The Life Of Karl Marx

The Life Of Karl Marx

The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences characterizes Karl Marx, who lived from 1818 to 1883, as "social philosopher, revolutionary leader and founder of the chief current in modern socialism." The principal biographical facts concerning the setting of his life may be noted briefly. Marx was born in southwestern Germany of Jewish parents. His father was a lawyer, his paternal grandfather a German rabbi, and his mother a descendant of a Dutch rabbi. His father had "acquired a respectable practice" but had "never learnt the art of making money." When Marx was very young his family turned from the Jewish faith to Christianity.

After completing his early schooling in his native German town, Marx spent one year at the University of Bonn and about four years at Berlin University, receiving a Doctor of Philosophy degree. After remaining in Germany for several years, he moved to Paris. In 1845 he was forced by the Prussian government to leave France, and he moved to Brussels, where he lived for three years. The Belgian government, fearing his revolu­tionary propensities, forced him to remove to Paris. Later in the same year he returned to Germany, thence back to Paris, and finally, in 1849, he took up residence in London, where he remained.

Marx as a Journalist

This constant moving about during the decade of the 1840s was largely involuntary. Marx's revolutionary doctrines were feared by the European governments during those unsettled years, and on several occasions he found himself an unwelcome resident of his native country or an equally unwelcome alien in a foreign country. During these years the chief source of Marx's meager living was his journalistic activities. The high mortality rate of these projects was due to the opposition of the established regimes and the financial weakness of the journals with which he was connected. Immediately after receiving his doctorate, Marx did free-lance work for various journals. His work attracted the attention of the editors of a liberal newspaper in the Rhine provinces, and at the age of 24 he became its editor. Voluntarily retiring from this post a year later, he became editor of the Franco-German Year Books, to be published in Paris as an organ for the expression of criticism of social institutions. The project failed to produce more than one issue, in which was included an article by Friedrich Engels, who was later to become. Marx's close collaborator. After an intervening period of study and writing, Marx became editor of another Rhenish paper with an opposition policy. After a year this failed financially, and Marx's outstanding bills exhausted his limited resources. Throughout these years and later, Marx carried on many additional sporadic journalistic activities. In addition to writing for European journals, he was for a time European correspondent for the New York Tribune.

These endeavors yielded Marx neither a large nor a stable income. Several years after leaving Berlin University, he married the daughter of a privy counselor residing in his native city. His wife, who came from a middle-class family, and the three of their children who grew to matur­ity shared Marx's financial insecurity, which at times approached pov­erty. The pawnshop was used regularly to tide the family over the worst crises in its fortunes. It is said that at one time Marx pawned his only coat to pay for paper needed for a manuscript in preparation. During the latter portion of his life, which was spent in London, Marx was in better economic circumstances. This was due to his friends rather than his own efforts. He was given a legacy by a friend who thought well of his work, and for a substantial period he received an annual stipend from his collaborator Engels, who owned a prosperous family business.

Marx as a Student

In addition to the journalistic, two threads weave themselves through Marx's life; he was a student and a revoluntionary leader. Always and everywhere Marx was a student. As a youth of 17 he entered the University of Bonn to study law, a career more the choice of the father than the son. After one year Marx transferred to Berlin University, where he broadened his studies to include philosophy, literature, history, and art. During these years he increasingly lost interest in legal study and was drawn irresistibly to philosophy. This, together with his withdrawal from all university activities except the intellectual, brought censure from his father, who recommended that his son follow the example of his fellow students. He advised as follows:

Indeed these young men sleep quite peacefully except when they now and then devote the whole or part of a night to pleasure, whereas my clever and gifted son Karl passes wretched sleepless nights, wearying body and mind with cheerless study, forbearing all pleasures with the sole object of applying himself to abstruse studies; but what he builds today he destroys again tomorrow, and in the end he finds that he has destroyed what he already had, without having gained anything from other people. At last the body begins to ail and the mind gets con­fused, whilst these ordinary folk steal along in easy marches, and attain their goal if not better at least more comfortably than those who contemn youthful pleasures and undermine their health in order to snatch at the ghost of erudition, which they could probably have ex­ercised more successfully in an hour spent in the society of competent men—with social enjoyment into the bargain!

Apparently this parental advice fell on deaf ears, for Marx continued to be exclusively an intellectual during his university days. He spent much time in the realm of philosophy, outlining for himself whole systems of thought and taking his principal interest in the philosophy of Hegel. A "Graduates Club" at the university afforded him the desired opportunity for intellectual companionship and controversy. In fact, at this time Marx hoped to follow an academic career. After receiving his doctorate, he ap­plied for a lectureship at the University of Bonn. It was only after he failed to secure this because of his nonconformist thinking that he turned to journalism.

