- Co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels
- Characterized religion as the “opiate of the people”
- Believed that capitalism was founded on the merciless exploitation of workers; that a disgruntled proletariat would spearhead a revolution by which capitalism was destroyed; and that communism was the inevitable end-point of human progress.
The third of nine children, Karl Marx was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Trier, Germany on May 5, 1818. His father was a lawyer who sought to escape his society’s prevalent anti-Semitism by converting his entire family to Protestantism; when Karl Marx was six, the boy and his siblings were baptized into their new faith.
In 1835 Karl Marx enrolled at Bonn University to study law and philosophy. But reckless living plunged him into debt, which his father paid off on the condition that Marx transfer to the more tranquil environs of Berlin University. There, he was strongly influenced by the lecturer Bruno Bauer, a radical atheist who introduced him to the writings of the late philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.
Marx was particularly impacted by Hegel’s theory that society evolved and progressed in accordance with the laws of “dialectic,” a cyclical pattern in which one prevailing idea/worldview (thesis) comes into conflict with an opposing idea/worldview (antithesis), and by means of that conflict causes a new, more meritorious creation (synthesis) to emerge. Marx believed that through this process, society would eventually move past capitalist economics—as it had previously moved past feudalism—and embrace socialism and communism.
In Berlin, Marx became involved with the Young Hegelians, a group of radical students who criticized the prevailing political and religious establishments of the day. Among these radicals were Bruno Bauer and another atheist philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.
Marx earned a doctorate from the University of Jena in 1841 but was subsequently unable to secure a teaching post because of his radical politics. When he then tried his hand at journalism, he similarly found few editors willing to publish his radical compositions. In October 1842 Marx moved to Cologne, Germany and became editor of The Rhenish Gazette, the newspaper of a liberal opposition movement known as the Cologne Circle. In Cologne, he met the radical socialist Moses Hess and began attending socialist meetings organized by the latter. After Marx published a January 1843 article critical of the government’s treatment of the poor, Prussian authorities banned his Rhenish Gazette.
Marx then moved to Paris to become editor of a new political journal, the Franco-German Annals. One of its contributors was Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), the radical son of a wealthy German industrialist. Engels shared Marx’s contempt for capitalism, and the two would remain lifelong frends and collaborators.
In 1844 Marx, now a committed communist, articulated his views in a series of writings known as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which remained unpublished until the 1930s. In the Manuscripts, he contrasted the alienation that workers felt under capitalism with the liberation that communism promised. One of Marx’s essays—“A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”—characterized religion as the “opiate of the people,” a fantasy that would eventually wither away when communism emancipated humanity from material deprivation and the egregious exploitation inherent in capitalism. Marx also held that the proletariat (working class) would lead this emancipation.
Under pressure from Prussian authorities, the French government expelled Marx from the country on January 25, 1845. At that point, Marx and Engels moved to Brussels, known for its permissive atmosphere vis-à-vis free expression. Now in dire straights financially, Marx and his family were supported by Engels. This arrangement would continue for most of Marx’s remaining years.
In the 1840s Marx focused on completing his manuscript of The German Ideology, a book asserting that for purposes of changing the world for the better—i.e., replacing capitalism with communism—people’s actions were far more consequential than their thoughts. As Marx famously remarked in his “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Ultimately, Marx was unable to find a publisher for The German Ideology, which, like much of his work, was not published until after his death.
In January 1846 Marx established a Communist Correspondence Committee to link together socialist leaders living in different parts of Europe. This led to the creation in England of the Communist League, a branch of which Marx himself subsequently founded in Brussels. In December 1847 the League formally committed itself to “the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society based on class antagonisms, and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property.”
Also in 1847, the Communist League asked Marx and Engels to write a Manifesto of the Communist Party, laying out its principles, agendas, and vision of a classless society where economic equality reigned. The authors completed the book in just six weeks, and the _C_ommunist Manifesto was published in February 1848.
The following month, the Belgian government expelled Marx from the country. He and Engels moved to Cologne and founded a radical newspaper, the New Rhenish Gazette, in hopes of fomenting revolution. But the paper was suppressed, and Marx relocated to Paris. Within a month the French police expelled him, and he spent the rest of his life in London. There, Marx rejoined the Communist League but soon lost hope that he would witness a world revolution within his lifetime. Concluding that “a new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis,” he devoted his energy to studying how such a crisis could be triggered.
In 1852 Marx began a ten-year stint writing for the New York Daily Tribune, under its socialist editor Charles Dana. Another U.S.-based radical, George Ripley, also commissioned Marx to write for the New American Cyclopaedia.
Marx was deeply affected by the November 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle,” he wrote in January 1861.
In 1864 Marx was elected to the General Council of the First International, an organization that sought to unite a variety of left-wing socialist, communist and anarchist political groups and trade unions from around the world.
In his remaining years, Marx continued to develop a number of major theses: that the value of any commodity can be objectively measured by the average number of labor hours required to produce it; that capitalism was founded on the merciless exploitation of workers and contained the seeds of its own destruction; that a disgruntled proletariat would spearhead the revolution by which capitalism was destroyed; and that communism was the inevitable end-point of human progress. He laid out these ideas in his book Das Kapital, of which the first volume was published in 1867. Marx subsequently worked on Volumes II and III, but he died of pleurisy on March 14, 1883 without having published them. Engels thereafter edited the two volumes quite heavily and published them in 1885 and 1894, respectively.
Notably, Marx was an inveterate racist and anti-Semite throughout his life. When the United States annexed California in the late 1840s, for instance, Marx asked sarcastically: “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?” Referencing his socialist political rival Ferdinand Lassalle in an 1861 letter to Engels, Marx wrote: “It is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes who had joined Moses’ exodus from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother on the paternal side had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger-like.” Engels shared Marx’s racial philosophy. And in his 1944 his essay titled “On the Jewish Question,” Marx wrote: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. … Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man — and turns them into commodities. … The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange. … The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.”