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Marx's Life and Works
Karl Marx was born in the German provincialcity of Trier on May 5, 1818. Trier is just sixmiles from the Luxembourg border, on theMosel River, which is renowned for its vineyards.Its proximity to the border and its love ofwine make Trier an easygoing cosmopolitanspot, factors which were to have a significant influenceon Marx.
Like so many ardent revolutionaries, Marxwas brought up amidst comfortable bourgeoissurroundings. His father, Hirschel, was a successfullocal lawyer who also owned a couple ofsmall vineyards; and one of Karl's uncles wenton to found the Dutch industrial giant Philips.Although descended from a line of rabbis,Hirschel Marx was not religious. Like manyGerman Jews during this period—such as thecomposer Felix Mendelssohn and the poet HeinrichHeine—he converted to Christianity. Thiswas largely a formality, enabling him to assimilatemore easily into German middle-class society.Hirschel (who now became Heinrish) Marxhad already enthusiastically embraced Europeanculture. His favorite authors were Kant andVoltaire: a characteristic blend of German profundityand French subversive wit. Germany wasin the process of becoming a unified nation state,and in 1815 the Rhineland provinces had beentaken over by Prussia. The new Prussian rulerswere deemed autocratic and oppressive by themore liberal locals. Karl's father joined a politicalclub that pressed for the Prussian state toadopt a constitution, which would enshrine therights of its citizens.
Few details of Karl's childhood have comedown to us, apart fromhis so-called habit offorcing his sisters to eat mud pies. This soundslike a legend based upon a single incident: weepingmuddy-lipped girls, outraged mother, skulkingKarl, etc. Needless to say, commentatorshave exploited its metaphorical implications tothe full—this is what the mature Karl did to usall, and so forth. By the time he went to nearbyBonn University at the age of eighteen, Karl wasalready an avid imbiber of books and wine, dividinghis time equally between the library andthe taverns. During some riotous activity in thelatter he managed to provoke a local officercadet into challenging him to a duel, and waslucky to emerge from this episode with nothingmore serious than a traditional dueling scar. Karlwas never the athletic type and even managed toevade military service on health grounds (aidedby a somewhat suspect doctor's report).
A year later Marx transferred to the Universityof Berlin, ostensibly to continue his lawstudies. But by now he had discovered philosophy,and all else paled into insignificance. Berlinwas the capital of Prussia, far from the wine-lovingRhineland, and here student life was amuch more serious matter. This was where thegreat Hegel had been professor of philosophy,becoming almost the official philosophical apologistfor the Prussian state. But Hegel had diedfive years earlier, and a wide range of his followershad by now developed his ideas in a widerange of directions. Hegel's vast idealistic philosophicalsystem had proved open to many contradictoryinterpretations, several of which wereanything but sympathetic to the repressive Prussianstate and all it stood for.
Marx dutifully attended the official lectureson Hegel's philosophy but claimed that he eventuallyfell ill "from intense vexation at having tomake an idol of a view I detested." Ironically,Hegel proved to be one of the main influences onMarx's philosophy. But it was the dynamics andscope of this philosophy, rather than its actualcontent, that appealed to Marx.
Hegel's philosophy viewed the world and allhistory in terms of a vast, all-embracing, ever-evolvingsystem. This evolution grew out of thestruggle between contradictions, and worked ina dialectical fashion. Each notion implied andgenerated the notion of its contradiction. For instance,the very notion of "being" implied thenotion of "nonbeing," or nothingness. Thesetwo opposites (the thesis and its antithesis) thencame together to form their synthesis, which was"becoming." In Hegel's all-embracing dialecticalsystem, this synthesis then became a new thesis,which in its turn developed its own antithesis,and so on. This dynamic system moved throughall ideas, all history, and all phenomena—up tothe highest level of Absolute Spirit reflectingupon itself, which is the totality of all that exists.
More specifically, Hegel's philosophy of historyinsisted that the evolution of laws and governmentinstitutions in a society reflected theethos and character of the people who made upthat society. This may seem obvious to anyonewho is used to living in a more liberal society,but it was far from obvious 150 years ago in therepressive, bureaucratic Prussian state. Hegel insistedthat there was a dialectical link betweenthe state and its citizens. This dialectic assumedboth a logical and an organic aspect. The evolvingstructure of the state and the evolving traditionsof its people were part and parcel of thesame thing.
