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Marx, Karl Heinrichfree

  • E. J. E. Hobsbawm

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883)

by unknown photographer, 1867

Marx Memorial Library, London

Marx, Karl Heinrich (1818–1883), revolutionary and thinker, known from student days to his intimates as Mohr (the Moor), was born on 5 May 1818 at Brückengasse 664, in Trier, a recent addition to the kingdom of Prussia, the third of nine children and only surviving son of the lawyer Heinrich Marx (1781/2–1838) and his wife, Henriette, née Pressburg. As was then not unusual, four of his siblings died in infancy or youth.

Family background and religion

Marx's parents both came from rabbinical families, which had customarily tended to intermarry. Both his grandfather Meier Halevi Marx, the descendant of a priestly line, and his uncle Samuel became rabbis of the Jewish community in Trier, then a small but ancient country town, proud of its Roman heritage. Meier's wife, Chaje Lwow, Karl Marx's grandmother, came from an even more distinguished rabbinical lineage descended from, as the name implies, the scholar Moses Lwow of the then Polish, and subsequently Austrian, Polish, Soviet, and Ukrainian, city. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been rabbis of Trier and elsewhere in Franconia and Alsace since the later seventeenth century. Another line led from the Minz family which emigrated, presumably from Mainz, in the mid-fifteenth century to Padua, where its members were rabbis and heads of the Talmudic college. On his mother's side, as the name Pressburg implies, the family came from Hungary, whence they had migrated to the Netherlands, where Henriette's grandfather became rabbi of Nijmegen. Her sister broke the rabbinical chain by marrying the banker Lion Philips, grandfather of the founder of the well-known Dutch and international industrial concern, who after Heinrich's death acted as trustee for Karl Marx's mother.

Given this family background, it seems at first surprising that Heinrich Marx decided to be baptized at the age of thirty-five—in the evangelical rather than the locally prevalent Roman Catholic faith—in 1816 or 1817, and had Karl and all his surviving siblings baptized in 1824, followed in 1825 by Marx's mother. The immediate reasons were almost certainly practical. After Trier became Prussian in 1815 Jews were excluded from all public posts, the practice of law being classified as a public post on 4 May 1816. Even so, the decision to abandon the religion of his forefathers can be understood only if we bear in mind the extent to which the culture of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had penetrated the world of the educated professional strata in the Rhineland and the experience of the first generation of Jewish emancipation under the French. Marx's father was a deist who found his God in Locke, Newton, and Leibniz and not in the Torah. His son already grew up in something close to an emancipated and assimilated German household, steeped in secular literary and philosophical culture of the ancient and modern European classics, although Marx's mother, brought up in the old ways, was never at ease either in writing or in speaking the High German language. Nevertheless, Heinrich Marx's conversion meant a complete break with his family. There appears to have been no further contact with any other Marxes. Karl's only known relation with his Jewish kin in later life appears to have been with his mother's relatives, the Dutch Philipses, with whom he continued to be on close terms. Lion Philips was also the only known correspondent to whom he wrote as one Jew to another—an identity he was elsewhere at pains to disclaim.

Education and marriage

The young Karl Marx's five years at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier (1830–35) were uneventful and not strikingly distinguished. Only hindsight can read more into the seventeen-year-old's essay 'Considerations of a young man on choosing his career' than the adolescent's idealist desire to serve humanity: 'If he is working only for himself, he can become a famous scholar, a sage, a distinguished writer, but never a complete, a truly great, man.' He appears to have formed no lasting friendships except with the brother of his future bride, Jenny (Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen; 1814–1881), to whom he became engaged at the age of eighteen, at the end of his first academic year at the University of Bonn. Intellectually, the major influences in his school years appear to have come from his father and his future father-in-law, privy councillor (geheimer Regierungsrat) Johann Ludwig von Westphalen, son of an official of the duke of Brunswick, who was distinguished in the Seven Years War, ennobled, and married into the Wishart family, kin to the earls and later dukes of Argyll, a connection which Mrs Marx did nothing to conceal during her years in England.

Westphalen, who served, in turn, the Guelphs, the French kingdom of Westphalia, and Prussia, shared his enthusiasm for the Greek poets and Shakespeare with the young Marx, and, more surprisingly, introduced him to Saint-Simon; his ideas were clearly more advanced than those of his eldest son, who was to become Prussian minister of the interior in the 1850s. His daughter Jenny, four years older than Karl, was the beauty of Trier, and was still remembered in the town as such even in the early 1860s, as Marx noted with satisfaction when he revisited his birthplace in 1863. That a man of this background and standing should have consented to the marriage of his daughter to a young, even if converted, Jew without visible prospects is convincing evidence that, even as a schoolboy, he must have deeply impressed at least one good judge.

That the brilliant, sarcastic, darkly handsome youth also deeply impressed both contemporaries and seniors became clear at the universities in Bonn (1835–6) and especially Berlin (1836–41), where Marx gradually shifted from his original subject of law to philosophy, though also tempted by Romantic poetry, for which his surviving verses show no great aptitude. The student was father to the man. A number of what proved to be Marx's permanent characteristics emerged during his university years, finally completed by a doctoral dissertation, 'Die Differenz der Demokritischen und Epikurischen Naturphilosophie' ('The difference between Democritus' and Epicurus' philosophy of nature'), at the philosophical faculty of Jena (April 1841): a tendency to indulge in Herculean bouts of overwork (at the expense of his health); an inability to finish his projects, except under extreme pressure; and—not least—a cavalier attitude to the problems of earning a living and to the relation between income and expenditure. These darkened his relations with his father, a conflict which can be followed in a moving exchange of letters that ended with Heinrich Marx's premature death in 1838, after which relations with Marx's mother also deteriorated. Perhaps the father, though complaining about Karl's extravagant debts, would have been more tolerant of the nineteen-year-old's impassioned but ill-defined struggles to reunite art, science, and philosophy single-handed had he not, by his engagement to the daughter of an established Trier family, undertaken commitments, by the standards of contemporary reason and convention, which he showed no sign of recognizing. Indeed, for the rest of his life Marx was never to succeed by his own efforts in solving his economic problems, or acquiring any regular or predictable income.

