Karl Marx: Biography, Books & Philosophy

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we will explore the life and philosophy of the German philosopher who arguably had more of an impact on 20th-century world events than any other man: Karl Marx.

Unintended Consequences

Have you ever done something that had consequences you didn't count on? Perhaps you left the door unlocked for your roommate who forgot his key, and as a result your television was stolen. Maybe you changed the tires on your car, only to have those tires be defective and cause an accident. These things happen.

In this lesson, we will explore the life and ideas of a man whose work had consequences long after his death, including the spawning of numerous 19th- and 20th-century movements and revolutions: the philosopher Karl Marx.

Biography

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, in what was then Prussia, to a lawyer and political activist. Educated at a liberal high school in Trier, Marx was influenced at a young age by Enlightenment thinkers and German philosophers. He studied at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin, studying both philosophy and law. As he studied, Marx became increasingly enamored with the idealistic philosophy of the German Georg Hegel, who believed, essentially, that all thought could be defined through real, rational categories - though Marx would later tear down this philosophy in his later writings. Marx received a Ph.D. in 1841 after submitting his dissertation to the University of Jena.

Soon after graduation, Marx began contributing to the radical magazine, Rheinische Zeitung, and he became its editor in 1842. Marx used the magazine to write and criticize the existing order on a wide range of social and economic issues, and Prussian authorities soon censored the publication.

Marx moved to Paris in 1843, where he met his most important collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Together the two wrote and published widely in Paris and later in London, critiquing Hegelian philosophy and instead promoting a materialist view of the world (which we will look at more closely in a moment). In 1847, the two wrote perhaps their most famous work, The Communist Manifesto.

Soon after its publication, Europe experienced several revolutions and upheaval. Marx took this opportunity to return to Germany and promote the interests of the industrial working class, whose class consciousness he had helped to foster. However, the failure of the revolutions earned Marx his banishment from Prussia, and he returned to London where he lived the rest of his life.

Form his London home Marx continued to write, publish, and participate from afar in workers' movements all over the world. He was active in the International Working Men's Association, an early political party centered on the industrial working class from its founding in 1864 until its folding in 1876. In 1870 he was vocally supportive of the Paris Commune, which was a brief attempt by French revolutionaries to set up a communist government in France in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War.

Marx died in London in 1883.

Philosophy

Marx may have lived a tumultuous life, but his writings display the clear convictions of the materialist philosopher. In fact, through his particular brand of materialism, termed 'historical materialism,' Marx claims that the structures of society have shifted throughout history in accordance with the will of those with the most economic power. In other words, those who have controlled the oft-quoted term coined by Marx, the 'means of production.' Throughout history, according to Marx, these forms have changed only through class struggle; that is, when one group of people in a similar occupation or with a similar economic disposition gain significant enough power to fight the existing order and then change society through force of will.

If Marx had ended here, he simply would have been a philosopher-historian with his own unique view on the forces of society. Instead, Marx was far more political. With his view of history and social structures as a base, Marx forecast that history would continue to move forward in stages, marked by periods of revolution fueled by class struggle, until all resources - i.e., all means of production - were owned collectively and utilized rationally for the good of the entire society. This is, in a nutshell, the definition of communism.

Marx initially resisted instigating revolutions to usher in a utopian, communist social order, claiming that communism must come about organically as a result of class struggle. He later wholeheartedly supported workers' movements and revolutions across the globe. For example, he showered praise upon the Paris Commune, claiming 'history has no comparable example of such greatness.'

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