Karl Marx: the godfather of revolution

On the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, Gregory Claeys reveals how a poverty-stricken dissident became one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the world

German social, political and economic theorist Karl Marx (1818 - 1883).   (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine


Karl Marx opened his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto of 1848, with a chilling prophecy. “A spectre is haunting Europe,” he declared. “The spectre of communism.” This was a great exaggeration: there were few communists anywhere, and the revolutions erupting across France, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire and elsewhere that year were not led by them. By 1917, however, with the overthrow of the Russian tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent coup of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Marxist communism truly was a force to be contended with.

And after Mao Zedong’s 1949 revolution in China, for a time more than half the world’s population was ruled by principles notionally derived from Marx. In paintings, on banners and statues, the fierce grey-bearded face looked out upon the world as if to say: “I made this happen – or, at any rate, explained why history made it inevitable. Go forth and follow my example.” And millions did.

Just how and why Marx became the most influential writer ever is well worth reflection as we reach the 200th anniversary of his birth on 5 May 1818 in the small German town of Trier near the French border.

In his early years, Karl was distinguished by his single-mindedness, ambition and passionate determination to make a decent life for all humanity possible. In 1869, while in Hanover playing a Victorian parlour game called Confessions, he described his “chief characteristic” as “singleness of purpose”.

Marx studied law at Bonn, then philosophy at Berlin, his world view heavily influenced by the most famous philosopher of the day, Hegel. By 1843 he was a radical journalist working in Cologne, and in 1844–45, partly through the influence of Friedrich Engels – another Hegelian, one who would become a lifelong intellectual companion – he converted to communism. This was, he believed, the only solution to the dire plight of the emerging industrial proletariat in Britain and elsewhere.

Soon after, Marx and Engels laid out their new ‘materialist conception of history’ – explaining how capitalism originated, and why the system of property ownership, and the concentration of wealth, was the key to understanding any society. But, in 1848, their lives were turned upside down by a wave of revolutions. As unrest convulsed the continent, Marx was arrested (on the charge of financing the revolutionary movement) and exiled from Brussels to Paris. He was later forced across the Channel to London, where he arrived in June 1849 and remained the rest of his life.

A helping hand

In exile, initially in Soho, Marx endured dire poverty for many years and was often reliant on a helping hand from Engels, who was employed in his father’s cotton-spinning firm in Manchester. Marx’s faithful wife, Jenny von Westphalen, bore seven children, of whom four died young. He is also thought to have fathered a child by their servant, Helene Demuth. The child, Frederick Demuth, was given up for adoption, with Engels declaring paternity (in a bid to save Marx’s reputation from his many detractors).

Most of Marx’s 34-year residence in London was spent researching and writing his great work Capital (in German, Das Kapital) usually in the great domed British Museum reading room, which opened in 1857. Much of what he described in Capital (1867) was gleaned not from personal experience but from the ‘Blue Books’ that included inspections of British factories. These detailed the progress of industry, mining, trade and agriculture, often revealing oppressively long hours of labour and dire working conditions.

He also used the press, at one point retelling the tragedy of a London milliner Mary Anne Walkley, who died, aged 20, of exhaustion, having commonly worked 30 hours at a stretch during the ‘society season’. Medical reports were another source for his work – one from 1875 revealing that the average life expectancy for the upper middle classes in Manchester was 38, while for labourers it was 17.

In London, Marx was also active among the local German workers and played an increasingly central role in the International Working Men’s Association, founded in 1864, which eventually had several hundred thousand members across Europe. When, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), a working-class revolt produced the short-lived Paris Commune, Marx was widely associated with its aims, and the bloodshed that ensued. He was soon, Engels remarked, “the best-hated and most calumniated man of his time”.

For all the criticism, Marx rarely doubted his own abilities. But his extraordinary self-confidence had a flip side: a desire to master every aspect of a subject before writing on it. Years passed with innumerable hiatuses learning new languages, notably Russian, and taking endless notes. In old age, Marx was afflicted by haemorrhoids, rheumatism, carbuncles, liver and skin ailments and insomnia, and so for lengthy periods could scarcely put pen to paper. Due to these delays, he wouldn’t achieve global renown in his own lifetime. His death in 1883 went largely unnoticed.

Soon, however – with Europe in the grips of an economic depression and socialism on the march across the continent – a cult quickly began to grow around him. Within 20 years, the acuity of his vision of a world where the new powers of production would feed, clothe and house the working majority at a high standard of living had earned him international acclaim. He now towered above early socialist thinkers, men like Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon.

Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London where, under a bust of his head, are engraved: “Workers of All Lands Unite” and the more reflective phrase: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” taken from one of his early writings, the Theses on Feuerbach. They are fitting epitaphs. Marx was a man of action and that action was first and foremost intended to save the proletariat – the vast majority of humanity in an industrial society – from the greed and inhumanity of capitalism.