Berlin and Paris

In Berlin, the home of Hegelian thought, the undergraduate Marx was quickly accepted by his seniors in the so-called ‘postgraduate club’ (Doktorklub) of Young Hegelian philosophers, representing the philosophical and political avant-garde, that is to say the critique of state and religion. There was no prospect of an academic career for a brilliant but philosophically (though by no means yet socially) subversive young intellectual inclined to activism. However, he had made a sufficiently strong impression to be asked to contribute to a new journal, the Rheinische Zeitung, financed by a group of wealthy Cologne men in business and the professions and representing the moderate but loyal liberalism of the (non-clerical) Rhineland bourgeoisie. After six months and a number of articles, which were almost his first excursions into real politics and his first into economic questions, he became its editorial director and remained so until the paper was closed down by the censor in early 1843, though evidently without hard feelings, for shortly after he resigned from the editorship the Prussian government appears to have offered him a post as editor in the state service. Indeed his posture as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung had been militant but politically moderate. In any case, until then, in spite of its urgency and prominence in the early 1840s, he had as yet shown no interest in the much discussed ‘social question’, nor did he as yet sympathize with what he regarded as the superficial communism which was already attracting the paper's young Berlin contributors. It was not, he felt, based on serious thought. Proud, abrasive, and confident of his gifts, he had begun to make a name. Nevertheless, it was clear that no serious opposition writing would be tolerated in Germany.

Marx therefore accepted the offer (by Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent voices of liberal opposition) of a salaried joint editorship of a proposed journal to be published abroad, the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher. This brought him to Paris in late 1843 as a literary emigrant and, after April 1844, when the Prussian government issued an arrest warrant against its editors on the grounds of high treason and lèse-majesté, as a permanent, and soon stateless, political refugee. He surrendered his Prussian citizenship in December 1845, a fact which was later used to disqualify his application for naturalization in Britain on the grounds that he had 'behaved disloyally to his King' (Collected Works, 24.564), although actually he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim his Prussian citizenship in 1862. In Paris he set up his first married household—he had married on 12 June 1843—and had his first child, Jenny Caroline (1844–1883). Here also the household was joined by its lifelong member Helene (Lenchen) Demuth, a young servant of the Westphalen family who was transferred, in a somewhat feudal manner, from Trier to Jenny Marx by her mother. Under Prussian pressure Marx was expelled from Paris by the French government in January 1845 and moved to Brussels, which remained his base of operations until the 1848 revolutions. Two further children were born in Brussels, (Jenny) Laura (1845–1911)—all his daughters were named Jenny, after his wife—and the short-lived Henry Edgar, who died in Soho (1846–1855). The rest of the Marxes' children, Henry Edward Guy (1849–1850), (Jenny Eveline) Frances (1851–1852), and (Jenny Julia) Eleanor Marx (1855–1898), were born and died in England.

The Karl Marx we know was born in the months between his marriage and his expulsion from Paris. He thought his way through to communism by means of an intensive critique of Hegel's philosophy of law and the state, via the Vorläufige Thesen zur Reform der Philosophie (1843) (Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy) of the radical philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and an impassioned study of the history of the French Revolution. By the end of 1843, when Marx wrote 'Zur Kritik der Hegel'schen Rechtsphilosophie' ('Introduction to the critique of Hegel's philosophy of law') for the Jahrbücher (published in 1844), he had concluded that the proletariat alone was the necessary agency for the emancipation of humanity. In Paris he found himself in the capital of both revolution and socialism, and in the midst of an international community of the political avant-garde, most of whom were soon to become victims of his critique—Bakunin, Proudhon, Ruge and the German emigration, Leroux, Louis Blanc, and the other French socialists, but not the sceptical poet and temporary communist sympathizer Heinrich Heine, for whom, all his life, Marx retained 'a sincere affection' (Prawer, 66). He was already known as both the ablest and least tolerant of the revolutionary intellectuals.

Marx and Engels

Stimulated by his study of the French Revolution and by a 'Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie' ('Outlines of a critique of national economy') submitted in 1844 to the magazine by Frederick Engels (1820–1895) on the basis of his British experience, Marx began, with his usual titanic energy, to plunge into the literature of economics. The two young men found they had converged on the same point by different routes: the one via politics and the French Revolution, the other via the experience of Britain's industrial revolution in his family's Manchester cotton business. By the late summer of 1844, when Engels spent ten days in Paris with Marx on his way back from Manchester, the two young men found themselves 'in agreement in all theoretical areas' and about to begin their lifelong co-operation. With Engels, Marx made his first visit to Britain—London and Manchester—a few months later (July–August 1845).

