The birth of Karl Marx

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Karl Marx died on 14 March 1883 and was buried three days later at Highgate cemetery in north London. Every year a small group make their way to the cemetery to mark the death of Marx with a socialist speech.

Somehow it is always images from the final period of his life that we find with us today. It is Marx, the imposing man with a beard who spent his time studying in the British Museum, that is remembered. However, with demonstrations in Seattle and even London echoing Marx’s thoughts about getting rid of capitalism altogether, perhaps we should start from the other way round and look at the young Marx.

Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier in the Rhineland of Prussia, now Germany. His father, Hirschel Marx, owned several vineyards and was a well to do businessman. However he was also Jewish in a city where this was very much a minority faith. In fact, Marx was born into a town that was in a state of turmoil. It had been occupied by France during the Napoleonic Wars, and ideas of free expression and religious toleration had taken hold. Trier had been taken back into Prussia in 1815, but the situation remained far from stable. Jews in the town became subject to a Prussian law of 1812 which banned them from public life. That was a problem for a prosperous businessman like Hirschel. He changed his name to Heinrich and became a Catholic.

At the age of 17 Marx started at Bonn University. He successfully dodged military service a year later by claiming that he had a weak chest. Marx stayed only a year at Bonn, and his reference stated that while he applied himself to academic work he also had something of a reputation for getting drunk. In fact, Marx was one of the leaders of the Trier Tavern Club.

Marx went on to the University of Berlin, and this proved a decisive turning point in the development of his ideas. Hegel had held the chair of philosophy at the university for 13 years until his death in 1831. In 1836 when Marx arrived there Hegelian influence was still strong. Marx originally studied law, at the behest of his father, but later switched to philosophy.

Marx joined the Doctors Club, a group of Young Hegelians including Bruno Bauer and Arnold Ruge who met to drink and discuss left wing ideas. Marx completed a doctorate based on the ideas of Hegel. As Marx graduated he faced a crossroads in his life. He could have settled down to an academic career. However, he was already fed up with the lack of serious intellectual inquiry at the university. Instead Marx moved to one of the most liberal German cities, Cologne, and got a job writing for the Rheinische Zeitung.

Marx’s first article in the Zeitung focused on freedom of the press and censorship. The paper, and Marx’s writings in particular, were increasingly heavily censored. Eventually the authorities simply closed down the paper altogether.

Marx was now thoroughly fed up with all aspects of official German life. By September 1843 he was on his way to Paris, then the centre of socialist thought and activity in Europe. Marx’s first break with Hegelian ideas came at the political level, as he began to support the League of the Just, a clandestine communist organisation, and started going to workers’ meetings.

Marx then began to develop a thoroughgoing critique of Hegel. For Marx Hegel looked at things the wrong way round. He saw ideas as the all important influence on everything else. Marx started to grapple his way towards an understanding that it was material reality that created ideas. Marx began to read economists like Ricardo and Adam Smith.

There followed a series of now famous works that laid out the basis of Marx’s approach. In an introduction to an unpublished critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx identified the material basis of religious belief. He wrote, ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances.’

Marx had been an admirer of the philosopher Feuerbach, but in 1845 in the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ he subjected his previous views to a rigorous re-examination, again pushing his materialist standpoint further. In the third thesis, for example, he wrote that ‘the materialist doctrine concerning the change of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.’

In November 1847 Marx and Engels attended the second congress of the Communist League, the successor to the League of the Just. The league was an open workers’ organisation, and it agreed to publish a manifesto outlining its views. Marx and Engels were commissioned to write it. By February 1848, in conjunction with Engels, Marx had written and published The Communist Manifesto. He was not yet 30.

When you look at the circumstances of the birth and early years of Karl Marx it is so different to the grey icon who is worshipped once a year in Highgate cemetery. His youthful lifestyle–drinking, missing lectures, debt–is not an unfamiliar one.

However, he was a serious thinker, and when his ideas came into contact with political activity in the 1840s the result was truly groundbreaking. It is a combination of Marx the young activist and fighter, and Marx the thinker, thantcan inspire those who fought at Seattle and the many who, having had enough of a capitalist system that keeps a few in riches and most in poverty, will join the fightback in the period to come.

Keith Flett is a socialist historian and a prolific letter writer in the British press.

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