Karl Marx: the man, thinker and revolutionary

On 5 May it will be 200 years since the birth of Karl Marx. Around the world, the capitalist system is in crisis and the working class is moving into action to seize control of its destiny. In establishment circles, no longer do they snidely declare the death of Marx. On the contrary, there is fear and consternation in their ranks. There has, therefore, never been a more urgent time to study Marx’s ideas. We present here an introduction, by Alan Woods, to a new collection of articles on Marx's ideas.

Wellred Books proudly presents The Ideas of Karl Marx, which contains a comprehensive introduction to the man, his life, and his ideas: from an explanation of Marxist philosophy; to Marx’s battles against petty-bourgeois anarchism; to Trotsky’s assessment of the Communist Manifesto. And much more! You can order a copy of the book from Wellred Books for £9.99 plus postage.

"Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways. The point is, however, to change it."

K. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

Two hundred years ago on 5 May, 1818, in the German city of Trier, one of the greatest figures in human history was born. Two centuries later, despite all the furious attacks, malicious distortions and spiteful attempts to undermine his image as a man and a thinker, Karl Marx has established his place in history as a towering genius in the realm of theory.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, there can be no doubt that Karl Marx carried out a great revolution in human thought and thereby changed the entire course of history. He belongs to the great pantheon of outstanding thinkers. His name can stand alongside all the great heroes of the past: Heraclitus and Aristotle, Hegel and Charles Darwin.

Marx’s discoveries in the realm of philosophy, history and political economy can stand as colossal monuments in their own right. Even if his life’s work had begun and ended with the first volume of Capital, that would in itself be a sufficiently great achievement. But Marx was not just a thinker; he was a man of action, a revolutionary who dedicated his entire life to the struggle for the cause of the working class and socialism.

Such a rich and variegated life cannot be adequately described in a few lines. However, on the occasion of Marx’s bicentenary, it is necessary to provide a brief, and inevitably incomplete, sketch of that life as an introduction to this book.

Marx’s life

Marx was born two hundred years ago, in Germany, in what was then part of Prussia. However, the Rhineland provinces to which Trier belonged differed in many respects from the backward, semi-feudal and reactionary Prussian lands further to the east.

Annexed by France in the Napoleonic Wars, the inhabitants had been exposed to new ideas such as freedom of the press, constitutional liberty and religious toleration. Though the Rhineland was reincorporated into imperial Prussia by the Congress of Vienna three years before Marx’s birth, the imprint of those years left its mark on the progressive thinking of the most enlightened sections of society.

Young Marx Image public domainYoung Marx / Image: public domain

Karl Heinrich was one of nine children in the family of Heinrich and Henrietta Marx. Marx’s father was a lawyer with a relatively progressive outlook, who read Kant and Voltaire, and advocated reform of the Prussian state. The family was reasonably prosperous. Marx never experienced poverty or privations during his childhood and early youth, although he suffered these things a great deal in his later life.

Both parents were Jewish, but in 1816 at the age of 35, Karl’s father converted to Christianity. This was probably in response to a law of 1815 banning Jews from high society. It is significant that although most people in Trier were Roman Catholics, he chose the Lutheran faith, because he “equated Protestantism with intellectual freedom.” However, Heinrich Marx was very far from being a revolutionary and would doubtless have been horrified had he been aware of the future trajectory of his beloved son Karl.

On leaving school, Marx went on to university, where he studied law, and later history and philosophy. While studying in Berlin he fell under the spell of the great philosopher Hegel. He saw that, beneath the superficial crust of idealism, Hegel’s dialectic had the most profound revolutionary implications. This dialectical philosophy was to form the basis of all his subsequent ideological development.

Marx joined the tendency known as the ‘Left Hegelians’, who drew radical and atheistic conclusions from the Hegelian philosophy. However, he soon became discontented with the endless word chopping and dialectical juggling of these academic radicals who soon degenerated into a mere debating society.

Marx was very impressed by the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, who, starting from a criticism of religion, moved in the direction of materialism. But he criticised Feuerbach for his radical rejection of Hegelian dialectics. Marx brilliantly succeeded in combining philosophical materialism with dialectics to produce an entirely different and revolutionary philosophy.

Armed with these revolutionary ideas, the young Marx collaborated with a group of Left Hegelians in the Rhineland who had founded a radical newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung. As editor of the paper, Marx wrote a number of brilliant revolutionary articles. The paper was an instant success but soon attracted the attention of the Prussian authorities who subjected it to strict censorship. However, the young Marx, with brilliant ingenuity, managed to evade the iron vice of the censors. In the end, they had no choice but to close it down.