The partnership with Engels, never broken on either side, was so central to the remainder of Marx's life that a brief comment on it is relevant. For Marx, Engels was to be the permanent intellectual collaborator and partner, the ever reliable source of information, notably about the actual operations of capitalist industry, the constant, unconditional (if not uncritical) backer, and the fount of intellectual, and especially material, support. Without Engels he could not have survived his years in Britain. For Engels, Marx, in his own graveside words, was 'the greatest living thinker', the Darwin of the law of human historical evolution, the pathbreaker for humanity's future, a genius to whom he, a mere man of talent and intelligence, was justified in devoting his mind and money—even at the cost of continuing in the hated family cotton business to provide him with an income.

Marx and the origins of Marxism

With and without Engels, Marx now launched himself into a series of writings in which he tried to elaborate his new theory, and which form the basis of what later came to be called Marxism—a term from which he took his distance when it came into use at the end of his life. However, although he actually received in 1845 a publisher's advance for a two-volume critique of politics and national economy, his major work—or that part of it which was actually completed under the title Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie—was not published until 1867. As Ruge had observed: 'He never finishes anything; he is always breaking off, and then plunges again into an infinite ocean of books' (Blumenberg, 55). Only ideological disagreement and personal polemic seemed to spur him into publication—with Engels against various Germans (Die heilige Familie, oder, Kritik der kritischen Kritik, Frankfurt, 1845), alone against Proudhon (La misère de la philosophie, Brussels and Paris, 1847). Major texts, such as the so-called 'Paris manuscripts' of 1844, the 'Theses on Feuerbach' (1845), and the enormous Die deutsche Ideologie ('German ideology') of 1845–6, written in collaboration with Engels, in which his 'materialist conception of history' was first elaborated, were to be published posthumously between 1888 and 1932.

The Communist Manifesto and the 1848 revolutions

Of more immediate significance was the conversion of the most important secret German revolutionary fraternity, the League of the Just, renamed the Communist League, with whom both had had increasingly close contacts for some years, to the views of Marx and Engels. This body, an offshoot of French secret societies of the 1830s, was primarily composed of militant expatriate German craftsmen, but also attracted some young intellectuals, among them the future leaders of Germany's major working-class parties, Ferdinand Lassalle and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Marx visited Britain for the second time (27 November to 13 December 1847) to take part in the Second Congress of the now reformed organization at the Communistischer Arbeiterbildungsverein (‘Communist Workers' Educational Club’), then in Soho, just off Shaftesbury Avenue. Here he and Engels were commissioned to draw up a manifesto, which he completed—not without a deadline and ultimatum from the league—for publication at the end of February, a nose ahead of the 1848 revolutions. It presented communism as the necessary and inevitable product of the historical development of capitalism. As the Communist Manifesto, this irresistible combination of utopian confidence, moral passion, hard-edged analysis, and—not least—a dark literary eloquence was eventually to become perhaps the best-known and certainly the most widely translated pamphlet of the nineteenth century. Its publication went almost unnoticed. The Communist League and its network remained Marx's main political resource during the ensuing years of revolution.

The 1848 revolution gave Marx a political role adequate to his talents. Expelled from Belgium shortly after the outbreak of the February revolution in France, he returned to Paris by invitation of the new republican government and prepared for the now certain German revolutions which triumphed in March. Within weeks, and on a temporary French passport, he was back in Cologne with Engels, who raised most of the money to found the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Democratie, of which Marx was editor-in-chief, assisted—for the paper was run, in Engels's words, 'simply as the dictatorship of Marx'—by Engels and a team of communists. It has been described as 'the best newspaper of that year of revolution' (Blumenberg, 87). Certainly it was the most coherent voice of the democratic left, which believed that 'the domination of the bourgeoisie cannot be reached by compromise with the feudal powers', recommended a revolutionary war against Russia, and held that 'German unity, like the German Constitution, can only emerge as the result of a movement in which both the inner conflicts and the war with the East are brought to resolution' (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 7 June 1848). Fortunately Marx's pen felt the discipline of the need for daily comment. He had to write rapidly, and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung gave him practice in the genre of instant analytical history he was to make his own and which he perfected after 1848, notably in the masterly 'Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon' ('The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon') (Die Revolution, 1, 1852), written within weeks of the French coup d'état of December 1851.

Marx in London

Though Marx and his friends did not recognize that the defeat of the revolution was irreversible until 1850, the increasingly radical paper closed down as Marx was expelled from Prussia at twenty-four hours' notice in May 1849. The family made its way to Paris by various routes. In France he was, once again, a suspect subversive, offered permission to reside only if he remained far from Paris in southern Brittany. Instead, planning a revived expatriate Neue Rheinische Zeitung, he chose exile in Britain, where he arrived at the end of August, to be joined by his family on 15 September. From then on to the end of his life Marx had his domicile in London at—omitting temporary lodgings—4 Anderson Street, Chelsea (October 1849 – April 1850), then at two addresses in Dean Street, Soho (December 1850 – September 1856), in Grafton Terrace, Kentish Town (October 1856 – March 1864), at 1 Modena Villas (1864–75), and finally, further up Maitland Park Road at 41 (1875–83), where both Jenny Marx and he died.

