Marx: the Man and his Work – Part 1
Karl Marx died on the 14th of March 1883. The work he did lives on. An enormous amount has been written about him as an individual and about his materialist philosophy; less has been written about his work on economics. His theory of surplus-value is still largely ignored. Of those few who have written on this subject, many appear never to have read Marx himself. In fact most pseudo-intellectuals who write or have written about Marx, being in many cases of the type Marx so often castigated as bourgeois reformers, ignore those facets of his work — either not liking or failing to see the importance of them.
Making this small addition to the mass of material on Marx the man is done in no spirit of hero-worship but to place Marx in line with the conditions which produced him. The writer has chosen for the most part the early stages of Marx’s career in order to show a man reacting to the conditions and, as far possible in a short article, the conditions shaping the man.
A Time of Revolution
Karl Heinrich Marx was born at Trier (Trèves) in Germany on 5th May 1818. Both the date and the place of his birth are significant. Not many years before, the armies of republican France had advanced over Europe carrying with them the emotional ideas of liberal democracy, ideas about liberty, equality and fraternity.
The victory of European reaction did not destroy the influence of revolutionary ideas in the backward countries of Europe. Politically and economically, Germany was a backward country, and consisted of thirty-six semi-independent states and principalities in which a feudal aristocracy held power. The whole of Germany was dominated by the extremely reactionary states of Austria and Prussia. Growing industry and commerce had created a capitalist class, but the aristocracy had no intention of giving way to the rising capitalists and were strong supporters of the absolute forms of government then existing throughout the German state.
In these circumstances the capitalists were in revolt and were demanding the setting up of a democratic form of government over a unified Germany, which was to be completely separated from Austria. Conditions thus brought into revolt much of the youth in Germany, and it is not surprising that Marx and others of that period became revolutionaries.
The parents of Karl Marx were able to provide for their children what was by the standards of the time a good education. Karl appears to have shown good intellectual ability at an early age. He was attending Bonn University at the age of 16, and went from there to the Berlin University. Apparently it was the intention of his parents that he should prepare for a legal career. Marx, however, like many young students, was impatient of the ordinary methods of study, and was for some time very undecided. He dabbled in poetry, and toyed with the idea of writing a work on the philosophy of law, and engaged in other forms of literary activity.
At that time the main intellectual influence on the students of Berlin was the philosophy of Hegel, which was used to criticize the existing regime. Marx became one of a band of “Young Hegelians”. He now decided upon an academic career; in 1841 he obtained his doctor’s degree from Jena University for a thesis upon the Natural Philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus. This thesis was an anticipatory part of a larger work in which Marx intended to deal with the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy as a whole. In the end Marx did not publish his thesis. Its immediate aim was no longer a matter of urgency; political and philosophic affairs of quite another kind did not permit Marx to carry out his original intention.
For a short time Marx was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, a paper owned by a group of radical industrialists which operated under great difficulties due to a strict police censorship. As editor Marx was confronted with questions concerning economics and socialism. Due to the kind of academic training he had, he found great difficulty in dealing with such questions. He decided to study these subjects as soon as possible. The possibility arose when the backer of the paper, in an attempt to save it from suppression by the adoption of a milder policy, forced Marx from his position as editor.
It was during this period, on the 19th of June 1843, that Marx married Jenny von Westphalen who became his support and counsellor up to the end of her life. Shortly afterwards they moved to Paris, where Marx had been offered employment as editor of the Franco-German Year Book. Here it was that he contacted Engels; it was this event which led to the lifelong friendship and collaboration which has left an invaluable legacy to the Socialist movement.
In Paris, Marx was in contact with and took part in the revolutionary movements of the time. He thus became acquainted with the numerous schools of thought existing in the revolutionary movements and made a deep study of economics and social questions. At the time Marx was editing the Rheinische Zeitung he was a radical democrat: it was his studies in Paris which transformed him into a communist, as that word was then understood. With the political change occurred the philosophical one. He became a materialist.
Due to the vindictiveness of the Prussian government, Marx was forced to leave Paris and went to live in Brussels. It was while he was resident in that town, in 1847, he gave a series of lectures on economics to the German Workingmen’s Club. The purpose of these lectures was to show the economic conditions which formed the basis of the class struggle. It is in the lectures, now to be found in the pamphlet Wage-Labour and Capital, that we find the germ of the theory of surplus-value.
Yet when it was written we could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto. By Socialists in 1847 were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the various Utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks, who, by all manners of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances — in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the “Educated” classes for support. Whatever portion of the working class has become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of a total social change, that portion, then, called itself communist.
And our notion from the very beginning was that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself”.
The Manifesto being our joint production, I feel bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus, belongs to Marx. That proposition is that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, forms the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the intellectual history of that epoch.
However much the state of things may have altered during the last 25 years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section II. That passage would in many respects be very differently worded today.