In 1836, as he was becoming more politically active, Marx was secretly engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a handsome young woman from an aristocratic family who was known as the ‘most beautiful girl in Trier.’ She was four years older than him and from a decidedly higher class. But she and Marx had been childhood sweethearts and from everything we know they were totally devoted to each other.

Jenny Marx Image public domainIn 1836, Marx became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen / Public domain

Jenny’s father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a senior official of the Royal Prussian Provincial Government, was a man of doubly aristocratic lineage: his father had been Chief of the General Staff during the Seven Years’ War and his Scottish mother, Anne Wishart, was descended from the Earls of Argyll. It is therefore hardly surprising that they kept their relationship quiet for so long. Three months after the closure of the Rheinische Zeitung, in June 1843, he finally married Jenny von Westphalen, and in October, they moved to Paris.

I believe that not enough attention has been paid to this remarkable woman, who made colossal sacrifices to support her husband in his revolutionary work. She must have suffered a great deal, breaking from her family, travelling from one country to another, sharing all of Marx’s privations and living in the most difficult conditions. She saw her children suffer hardship, fall sick and die. When her son Edgar died in London, she and Marx did not even have enough money to pay for a coffin.

Jenny’s elder brother Ferdinand later became a zealously oppressive Minister of the Interior in the Prussian government between 1850 and 1858, that is to say, during the height of European reaction. We are thus faced with the paradox of one man engaged in revolutionary work to subvert the Prussian state from his London exile, while his brother-in-law in Berlin was in charge of persecuting revolutionaries both within and without the borders of Prussia. History knows of no more ironical situations than this!

In Paris

In the autumn of 1843, Marx moved to Paris in order to publish a radical journal abroad, together with Arnold Ruge. In the heated atmosphere of Paris at that time, Marx soon made contact with organised groups of émigré German workers and with various sects of French socialists. By now the winds of revolution were blowing strongly throughout Europe, particularly in Paris. Not for the first time, or last, Paris was the political heart of Europe in 1843.

However, only one issue of this journal, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, appeared. Publication was discontinued owing mainly to the difficulty of secretly distributing it in Germany, and to philosophical differences between Marx and Ruge. Marx then began writing for another radical newspaper, Vorwärts, which was linked to an organisation that would later become the Communist League.

Marx and Engels Image public domainMarx began his lifelong collaboration with Engels in Paris / Image: public domain

About this time there commenced one of the most extraordinary collaborations in history. In September 1844, a young man called Friedrich Engels came to Paris for a few days to work as a contributor to the journal. From that time on, he became Marx’s closest friend and collaborator. Today the names Marx and Engels are so completely inseparable as to be almost fused into a single person.

During his time in Paris, from October 1843 until January 1845, Marx lived at 38 Rue Vanneau. Here, Marx engaged in an intensive study of political economy, devouring the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Stuart Mill, and also the French Utopian socialists, Saint-Simon and Fourier. Here we see the embryo of his future discoveries in the field of economics.


Marx’s revolutionary activities soon attracted the attention of the authorities in Berlin. The Prussian government demanded that the French authorities take action, which the latter were only too pleased to do. Expelled from Paris at the end of 1844, Marx moved to Brussels, where he joined the secret propaganda society, the Communist League. Despite the move, Marx still had severe restrictions on his activity. He had pledged not to publish anything on the subject of contemporary politics.

Marx and Engels immediately formed a close relationship in which the two men brought together different experiences and temperaments in order to work out an entirely new and original set of ideas. As the son of a wealthy German manufacturer, Engels was able to combine his concrete experiences of capitalist production with Marx’s ground-breaking work in the field of philosophy. Engels showed Marx his recently published book The Condition of the Working Class in England. He had already come to the conclusion that the working class would be the most important agent of social change.

01 Karl Marx arreted in Brussels Image public domainMarx arrested in Brussels / Image: public domain

It was also Engels who first began to work out the fundamental principles that were later to be brought to fruition in the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. But with characteristic modesty, he always accepted the primacy of Marx in the field of ideology, reserving for himself the role of a humble and loyal disciple, although, in fact, his contribution to Marxist theory must stand shoulder to shoulder to that of Marx himself.

In April 1845, Engels moved from Germany to Brussels to join Marx. Together, the two began writing a criticism of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer, a Young Hegelian with whom Marx had previously been close. The result of Marx and Engels’ first collaboration, The Holy Family, was published in 1845. It marked the beginning of a break with the Left Hegelian trend and the starting point for the entirely new departure.

