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Karl Marx

Life and Writings

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was born in Trier in Prussia, where he attended the gymnasium; he attended university first in Bonn (1835) and then in Berlin (1836-41), finally graduating in Jena in 1841. In 1843 he married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a high-ranking Prussian civil servant.

During the university years Marx was influenced by the Hegelian left (Ludwig Feuerbach and Otto Bauer). In May 1842 he became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a liberal newspaper of Cologne that was, however, soon closed by the Prussian authorities. Marx then emigrated to Paris, where he met Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), his great friend and lifetime collaborator. Some notebooks, posthumously published as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, date from this period; they are important for his theory of alienation.

In 1845 Marx was expelled from Paris and moved to Brussels. From this period we have some mainly philosophical writings (The German Ideology, 1845-46, and the Theses on Feuerbach, 1845, both written with Engels; Misery of Philosophy, 1847). Entrusted with the task by the League of the Communists, formed in 1847, Marx and Engels wrote its programme, the Communist Party Manifesto (1848), one of the most influential writings of all times. The revolutionary project that Marx and Engels would remain faithful to for the rest of their lives was set out there in incisive terms.1 Thus, for instance, their formulation of historical materialism was expressed in a single sentence: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’2 The Manifesto foresaw

  • 1 Let us recall, for instance, the opening and closing sentences of the Manifesto: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism’; ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!’ (Marx and Engels 1848, pp. 48 and 82).
  • 2 Ibid., p. 48.
  • 126

private ownership of the means of production overcome through expropriation, to be transferred under direct control of the state (which would no longer be the political expression of the bourgeoisie but of the proletariat).

The year 1848 was one of revolutions, all over Europe. Marx returned to Cologne. The revolutionary fever soon died down, and Marx, expelled from Prussia, moved to London. Here he spent the rest of his days, leading a life of study although taking part in the activities of the First International (more precisely, the International Working Men’s Association, founded in 1864).[1] In those years he wrote his main works.

In the Critique of Political Economy (1859) Marx illustrated the materialistic conception of history: the continuous change of technology (‘the powers of production’) generates increasing tensions within the static element represented by ‘production relations’, namely the set of institutions and habits within which economic activity takes place, in turn connected to the cultural ‘superstructure’. The dynamic element - productive forces - is destined to overturn the system of production relations and the superstructure in a revolutionary stage. We then have the transition to a new ‘mode of production’: from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism and subsequently to communism, with corresponding upheaval of the superstructure. Historical materialism did not indicate a mechanical dependence of ideological superstructures on the economic structure but a complex interrelation in which the causal link going from structure to superstructure is far stronger than the link running in the opposite direction. The path of development of human societies was conceived as a dialectical process in which stages of normal development inevitably lead to revolutionary stages.[2]

Years of work were invested in the fundamental work, Capital. The first volume was published in 1867, the second and third volumes coming out posthumously, edited by Engels, in 1885 and 1894 respectively. What Marx probably intended to be a fourth volume of Capital, the Theories of Surplus Value, a survey of the history of economic thought, was edited by Kautsky and published in 1905-10.

Marx died in 1883: the same year in which Keynes and Schumpeter were born.

  • [1] The First International was dissolved in 1867, following increasing friction in theinternal political debate between Bakunin, Lassalle and Marx. The SecondInternational was born in 1889 as an alliance of the European socialist parties and wasdissolved when, on the outbreak of the First World War, nationalist feelings prevailedeven within the socialist parties. The Third International or Komintern (1919-43),born in Moscow and dominated by the Soviet Union, was followed after the SecondWorld War by the Kominform (1947-89). There still exists a Fourth International,founded by Trotsky in 1931 in Paris. The Socialist International (or FifthInternational), founded in Zurich in 1947, groups together the social-democratic parties. Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) supported anarchist ideas. Ferdinand Lassalle(1825-1864), supporter of universal suffrage as means for the emancipation of theworkers, also advocated cooperatives and was the founder of the General Associationof German Workers, which led to the SPD, the German social-democratic party.
  • [2] Marx (1859, p. 84). According to Marx’s critics, this implies underestimating the role ofnationalistic and religious feelings in determining the history ofpeoples and countries. Cf.for instance Huntington (1996).
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