May 5 1818 Karl Marx was born. Over the next 200 years his ideas would greatly shape how people would view and shape the world. I myself am inspired by Marx's ideas. With the exception of a brief period in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in eastern Europe his ideas have been seen as the most, or one of the most important, by people across the world. The BBC radio show In Our Time in 2005 asked its listeners to name their most influential philosopher and with 27.9% of the vote Marx was voted the most influential with the second being David Hume at 12.7%. Today we'll look at three aspects of Marx. First, we'll look briefly at his life. Second, we'll look at what he believed. Finally, we'll look at his legacy.
Marx: A Brief Biography
Marx was born into a formerly Jewish family in Trier, then in Prussia's Rhineland province. His mother, Henriette Pressburg, was a Dutch Jew whose father had been a rabbi and his father, Herschel Marx, was a lawyer. After the defeat of Napoleon Trier came under the control of conservative Prussia who started enforcing a law barring Jews from public office. As a result Herschel converted the family to Christianity and adopted the name Heinrich over his Yiddish name. Although Karl's relations with his mother was always fractious he adored his father with him always carrying a photo of Heinrich, later even being buried with a photo of his father. Karl was the third of nine children with him becoming the eldest son when his brother died in 1819. Heinrich and Henriette were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, and until 1830 Karl (and his siblings), were home schooled by Heinrich and when they went to school they were taught by a humanist. In 1835 he started at the University of Bonn before being transferred to the University of Berlin which saw him engaging with more radical, liberal philosophy joining the Young Hegelians in 1837. Inspired by the recently deceased Hegel they used his views on dialects, mixed it with leftist discourse and then used it to criticize society. This would bring Marx into conflict with the state for the first time - socialism would become strong in Germany but Prussia itself was very conservative. Marx was forced to submit his thesis, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, in 1841 to the more liberal University of Jenna as his more conservative professors at Berlin thought it too controversial. Throughout his time at Berlin he made friends with fellow Hegelian Bruno Bauer who helped influence his views. The two around 1841 had become atheists and had debated forming an atheist journal.
While at university Karl also became engaged. One of the most important people in his life was his wife, Jenny von Westphalen. Four years his senior she was extremely well-read and got on well with Marx with them getting engaged in 1836 with them finally marrying in 1843. This was aided by the fact that he had obtained his PhD and started writing in 1842 for a radical socialist paper, the Rheinische Zeitung, in Cologne. It immediately came under Prussian scrutiny - Marx said that 'our newspaper has to be presented to the police to be sniffed at, and if the police nose smells anything un-Christian or un-Prussian, the newspaper is not allowed to appear' - and Russia even banned it! 1843 he and Jenny moved to Paris where Karl started writing for a Franco-German paper, German-French Annals, which was largely staffed by German exiles. However, another key figure in leftist ideology worked there as well - the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. It was in Paris that he had his first daughter, Jenny, and he met his closest friend - Friedrich Engels. Both had adopted communism by then - in 1845 Engels wrote one of his landmark books The Condition of the Working Class in England - and the two became extremely close. They were so close that Engels would often bail out Marx and even wrote Marx's surviving children into his will. That same year the Prussian king convinced the French Interior Minister to ban another of Marx's papers and exiled him to Brussels.
|An Original copy of the Manifesto|
The next ten years were both the worst and best years of Marx's life. While exiled in Brussels he visited England for the first time with Friedrich, saw the birth of the rest of his children, formed the Communist League, and published some of his best known works. One of the most important was The German Ideology, written with Engels, which set out their views on historical materialism. In 1848 a series of revolutions swept across Europe of which many soon adopted socialism. During this time Engels and Marx wrote their most important book: The Communist Manifesto. Short with little specialized language its aim was to introduce the proletariat and working classes to the idea of communism and bring about revolution. However, the Manifesto was soon banned by several states (it took until the 1870s for it to get popular), and the 1848 Revolutions were soon ended by reaction and as Marx had used his own money to fund Belgian revolutionaries he got exiled once again. After a brief stint in Cologne Marx and his family moved to London in 1850. During the early 1850s the rest of Marx's children were born and would tragically die. Thanks to TB and general sickness only three (Jenny, Laura and Eleanor) of his children would make it to adulthood. This would destroy Marx and he never recovered from the death of his children.
