Marx, Karl

Marx, Karl
   German philosopher and political activist whose theories on the development of capitalism and vision of a future socialist society were a compelling influence on both the democratic and nondemocratic socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Trier, Germany, to a Jewish family that had converted to Christianity, Marx studied in Bonn and Berlin between 1835 and 1841 and was powerfully influenced by the theories of Georg Hegel on the historical dialectic, as well as by French utopian thought and the economic theory of Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
   Marx moved to France and then to Belgium and fell in with exiled German socialists for whom he drafted his most celebrated pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. He participated in the revolutionary disturbances of 1848 and was forced by their failure and charges of treason leveled against him to flee to London, where he remained for the rest of his life developing his interpretations of political class conflict and the economic laws of capitalist society. These culminated in his most important work, Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published in 1867. British politics mystified Marx, above all the nonrevolutionary civility of British trade unions, but he nonetheless took part in the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association, better known as The International, in 1864.
   Marx and his family lived in poverty in London. This condition was mitigated in part by the financial support of his collaborator, Engels, and by correspondence work for newspapers. Marx was, in fact, at his best in analyses of current events thrown against his grasp of broad historical change, above all in his interpretation of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the function the state as the political agent of the most productive social and economic forces. In developing his ideas about future revolutionary trends, however, Marx extrapolated too aggressively from contemporary trends; in some instances misinterpreted their meaning altogether; and frequently succumbed to the very utopianism he professed to despise. Marx’s ideas were most influential among German and Russian socialists, but because he died before European socialist movements had matured, his most important disciples, ranging from Karl Kautsky in Germany to V. I. Lenin in Russia, differed fundamentally on how to realize Marx’s vaguely articulated vision of a future socialist society - with disastrous consequences.
   Marx was uncompromising in his condemnation of the impact of industrial capitalism on the wage laborers of Europe. He held that European dominion over non‑European peoples was motivated by the same fundamental material greed that had built “satanic mills” from Manchester to Lille and Essen, but he also argued that European capitalism could play a progressive role in European overseas colonies by destroying the social bases of “Oriental despotism” founded on social caste and sustained by slavery. This argument lost out entirely among the socialists of pre‑World War I for whom capitalism and imperialism were joined at the hip - and in all places, in all times, necessarily wicked in intention and consequence.
   See also <>.
    Hook, Sidney. Marxism and Beyond. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1983;
    McLelland, David. Karl Marx: A Biography. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006;
    Padover, Saul. Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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