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The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 1 of 4
by Alex Callinicos
Estimated Reading Time: 13 min

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in Trier, an ancient cathedral town in the German Rhineland. Both his parents were Jewish, the descendants of many generations of rabbis; his family name had been Mordechai, then Markus, before Marx. Marx’s father, Heinrich, however, had converted to Lutheran Christianity in 1817, in order to evade a decree excluding Jews from public office. The Rhineland, although annexed by the reactionary Prussian monarchy in 1815, remained the most economically and politically advanced part of Germany, heavily influenced by the French Revolution.

I found this short biography of Marx himself incredibly informative. It is not just a sketch of the man, but the moment he came out of, the movements that formed him, the thinkers he was responding to. It was honestly clarifying. Enjoy.

Heinrich Marx, a successful legal official, was a moderate liberal with a deep faith in the power of reason. His granddaughter Eleanor called him “a real Frenchman of the eighteenth century who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau by heart.” The relationship between father and son was close: Marx carried a picture of Heinrich till his death, when it was buried with him.

The future author of Capital was brought up in a comfortable and fairly prosperous middle-class home. Educated at the high school in Trier, he received a liberal education with a strong emphasis on the classics. He does not seem to have been an outstanding pupil, and his surviving school essays give little hint of his future greatness. An important influence on the young Marx was a Prussian civil servant, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, who introduced him to Homer and Shakespeare, and whose daughter he was to marry.

In 1835 Marx went to Bonn University to study law. A conventional middle-class career in his father’s footsteps seemed set out for him. Like his fellow students, he got drunk, ran up debts, fought duels, and even spent a night in jail for brawling. A taste for writing bad romantic poems (only some of which, thankfully, have survived) was made worse when he became secretly engaged to Jenny von Westphalen during the summer vacation of 1836. Jenny was four years his senior, from a higher social bracket, and something of a local belle. When Marx revisited Trier many years later, in 1862, he “was asked daily, left and right, after the former ‘prettiest girl in Trier’ and the ‘queen of the ball.’”

There was opposition to the match from both their parents. Some of the von Westphalens were extreme reactionaries (Jenny’s brother became a Prussian cabinet minister in the 1850s), while Heinrich Marx was afraid that his son’s “demonic spirit” would lead them to disaster. “Will you ever—and that is not the least painful doubt of my heart—will you ever be capable of truly human, domestic happiness?” This parental opposition may help to explain why it was seven years before Karl and Jenny were to be married, on June 19, 1843.

In October 1836 Marx moved to Berlin University. His original intention was to continue his legal studies, but he soon became distracted, as he explained to his horrified father in a famous letter of November 10, 1837. Dissatisfied with his love poetry as “moonshine,” Marx settled down to serious study. He was drawn first into the philosophy of law, and then into philosophy proper. Inevitably, he had to come to terms with the work of the most influential philosopher of the day, G. W. F. Hegel. At first repelled by its “grotesque, craggy melody,” Marx soon found himself, to his immense annoyance, converted.

This conversion was more than an intellectual process: German philosophy in the 1830s and 1840s was a highly political business. Germany was then a politically divided and economically and socially backward country, a patchwork of petty princedoms each claiming absolute power over its subjects, dominated by the reactionary Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia. Yet intellectually the country flourished. The early decades of the nineteenth century were the golden age of German philosophy. It was almost as if this overdevelopment of abstract thought was a compensation for Germany’s political impotence and economic backwardness. “In politics the Germans thought what other nations did,” as Marx later put it.

The contradictions of German society were reflected in Hegel’s thought. At first an enthusiast for the French Revolution, and for Napoleon, Hegel later became a pessimist and reactionary, believing that the absolutist Prussian state was the embodiment of reason. In the 1830s and 1840s he was, to all intents and purposes, the official Prussian philosopher, and his followers received appointments in the state-controlled universities.

This situation did not last. A number of younger philosophers began to interpret Hegel in an increasingly radical way. Hegel identified reason with God, calling it the Absolute. History was, for him, simply the story of the Absolute’s gradual journey toward consciousness of itself, a process whose climax was the Protestant Reformation. For the Young Hegelians, or Left Hegelians, as they came to be called, the Absolute was simply humanity. God vanished from the picture. They agreed with Hegel that the state should be the embodiment of reason, but they disagreed that the Prussian monarchy fulfilled this role. They were atheists, rationalists and liberals. As first they hoped that the Prussian crown prince would introduce the democratic reforms they wanted. After he had succeeded to the throne as King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1840, and had shown himself as reactionary as his predecessors, the Young Hegelians’ opposition to the status quo in Germany became more and more radical.