The next few years were the hardest and most frustrating in Marx's life, although the British Museum Library, to which he obtained access in June 1850, offered some escape from the miseries of politics and everyday troubles. His political hopes, both general and personal, collapsed. For a few months he kept up hopes of a revolutionary revival as he published six issues of a short-lived Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Ökonomische Revue (including his analysis of the French revolution later republished as Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich, 1848 bis 1850 and in English as The Class Struggles in France, 1848–50), while sketching a prospect of the possible passage from democratic to proletarian revolution ('permanent revolution') for the benefit of the Communist League. Yet, unlike many other of the refugees crowding into London, he soon accepted that the revolutionary era was at an end. In the overheated atmosphere of inquest, rivalry, recrimination, and mutual accusation that tends to follow lost revolutions, the German Workers' League in London broke away from Marx and Engels—never the best of committee men—as did most of the London communists, leaving them politically quite isolated, while in 1851 the police succeeded in virtually destroying the Communist League in Germany. It was formally dissolved by Marx in November 1852. Politically he was at zero point. Intellectually few could even read him, for attempts to publish his writings in 1851 came to little, as did his hopes, excessively optimistic as usual, to complete his economic work. Ferdinand Lassalle, shortly to be founder of the first mass workers' party in Germany and an admirer of Marx (who did not return the admiration), arranged for the publication of a first instalment, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Berlin, 1859), which Marx failed to follow up. The enormous preparatory manuscripts of 1857–8 became influential after their publication under the title Grundrisse in 1939–41. The contrast between his talent, promise, and achievement and his political isolation visibly embittered Marx, and made him even more intolerant, both in public and in private.

At the same time Marx's material situation was catastrophic. With no gift for domestic financial management and living the hand-to-mouth life of the political refugee, without a predictable source of income since 1844, he had been harried by money troubles since the mid-1840s, but with the end of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung these became constant and acute. The squalor in which the Marxes—six persons—lived in their two furnished rooms in Soho was vividly described by visiting Prussian police spies, and the daily Dickensian struggle with butchers, bakers, landlords, and pawnbrokers emerges in Marx's correspondence with the ever loyal Engels, on whose financial aid he now relied permanently. Three of the Marx children died during these terrible years and were buried in the churchyard of Whitefield's Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road, Mrs Marx having to beg £2 from a neighbouring French political refugee to pay for the coffin of one of them. Not surprisingly Jenny Marx's nerves often gave way, as did Karl's hardly equable temper. 'At home a constant state of siege' he reported to Engels in 1851; 'Am annoyed and enraged by streams of tears all night long … I'm sorry for my wife. She bears the brunt of the pressure, and au fond she is right. In spite of this … from time to time I lose my temper' (Marx to Engels, 31 July 1851, Collected Works, 38.398). It should be remembered that Mrs Marx was not only in charge of the household but also acted as her husband's secretary. It may be that those times of what must have been intolerable pressure led to the birth of Helene Demuth's son, Henry Frederick, who (according to one interpretation) was Marx's child, on 28 June 1851. Jenny Marx seems to have been kept in ignorance, thanks to the faithful and notoriously unbourgeois Engels, who tacitly allowed paternity to be attributed to himself until shortly before he died. We may assume that Marx was not in a position to take responsibility for an illegitimate son. Still, the episode leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Marx's biographers. Befriended later by Marx's daughters, Frederick Demuth, the only member of the Marx family actually to be a class-conscious proletarian (a toolmaker and member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union), died in 1929. It has been suggested that the authorities of the young USSR, anxious to avoid potentially embarrassing claims from illegitimate descendants of Marx, paid him a substantial sum, probably in the mid-1920s, presumably in return for silence about his paternity. The documentation about Demuth was sufficiently important to be submitted to Stalin himself in 1934, who decided that 'the material should stay buried in the archive' (Kapp, Frederick Demuth, 18–19, 26–7).

Ironically, the main victim of those years was not Helene Demuth, who continued as the loved and respected friend, member, and housekeeper of the Marx family until her employer's death and is buried in the family grave, but Jenny Marx.

In all these struggles [she was to write some twenty years later] we women have the harder part to bear, because it is the pettier one. A man draws strength from his battles with the world outside, invigorated by the very confrontation with the enemy, be their number legion. We sit at home and darn stockings. That doesn't save us from worry, and the little everyday miseries slowly but surely grind down the will to live.

J. Marx to W. Liebknecht, 26 May 1872, Collected Works, 44.580; slightly modified translation

In the last decade of her life, when Marx's work made less demand on her time, Jenny's life—passionate but not entirely conventional by the standards of Haverstock Hill—turned increasingly round the domestic problems of children and grandchildren. Her daughters, from whom surprisingly few letters to her appear to have survived, talked of her with a sort of amused condescension and made fun of her conscientious reading of Das Kapital. Not so Karl Marx, who thought the most important thing about what he regarded as the first English publication that did his ideas justice was that he received it in time 'so that my dear wife had the last days of her life still cheered up. You know the passionate interest she took in all such affairs' (ibid., Marx to F. A. Sorge, 15 Dec 1881, 46.163).

If anything Marx's financial problems became worse in the course of the 1850s, although journalism, mainly for the New York Daily Tribune, whose editor, Charles Dana, he had got to know in 1848 and for which he acted as London correspondent, provided some fairly regular income. Some of these articles were written for Marx by Engels, notably those later published as Revolution and Counter-Revolution, or, Germany in 1848, edited by Eleanor Marx Aveling (1896). In 1862, when the American Civil War had lost Marx this source of income, he reached the nadir of his financial fortunes. His wife attempted to sell his books and (with recommendations from a Philips cousin) Marx actually felt obliged to seek employment as a clerk for the Great Western Railway. He was turned down because of his sensationally illegible handwriting, which has also been the bane of Marxian scholars. In spite of constant, desperate, and always successful appeals for money to Engels, some legacies, and various complex (and sometimes shaky) speculations and credit transactions, the Marx finances were not stabilized until 1869 when Engels, about to retire from the Manchester cotton business, offered to pay all his debts and to provide an annuity of £350, which Marx agreed he could live on—illness and other unforeseen contingencies apart—though he also admitted that he had exceeded this sum in the past. In fact the Marxes continued to rely on Engels's extraordinary generosity, as the need arose.

