because of its ability to describe and explain the phenomenon of capitalism. Ironically, the proponents of capitalism are the people most likely to reject Marx as worthy of study, but it is to Marx that we owe the concept of capitalism and the perception that modern society is capitalist. (The word capital first acquired its importance with the publication of Capital.)

One of the main challenges a person faces in reading Marx is in abandoning preconceptions of Marx’s work resulting from the appropriation of Marx’s ideas by Communist political movements throughout the twentieth century. Many see the recent collapse of the Soviet Union as an end to the international appeal of Marxism as revolutionary political movement. At the same time, Marx’s ideas continue to stimulate and engage thinkers in a variety of fields, including political theory, history, and literary criticism.

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