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Karl Marx (1818-1883)

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Who Is?:

One of the most remarkable and controversial figures in modern politics and philosophy, Karl Marx was a German-born philosopher of Jewish descent, who inspired generations of students through his writings. Author, among others, of the Capital (whose second and third volumes were posthumously published by his lifelong fellow Friedrich Engels) and the Manifesto of the Communist Party, he spent most of his adult life in England. He is best known for his historical materialism, which saw the study of human history as an analysis of the material conditions characteristic of a period, particularly as reflected in the economic and social structures that succeeded through history. Along with Engels, Marx also formulated the theory of surplus value, through which he argued for the alienation of workers from their labor and their exploitation. Marx’s thought links history to economics, politics, and philosophy rendering him a one of the few philosophers in the Western tradition with a strong interdisciplinary appeal.

Early Life:

Marx was born on May 5th 1818 in Trier, at the time part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Marx’s father was an attorney and had a relatively good income for the time. He had converted to Protestantism before Karl’s birth, but the family was of Jewish descent: Karl’s paternal grandfather was rabbi in Trier, while his maternal grandfather was a Dutch rabbi. At age eighteen he got engaged to one of the most attractive and aristocratic women in town, Jenny von Westphalen. Her family was quite wealthy, and her nephews will later found Philips Electronics, to date one of the largest electronics companies in the world. Karl and Jenny’s life was set on to a different direction, however. They married in 1843 and lived together for the rest of their life around France, Belgium, Germany, and England. The two had seven children: four died before adulthood; of the three remaining, two daughters committed suicide and one – Freddy – had more average life.

Education:

Marx received private education with a special attention to philosophy, literature, and classics. As a teenager, he got fascinated in Hegel’s ideas, of which he was also fervently critic, siding with authors such as Feuerbach and Bauer.

Marx’s doctoral thesis, submitted in 1841 to the faculty at the University of Jena, was on materialism in Ancient Greek philosophy, a theme that will be central in Marx’s later thought. In 1843 Marx authored another important piece, On the Jewish Question. Central to this short essay is the distinction between those values that belong to humans independently of the political system they happen to live in and those values that instead belong to a person as citizen of a certain State; Marx argues that there is a form of emancipation which is common to all humans, regardless of their political state. It is in the name of such separation between the interests of the individual and those of the State she happens to live in that Marx will later defend the rights of all laborers as universal rights.

Until 1843 Marx’s lifestyle was characterized by a juvenal desire to evade social norms: apparently he appreciated the effects of alcohol and was not shy from exhibiting its effect in public; for instance, he was member and co-president of the Trier Tavern Club drinking society.

Later Life:

Despite an exuberant start, Marx’s life was not easy and certainly not marked by success. Between 1843 and 1849 he and his family took quarters in different European cities (Paris, Brussels, Cologne, London), as Karl was trying to get established as a journalist. They eventually ended up in London, where they lived in poor conditions till their death.

In was in London’s public library that Karl wrote most of his masterpieces, including The Capital aided by the wealth of his friend and colleague Engels. In London Marx could experience first hand the hardship of the industrial revolution and develop his doctrine of historical materialism and surplus value that will revolutionize Europe, and beyond, in the years to come.

Jenny died in December 1881 and Karl in March 1883. According to the record, at his funeral there were no more than a dozen people and he died as a stateless person.

Further Online Readings:

Marx’s works at Project Gutenberg.

The Marxist Internet Archive, containing some of Marx writings as well as a wide range of Marxist literature and resources.

Some audiobooks of Marx’s works.

"Karl Marx" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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