The problem of the Marxian finances had been particularly intractable for two reasons: the Marxes felt it essential to maintain the public expenditure of a successful professional household, especially after their move into a middle-class district, and they were spectacularly bad at budgeting. Hence the surprising combination of what was then a substantial annual expenditure with almost constant and desperate financial embarrassment. Moreover, matters were made even more difficult by the ill health which increasingly racked Marx's powerful body from 1849. He suffered annual and increasingly severe liver and gall-bladder attacks. From the early 1860s he developed disabling and Job like boils and abscesses—the famous carbuncles, for which he hoped the bourgeoisie would one day pay. He also suffered from rheumatic pains and occasional paralysis, and, fairly persistently, from headaches, inflammation of the eyes, neuralgia, and chronic insomnia, not to mention from bronchial and lung problems, which were to be the official cause of his death ('cachexy as a result of consumption'). In his last thirty years he was, for practical purposes, under constant medical attention. It is possible that some of his medical problems were psychosomatic ('of a nervous nature'), as his doctor suggested on at least one occasion. They were almost certainly aggravated by his diet, smoking, and drinking habits, and quite certainly by the enormous workload he imposed on himself by day and night.

The International and Das Kapital

These were the conditions under which Marx entered the second, and very much more rewarding, decade of his British exile, when he became a well-known figure in British politics and an influential one in international labour politics, and also produced the only volume of Das Kapital published in his lifetime as well as virtually all of the manuscript of what was to be published posthumously as volumes 2 and 3 of that work and the Theorien über den Mehrwert ('Theories of surplus value').

Since 1846 Marx had established relations with the British Chartists—notably G. J. Harney, who appears to have been the main British contact for the Communist League, and later Ernest Jones. However, his contacts with the main body of the post-Chartist labour movement, the trade unions, were probably mediated through old Communist Leaguers among German workers in Britain, who retained their admiration for him, such as the tailor G. Eccarius, who in 1863 arranged his participation in a trade union meeting in favour of the north in the American Civil War, presided over by John Bright. This initiated his relations with leading figures of the British trade union and labour movement such as Robert Applegarth, W. R. Cremer, and George Odger. The British unions were to provide the crucial organizational backing for the new International Working Men's Association, to the inaugural meeting of which, on 28 September 1864, Marx was invited as a representative of the German workers, and to whose provisional committee he was elected.

Although Marx at this time had few supporters anywhere, sheer intellectual superiority immediately made him the leading figure in this organization. Since, unlike in the Communist League, he was in no position to exercise authority directly, he now also demonstrated a political tact not evident in his earlier career. Composed of representatives of virtually all tendencies on the European left, ranging from moderate trade unionists to anarchist insurrectionaries, the 'International' was to acquire considerable public prominence, coinciding as it did with a marked growth in labour activity and organization in Europe, which it attempted to inspire and co-ordinate. While uninterested in revolutionary projects the British unions, engaged in the struggle for electoral reform and union rights, found Marx's insistence on class-based political action congenial and welcomed the International's efforts to prevent the import of strike-breakers from abroad. Marx became the chief draftsman of its documents, beginning with its rules and inaugural address (1864), and indeed was chiefly instrumental in holding its disparate elements together until they broke apart under the strain of the battle between Marx, the champion of state power and politics, and Bakunin, the anti-political anarchist, and in the aftermath of the Paris commune of 1871. Most of the British trade unionists abandoned the International after its, or rather Marx's, 'Address on the commune', better known as The Civil War in France (1871)—the third of his remarkable pamphlets on the contemporary history of France. This document, which profoundly influenced subsequent revolutionaries from Lenin to Mao, abandoned the deliberate moderation of the earlier statements of the International to return to 'the old boldness of speech' (Marx to Engels, 4 Dec 1864, Collected Works, 42.18), thus reinforcing the impression that the International, identified with Marx, was the heart of international revolution, which had been gaining ground for some time. Although the British government did not take these attacks seriously, Marx himself was not displeased that 'I have the honour to be AT THIS MOMENT THE BEST CALUMNIATED AND MOST MENACED MAN OF LONDON. That really does one good after a tedious twenty years' idyll in the swamp' (ibid., Marx to Kugelmann, 18 June 1871, 44.158). His prominence in the International also attracted attention to his writings. Volume 1 of Das Kapital was published in 1867, its preface dated from London on 25 July 1867, the only one of Marx's major works which was published in his lifetime (its first English translation, edited by Engels and translated by S. Moore and Eleanor Marx Aveling, was published by Swan Sonnenschein in 1887). Between 1869 and 1872, for the only time in his lifetime, new editions of his earlier writings were published: The Eighteenth Brumaire (1869), the Communist Manifesto (1872), and the second and much rewritten edition of Das Kapital (1872). On the other hand the breakup of the International in 1872—its relics were dispatched to New York—virtually ended his life as a practising politician.