Hegel's immensely prolix and complex philosophyappeared at an opportune historical moment.Its idealism, its insistence that all wasmoving toward the Absolute Spirit, filled thespiritual vacuum left by a growing disillusionwith religion. It was Hegel who originally pronounced"God is dead" in 1827, not his firebrandsuccessor Nietzsche, who is usuallyassociated with this saying. Hegel was referringhere to the more limited Christian idea of God,which would be superseded by the AbsoluteSpirit. Even so, his remark was highly blasphemous.Yet it was buried deep in the obfuscationof his all but unreadable work, and passedlargely unnoticed. As a result, his philosophy appearedessentially conservative to the Prussianauthorities. Its emphasis on a vast hierarchicalsystem seemed like the absolute dream of a bureaucraticstate. It was Hegel's insistence on thespiritual, his religiosity, and the repressive conservatismof his system that made Marx sick.
Another major influence on Marx's intellectualdevelopment at this juncture was the Germanhumanist philosopher and moralist LudwigFeuerbach, who was born in 1801 and had originallystudied theology. In his early twentiesFeuerbach had abandoned theology in favor ofstudying under Hegel in Berlin. But by the timeFeuerbach published his major works, he hadprogressed far beyond the orthodox theologyand orthodox Hegelianism of his earlier years.According to Feuerbach, Christianity had nothingto do with humanity's relation to God. Thisreligion, like all religions, covertly involved therelation between humanity and its own essentialnature. The attributes of God were nothing moreor less than the projected attributes of humanity.Our so-called knowledge of God was in fact nomore than knowledge about ourselves and ourown nature. For Hegel, the pinnacle of his systemhad been God—in the form of AbsoluteSpirit reflecting upon itself. Feuerbach acceptedthis structure, and even its dynamic, but interpretedit from a humanistic viewpoint. AbsoluteSpirit reflecting upon itself was nothing more orless than humanity's own self-consciousness—man'sconsciousness of his own essential nature,his understanding of his substantive self. Whatfor Hegel had been idealistic and spiritual, becamefor Feuerbach humanistic and materialistic.There was no "spirit" involved. As we shallsee, these ideas had a profound effect on Marx,though he did not swallow them whole. Ironically(and tellingly), Marx accepted the materialismof Feuerbach's ideas but criticized their lackof Hegelianism. Feuerbach's ideas were fine asthey stood, but they lacked all dialectical andhistorical perspective. History, society, humanityitself (or its consciousness of itself in the form ofGod) were not changeless. They all evolved.They developed dialectically: the original ideagenerated its own self-contradiction, which wasthen resolved in a synthesis of these contradictions.
The overwhelming influence of Hegel, togetherwith the vague ambiguities of his idealism,enabled his followers to develop his thoughtin all directions. The original thesis of Prussianconservatism soon generated its antithesis in theform of those who called themselves the LeftHegelians. Prominent among these was theBavarian thinker Max Stirner, who had also attended Hegel's lectures in Berlin. Stirner's ideaswere so extreme that they would later provide aphilosophical backing for the anarchist movement.There was no denying the revolutionaryimplications of his extreme egoism. For Stirner,consciousness created reality: the individual egowas responsible for his world. Such things as socialclass, the masses, the state, and even humanityitself had no objective reality. Once again,Marx would grasp the subtlety of these ideasand then reverse them. He was impressed byStirner's insight into the profound relationshipbetween consciousness and socio-historical reality.But for Marx it would be consciousness itselfthat was in fact created by these external materialcircumstances, not the other way around.
Marx now began developing his own philosophy,which attempted to combine these seminalideas into a thoroughgoing materialism drivenby dialectical forces. His aim was to "standHegel on his head." But Marx's youthful passiontranslated such ideas into heroic form. His doctoralthesis extolled Prometheus, the ancientGreek hero who stole fire from the gods andbrought it down to humanity. For his punishment,Prometheus was chained to a rock in theCaucasus, where an eagle returned each day topeck out his ever-renewing liver. Marx wouldcontinue to identify with Prometheus throughouthis life; this ancient Greek hero providesan uncanny metaphor for the fate of Marx andhis ideas. The Greek translation of Prometheusmeans "he who sees, or thinks, the future."
When Marx left the University of Berlin hehad high hopes of taking up a post at a minorGerman university. Unfortunately, Friedrich WilhelmIV had now become kaiser of Prussia, andhis reign ushered in a new reactionary era. LeftHegelians, and all those associated with this developmentof Hegel's thought, were dismissedfrom the state-controlled universities.
