Who is Karl Marx?

Karl Marx is credited for fathering both socialism and communism through his works. He felt that economics and separation of classes were the cause of a history rife with class struggles. He felt that capitalism demeaned the working class citizen and would inevitably cause a revolution of the working class, or proletariat. He felt that these problems could be solved by having a classless society. It was this belief that socialism and communism drew inspiration from.

Karl Marx Video

Hi, and welcome to this overview of Karl Marx! Today, we’ll be taking a look at the life, views, work, and legacy of one of the most influential political theorists in history. Let’s get started!

Historical Context

Before we get into the life of Karl Marx, it’s important that we understand some historical context. Marx formed his ideas amid the Industrial Revolution, a time of unprecedented technological advancement. Production increased dramatically with the development of steam-powered machines, and while some profited handsomely from the changes, there was a human cost to this progress. Workers endured long hours and dangerous working conditions for low wages. In response to these hardships, workers began to form unions to seek better conditions and pay.

There were many social theorists at the time who had expressed their views on these economic changes and transitions, some of whom greatly inspired Marx.

For instance, Henri Saint-Simon, the so-called founder of French socialism, argued for the state to have control of production. Essentially, he claimed that in order to have an effective society and economy, there needed to be a large industrial class, or working class. He also proposed that allowing everyone to have equal opportunities would eventually lead to social harmony. French utopian socialist Charles Fourier advocated for a more localized state based on smaller cooperative communities. He advocated for reconstructing society based on structures called “Phalanstères”, which were four-level apartment buildings containing a self-sufficient community, with the rich on the top floors and the poor on the bottom floors.

Robert Owen, a Welshmen, attempted to establish self-sufficient communities in the United States in the 1820s, but without success. Marx would later dismiss Owen’s ideas and attempts as being unrealistic.

Another important development in Marx’s lifetime was the Revolutions of 1848. A series of movements swept across Europe aiming to move away from monarchies and towards democracy. All these insurrections ultimately failed but many of their aims would be realized within the next 25 years. As we’ll soon learn, 1848 was a pivotal year in Marx’s life.

Marx’s Early Years

So, to the man himself. Karl Marx was born in the German city of Trier on May 5, 1818. Marx was the son of a Jewish barrister, Hirschel Marx, who would later change his name to Heinrich and convert to Lutheranism. He made these changes to overcome the systemic discrimination against Jews in the professions.

The young Karl was sent to the University of Bonn in 1835 to study law, but he transferred to Berlin the following year after running afoul of the Borussia Korps, a cadet branch of the Prussian police. This would certainly not be Marx’s last brush with the law.

After gaining his doctorate from the University of Jena in 1841, he embarked on a brief and eventful career in journalism in Cologne. Within a year, Marx was appointed editor of the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung.

Withering criticism of local authorities soon drew the attention of the censors. After an anti-Russian piece drew the displeasure of Nicholas I, the paper was suppressed by Prussian authorities in March of 1843 and Marx left for Paris. He married his long-time fiancé Jenny von Westphalen that same year.

Ideological Allies

His stay in the French capital helped develop many of the core tenets of Marxist thought concerning capital and labor. Equally important was the formation of a lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels in the summer of 1844. Engels, the son of a mill owner, developed revolutionary ideas through studying Georg Hegel’s work and attending lectures at the University of Berlin while completing his military service. On an 1842 visit to England, he gained a keen understanding of the working conditions in the textile factories and met his long-term partner, Mary Burns.

Though they agreed with each other when it came to theoretical ideas, Marx and Engels were quite different people. Where Marx was messy and chaotic, Engels was neat and organized. Marx was almost always in dire financial straits while Engels was quite well-off, and actually provided vital financial support to the Marxes for several years.

Friedrich Engels and Jenny Marx were perhaps the only two people who could decipher Karl’s hurriedly scrawled handwriting, a skill that would allow Engels to organize and publish the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx’s death.

