Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Heinrich Marx is an enigmatic member of the philosophical pantheon. Once revered by many and vilified by others, this controversial C19th German philosopher, in large part, shaped the history of the modern world. Indeed, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, his writings were held as Holy Writ by millions. Today however, serious scholars of Marxism could doubtless hold their convention in a stable yard.

Born on the 5th of May 1818 at Trier in the Prussian Rhineland, Marx came from a well-to-do middle class family of Jewish extraction. He studied law at the University of Bonn; Friedrich Schiller University of Jena and the Humboldt University of Berlin. At the latter in March 1841 he wrote his Doctoral dissertation: The Difference between the Philosophies of Nature in Democritus and Epicurus. At Berlin he also associated with the radical followers of the highly regarded idealist philosopher Georg Hegel.

On the completion of his studies Marx moved away from philosophy per se and entered a period of political activism centred on his materialist conception of history, economic determinism and the idea of class struggle. In Paris he began a lifelong friendship with a fellow German socialist and cotton manufacturer’s son, Friedrich Engels, a friendship which was destined to bloom into a profound intellectual partnership.

After the failure of the 1848 revolution in Paris, Marx returned briefly to Germany but in 1849 he and his family moved to London where they lived in straightened circumstances for the remainder his life, dependent largely upon the generosity of his friend Engels.

Ensconced in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Marx commenced his detailed researches and furthered his economic theories of surplus value and man’s alienation under capitalism. His magnum opus, Das Kapital (Vol.1) was published in 1867. Two further volumes, translated and edited by his friend Engels, were published in 1884 and 1894 after his death. 

Following the death of his wife Marx suffered a short period of extreme ill-health and died on the 14th of March, 1883. He was buried at Highgate Cemetery and his grave site became a de facto international memorial to socialism.

Marx left a considerable literary legacy but is best remembered perhaps for his voluminous writings on economics, particularly his economic treatise Das Kapital. Considered by many as one of the world’s foundation sociologists, he was also a journalist, historian and revolutionary polemicist - his Communist Manifesto is a brilliant polemic and a stirring example of political propaganda. His ideas contributed profoundly to the development and rapid advance of socialism and revolutionary activism.

Less understood and certainly understated was his contribution to ethics and moral philosophy.