After searching somewhat haphazardly for ajob, Marx found a position as a journalist,working for the newly founded RheinischeZeitung (Rhineland Times), a liberal newspaperbased in Cologne. Despite the appallingly prolixstyle he had picked up from Hegel, Marx turnedout to be an excellent journalist. Theory mayhave inspired him to jargon, but practice inspiredhim to coin ringing phrases that would remaintypical of his writing throughout his life.
Marx was so successful as a journalist thatby the end of his first year in the job he had beenpromoted to editor. The idealistic, hard-drinking,hardworking boss was highly popular with hisidealistic, hard-drinking, hardworking youngstaff, who nicknamed him the "Moor" becauseof his swarthy bearded features. The RheinischeZeitung quickly became a thorn in the side of thePrussian authorities and its circulation trebled,making it the highest-circulation paper in Prussia.Marx's social and political relationships nowtook a dialectical course, one that remainedcharacteristic throughout his life. Having attackedthe authorities, he proceeded to lambastthe liberal opposition for its ineffectiveness.Next he launched into his left-wing staff, theoreticalrevolutionaries to a man, dismissing thewhole idea of revolution as an impractical pipedream which simply hadn't been thoughtthrough properly. Despite such sentiments, in1843 the Rheinische Zeitung was closed downby the authorities.
In his growing dialectical fashion, Marx nowtook two contradictory actions in quick succession.First he decided to settle down and marry.Then he decided to abandon his homeland andmove into exile. The woman he married was hischildhood sweetheart. Jenny von Westphalenwas widely reckoned to be "the most beautifulgirl in Trier," the scion of a local aristocraticfamily with powerful political connections. (Herfather held a senior post in the government administration,and her older brother would becomean extremely repressive minister of theinterior in the Prussian government.) What onearth did the enchanting Jenny see in this scruffyyoung Jewish hell-raiser, who was even fouryears her junior? The fact is, Jenny was bored todeath with life as a provincial social princess.She was highly intelligent, well read, and longedfor a life away from the stifling upper-class circuitin Trier. Marrying the penniless Karl certainlybrought her this, though perhaps not inthe manner she had foreseen. But this was a lovematch on both sides. Through all their vicissitudes,Jenny and Karl remained profoundly attachedto each other.
After marrying his aristocratic sweetheart,Marx carried her off to Paris. Now regarded asthe revolutionary center of Europe, Paris had alreadystaged revolutions in 1789 (the FrenchRevolution) and 1830 (the revolution that overthrewthe restored monarchy). The city containedall kinds of left-wing political groups.Marx's ideas had evidently undergone still anotherdialectical transformation since his lastdays on the Rheinische Zeitung. He now believedthat revolution was the answer, and soonbecame a member of the fledgling Communists.But how could the revolution come about? First,a thoroughgoing intellectual program wouldhave to be worked out. And if politics was tochange, then so would economics. Marx beganan intensive study of the founding father of economics,the Scotsman Adam Smith, and his successor,the Englishman David Ricardo. At thesame time he began forging a philosophical basisfor his thinking, in the form of his own epistemology.What are the grounds for our knowledgeof the world? How do we know what weknow, and how do we know if it is true?
Marx's epistemology is one of the weakerand less original aspects of his thought, but it isimportant for two reasons. It is the strictly philosophicalbasis of the great ideas to come, and itsdynamic character echoes through all of Marx'ssystematic thought. As we have seen, he hadtransformed his influences to the point wherethey could blend to become an exclusively materialistphilosophy. In line with this, he wished tobase all knowledge on strictly scientific premises.
For Marx, our knowledge began in our experience—oursensations and perceptions—of thematerial world. But Marx's materialism differedsignificantly from that of his predecessors. Earliermaterialists tended to view sensation andperception in passive terms. Light strikes oureyes, we feel heat, we hear a sound. Our perceptionof such sights and sounds in no way changesthem: they are things that affect us. For Marx,on the other hand, such perception was an interactionbetween us, the subject, and the materialobject. This object (the world around us) becomestransformed in the process of beingknown. Our perception does not discover thetruth of the world, just its appearance. Thus ourknowledge too cannot be the truth. Instead, ourknowledge consists of practical methods bywhich we can manipulate and gain control overthe natural world. Our knowledge of the worldis not passive, it is purposive. It is a two-wayprocess—active and reactive—in line with the dialectic.
The synthesis of scientific knowledge we thusgain enables us to impose patterns of order andto manipulate or anticipate the workings of nature.This process does not arrive at the truth, asit is usually conceived. "The question of whetherobjective truth can be attributed to humanthought has nothing to do with theory, it is apurely practical question. The truth is the realityand power of thought, which can only bedemonstrated in practice." This leads Marx tohis famous conclusion: "Philosophers have previouslyonly interpreted the world, but the realtask is to change it."