Into this intellectual and political scene Marx was drawn after his introduction to philosophy. The Hegelian left congregated in the Berlin Doctors’ Club. Marx soon became a prominent member of the club and a close friend of Bruno Bauer, one of the foremost Young Hegelians. They were a drunken, loose-living bunch. Heinrich Marx complained that “as if we were men of wealth, my Herr Son disposed in one year of almost 700 thalers contrary to all agreement, contrary to all usage, whereas the richest spend less than 500.”

Marx’s links with his family were virtually broken off after his father’s death in May 1838. He does not seem to have gotten along very well with his mother, although she provided him with quite large sums of money over the years. A satirical poem by the young Engels and Bruno’s brother Edgar Bauer describes Marx at this time as “a swarthy chap of Trier, a marked monstrosity/He neither hops nor skips, but moves in leaps and bounds/Raving aloud . . . /He shakes his wicked fist, raves with a frantic air/As if ten thousand devils had him by the hair.”

Marx seems to have hoped to pursue a career as a professional philosopher. He devoted much time to studying the early Greek thinkers, and in April 1841 received his doctorate for a thesis entitled “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” Although obscurely written, and strongly Hegelian, the thesis shows Marx’s growing impatience with the highly idealistic philosophy of his friend Bruno Bauer, who sought to reduce everything to human consciousness. The growing confrontation between the Prussian state and the Young Hegelians put paid to Marx’s hopes of an academic career. Friedrich Wilhelm IV suppressed the main Left Hegelian journal, Arnold Ruge’s Hallische Jahrbücher, and appointed Hegel’s old enemy, Schelling, professor of philosophy at Berlin, with instructions to root out the “dragon seed of Hegelianism.” Finally, in March 1842, Bauer was sacked from his teaching post at Bonn University.

Marx, who had returned to Trier in 1841, now threw himself into political journalism. The Rheinische Zeitung had been set up by Rhineland industrialists to press for their economic interests. To its bourgeois shareholders’ bemusement, however, it soon fell under the control of the Young Hegelians, led by Moses Hess, one of the first German communists. Marx began writing for the paper in April 1842, and in October moved to Cologne to become its editor in chief. He was at this stage a radical liberal democrat, who hoped to see in Germany a republic and universal suffrage such as France had achieved after the revolution of 1789. When another paper accused the Rheinische Zeitung of communism he replied that “the Rheinische Zeitung . . . does not admit that communist ideas in their present form possess even theoretical reality, and therefore can still less desire their practical realization”. Nevertheless, the Rheinische Zeitung was a turning point. It was then, Marx later reminisced, that “I experienced for the first time the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests”. Marx, like the other Young Hegelians, followed their master in believing that the state was, or should be, above classes: as the representative of the universal interests shared by every citizen, the function of the state was to reconcile the differences of interest and conflicts between classes.

Studying the debates in the local Rhenish Estates (or parliament) on proposals for tightening up the law against thefts of wood, Marx realized that both the industrial capitalists who financed his newspaper and the feudal landowners who supported Prussian absolutism shared a common interest in the preservation of private property. An investigation of the wretched conditions of the peasants in the Moselle wine country brought home to him the effects of private property. As Engels put it fifty years later, “I heard Marx say again and again that it was precisely through concerning himself with the wood-theft law and with the situation of the Moselle peasants that he was shunted from pure politics over to economic conditions, and thus came to socialism”.

It was not only “pure politics” that Marx abandoned while at the Rheinische Zeitung. The experience of persecution drove Bauer and the Berlin Doctors’ Club to greater and greater extremes of verbal radicalism. Isolated in Berlin, the stronghold of the Prussian bureaucracy, and far from the more economically developed and liberal Rhineland, they continued to see their task as the purely intellectual one of refuting error. The chief target was religion, which the “Free,” as they now called themselves, endlessly denounced. Meanwhile, every compromise which the harassed Marx made to keep Prussian censorship from closing down the Rheinische Zeitung they denounced as treason. He learned a lifelong lesson—that theory which loses contact with reality becomes impotent.

It was with Bruno Bauer and his other old cronies in Berlin in mind that Marx wrote a little later that

we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

Here we have the origins of Marx’s later attitude toward the working class. The task of the theorist is not to lay down the law to workers, but rather to make sense of what they are fighting for, to show how they can achieve it.

