Marxism, Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895)

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Karl Marx first met Friedrich Engels in 1842 in the office of a leftist Cologne newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung. They were both students, analysts, and critics of their respective environments, Marx in Cologne and Paris and Engels in various parts of England.

In 1844 they met again in Paris; this meeting evolved into a lifelong collaboration, resulting in some of Europe’s, perhaps the world’s, most profoundly influential political philosophy.

The ideology contained within their collective writings is called Marxism; it was and is a revolutionary way of thinking that nuanced the already prevalent ideas of socialism and communism. Marxist thought intensely influenced the socialist movements in several parts of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries; these ideas were to spread to almost all other parts of the world.

The most renowned pamphlet of this movement is the 1848 Communist Manifesto (Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei). Marxist thought is explained at length in the substantial three-volume book called Capital (Das Kapital); it was Marx’s lifetime of work, which was completed and published after his death by Engels.

Marx was born in 1818 in the Prussian town of Trier (now in Germany). Heinrich Marx, his father, was a lawyer, a progressive thinker, and an advocate for constitutional reform; his mother, Henrietta Pressburg, was from Holland.

They were Jewish, but when his father converted to Christianity, six-year-old Karl was also baptized. However, his earliest experiences were of being Jewish, which introduced him to discrimination on the basis of religion. After completing high school in 1835, Karl entered the University of Bonn, where he studied the humanities.

As a student, he was active in the rebellious student culture that prevailed. When he shifted to the University of Berlin in 1836, his thinking was honed, as he was introduced to Hegelian philosophy as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s thought was held in high regard in Berlin.

Marx became politically active in student groups, the Young Hegelians and the Doctors Club, sacrificing serious study to activism; interestingly, he could not quite appreciate Hegel’s singular attention to the world of ideas.

In 1841 he received his degree from the University of Jena, where academic rigors were less demanding; there, informed by Hegelian analytical method, he completed his dissertation, titled The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature.

Marx returned to the University of Bonn hoping to find a job; instead he decided to become a writer and then editor in an opposition journal in Cologne, the aforementioned Rheinische Zeitung. In his writings from 1841 onward, there is another resonating influence.

It was the Feuerbachian “transformational criticism” of Hegel in The Essence of Christianity; in effect, Ludwig Feuerbach turned Hegelian thought on its head, grounding human reality in social and material realities.

Deeply affected by Feuerbach, Marx now formulated his comprehension of history as a process of self-development of the human species; humans were basically producers and material production was the foremost form of human activity. From this idea he was to extrapolate the more sophisticated ideological theories, not the least of which was that religion was “the opiate of the masses.”

During his time with Rheinische Zeitung he wrote on the material realities of the invisible poor and the underclass and on communism. To understand and critique their conditions of existence, he found his development of Feuerbach’s ideas to be much more useful than Hegelian ideas.

With the Prussian government’s repressive policies against Rheinische Zeitung, Marx and his new bride, Jenny von Westphalen, moved to Paris in 1843. Paris was the hotbed of oppositional thinking, extreme forms of communism, and revolutionary socialist thought. Marx was to be entirely radicalized when his world intersected with that of the revolutionaries and French and German working classes.

Marx began to study the history of the French Revolution; he further fed his intellectual curiosity with the classics on political economy. In 1844 he met Engels for the second time; so started an intellectual and personal collaboration which contributed an impressive corpus of valuable writings to the world.

Engels was born in 1820 at Barmen; he graduated from Elberfeld high school in 1837. He came from a liberal, affluent, Protestant family; his father was a millowner in Barmen and in Manchester, England. Despite his leftist leanings, he could count on financial support from his family.

Historians think that it was his relationship with his mother that allowed for the Janus-like existence of Engels—on the one hand he was a part of the industrial owner class and on the other a severe critic of it. He was sent to Bremen for business training in 1838 where he worked as an unsalaried clerk for an export business.

But Engels was more interested in writing; his journalism was influenced by the ideology of the Young Hegelians who questioned all. Engels’s rebelliousness found its first expression in defying religion and second in his incisive, clear, and razor-sharp radicalized writings. During this time, his nom de plume was Friedrich Oswald.

From 1841–42, Engels served in the Household Artillery of the Prussian Army and attended lectures at the University of Berlin while simultaneously remaining active with the Young Hegelians. On his way to England in 1842, he met Marx in Cologne and then proceeded for his business training in the firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester.

He had occasion to closely observe and study the life of the English working class; he also joined the Chartist movement and continued with his leftist writings. In 1844 Engels contributed two of his writings to the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, a journal that Marx had founded with Arnold Ruge.

In these articles, he enunciated his earliest notions of private property as the source of material and social inequalities; it was his study of the English working class which had led to his first enunciations of scientific socialism. When Marx and Engels met in Paris, following their correspondence on these articles, their collaboration began.