Much has been made of this statement.Taken as a philosophical attitude, it would seemto invalidate its author as a philosopher altogether—advocatingas it does the abandonmentof philosophy in favor of political action. His famousremark is thus open to all the philosophicalobjections lodged against it. But if it is seen inthe light of his epistemology—an interactiveprocess—it does have philosophical value. He ismaking a profound point. There is no such thingas objective truth. We learn about how the worldworks in order to use it, to live in it. Unfortunately,even in its original context Marx appearsto have wanted to have it both ways.
In order to support himself in Paris, Marx securedan appointment as editor of the German-FrenchYearbook. Through this magazine he meta like-minded fellow contributor namedFriedrich Engels, whose father owned cottonmills in the Rhineland and one in Manchester,England. The twenty-three-year-old Engels hadbeen working for the family business in Manchesterfor two years. In his spare time, however,he devoted himself to pursuing his revolutionaryideals, meeting Chartists and followers of RobertOwen as well as attending Communist meetings.Engels's dichotomies, unlike Marx's, were livedon the surface. A rebel at home, he nonethelessjoined the family firm. Despite being a highschool dropout at seventeen, he went on to learnmore than a smattering of twenty-four languages.Although he functioned as a respectablebusinessman and member of the cotton exchangein Manchester, he also lived quite openlywith his working-class girlfriend, an illiterateIrish redhead named Mary Burns. It was Marywho led him through the Irish slums off OxfordRoad, dangerous areas for all but their inhabitants.During the course of these visits Engels encounteredthe scenes that appeared in hisgroundbreaking work The Condition of theWorking Class in England:
"Masses of refuse, offal, and sickening filthlie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphereis poisoned by the effluvia from these,and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozentall factory chimneys. A horde of ragged womenand children swarm about here, as filthy as theswine that thrive upon the garbage heaps and inthe puddles.... The race that lives in these ruinouscottages, behind broken windows ... orin dark wet cellars, in measureless filth andstench ... must really have reached the loweststage of humanity.... In each of these dens,containing at most two rooms, a garret and perhapsa cellar, on the average twenty human beingslive."
Amazingly, this was in the year or so beforethe Irish potato famine, when a million woulddie and many more would be forced to emigrate,spilling into such "Little Irelands" all overBritain and North America. Yet when Engelswalked with a fellow businessman and pointedout how these slums were a disgrace to Manchester,his colleague merely listened politely andthen remarked to him on parting: "And yet thereis a great deal of money made here. Good morning,Sir!"
Engels had briefly met Marx when he waseditor of the Rheinische Zeitung, but on that occasionneither had been impressed. Not untilEngels began submitting articles for the German-FrenchYearbook did Marx recognize a true kindredspirit. The second time they met, Engelswas enjoying a brief visit to Paris on his round-aboutway home for a holiday. The Communistbon viveur and the grubby, cheroot-smokingjournalist soon found they had much more incommon than their large beards. During Engels'sten-day visit, the two of them struck up an immediateand profound rapport that would last alifetime. Engels was the only friend with whomMarx never quarreled. For his part, Engels worshipedMarx—the word is hardly too strong. Hewould devote much of his time and money insupport of his hero-friend, to say nothing of theemotional and physical energy involved in thisexacting task.
Although Marx was married and now had ababy daughter, he was still living the precariousattic life of a poor student. This too remained apermanent feature of Marx's life. As we shallsee, it was due to something more than mere financialnecessity. The lack of respectability orsocial responsibility appears to have fulfilledsome unresolved psychological need. Marx remainedpoor for the rest of his life, yet it wasnever working-class poverty, with the accompanyingextreme squalor and despair, such asEngels had witnessed in Manchester. Marx'spoverty was always more that of the perennialstudent fallen on hard times—often extremelyhard times, but recognizably that of the improvident"gent."
Marx and Engels soon began using the German-FrenchYearbook as a mouthpiece for theirradical ideas, which in this way began circulatingin Germany. The Prussian authorities soonbegan seizing copies of the magazine and putpressure on the French government to restrainMarx. As a result the magazine was closed downand Marx was expelled from France. Ratherthan return to Germany, he departed for Belgium,which had become independent just fourteenyears earlier, and took up residence inBrussels. The impecunious Marx family was increasedto four when Jenny gave birth to a son.
Engels followed Marx to Brussels, wherethey both joined the newly formed CommunistLeague. In recognition of their journalistic
Excerpted from Marx in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern. Copyright © 2001 by Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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