Although the 1870s left Marx with far more time and without serious financial worries, they also virtually brought to an end his theoretical work. While he continued to read endlessly in a variety of languages—he now learned Russian—after 1872 he wrote little, published less, and added hardly anything to the vast but unco-ordinated mass of manuscript written in the 1860s, although he made an attempt to return to the second volume of Das Kapital in 1877–8, which he said he hoped to complete within a year. Engels's shock at the fragmentary state of the material after his friend's death is comprehensible: he had been given the impression that it was close to completion. Why Marx never concluded his magnum opus has been endlessly discussed since his death, but there is no doubt that with the end of the International something went out of his life.

However, he was by this time a personage of some note, or notoriety, in various countries. Indeed, his (unsuccessful) application for naturalization in 1874 was intended to safeguard himself against action by the authorities in newly united Germany and the Austrian authorities at Karlsbad where, under the watchful eye of the local Bezirkshauptmann, he took the cure with his daughter Eleanor, until a nervous Habsburg government intimated its intention to expel this 'outstanding leader of the democratic-social party' (Kisch, 31, 73) if he were to return. He began to attract interviewers. More to the point, in Germany the two labour and socialist parties, both founded by his disciples, merged in 1875 (on terms which he bitterly denounced in the so-called 'Critique of the Gotha programme' of that year, posthumously published by Engels in Die Neue Zeit, 1891) to form what was to become the largest of pre-1914 Marxist parties. More surprisingly, the translation of Das Kapital into Russian (1872) gained him immediate and profound influence among Russian intellectuals. The censors of St Petersburg had authorized its publication on the grounds that 'it is possible to state with certainty that very few people in Russia will read it and even fewer will understand it' (Figes, 139). While he had been in touch with Russian exiles since the 1840s, his links with Russian intellectuals, in whose country—to cite a British report of 1879—he expected 'a great and not distant crash' (Collected Works, 24.581), now became extremely close. His relations also remained close with France, the only other country in which a translation of Das Kapital appeared in Marx's lifetime (1872–5); two of his daughters, Jenny and Laura, married Frenchmen—respectively Charles Longuet (1833–1903) and Paul Lafargue (1842–1911)—while a third, Eleanor, was for some years engaged to another, the communard and historian of the Paris commune Hippolyte Prosper Olivier Lissagaray (1838–1901), and would almost certainly have married him but for a paternal veto.

In Britain, where The Times and some other newspapers were to receive the news of his death from the Paris papers, Marx remained little known and intellectually isolated. Not surprisingly he resented the fact that even his earliest British disciple, founder of the Democratic (from 1884 Social Democratic) Federation, H. M. Hyndman, initially thought it advisable not to mention his name, on the grounds that the English did not like the word socialism and 'have a dread of being taught by a foreigner' (Marx to Hyndman, 2 July 1881, Collected Works, 46.102). Such contacts as he had earlier, mainly with the radicals of the Fortnightly Review, appear to have been mediated by the small band of positivists (E. S. Beesly, Frederic Harrison), themselves supporters of the International and among the rare British sympathizers with the Paris commune. Characteristically, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff's letter of 1 February 1879 to the Empress Friedrich (ibid., 24.580–82) passes naturally from a lengthy account of a meeting with Marx to some gossip about the English positivists.

A number of writers have left very similar impressions of Marx in his last decade: a 'firm neck' (Kisch, 70) on still massive shoulders supported 'the head of a man of intellect and the features of a cultivated Jew' (Collected Works, 24.568) framed by long grey hair and beard, 'which contrast strangely with a still dark moustache' (ibid., 24.580) and dark bushy eyebrows (Kisch, 70). Few failed to remark on the sharp, sparkling eyes. He looked old, almost certainly older than his years—the Chicago Tribune's reporter thought 'he must be over 70 years of age' in December 1878 (Collected Works, 24.568). He seemed to enjoy life. He was cultured, witty, a gifted raconteur: 'varied by many quaint turns and little bits of dry humour … it was all very positif, slightly cynical, interesting' (ibid., 24.580). He impressed by the sheer range of his knowledge—'a most impressively cultivated anglo-german gentleman' (Maxim Kovalevsky, quoted in Blumenberg, 151); 'his talk was that of a well-informed, nay, learned man' (Collected Works, 24.580). All were struck by the contrast between his incendiary reputation and continued belief in revolution on one hand and the dispassionate tone of the elderly scholar–observer on the other. 'It will not be he who whether he wishes it or not will turn the world upside down' observed Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff as he reported to the future Empress Friedrich of Germany that his impression of Marx 'was not at all unfavourable and I would gladly meet him again' (ibid., 24.582).

Final years

With Engels's move to London in 1870—he lived a short walking distance away and saw Marx daily—and with the French sons-in-law as communard refugees in London, Marx now lived close to family and friends. From 1876 he acquired Longuet grandchildren, to whom he became very attached. But for his health, the natural exuberance and joie de vivre on which visitors to the family parties remarked would have been even more evident. However, his health continued to deteriorate, and from 1873 his doctors insisted on annual cures at a spa—Harrogate, Karlsbad, in the Black Forest, Malvern—as well as seaside rest in Jersey, Ramsgate, and finally, in 1882, in Algiers and on the Isle of Wight. So, and somewhat more rapidly, did the health of Jenny Marx deteriorate; she died, beloved, emaciated, and stoical, of liver cancer on 1 December 1881, leaving her husband bereft. On the day she died, thought Engels, the Moor also died (Mehring, 528). He outlived her for little more than a year. He suffered his last blow with the death of Jenny, his favourite daughter, on 11 January 1883, aged thirty-seven, probably of cancer of the bladder. On the afternoon of 14 March 1883, sitting in his easy chair in his house at 41 Maitland Park Road, London, he died. He was buried in Highgate cemetery on 17 March, in his wife's grave, in the presence of his daughter Eleanor, her partner Ernest Aveling, Ernest Radford (a friend of Engels), some old comrades from the Communist League, his two French sons-in-law, Wilhelm Liebknecht who spoke for the German Social Democratic Party, and two fellows of the Royal Society—the communist chemist Karl Schorlemmer from Manchester and the biologist Ray Lankester, a friend of Marx's last years. Engels's lapidary words at the graveside, quoted in every life of Marx since, remained unpublished at the time, except in the Zürich journal of German social democracy, then illegal under Bismarck's anti-socialist law. Engels said:

As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history … that human beings must first of all eat, drink, shelter and clothe themselves before they can turn their attention to politics, science, art and religion.

