Karl Marx was one of the greatest revolutionary thinkers of the 19th century. He is the one who introduced the historical dimension to an understanding of society, culture and economics. Marx borrowed certain concepts from G.W.F Hegel and at times he modified these concepts.
His thought of communism (which has been popularized as scientific socialism) shaped the course of history for years after he laid down his theory. Marxism is intriguing due to multiple factors. First, the building of Marxism stands on firm reasoning, sound logic and rational analysis. Second, an in-depth study of Marxism makes one believe that capitalism is a temporary arrangement and this arrangement would eventually pave way for an advanced arrangement of social and material life of people i.e. communism. Last, Marxism denounces all earlier ideologies as false consciousness and offers a solution to the riddle of history.
According to Marx, “The philosophers of the world have interpreted it in many ways, but the point, however, is to change it.” Marx is the only thinker whose ideology has been implemented, though not in its pure form. Marxism is more than a philosophy. It is an action-oriented ideology. However, the fact that humans have tried to practice Marx’s theorized way of life speaks volumes about Karl Marx and the clout he exercised on the minds of people.
Karl Marx: Life and Times
Born in Trier, Germany in 1818 Karl Marx hailed from a prosperous Jewish family. His father, Heinrich Marx, practiced law and was a man of honour. It was Heinrich Marx who ensured that Karl, his son was a voracious reader of Locke, Diderot and Voltaire. Karl Marx, in his childhood, along with his family, embraced Christianity so that his father could continue the practice of law.
Karl enrolled for the law course at the University of Bonn. In his student days at the University of Bonn, Marx took to drinking at the local beer hall and involved himself in political discussions with other students. Moreover, Marx picked up a physical fight with one of the university students. Perplexed by their son’s shocking activities his parents made him shift to the more disciplined University of Berlin. Marx earned his doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Jena in 1841. In his university days, Hegel had a profound impact on Marx. A group of intellectuals – Young Hegelians – appealed to the now-intellectually-inclined Marx. This group discussed, within the framework of Hegelian dialectics, revolutionary concepts such as atheism and communism in its pure form. These fruitful discussions and debates inspired Marx to become a philosopher. After completing his education Marx was hell-bent on teaching. His favourite professor, Bruno Bauer, was determined to secure an academic position for Marx at Bonn. Bauer was expelled for anti-religious ideas. Along with Bauer’s career, Dr. Marx’s academic career hopes were squashed too.
Marx now took to journalism first as a reporter and later by assuming the role of editor for Rheinische Zeitung, a liberal newspaper. Robert Heilbroner’s words capture Marx’s career at Zeitung – “His (Marx’s) career lasted exactly five months. Marx was then a radical, but his radicalism was philosophical rather than political. His editorials were too much for the authorities. He wrote a bitter denunciation of the law... for this, he was censured. He wrote editorials deploring the housing situation; for this, he was warned. And when he went on to say some uncomplimentary things about the Tsar of Russia, the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed. (Heilbroner 1999)1”
In 1842, Marx married his childhood love, Jennet von Westphalen and moved to Paris to edit the German-French yearbook. “Jenny was the belle of the town. Beautiful and with suitor’s galore she could have easily made a more suitable match than the young man next door. But she was in love with him and both the families smiled their approval. (Heilbroner 1999)2” It was in Paris, that Marx met Friedrich Engels. A symbiotic relationship between the two lasted for the next 40 years results of which were several philosophical and political works. However, the two transcended the intellectual strings that held them together and went on to establish a warm, life-long and friendly relationship. The Holy Family (1945) was the first result of their collaboration.
Marx’s dabbling in journalism made him recognize the chief role played by economics in social and political life. He assessed the gravity of the world in which market forces played a key role. It was during this time that Marx’s thinking sailed from the land of liberal philosophy to the newfound shore of political radicalism. However, his radical thoughts ousted Marx from Paris compelling him to seek shelter in Brussels. It was in Belgium that Marx (along with Engels) published “The Communist Manifesto” as his masterpiece. In The Manifesto, Marx and Engels, laid down the basic tenets of a communist society and called for a revolution. It is a document which is universally accepted as the cornerstone of modern communist thought.
Along with the publication of the Manifesto in 1848, the first Marxist political party i.e. the Communist League was formed. However, throughout its lifetime the Communist League remained a paper organization before its death in 1852. After being forced to move from Belgium and Germany Marx finally made London his home in1849. In his brief stay in Germany, Marx took over the editorship of some newspaper. However, this newspaper too was shut down by the Government. In London, Marx wrote several political articles for The New York Tribune. Marx was actively involved with German Workers’ Educational Society. In 1852 Marx published his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon which was a commentary on the French Revolution of 1848.
From here on, Marx transformed from a philosopher, idealistic young Hegelian interested in the upliftment of mankind to an economist, scientific minded, mature and a revolutionary person interested in eliminating exploitation of the mankind. “Early” Marx is Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; while the “later” Marx is Marx of the Communist Manifesto, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Das Kapital.
Marx was actively involved in the activities of International Workingmen’s Association founded in 1864. However, the association had a short lifespan. The composition of the association at its peak was eight million members but the quality of these members was disturbing. It consisted of “lukewarm socialists, rabid nationalists and trade unionists who were leery of any kind of revolutionary theory whatsoever. (Heilbroner 1999)3” The First International was followed by a Second which included socialists such as G.B. Shaw, Ramsay McDonald and Pilsudki.
Marx’s magnum opus was yet to come. Das Kapital (Capital) was its name. Published in four volumes over a period of forty-five years the book (or the collection of four volumes) consists of twenty-five hundred pages. Its first volume was published in 1865. Das Kapital subjected capitalism to the toughest scrutiny it had ever faced. Marx highlights the “laws of motion” that define the processes which take place in a capitalist system
He predicts the collapse of capitalism. Marx as an emotional critic writes in his book “capital has a vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Despite its prose being fuelled by fury the book manages, and amazingly so, to analyze capitalism with cold logic in the light of the available facts and statistics. Maybe Das capital was the synergy of “early” and the “later” Marx. Its fourth and final edition was published in 1910, after Marx’s death.
Other works of Marx include: Theses on Feuerbach (1845), A Critique of German Ideology (1845), Wage-Labour and Capital (1849), Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), The Capital: Volume I (1865), The Civil War in France (1871) and Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). Marx is known for his concept of dialectical materialism, the theory of surplus value, the theory of labour value, the theory of class war, the theory of revolution, thoughts on consciousness, a classless society etc. Above all he is known for his social thought of “scientific socialism” popularly known as communism. Communism is widely identified with Marx alone.
Jenny Marx died in 1881. Marx was unwell. He didn’t attend his wife’s funeral. On this Engels lamented, “The Moor is dead, too.” On a quiet March afternoon, 1883 Marx too bid adieu to the world. Marx’s name, like those of Freud and Plato remains contemporary. Marx taught us not just to look at, but to look through, history, just as Freud taught us to look through the facade of personality to the psychic processes within us or as Plato taught us to look through the screen of unexamined ideas to the veiled questions of philosophy. Marx was a great explorer whose footprints have indelibly imprinted on the continent of social thought that he discovered.
For detailed research paper Click: Karl Marx and his island of thoughts
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