Although Marx remained an intense student throughout his life, these early studies, particularly in the realm of philosophy, were his most im­portant. In accepting basically a Hegelian philosophy, he adopted certain positions, assumptions, and points of view that vitally influenced all his further studies. It is true that he did not accept these philosophical con­ceptions hastily. Only through the most laborious and searching studies of philosophical systems did he arrive at the one that to him seemed ade­quate. However, it is also true that, once having adopted the theses of this philosophy, he retained them substantially unchanged throughout his life. Although he continued to be an omnivorous student of human affairs, whatever the conclusions his later studies dictated they were always fitted into the mold of these early-adopted philosophical concepts. It would be interesting to speculate on whether these candidly accepted philosophical principles made Marx a less scientific and more biased student of human affairs than others of his time and since have been, or whether he merely adopted his bias or his philosophy more systematically and more openly than have others. At least Marx reveals fully the philosophical posi­tions from which his analysis starts; there is no subtle concealment of assumptions.

In the decade immediately following his early philosophical study, Marx studied contemporary socialist literature, largely French and Eng­lish. During the middle years of the nineteenth century there was a great volume of writing criticizing existing social institutions. Through these influences Marx became a socialist, although not in the Utopian sense. Early in these studies he was convinced that socialism was to come only through the operations of social processes whose working he must understand.

During his decade of shifting residence, Marx took every opportunity to study local economic phenomena and to fit his findings into his philo­sophical scheme. In Brussels he used the extensive library of his friend Engels. After moving to London, and prior to the publication of Capital, Marx is reported to have spent some ten years of incessant study in the British Museum. He stayed from the opening to the closing hour, search­ing out masses of detailed descriptions of economic processes and insti­tutions prevailing throughout the centuries.
Marx appears considerably more striking in the role of student than as a journalist. Most of the energy of his life went into the youthful formu­lation of his philosophical skeleton and the later avid study of the economic aspects of human life from which he filled out the body of Marxian theory.

Marx as a Revolutionist

Marx the revolutionary leader is less well known than Marx the journal­ist or Marx the student. While a relatively small portion of his efforts went directly into it, the organization of the working classes was the ulti­mate objective of his life. Although he felt deeply the necessity and the desire to engage in the active struggle to free workers from their bondage, Marx's abilities along this line appear to have been meager. As a student in Berlin, Marx, who was given to writing poems and short stories, penned what was probaly a deeply felt desire:
Let us not in base subjection

Brood away our fearful life, When with deed and aspiration We might enter in the strife. During his movements about Europe in the 1840s, Marx kept in contact with groups of dissatisfied workingmen who desired comprehen­sive and fundamental changes in the economic and political spheres. These groups usually were composed of workingmen who had emigrated from Germany. They maintained a loose international organization, known as the "League of the Just," through which local observations were com­municated from group to group. During his residence in Brussels, this organization got in contact with Marx, and, at a conference held late in 1847, Marx (who was 29 years old) and Engels (who was 27), were re­quested to prepare a program for the League. This organization later was known as the "League of Communists," and the program prepared by Marx and Engels was the "Communist Manifesto." The term com­munist was chosen to distinguish the League and its program from various Utopian and social reformist groups that were known as socialists and for whose doctrines Marx had no respect.

Coincidental with the appearance of the "Communist Manifesto" was the French Revolution of 1848. There were outbursts shortly there­after in Vienna, Italy, and the German provinces, while in Switzerland and England there were demands for drastic governmental changes. These disturbances led the established governments to crush all signs of revolu­tionary working-class activity. The leaders of the Communist League were imprisoned and the organization dissolved.

For many years after this brief contact with a working-class organ­ization, Marx devoted himself to study and writing in London, where in 1864 he represented German workingmen at an international conference. Here was organized the "International Workingmen's Association," com­monly referred to as the "First International." During the same year Marx delivered several addresses and communications to the International and drew up a statement of its principles. The International was composed of various factions holding different views as to how working-class inter­ests could best be promoted, and for a time the group led by Marx con­trolled its policies. Through the International he gave advice (which was not followed) to the French workers during their revolt in 1871. After the fall of the Paris Commune in that year, Marx, who was then general secretary of the International, moved the headquarters of the organiza­tion to New York City. Controversies within the organization and the fail­ure of revolutionary activities in France had so weakened the International that it expired in 1876.

Thus it appears that Marx, while sensing the interrelationship be­tween organized revolutionary activities and doctrines, and demonstrating a readiness to throw his energies into the promotion of such activities, was unable to breast the counteracting forces at work in the worlds of action and of thought. The experiences and contracts of these years played an important part in the formulation of his theories. However, just as his journalistic activities failed to result in any enduring working-class organ of propaganda, so his organizational efforts and leadership failed to cre­ate any lasting working-class agencies of revolution. We are thus left with Marx the student and writer. These aspects of Marx's work have en­dured and exercised worldwide influence. We therefore turn to a somewhat extended account of Marxian theory."