The 19th century had no shortage of influential philosophers, economists, and political theorists. Emmanuel Kant, Friederich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others helped develop modern thought and influenced modern politics and culture. Perhaps the most influential philosopher of all, though, if only for the harm his ideas caused, was Karl Marx.
Karl Marx was born on May 5th, 1818, in the city of Trier in a province of Prussia. Karl’s father Heinrich was not very religious and a lawyer, a classical liberal who was among the agitators for reform in Prussia. Marx witnessed a police raid at his high school when it was discovered that the Headmaster was distributing liberal literature. Marx was enrolled in the Bonn University, but his deteriorating grades led his father to force him to transfer to the University of Berlin. While spending the summer of 1836 in Trier, Marx became engaged to Baroness Jenny von Westphalen in 1836, a controversial development given their class differences. After arriving back in Berlin in October of 1836, Marx became interested in the philosophy of Hegel, particularly its dialectical method of criticizing established society. Marx’s father died in 1838. By this time Marx was writing fiction and nonfiction, and in 1841 was awarded a PhD by the University of Jena for his liberal doctoral thesis. Marx was barred from an academic career because of the government’s suppression of Hegelians and so he became a journalist for a radical newspaper in Cologne. In 1843, the newspaper was banned after it criticized the Russian Czar. Marx spent the next several years as a journalist or editor for various radical newspapers in Paris and Brussels. In June of 1847 Marx was able to reorganize the radical underground League of the Just into the open Communist League. In 1848, Marx and his friend Friederich Engels publish The Communist Manifesto. In it, they laid out their philosophy of class struggle and historical materialism, and predicted the coming overthrow of the capitalist governments. Marx supported the revolutions of 1848, and was saddened when they failed to produce any lasting change. Marx continued his journalism while working as a European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. He wrote articles on slavery, the American Civil War, and European politics until in 1863 a shift in the paper’s ideology compelled Marx to resign. At this time, Marx became involved in the First International and though he was able to defeat the anarchist wing of that organization he was unable to prevent its decline. Marx spent the later years of his life studying capitalism and the in 1867 published Das Kapital in which he analyzed capitalism and its detrimental effects on labor. The second and third volumes of the books were published posthumously by Engels. Marx continued to comment on politics and engage in political discussion even as his health declined. He died on March 14th, 1883.
Karl Marx is a controversial figure primarily because his ideas have been the justification for a great deal of evil. What good did come of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, its furthering of labor rights and liberal movements in the US and Europe, is overshadowed by the level of destruction it caused first in the uprising of the Commune of Paris in 1871 and to a far greater extent in its inspiring the Communist revolutions in Russia and China and the subjugation of much of the world under the Iron Curtain. Marx’s ideology is also flawed, coming under criticism for both its theoretical failings, most notably its inconstancy and absolutist nature regarding its analysis of history, and because there has never been a successful government built on its principles. Marx, though, should not be viewed too harshly as an individual. He lived at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed as though industrialization had only harmed the working class. Marx’s philosophy was a reaction against inequality, poverty, and repression that characterized Europe at the time. Although his ideas were misguided and wrong, they are still understandable when one considers the world Marx lived in. That being said, in the present with its general plenty and with the benefit of hindsight, Marxism is a clearly flawed ideology that should be consigned to the dustbin of history.