In 1846, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, in which they first developed the theory on historical materialism. This marked the final and irrevocable rupture with the Young Hegelians. Marx had finally embraced the idea of socialism as the only solution to the problems of humankind. Unfortunately, no publisher was willing to take the risk of publishing The German Ideology, which, along with Theses on Feuerbach, did not see the light of day until after Marx’s death.

Marx and Engels together waged a relentless struggle against the confused ideas of petty-bourgeois socialism, striving to put the ideas of socialism on a scientific basis. In Paris at that time the semi-anarchist ideas of Proudhon were in vogue amongst some revolutionary groups. Marx subjected them to a withering criticism in 1847 in the Poverty of Philosophy, backed up by facts, and substantial quotations from the writings of Proudhon himself.

At the beginning of 1846, Marx attempted to link socialists from around Europe by means of a Communist Correspondence Committee. He had been in contact with a secret organisation of artisans in Paris and Frankfurt called the League of the Just. It was a small group (about a hundred in Paris and eighty in Frankfurt) with very confused ideas. Marx persuaded them to abandon their underground methods and operate in the open as a workers’ political party. It fused with others to form The Communist League.

At the Second Congress of the Communist League, held in London in November 1847, Marx and Engels were charged with producing a document which became known as The Communist Manifesto. This epoch-making document was published in 1848.

The Communist Manifesto and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung

It seems astonishing today that The Communist Manifesto was written when Marx and Engels were still young men; Marx was not yet 30 years of age and Engels three years younger. Yet this remarkable document represents a turning point in history. It is as fresh and relevant now as when it first saw the light of day. Indeed, its relevance is even greater today.

The timing of the publication of this document could hardly have been better. The ink was hardly dry on its pages when a mighty wave of revolutions broke out all over Europe. The February Revolution in France overthrew the Orleans monarchy and led to the creation of the Second Republic.

There is an anecdote that, having recently received a substantial inheritance from his father (withheld by his uncle), Marx used a large part of it to buy arms for the Belgian workers who were moving towards revolutionary action. Whether the story is true or false we do not know, but the Belgian Ministry of Justice certainly believed it. They used it as an excuse for arresting him.

Marx was thus forced to flee back to France, where he believed that he would be safe under the new republican government. But that was a vain hope. The French bourgeois Republicans were terrified of the workers, who were beginning to advance independent class demands that threatened private property. Under these circumstances the last thing they needed was the presence in Paris of a man like Marx.

Marx was convinced that, after France, Germany was on the eve of a revolution. He moved to Cologne, where he founded a new paper – the Neue Rheinische Zeitung – which commenced publication on 1 June 1848. The paper put forward an extremely radical democratic line against the Prussian autocracy and Marx devoted his main energies to its editorship (the Communist League had been virtually disbanded). He continued in this position from June 1848 to 19 May 1849, when the paper was suppressed.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung was a model of revolutionary journalism and played an active role in the revolutionary events of 1848-49. But the victory of the counter-revolution put an end to this activity. Marx was put on trial for his revolutionary activity. He was acquitted on 9 February 1849, but subsequently banished from Germany on 16 May 1849.

Marx again returned to Paris. However, he was then banished from France after the demonstration of 13 June, 1849. Since Prussia refused to give him a passport, Marx was now a stateless and penniless exile. He moved to London, which in those days was more tolerant and welcoming to political exiles than it is today. Although Britain too denied him citizenship, he remained in London until his death. In May 1849 he began the “long, sleepless night of exile” that was to last for the remainder of his life.


Arriving in London, Marx remained as optimistic about the imminence of a new revolutionary outbreak in Europe. He wrote two lengthy pamphlets on the 1848 revolution in France and its consequences: The Class Struggles in France and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. He concluded that “a new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis” and then devoted himself to the study of political economy in order to determine the causes and nature of capitalist crisis.

For most of the time he spent in London, Marx and his family lived in conditions of the direst poverty. He found work as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, a collaboration that lasted for ten years from 1852 to 1862. However, Marx was never able to earn a living wage from his journalism. During the first half of the 1850s, the Marx family lived in squalid conditions in a three room flat in the Soho quarter of London. Marx and Jenny already had four children and two more were to follow. Of these, only three survived.

“Blessed is he that hath no family,” Karl Marx wrote wearily in a letter to Friedrich Engels in June 1854. He was thirty-six at the time and had long since lost all contact with his relatives. His father was dead and relations with his mother were bad. Only through the selfless generosity of his friend Friedrich Engels was Marx and his family able to survive.

The Marx family had seven children, four of whom died in infancy or childbirth. Despite all the hardships, they were a happy family. Marx deeply loved his daughters, who, in turn, adored him. In his spare moments in the evenings he would play with them and read from the classics. Don Quixote was a particular favourite, but they also performed Shakespeare plays, with Marx and his children reading different parts. “He was a unique, an unrivalled storyteller,” his daughter Eleanor recalled.

