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Karl Marx’s extensive critique of capitalism as an economic and social system driven by class conflict, exploitation, and alienation—and his vision of its replacement in the logic of history by a humane, egalitarian, and democratic Communism—found worldwide resonance after his death in 1883; it fundamentally altered the way large numbers of intellectuals, workers, and peasants regarded historical change and social and political struggle.
The power of Karl Marx’s critique and analysis of capitalism, and his fervent call to action to replace it with his egalitarian ideal of communism, inspired revolutionary parties and movements to overthrow governments in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The success of those revolutions shaped key features of the twentieth-century world and called more attention to his writings, but Marx himself would probably not have endorsed much of what was done in his name. When he read how French Marxists were applying his ideas he told his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist!” (Marx and Engels 1993a, 353).
With interests spanning philosophy, journalism, political agitation, economic theory, and satire, Marx had an astonishing capacity for rapidly assimilating everything he read and for setting his ideas on paper. In addition to keeping voluminous notebooks, he published major works in economics, philosophy, and political analysis. A profound and systematic thinker who was by nature an optimist, Marx believed that ideas should be employed to change the world and that, if theory is to be at all meaningful, theory has to inform practice. In line with that thinking, he was active in radical politics most of his life.
As a young man, Marx studied philosophy and received a doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1841. Because his radical ideas barred him from a university career in Prussia (the largest German state), he went to work as a journalist in Cologne, but Prussian authorities closed the popular newspaper he edited in March 1843. Immigrating to Paris, he became attracted to French socialist groups and met his lifelong collaborator, the German socialist Friedrich Engels. Expelled from Paris for subversive journalism in 1845, Marx traveled to Brussels, Belgium, where he founded Communist correspondence committees and continued writing. Involved in an organization of radical artisans, in 1848 he and Engels published what became his most widely read work, the Communist Manifesto. In it Marx outlined his views on the necessity of economic and political revolution, the role of modes of production, exploitation and class struggle in history, and the inevitability of Communism arising out of capitalism. Soon after its publication, revolutions exploded across Europe, overthrowing or threatening governments in France, Austria, Prussia, and Belgium. Marx moved back to Cologne to edit another popular newspaper, but authorities closed it as well, and he fled Germany in 1849, finally landing in England, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Believing that fresh revolutions were about to break out in Europe, Marx wrote articles about the significance of the 1848 revolutions and was active in the Communist League in London. Disagreements about the timing of a revolutionary uprising led to a split in the league, and Marx retired from active politics for the next decade. Marx spent most the 1850s and 1860s researching history, politics, and economics in the British Library, taking volumes of notes for his monumental study of the operation and history of capital, the first volume of which he published in 1867. During this time his family lived in near poverty, and Marx declared that his dedication to finishing Das Kapital (Capital) caused him to have “sacrificed health, happiness, and family” (Marx and Engels 1993b, 366). Such an admission must have pained him greatly because his greatest joy in life was his family. A gruff and blunt public debater, Marx was considerate, generous, and playful within his family. His only regular source of income, however, was his articles on contemporary politics for the New York Tribune, a radical newspaper with the largest circulation in North America. Marx also received money from Engels to make ends meet, and his income would have been adequate for his family, but he and his wife, Jenny, had bouts of extravagance and generosity that caused continual financial crises. With a sense of irony Marx would often reflect that he, who wrote so much on capital, had so little talent in managing it. In 1864 an inheritance from his mother and a bequest from a friend, along with an annuity given him by Engels in 1869, finally brought financial relief.
Marx cofounded the International Working Men’s Association (also known as the “First International”) in 1864, bringing together revolutionaries from Europe and North America who sought the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of an economic and political commonwealth. Marx’s health deteriorated after a partial stroke in 1873, and he became less and less capable of the sustained intellectual and political effort that had characterized his life.
Marx never finished Capital, his life’s work. Volumes 2 and 3 were left as manuscripts, which Engels edited after Marx’s death, and the other five volumes that Marx envisaged never were even drafted. Still, Marx will be remembered for the scope of his historical and social vision as well as for his contributions to economic and social thought and to revolutionary theory and practice. As a young man he once mused, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (Marx and Engels, 1993c, 3). His work inspired countless others to see his point.
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