Karl Marx: died in 1883 and still going strong


 … ein äusserst kunstreich erdachtes, mit fablehafter Kombinationskraft in zahllosen Gedankenetagen aufgebautes, mit bewundernswerter Geisteskraft zusammengehaltenes  –  Kartenhaus.

Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914)


Take Away

Although pushed into the wastebin of economic theories more than 100 years ago, Marxism much more than any other ‘ism’, is liable to recurrent fads and the periodic rediscovery of popular superstitions. It seems as if anyone who wants to stir up excitements and wants to get applause in a simple way in today’s economic and socio-political discussions, readily blames greedy Capitalism and free markets for all inadequacies in our surroundings. Karl Marx was convinced that there is a kind of driving law in history as there is in nature and the sequence of events can be explained once one has recognized these two driving forces. First Marx stated that historical societies have always been divided into classes: below there were peasants, above the ruling classes of the nobility and clergy. Then internal/external trade and handicrafts developed and a new class formed, which he called the bourgeoisie. As this innovative class did not want to submit to the nobility, major bourgeois revolutions erupted and new, more egalitarian forms of government were tried, but mostly followed by ‘restorations’. Thus Marx believed that one historical epoch turns into the next. Unleashed by the bourgeoisie, the other driving force was the advancement of weapons and engineering technologies. According to Marx these two forces drive the story dialectically, as the situation after the revolution was already somehow present in the situation before the revolution and must be understood as negation and as abolition of negation. In other words, without any explanation, Marx simply assumed that Capitalism should simply be abolished by the revolution of the proletariat and then Socialism would follow. This historical determinism or Historicism rests on mistaken principles, as there are no general laws of social behavior that apply in different societies or historical periods.

Born in lawyers family

Karl Marx was born in Trier in 1818 as the third of nine children into a middle-class family of lawyers. His conversion to the Protestant faith at the tender age of six was formative for Marx’ later relationship to religion. After graduating from the local Gymnasium, Marx went to Bonn and Berlin to study law and philosophy and it was especially in Berlin that Marx developed a strong interest in Hegelianism, which dominated the left leaning intellectuals at the time. Hegel and later Marx were convinced that there is a kind of law in history as there is in nature. And the sequence of events and epochs can be explained once mankind has recognized the “Law of Motion” in history. While Hegel explained how the ‘Weltgeist’ develops further and further to eventually reach an absolute knowledge, Marx thoughts were more materialistic and he looked for the engines that propelled the story forward. He was reluctant to let the will and motives of wise men drive history alone.

After finishing his dissertation on “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature” he was awarded his doctorate from the University of Jena. Marx was initially a rather successful journalist and pushed the local “Rheinische Zeitung” into the position of the leading newspaper for the socialist opposition in the German Reich.

Married with childhood friend

In 1843 Karl Marx, a sort of unkempt scrounger and rather harsh journalist, married his childhood girlfriend, Jenny Edle von Westphalen (1814-1881), and moved with her to the more open minded Paris in the same year, mostly due to political and social reasons. Between January and December 1844, Marx published there in the biweekly socialist German newspaper Vorwärts and worked on his important Ökonomisch-Philosophische Manuskripte (1844). These manuscripts represent a first draft of an economic system, in which Marx further developed Hegel’s theory of alienated labor for the first time.

While in Paris, Marx and his wife also befriended the exiled and distant relative Heinrich Heine, a German playwright who shared similar thoughts. Due to diplomatic pressure from the German government, in 1845 Karl Marx had to leave Paris and moved to Brussels where he met Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy ‘capitalist’ factory owner, for whom socialism was more of a hobby along with other entertainments. However it was Engels who regularly and continuously supported Marx financially and thus enabled him to published his first major work, Misere de la philosophie. Response a la philosophie de la misere de M. Proudhon (1847). Although Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was considered the leading French socialist, the young Marx judged his book by and large as very bad and flawed. However it offered Marx a welcome opportunity to present his own materialistic view of history in general and his political economic thoughts in particular. Shortly thereafter he was invited to join the League of Communists, an organization of workers and intellectuals that was banned in Germany under the name League of Outlaws.  In their efforts to support the revolutionary movement and spread Marx’ ideas, Marx and Engels founded the German Workers Association in Brussels and with some help from Moses Hess began to draft the text for the Congress of the Communist Party in 1847.