Marx had to move to Brussels in 1845 after he was made to give up his Prussian citizenship; Engels followed him. Their first writing, The German Ideology, was written there. It was followed by several pieces, the most influential of which was the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Both participated in the Revolutions of 1848– 1849 in Prussia; eventually moving to live in London in the fall of 1849. Marx resumed his studies at the British Museum in London, while Engels lived in Manchester, working for his father’s firm for the next 20 years; his salary supported his and Marx’s activities. Engels lived with Mary Burns, an Irish working class girl, until her death in 1863.

He was opposed to the institution of marriage, and the two lived as partners. Marx became a regular contributor to the New York Daily Tribune from 1850–61; some historians believe that it was in fact Engels who wrote the articles for publication under Marx’s name.

In 1867 the first volume of Capital was published while the other two volumes, which were ready, still needed some editorial work. Engels moved to live in London in 1870 and continued to publish books in his own right, notably, Anti-Dühring in 1878.

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels published on his own but he also completed the editing on the second volume of Capital in 1885 and the third volume in 1894. Engels died in August 1895. Despite the passing of both these thinkers and philosophers in late 19th century, their ideas, writings, and ideology continued to influence many in the following century.

Radically Negate

Marxism cannot simply be called a philosophy because at its very base it is a critique or a criticism (Kritik); to comprehend the mentality of Marx and Engels one has to use the lens of Kritik.

For Marx, it was the way to radically negate the existing social reality, or in his own words, “a ruthless criticism of everything existing.” Marxist thought moves to a second step by then transforming what has been criticized. Marx and Engels’s writings take concepts from the exclusive realm of ideas and connect them to the social and material reality around them.

For instance, the concepts of alienation, knowledge, and nature connect with the historical, political, and economic realities so that they all exist in a vigorous relationship with one another.

Marx’s basic premise was the primary human capacity to be a producer and his concern with the material conditions under which humans produced. In his words, “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and intellectual processes of life.

It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence; it is on the contrary their social existence which determines their consciousness.” This idea, known by the moniker of historical materialism, is the basis of all Marxist thought.

Infused within all his writings, the idea of historical materialism demonstrated that every society is founded by the connections established between the “material forces of production” and the relationship between these forces—this is the economic basis.

On this structure then is built the superstructure of politics and legalities which correspond to the nature of the economic substructure. It is through ideology that humans become conscious of the disjuncture between the suband super-structures which when critiqued reveal their lack of correspondence; it is then that conflict can arise.

Marxist texts enunciate the methods in which those who have the wealth (Kapital) also control the ways for creating more wealth; they are called the bourgeoisie. Conversely, those who have neither wealth nor the means to make it are in the employ of the bourgeoisie in their factories; those whose labor is a commodity are called the Proletariat.

In Marx’s time, this term referred specifically to the industrial working class. The proletariat and the underclasses are likely to move steadily toward pauperization; they are dependent either on wage labor or on the capitalist’s largesse, both of which are decided by the bourgeoisie.

This relationship then leaves all in a constant state of class struggle, which is not necessarily an overt struggle. The relationship between the classes is always tenuous and can rip apart societies and economies very quickly.

Marxist thought offers alternative systems of production to the capitalist one because, according to him “Capitalist production develops the technique and the combination of the process of social production only by exhausting at the same time the two sources from which all wealth springs: the earth and the worker.”

Oppositional Relationship

In the capitalist system, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat exist in an oppositional relationship. It is in the Communist Manifesto that this relationship and its consequences are most clearly enunciated.

Since capitalism commodifies all material reality, there will come a time when human consciousness will challenge bourgeois ownership, most likely through a violent revolution led by the proletariat.

The details of the types and consequences of class revolution were unfinished in the third volume of Capital. However, classical Marxism does offer freedom from alienated wage labor when the proletariat leads a revolution by which it repossesses its productive powers.

Once the repossessed forms of material production are changed, then humans will once again produce in freedom, leading to self-realization and self-actualization on the scale of all humanity. This new form of production was not the fundamental nature of socialism or communism, but only its precondition.

Neither Marx nor Engels offered any particular name for this mode of production, other than to mention in several places that it was to be a “free activity of human beings producing in cooperative association,” as stated by scholar Robert Tucker.

Marx wrote with an acerbic pen, with a tone that was intellectually powerful, indignant, and angry. His writings were not easily accessible. In fact, it was Engels’s clear, concise, free-flowing prose the made the powerful message in Marx’s works popular; his complementary treatises on Marx’s writings explained their intense concepts. Some scholars believe that without Engels, Marxism would not have been what it became. Marx and Engels contributed through their Kritik and theorizing a massive body of political thought whose significance continues unabated.