Mehring, 531

Marx died intestate. His youngest daughter, Eleanor, being the only relative resident in Britain, was granted letters of administration for his estate, valued at £250 (Kapp, Eleanor Marx, 1.282). The complex fortunes of the voluminous papers of Marx and Engels after their deaths form part of the troubled history of the twentieth century. 'What works?' Marx is reported as having said, bitterly, when asked about them. At his death there seemed little to show for a lifetime of sacrifice in the cause of changing the world. And yet scarcely any nineteenth-century figure has left a larger mark on history either as a thinker or as the inspirer of political action. As a thinker he was destined to make a greater impact—though in a very different manner—than any of his other contemporaries except Darwin. His intellectual gifts and achievement—'not only originality but also scientific ability of the highest order' (Schumpeter)—could not but impress even his critics. A century after the publication of Das Kapital he appeared more frequently than anyone else in the index of the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, with references to every single one of its sixteen volumes. As for his practical impact, within little more than fifty years of his death regimes officially devoted to Marxism ruled a third of the human race, without counting the many millions who lived under the governments of social democratic parties, many of which also claimed direct descent from him.

How far was this due to Marx, how far to the parties and movements claiming him as their inspiration? His personal contribution is not to be underestimated. 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is to change it' Marx had noted down in 1845 (Collected Works, 5.5). To the object of changing the world he devoted his life. Even sceptical critics noted 'the enormous vigour with which he created an arsenal of ideas for a political party and a host of slogans which could be used immediately and which were of magnificent effectiveness … the glowing passion which fascinated members of his party and his opponents and … the tone of the prophet which made his work unique' (Schumpeter, 119). He died no doubt hopeful, but also frustrated and disappointed. And yet few unarmed prophets were destined to a century of such posthumous success.

Marx's thought

Marx's intellectual influence has been so wide-ranging that a brief summary of his thought is unusually difficult. Since his death, no field of thinking about man and nature has, at one time or another, lacked serious debates about the relevance of his ideas to it. He himself is a major figure in the history of philosophy, economics, sociology, and historiography, though he cannot be adequately contained under any of these headings. The absence of any systematic and comprehensive account of his thought by Marx himself adds to the difficulty. The various posthumous systematizations or ‘Marxisms’ do not necessarily represent his own views, although the version devised between 1883 and 1895, mainly by Frederick Engels, could clearly claim to be based on a lifetime's partnership with him.

Marx's starting point was a reflection on human nature. Like other humanist philosophers he assumed that it had a permanent essence, but he historicized this by defining what human beings ‘really’ are—not as a collection of permanent and unchanging qualities embodying some arbitrary ideal, but as a process of development inherent in their social existence. Humans produced both themselves and their world, and they did so through 'labour', the interaction of man and the non-human environment, by which they both transformed external nature and modified their own. Yet historically the inability of humans to recognize themselves in the man-made universe which surrounded them ('alienation') made impossible the realization of their full human potential—until the conditions for ending alienation came into existence in Marx's own times.

There were thus two strands in Marx's thinking—utopian or teleological, and historical or evolutionary—both relying on a coherent but non-linear ('dialectical') analysis and linked by the concept of social practice: only through praxis could man both change himself and the world and arrive at an understanding of what he was doing. In its Hegelian origins it was utopian, or rather eschatological: history was an objective process moving towards a final end—in Marx's case communism, the situation in which humanity would be able to determine its own development in freedom, no longer enslaved and blinded by the material forces it had created. Yet if this objective was achievable, it was not because it was desirable, but because it was historically inevitable. Moreover, Marx claimed to show why only the modern 'bourgeois' society could create the conditions for, and indeed the mechanism of, its realization, both by its capacity to revolutionize human society worldwide and by generating its own 'grave-digger'.

This required an understanding of how societies in general developed and changed, and, specifically, of the nature and dynamics of the new capitalist society, which was creating the conditions for human life to move into the realm of freedom. The 'materialist conception of history', elaborated between 1843 and 1846, provided the first; Marx's political economy, which developed the classical lines of thought from Quesnay and Adam Smith to Ricardo, set out to provide the second. Meanwhile recent French historical experience provided both a model of revolution and political action and the concept of history as a struggle between 'classes', one of which acted as the predestined and necessary agent of social transformation. In capitalist society this was to be the function of the propertyless and wage-dependent proletariat, created by the system, whose auto-emancipation would 'constitute … a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society' (Collected Works, 39.62), and therefore to the end of human alienation.