|A barricade during the Paris Commune|
While in London Marx continued writing and once again became a journalist, this time for the New York Daily Tribune. On the side he would organize socialist meetings with Engels and continue developing his ideas. Shortly after Lincoln's election he even wrote to him to tell him how much he admired him. He even left the Tribune in 1863 when the paper abandoned abolitionism in favor of supporting a quick peace with the Confederates. Although Marx did hold sexist views he also taught his daughters around this time to remain independent and only marry if they wanted to do so. In 1864 the First International was formed. This was an attempt to bring together leftists around the world to organize the workers of the world and Marx soon became very influential in it. However, a split emerged in the International which became accentuated after the 1871 Paris Commune. During the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War the Parisian people rose up and established a commune based on sexual equality, universal suffrage, and socialism - something which excited Marx. It was soon crushed through a variety of means. Marx believed that the Parisians had started dismantling the state too quickly and that was why it was defeated whereas Mikhail Bakunin argued instead that they reason it was defeated was due to the state still existing. This can be seen as the first major split in modern leftist thought with those supporting Marx being known as Marxists whereas Bakunin's followers became known as anarchists. During the International Marx's joint most famous book was published: Das Kapital. I should rather say the first volume was published - volume II was published in 1885 and Engels published volume III after Marx's death in 1895. Kapital set out Marxist theory on economics outlining the differences between a capitalist and communist economy.
On December 2 1881 Jenny, at the age of 67, died after years of liver cancer. The loss of Jenny hit him badly and the sickly Marx could not handle it. Only his friendship with Engels, his daughters and finishing Kapital could keep him going. He was hit even harder by the death of his daughter Jenny at the age of 38 in the January of 1883. Losing two of his loved ones and his own illnesses took the life out of Marx. Eventually on March 14 1883 he passed away. At his funeral Engels said: On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.
|Marx's grave today|
Talking about Marx's ideas can be difficult as many times they have been 'strawmanned' just because of how confusing they can be. Marx's opinions changed over his life and he often showed nuance in his views. For one, Kapital normally takes the individual out of history but in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon he places much emphasis on individuals, in this case Louis Napoleon. Marx himself was inspired by Enlightenment figures, like Kant, who placed emphasis on individuals. Today we'll just cover the basics. A key aspect of Marxist theory is how he treated sociology and history as a science and with that came historical materialism. This looks at how human societies develop over time and by looking at trends in such societies you can compare them. Marx argued that these societies can be determined by their mode of production which is how labor and means of production (how good end up being produced). These broad modes are hunter-gatherer, 'Asiatic', ancient/antique, feudal, capitalist, socialist and finally communist. He never really spoke of how a society transfers from one system to another and Marx did change his view. In the 1850s and 1860s despite opposing British rule in India (although at times Marx had a racist streak in him) he argued that it was a necessary evil to allow Indians closer to socialism. In 1881 writing to Russian leftist Vera Zasulich he did say that it was possible for Russia to skip capitalism to go straight to socialism. Furthermore, he argued that the mode of production offered a base for a superstructure which in practice was a society. For Marx, (and Engels), everything in society from power to the media to the family were thus determined by the mode of production.
Most of Marx's writing is based on capitalism and socialism. It is important to state as well that Marx did not invent socialism and communism - these ideas predate Marx with communism being coined by Victor d'Hupay in 1777. Instead he and other contemporaries simply shaped our current understanding of it. Marx defined capitalism as a ruling class, the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of production and used a laboring class, the proletariat, to produce goods. Surplus value, profit, was then given to the owner - like a factory owner for example. This is contrasted with a socialist or communist system where workers, or the state, own the means of production and surplus value is split equally between them. Marx also saw what was happening in contemporary society and now has been said of predicting the future: Marx argued that automation was inevitable. However, in Marx's view this was more because the tools of production are communally owned and that machines replacing people would allow them to do their desired ambitions. Everything was to fit into this economic system. For one, Marx argued domestic abuse and treating wives as property was inevitable under capitalism - a capitalist in his view saw their wife as another tool to be exploited leading to abuse. Marx believed that as the interests of workers and owners were different this would lead to a class war which would establish socialism. However, he argued that false consciousness prevents this. This is an idea where the ruling group makes the lumpenproletariat (non-conscious workers) believe that society is fine. Here the famous line 'Religion is the opiate of the masses' came into play; Marx viewed the revolutionary potential of religion being changed to keep the masses in line. The last part of Marx's ideas (although he did not coin the term) I want to mention is the dictatorship of the proletariat. When Marx used this he did not mean a dictatorship in the typical sense. This instead was just a system where the proletariat rules.