It remained only for Marx to discover the working class. That he had not done so yet is shown by a manuscript he wrote in mid-1843 while on honeymoon with Jenny at Kreuznach (he had resigned from the Rheinische Zeitung shortly before the censors finally suppressed it in March 1843). Called Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, it was not to be published until 1927.

Here Marx set out to refute Hegel’s idea that the state was above classes. He was clearly very much under the influence of the most radical of the Young Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, when he wrote it. Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity created a sensation when it appeared in 1841, went much further than Bruno Bauer. Feuerbach argued that Hegel’s philosophy should be rejected in toto: philosophy’s starting point had to be not God or the Idea but human beings and the material conditions in which they live. Obviously, this attracted those such as Marx, Engels and Hess who were beginning to believe that only a social revolution could bring radical political change in Germany. But Marx had not yet seized on the working class as the agent of this revolution. He still looked toward “true democracy”—universal suffrage—as the means of bringing the state under the control, not of the propertied minority, but of the mass of the population.

A year after writing the Critique, Marx was an open advocate of working-class revolution, a communist. The decisive factor behind this shift was his move to Paris. Prussian censorship had made work in Germany impossible. Marx and Arnold Ruge decided to produce a Young Hegelian journal abroad, the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. In October 1843 the Marxes arrived in Paris to join Ruge. Paris was very different from Berlin or Cologne. The cultural capital of nineteenth-century Western civilization, it was also the metropolis of a country undergoing rapid industrialization, under the rule of a corrupt clique of courtiers and bankers gathered around the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis-Philippe. In Paris a swarm of communist and socialist sects—some of them with mass followings—coexisted and quarreled. There were also forty thousand expatriate Germans, most of them artisans, many of them under the influence of a revolutionary secret society, the League of the Just.

Marx’s contacts with the French and German communist societies in Paris were his first experience of an organized working-class movement. The impact was enormous. He wrote to Feuerbach in August 1844:

You would have to attend one of the meetings of the French workers to appreciate the pure freshness, the nobility which burst forth from these toil-worn men . . . . It is among these “barbarians” of our civilized society that history is preparing the practical element for the emancipation of mankind.
This new view of the working class was expressed in Marx’s two contributions to the only issue of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbucher to appear, in March 1844 (its editors quarreling, banned by the Prussian government, ignored by the French, the journal sank without a trace when its publisher withdrew his backing). In “On the Jewish Question” Marx argued, against Bauer, that a purely political revolution, such as that of 1789 in France, would liberate man only as “an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprices, and separated from the community”. Only a social revolution which swept away private property and individualism could offer “human emancipation.”

In the second essay, which had been intended as the Introduction to Marx’s unpublished Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he argued that only such a revolution was possible in Germany. The German bourgeoisie—the middle class—was too weak to play the role taken by its French counterpart in 1789, leading the whole people against the monarchy. Only the proletariat—the industrial working class—could play this role:

a class with radical chains, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete rewinning of man.

As this last passage makes clear, Marx’s approach to politics was still steeped in philosophy. He thought in terms of an alliance between philosophy and the working class—one, indeed, in which philosophy would play the leading role. He called the workers the “passive element” of the revolution and wrote that “the head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat”. Workers were to play a revolutionary role because they were the most wretched of classes, not—as he later came to believe—the most powerful.

This rather patronizing and elitist attitude soon changed—for two reasons. First, while in Paris, Marx undertook his first serious study of the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the other political economists. As a result, he wrote, between April and August 1844, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. To be first published in 1932, these writings contain an early version of Marx’s materialist theory of history. Most important of all, the revolutionary role of the working class is explained in terms of workers’ role in the production of goods, which compels them to struggle against capitalism. “From the relationship of estranged labor to private property it follows that the emancipation of society from private property, etc, from servitude, is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers”.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's exciting follow-up.

The second reason for Marx’s change of attitude was that the German working class gave dramatic proof that it was more than just a “passive element.” In June 1844 the Silesian weavers rebelled against their masters, and the army had to be called in to restore order. Ruge published an anonymous article in a German émigré paper in Paris in which he dismissed the revolt and attacked the weavers. He was probably speaking for most of the Young Hegelians. The article was attributed to Marx, who wrote a furious reply denouncing Ruge and championing the workers for their courage and the high level of their organization and consciousness. He regarded the working class no longer as the passive but as the “dynamic element” of the German revolution. Marx the revolutionary communist had finally emerged.

The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 1 of 4
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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