Going to the wall

Marx’s scheme was at root relatively simple, and one that he had arrived upon by 1848. Capitalism, he argued, produced recurring crises. In each of these the wealthier could survive, and even profit – if need be by selling at the cost of production or even below. The weaker, however, went to the wall.

Wealth tended to concentrate accordingly, while working-class wages sank invariably to subsistence levels, or even less.

Eventually one great crisis would occur in which the system would be overthrown by a working class now well-versed in the socialist alternative and bound together by the solidarity of class consciousness. This would itself be partly the product of the increasingly social, co-operative nature of large-scale production in factories.

After the bourgeoisie, or capitalist middle class, was overthrown, the working class would remodel society during a phase Marx occasionally referred to as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. By this he meant that manual workers (up to 85 per cent of the population in late Victorian Britain) would take democratic control. Production for profit would be succeeded by production for need, organised by centralised planning. Eventually, workers would be rewarded according to the principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

The state ceases

According to Marxist philosophy, an ultimate stage of communist society would be reached where coercive authority of all kinds would be virtually eliminated. Production and education would be closely integrated, and all workers would be overseen by elected, recallable managers paid an average wage. The state would cease to exist once classes had been abolished.

All the while, the introduction of further machinery would provide much greater free time for all, now making possible the all-round development of all individuals, rather than only the educated few.

Marx later retreated from the more effusive comments of his youth about the “alienation” of the work-process itself, preferring to advocate greater leisure time for self-development and education. But he never doubted the practicality, or the virtues, of the overall aim: the ending of coercive exploitation.

It would be a full three decades after his death before Marx’s theories were put to the test in the real world. And when they were – in the Bolshevik revolution that swept Russia in 1917 – they had a more explosive impact than surely even he could have imagined.

Near the end of his life, Marx had conceded that revolution might take place in an undeveloped country, notably Russia. This was problematic, as Marx had modelled his theories on a nation with a high standard of living. But what really detached the Bolshevik revolution from its Marxist template was that it was led by a minority party – one that felt compelled to rule by terror.

Marx had certainly not projected the dictatorship that emerged in Russia with Lenin, Stalin and the infamous secret police. And nor could he have foreseen the speed with which Bolshevism super-charged the adoption of his ideas around the globe.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin took Marx’s theory of exploitation to another level by implying its extension to all the world’s conquered and occupied areas. After 1945, seizing the opportunity revealed by the bankruptcy of most of Europe’s great empires, millions began to associate Marx’s name with national independence and self-determination, and the return of land to the peasantry. For these people, Marx was now a beacon of the essential equality, dignity and potential wellbeing of all humanity. This was to be achieved in an atmosphere of solidarity, harmony and mutual assistance rather than competition and mutual antagonism.

The regimes that bore Marx’s name went some distance towards fulfilling these ideals. Millions in China were raised from poverty, freed from opium addiction and released from the thrall of vicious landlords. The USSR succeeded in industrialising in only two generations, albeit at terrible cost. It also did much to assist in Hitler’s defeat. And despite massive destruction in the Second World War, it achieved a relatively high standard of living and even briefly surpassed the United States in the space race, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into orbit in April 1961.

For a time during the Cold War, the loyalties and affections of vast swathes of humanity were torn between the more affluent western capitalist democracies, led by the United States, and their Marxist-Leninist and Maoist critics who claimed that, such was the power of corporations and the wealthy, capitalism simply couldn’t be democratic.

Across the world, people applauded attempts to break free from the stranglehold of international capitalist domination, notably in Cuba, where Che Guevara became the great symbol of the age of student revolt, and in Vietnam where the US seemingly supported a corrupt and reactionary regime.

The rediscovery of the works of the young Marx, and particularly the theory of alienation in his 1844 ‘Paris Manuscripts’, helped to shape the framework of the New Left in the 1960s and lent Marx a reputation as an anti-Stalinist.

Mass disillusionment

But communist states, too, failed to provide genuine popular control over increasingly ossified, privileged power elites, and frequently oppressed all dissenters. And when attempts to break free of the Soviet model were brutally suppressed in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, mass disillusionment ensued. Communism now seemed, in the words of the French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “obsolete”.

In China the Cultural Revolution targeted the educated, of whom thousands were killed, and many more exiled to the countryside for a decade. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, in large measure due to its inability to keep up the arms race with the USA, the bankruptcy of Marx’s model seemed assured. Capitalism had evidently won the titanic struggle of modern ideologies. Marx was relegated to a footnote on folly in the chronicle of humanity’s endeavours.

Ten years after the 2008 financial crisis, however, a renewed interest in Marx is evident. An increasing concentration of wealth and growing poverty is making his analysis relevant once again – especially to a generation raised on austerity and facing worse life prospects than their parents had. No longer a spectre, Marx at 200 may yet provide a few surprises.

Gregory Claeys is professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Marx and Marxism (Pelican, 2018)


Radio: In May, Radio 4 is marking the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth with a dramatisation of Das Kapital. We’ll have more details at historyextra.com/topic/tv-and-radio