In its most general form the materialist conception of history could be stated concisely and (except in one respect) remained substantially unchanged: 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness' (Collected Works, 29.263–4). The motor of historical change was the secular tendency of man's 'material productive forces' to grow and to come into conflict with the rigidities of the ensemble of 'social relations of production', which humans necessarily had to establish to ensure 'the social production of their means of existence'. More precisely, the conflict was with the 'juridical and political superstructure' of the prevailing mode of production, which had become a fetter on its further development. Periodic 'epoch[s] of social revolution' would ensue until the revolutionary era (which Marx believed to be imminent) would—and here analysis gave way to millennial hope—eliminate capitalism, 'the last antagonistic form of the social process of production' and thus end 'the prehistory of human society'.

However, under the impact of Darwin the 'materialist conception' was broadened out into the concept of human historical evolution as an aspect of general (natural) evolution and essentially subject to the same 'scientific laws'. This was later to become the compendium 'dialectical and historical materialism', so influential in the Soviet period. While Engels developed this line of thought from the 1870s rather than Marx, who wrote little on these as on other matters in his last decade, Marx clearly showed a growing interest in the natural sciences at this time.

Unlike the materialist conception of history, the 'anatomy of civil society', Marx's political economy, which he began to study seriously in 1843, was constantly elaborated and never adequately presented and synthesized. Das Kapital attempted to combine three strands of thought: (1) an analysis of commodity production, comprising an exposition of 'alienation' in its specifically capitalist form—for example, the so-called 'fetishism of commodities', in which what are essentially social relations between humans 'masquerade as things or relations between things' (Kolakowski, 1.276); (2) a theory of class exploitation (through the appropriation by an employing class of the 'surplus value' created by those whose labour power is hired for wages); and (3) a model of the contradictory modus operandi of a capitalist economy, which eventually creates the conditions for its supersession. The accumulation of profit-seeking capital, which constitutes the engine of capitalist growth, depends on the surplus value extracted from labour ('variable capital'), the ratio of which to 'constant capital' must decline with technological progress, thus leading to a tendency for the average rate of profit to decline. This leads both to increased exploitation of labour, made easier by the 'reserve army' of the unemployed, continuously reinforced by labour-saving technical progress, and to economic concentration. Thus capitalism moves through periodic crises, and a secular tendency towards economic concentration and social polarization, to the moment when, in the course of capitalist development, 'centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they are incompatible with their capitalist integument' (Collected Works, 35.750). Marx's writings contain virtually nothing about the post-capitalist economy.

How far Marx believed these tendencies of capitalism had developed in his lifetime is unclear. How they intersected with the history of men and movements, about which he was far from determinist, could not be predicted a priori. It is safe to say that at the time of his death he did not believe the end of capitalism was immediately to hand. Almost certainly he believed that it would be ended, when the time was ripe, by the socially explosive forces in the mature industrialized societies, although a revolution in the periphery of world capitalism—he confidently expected one in Russia—might act as the detonator for their explosion. However, in democratic countries he did not exclude the possibility of a non-violent transition.


  • Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: collected works, ed. and trans. R. Dixon and others, [49 vols.] (1975–)
  • K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence [Marx–Engels Gesamtausgabe]
  • Marx–Engels Nachlass, International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam
    Family correspondence and iconography
  • Karl Marx album, Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Berlin, 1953)
  • Friedrich Engels, Paul et Laura Lafargue: correspondance, ed. E. Bottigelli, 3 vols. (Paris, 1956–9)
  • O. Meier and E. Trebitsch, eds., Les filles de Karl Marx: lettres inédites (1979)
    Biographies and biographical materials
  • Karl Marx: Chronik seines Lebens in Einzeldaten (Zürich, 1934)
  • F. Mehring, Karl Marx: the story of his life, trans. E. Fitzgerald (1936)
  • W. Blumenberg, Karl Marx: an illustrated biography, trans. D. Scott (1972)
  • A. Cornu, Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels: Leben und Werk, 2 vols. (1953–61)
  • Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, 2 vols. (1972–6)
  • Y. Kapp, ‘Frederick Demuth: new evidence from old sources’, Socialist History, 6 (1994), 17–27
  • G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels: eine Biographie, 2 vols. (1920–34)
  • Karl Marx: eine Sammlung von Erinnerungen und Aufsätzen (Zürich, 1934)
  • Reminiscences of Marx and Engels (Moscow, [n.d., 1956])
  • W. Liebknecht, Karl Marx: biographical memoirs (1901)
  • D. McLellan, Karl Marx: his life and thought (1973)
  • d. cert.
    Related sources
  • O. Figes, A people's tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (1996)
  • C. Grünberg, ‘Marx als Abiturient’, Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 11 (1925), 424–44
  • Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 12 (1926), 239–40
  • E. E. Kisch, Karl Marx in Karlsbad (1968)
  • A. E. Laurence and A. N. Insole, Prometheus bound: Karl Marx on the Isle of Wight [n.d., 1981]
  • S. S. Prawer, Karl Marx and world literature (1978)
  • F. Regnault, ‘Les maladies de Karl Marx’, Revue Anthropologique, 43 (1933), 293–317
  • J. Schumpeter, Economic doctrine and method (1954)
  • B. Wachstein, ‘Die Abstammung von Karl Marx’, Festskrift i anledning af Professor David Simonsen's 70-aarige fødseldag (1923), 277ff.
  • L. Kolakowski, Main currents of Marxism: its rise, growth, and dissolution, 3 vols. (1978)
  • K. Willis, ‘The reception of Marx in England’, HJ, 20 (1977), 417–59


  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. and papers


  • photograph, 1867, Marx Memorial Library, London [see illus.]
  • photographs, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam

Wealth at Death

£250: administration, 18 Aug 1883, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Historical Journal