Marx left Paris for Belgium after once again incurring the anger of the authorities. In 1847 Marx and Engels merged the League of the Just with the Communist Correspondence Committee to create the Communist League. The League tasked Marx with developing a set of political principles for the new group. After several months of procrastination, the exasperated League wrote to Marx in January 1848 to demand the completion of the project by February 1st. Under the strain of an impending deadline and a cloud of cigar smoke, one of the most influential political pamphlets ever written was born.

Manifesto for Change

The Manifesto of the Communist Party is a rather misleading name, for there was no Communist Party at the time, nor were the handful of pages an actual manifesto in the sense of outlining specific policies. The pamphlet is divided into four chapters. The first, Bourgeois and Proletarians, describes human history as a struggle between classes. Simply put, the proletarians were the lower classes: the slaves and workers. The bourgeoisie were the middle classes who struggled with the aristocracy and had come to own the means of production by the 19th century. Marx believed the downfall of the bourgeoisie was inevitable as every increase in production would only enlarge the lower class proletariat.

“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

The subsequent chapter calls for the abolition of private property and offers a ten-point communist program. Among them, the once radical idea of free public education for all children. The third chapter critiques other socialist movements, while the closing chapter discusses other revolutionary movements at the time. The manifesto ends with the familiar call to action to overthrow the ruling classes, imploring the workers of the world to unite.

Shortly after the publication of the manifesto in February 1848, a series of revolutions broke out across Europe. These were not uprisings of workers but of bourgeois liberals inspired by national independence and unity. Only in France was there a significant uprising of workers which was swiftly crushed in the summer of 1848. Another revolt took place in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

After a year in Cologne, and having been defeated by financial and legal troubles, Marx arrived in his next and final destination in 1849: London. Marx regularly contributed articles to the New York Daily Tribune and wrote extensively but was constantly in financial hardship. His multi-volume epic Capital greatly expanded on the ideas explored in the Communist Manifesto and represented the culmination of nearly three decades of work.

The first volume was concerned with production and the idea of surplus value. Surplus value is the idea that a worker is paid less than the total value of their labor, with the capitalist pocketing the difference. Volumes 2 and 3 came after Marx’s death in 1883. The second volume focuses on circulation, while the final volume describes the inevitable collapse of the capitalist mode of production. As you can imagine, this is an extremely streamlined overview of over 1100 pages of dense historical, economic, and political theory.

Marx’s influence during his own lifetime was rather limited, but has grown enormously in the years following his death. Trade Unions professing Marxist ideals rose to prominence in Europe and America in the 1880s and 1890s. The Second International, an international organization of labor movements, was founded in 1889 and lasted until 1916. Large political parties began to form in Europe and modify Marxist ideas away from violent revolution and towards more peace-making politics. However, things were quite different in Russia.

The tyranny of Russian tsars led to the formation of the Bolsheviks; an organization led by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s adaptation of Marxism to the situation in Russia strayed quite a bit from the source material. The success of the Bolsheviks by 1923 owed more to peasant soldiers organized by a small band of elites rather than an uprising of workers. Marxism-Leninism supplied the ideological framework for other major revolutions, particularly in China. Elsewhere, the rise of Communism was a source of a great deal of alarm.

Over the course of the 20th century, a long catalog of atrocities was committed both in the name of Marxism and in opposition to it. In the 21st century, Marx remains an incredibly divisive figure, but the influence of his ideas can scarcely be overstated.

Ok, before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions:

Review Questions

1. Where did the ideas of socialism originate?

  1. France
  2. Prussia
  3. Bavaria
  4. England
The correct answer is A.

Remember, France was the home of the first socialist theorists like Henri Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier.


2. Which of the following best describes the bourgeoisie?

  1. The aristocracy
  2. The working-class
  3. The middle-class
  4. Royalty
The correct answer is C.

The bourgeoisie best describes the middle-class.


I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!


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