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Karl Marx | Biography


University Years and Early Radicalism

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, writer, revolutionary, and active participant in early communist and working-class movements. Marx was born May 5, 1818, to middle-class parents in Trier in what is now Germany, and received a private education before going to public high school. From there he attended the University of Bonn, where he studied humanities. He developed a personal interest in the works of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He left after a year and began studying law and philosophy at the University of Berlin. In 1836 he became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, whom he had known since childhood. She was a baroness who abandoned her aristocratic background to marry Marx. The two married after a seven-year engagement.

While at university Marx was attracted to various radical circles, including the Poets' Club in Bonn and the Young Hegelians in Berlin, a group that embraced the radical and revolutionary aspects of Hegelian philosophy. Because of its radicalism, Marx's dissertation likely would not have been accepted at the University of Berlin, so Marx submitted it to the more permissive University of Jena, which granted him a doctorate in 1841. With the generally conservative atmosphere in Prussian Germany (parts of Prussia, Brandenberg, northern Germany, and western Poland), Marx could not find an academic position and so took up journalism after graduating, writing for the radical press and cultivating his ideas on economics and socialism, the theory that advocates government ownership of goods production and distribution.

Journalism and Exile

Marx's writings got him into trouble, leading to exile that lasted until his death. He left for Paris in October 1843 to write for a new publication there. However, as he was adopting and developing the ideas he would put into "The Communist Manifesto," he was banished from Paris for writings critical of the Prussian government. He moved to Brussels, where he wrote "The Communist Manifesto" for the Communist League. The document contains many ideas from the broader socialist movements—socialism, another left-wing school of thought that has commonalities with communism, also includes social reforms such as universal health care for the welfare of the people. "The Communist Manifesto" also included Marx's own insights, written for popular consumption, in their most condensed and approachable form.

Following the 1848 publication of "The Communist Manifesto," Marx was buffeted by the tides then overtaking revolutionary Europe. In 1848 a series of revolutions in France, some German states, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and elsewhere convulsed continental Europe, in several instances leading to the construction of constitutional democracies. Influenced by these forces, Marx attempted to establish revolutionary newspapers. For his efforts he faced police harassment and prosecution, forcing him to flee from Brussels by 1849. At the time Marx arrived in London in 1850, there was an international hub of exiled revolutionaries from across Europe, and Marx involved himself in greater political activism and more serious study.

Marx and Revolution

Marx's participation in the Communist League led to internal strife regarding tactics and strategy. Some group members wanted to precipitate a workers' revolution through an action that would inspire people to revolt. Opposed to this action, Marx called it "adventurism" and forced a split in the group. Years later in the 1870s, this pattern would repeat itself in the International Workingmen's Association, a London-based federation of European worker organizations advancing socialism and communism. Also known as the First International, the organization had many internal differences of opinion, the biggest being the disagreement over the role of the state. Anti-state socialists converged around the figure of Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, arguing that Marx's vision of a state-run workers' society was foolish. More than a theoretical difference, this was a matter of practical import about whether to participate in bourgeois (middle-class) elections and proletariat (working-class) political parties as a pathway toward revolution. Marx forced a split in the organization, ousting the anti-statist members and moving its headquarters to New York, thereby contributing to the downfall of the group.

From 1850 to 1870 Marx wrote some of his most noteworthy works after "The Communist Manifesto," including his history of the 1848 revolution in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), and his 1867 masterwork, Capital, which offers a far-ranging critique of capitalism and solidified Marx's position as a major philosopher of the 19th century. In 1871 revolutions again broke out in Europe. In France the Paris Commune (the radical revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March to May of 1871, following the defeat of French ruler Napoleon III) and the struggle of the Communards —those who supported the commune—excited the hopes of revolutionaries worldwide. For Marx, as developed in his long pamphlet on the revolution, "The Civil War in France" (1871), the Paris Commune seemed to point a new way forward toward a potentially stateless version of worker democracy and class power. In the final decade of his life Marx worked on two subsequent volumes to Capital, which developed the insights framed in the first volume and sought to give his philosophical ideas greater rigor. The second two volumes of Capital remained unfinished at Marx's death and were compiled from his notes and published posthumously by Engels.

Death and Legacy

In 1881 Marx's wife, Jenny, died of liver cancer. Soon after her death Marx took ill, suffering from inflammation of the lungs and chest before succumbing to bronchitis on March 14, 1883. He and Jenny are buried in London's Highgate Cemetery. The legacy of Marx's views and writings cannot be overstated, for they radically moved the course of 19th- and 20th-century history.

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