This proposal was the finalized draft for the famous Communist Manifesto which was published on London and Paris in early February of 1848. Marx and Engels not only demanded the abolition of private property, inheritance and the family. They also called for the centralization of credit, communications and the state ownership of all means of production. In an uninhibited way the Communist Manifesto mixes science and propaganda and creates a lasting tension between the description of historical dynamics and teleology, between relentless change and a utopian ultimate goal. Although this small brochure had a suggestive power of language and a stirring text that constantly wavers between analysis and dialectics, it did not at all appeal to the industrial workers it was aimed at. It is worth mentioning here also that the Manifesto is also quite entertaining as is shows how much Marx and Engels almost romantically admired and praised the great achievements of Capitalism.

Material misery and emotional pain

At the same time the Communist Manifesto was published, Marx was expelled from Brussels and returned to revolutionary Germany in order to get the Neue Rheinische Zeitung off the ground in Cologne. There he developed a friendship with Ferdinand Lassalle but split with him in 1861 when Lassalle rejected Marx revolutionary attitude and argued instead that the revolutionary phase must be replaced by a legal and evolutionary socialist approach.

After the Revolution of 1848 was crushed, not only the Erster allgemeiner Arbeiterverein in Germany had to stop its agitation and thus was forced into the underground, also Karl Marx was again ousted from Germany in May 1849. During the summer months he and his wife Jenny moved to London and remained in that center of capitalism until their death. Especially in the period between 1850 and the mid 1860s  Marx and his family lived in material misery and emotional pain. Their funds were almost gone, and he barely could bring himself to seek paid employment, and four of their seven children died before age ten.  For the rest of his years in London, only the regular and quite generous checks sent to him by his friend Friedrich Engels, his wife’s several German inheritances and also occasional payments from international newspapers for articles he wrote for them, permitted Marx to work full time and maintain his lavish lifestyle.

Humiliated by the failure of his own tactics of collaboration with the liberal bourgeoisie, he rejoined the Communist League in London and for about a year advocated an even bolder revolutionary policy. In his scientific work, however Marx concentrated on the critical presentation of the capitalist mode of production and published his major book On the Critique of Political Economy 1859. In 1867 the first volume of his opus magnum Das Kapital appeared in Hamburg. In this volume, Marx gradually approaches his Labor Theory of Value via the concepts of commodity, exchange value and use value: for Marx, a commodity is worth as much as the labor time imbedded in it. However, 104 years later this flawed theory was crushed by Carl Menger’s Marginal Utility Theory of Value. According to Marx, workers have no means of production, they have to sell their labor power to the capitalists who own machines and other means of production. The capitalist does not want to sell his commodities in order to be able to acquire other commodities, but to increase his funds. The capitalist accumulation process, thus is at the center of Marx’s critique. The second and third volumes were edited posthumously by Friedrich Engels in 1885 and 1894. Increasing health problems prevented the completion of his economic work.


Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.


Karl Marx’s most important achievement was to recognize and analyze the history of mankind as a history of economic developments and conflicts. In doing so, Marx attempted to combine the ideas of the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, the early Utopian Socialists, such as Saint-Simon or Fourier, Anglo-Scottish economists such as Adam Smith and the democratic revolutionaries of France into a new body of thought. Based on his conviction that only the working class could be the driving and shaping force of the future and that it was their task to fight for socialism, he was also personally strongly involved, extremely aggressive and intolerant in the international socialist movement. Marx still provides his admirers with an arsenal of unsubstantiated ideas, passionate phrases and angry gestures, but it is not only that. His current revival rests on the bold combination of positivistic and determinist motives, and shrouded matters of faith. Nowhere in his work is there a clear and operational definition of what he meant by Socialism, or for that matter of Capitalism. However, Mankind had hoped that Marx’ flawed socio-economic theories once and for all have been successfully shattered by Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk in his famous essay Karl Marx and the Close of his System (1896).

In 1883, almost exactly two years after his wife, Karl Marx died in London and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. In his eulogy, in a bit of a pretentious manner Friedrich Engels compared him with Charles Darwin: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history”.


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