|The October Revolution - the first successful Marxist revolution|
Marx's legacy cannot be overstated. Marxism has influenced millions around the world in ways unthinkable. The most obvious example is the formation of Communist parties across the world which either brought to power Marxists (as in Russia and Cuba) or greatly changed the country (as in India and the USA). The Communist Party of the USA before the Second Red Scare were deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement, such as CPUSA defending the Scottsboro Boys, and many key figures in American society were influenced by socialism. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were partially inspired by Marxist thought and at university Martin Luther King did read Marx - although he was more inspired by the Bible than Marx. Marxists have been deeply involved with women's liberation and anti-caste measures in India and Marxists were very involved with the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa; in his autobiography Nelson Mandela mentions how much he was influenced by Marxism. Many national liberation movements were influenced by Marxism as well including Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam - the US in the 1950s lamented that they couldn't support nationalists in Europe's colonies as many were communist. Socialist agitation in many countries, including the UK, were important in establishing unions, minimum wages, workplace safety measures, and even universal healthcare. One thing the British are universally proud of is the NHS - the publicly owned health care system. Today four countries have communism in their constitutions - China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba. Cuba is now famous for its healthcare system, the amount of doctors it has and its high literacy rate. Marxism did develop a dark side. The horrors of Stalin and Mao, for example, lead to the deaths of millions. Many of the criticisms of Marxism lie with these examples.
British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that Marx is the first word not the last and his ideas have been repeatedly altered and adapted. Vladimir Lenin expanded on Marx to cover imperialism and his view on the dictatorship of the proletariat would be that of the vanguard party. Many of the criticisms that Marxism is authoritarianism stems from Lenin's vanguard party which did lead at times to dictatorships - as with the USSR under Stalin. Rosa Luxemburg (who influences my own political views) disagreed with Lenin arguing instead that the vanguard party would lead to authoritarianism and that elections via soviets should happen. Antonio Gramsci would expand on Marx's false consciousness with the idea of hegemony - he argued that culture also was used to prevent revolution and that it had to be changed if socialism could be achieved. His ideas proved very popular as Marx's modes of production and superstructure did not explain racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Marxist theory has greatly shaped academia. We see less emphasis on 'Great Man Theory' due to Marxist historians emphasizing 'history from below' and certain branches of history, such as feminist history, originated thanks to this. Post-modernism originated to criticize Marxism and other meta-narratives which has in turn inspired Marxist academics to look at their own research. Post-colonialist Gayatri Spivak is one such example of this.
Regardless if you agree with Marx or not his writings have greatly shaped the world over the last century. Despite a brief period in the 1990s with the collapse of the USSR Marx's theories have remained deeply influential in many ways ranging from academics like Vere Gordon Childe (who coined the term Agricultural Revolution) to the Naxalites currently active in India to thousands who take part in May Day parades. Marx was far from perfect and his views were often flawed but they've inspired millions. Those who have been inspired by him have done horrific things but also many good things. No matter your position on his views it cannot be doubted that Marx and Marxism have been highly influential.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Jonathan Sperber, Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, (New York: 2013)
-Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, (London: 2016)
-Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, (London: 1975)
-Eric Hobsbawm, 'Marx and History', New Left Review, 143, (1984), 39-50
-Harvey J. Kaye, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History, (New York: 1992)
-S.H. Rigby, 'Marxist Historiography', in Michael Bentley, (ed.), Companion to Historiography, (London: 1997)
-'Marx', BBC In Our Time