MarxFamily and Engels Image public domainEngels supported the Marx family financially / Image: public domain

Of the three surviving daughters – Jenny, Laura, and Eleanor – two married Frenchmen. One of these men, Paul Lafargue, played an active role in the Marxist movement and helped to establish the socialist party in Spain. Eleanor Marx was active in the British workers’ movement as a militant labour organiser.

Marx’s work was not confined to theory alone. All the time he was in London he played a most active role in promoting and developing the international labour movement. Marx helped found the German Workers’ Educational Society, as well as a new headquarters for the Communist League. But he was increasingly frustrated and alienated by the endless sectarian squabbles of the émigrés and finally severed all relations with them, while always maintaining close contacts with active members of the British workers movement.

A decisive turn in the situation occurred in 1864. On 28 September, the International Working Men’s Association – known to us as the First International – was founded. From the very beginning Marx was the heart and soul of this organisation, the author of its first address and of a host of resolutions, declarations and manifestos. For the next few years much of his time was devoted to maintaining the work of the International. Together with Engels he kept up a vast correspondence with advanced workers and co-thinkers in many countries, including Russia.

Marx was obliged to carry on a relentless struggle against all kinds of petty-bourgeois deviations within the ranks of the international: Proudhon’s utopian socialism, the bourgeois nationalism of the Italian Mazzini, the opportunism of the British reformist trade union leaders, and above all the intrigues of the anarchist Bakunin and his followers.

In the end, Marx succeeded in winning the ideological struggle, but the conditions in which the young forces of the international were being formed turned in an unfavourable direction. The defeat of the Paris commune was the final death blow.

Given the unfavourable situation in Europe, Marx proposed the transfer of the seat of the General Council from London to New York in 1872 in the hope that the developing class struggle in the New World would provide the International with new opportunities. But nothing could prevent its decline. The most important achievement of the First International was that it provided a firm ideological basis for future developments. But as an organisation it virtually ceased to exist.

Marx’s health was undermined by the exhausting work in the International and his still more strenuous theoretical studies and writing. He continued to work tirelessly on the question of political economy and on the completion of Capital, for which he collected a mass of new material and studied a number of languages including Russian.


Marx never looked after his own health. His love of heavily spiced foods and wine, together with excessive smoking of cigars may well have contributed to the deterioration of his health, which was fatally undermined by years of poverty. In the final dozen years of his life, his recurrent illnesses no longer permitted him to do any continuous intellectual work.

Despite increasing bouts of ill health, Marx threw himself into a monumental study of the laws and history capitalism, developing an entirely new economic theory. In preparation for the writing of Capital, he read every available work in economic and financial theory and practice. It is sufficient to read the extensive footnotes of this great book to realise the astonishing amount of painstaking research that went into its elaboration.

Karl Marx grave Image fair useMarx's ideas, rather than the humble grave (pictured) and ugly monument in Highgate, are his testament / Image: fair use

In 1867, he published the first volume of Capital. He spent the rest of his life writing and revising manuscripts for the remaining volumes, which remained incomplete at the time of his death. The remaining two volumes were painstakingly assembled, edited and published posthumously by Engels.

The final blow to Marx’s health was the death of Jenny von Westphalen, who passed away as a result of cancer on 2 December, 1881, at the age of sixty-seven. Together with the death of his eldest daughter, this was a cruel personal tragedy from which Marx never recovered. It clouded the last years of his life.

Karl Marx died of pleurisy in London on 14 March, 1883, passing away peacefully in his armchair. He was buried next to his wife in Highgate Cemetery in London. When he died, a daguerreotype photograph of his father was found in his breast pocket. It was placed in his coffin and interred in Highgate cemetery. His original grave had only a modest stone, now sadly vandalised and largely ignored by visitors who flock to the gigantic monument erected in November 1954 when Marx and his family were reburied on a new site not far from the old one.

The Ideas of Karl MarxThe Ideas of Karl Marx / Image: Wellred Books

The new tomb, unveiled on 14 March 1956, carries the inscription: “Workers of all lands unite!” and the equally celebrated words of the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it.”

But the real monument to Marx is not in Highgate cemetery. It is not made of stone or bronze, but of far stronger and more durable material: the immortal ideas contained in more than fifty volumes of his Collected Works. That is the only monument that Marx would ever have desired. It is the foundation stone of the world working-class movement and the guarantee of its future victory.

Alan Woods, editor of In Defence of Marxism

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