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The life of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier in the German Rhineland. His grandfather was a rabbi. His father, a successful lawyer, had his entire family baptized for business and social reasons. He studied law at Bonn and philosophy at the University of Berlin. While in Berlin he became acquainted with the philosophy of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At 24 he became editor of a paper in Cologne, Germany. His radical ideas soon got him into censorship trouble, and he went to Paris, partly to escape arrest.

With him went his beautiful young wife, Jenny von Westphalen, whom he had married in spite of both families’ misgivings (Berlin, 1-10). He was expelled from Paris in 1845, lived for a time in Brussels, Belgium. He later returned to Paris but was expelled again in 1849. Marx then went to England. He made his home in London for the remaining 34 years of his life. He lived in wretched poverty and spent day after day studying in the British Museum library. He was devoted to his wife and children, but because of his uncompromising nature he had few friends (Berlin, 20-22). One friend, however, remained faithful to him and paid his bills.

He was Friedrich Engels, a textile manufacturer whose ideas were vary similar with Marxs and who collaborated with him in his writing. Karl Marx died in London on March 14, 1883. He had outlived his wife and all but two of his six children. Only eight people were present to hear Engels’ funeral oration in Highgate Cemetery. While in Brussels Marx and Engels had written the pamphlet ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, published in 1848. It contains the simplest expression of Marxs beliefs. The ideas in it were later developed at length in the three volumes of Marxs major work, ‘Das Kapital’ (Capital).

This also was written in collaboration with Engels, who published the last two volumes after Marx death. The first volume appeared in 1867(Berlin, 50-61). Marx based his theories on what he believed to be the scientific evidence of history. He searched the past for proof of the continual class struggle between the middle-class exploiters (the bourgeoisie) and the oppressed working people (the proletariat). The final struggle, he predicted, would lead to the overthrow of capitalism and its supporters. He claimed a classless society would then emerge and there would thus be no more revolutions.

Everyone would be guided by the maxim “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. ” The state, or organized government, would no longer be needed and would “wither away. ” Marx did not concern himself much with practical problems but concentrated only on the revolution itself (Microsoft (R) Encarta 1). The Communist Manifesto is a declaration of principles and objectives of the Communist League (a secret organization of migr German artisans and intellectuals), published in London in 1848, shortly before the February Revolution in Paris.

Written by Karl Marx in collaboration with Friedrich Engels, the Manifesto is divided into four sections, preceded by an introduction that begins with the provocative words, A specter is haunting Europethe specter of communism(Rubel 82-84). In the first section, Marx outlines his theory of history and prophesies an end to exploitation. Identifying class struggle as the primary dynamic in history, he characterizes the modern world as the stage for a dramatic confrontation between the ruling bourgeoisie (the capitalists) and the downtrodden proletariat (the working class).

Driven by the logic of capitalism to seek ever-greater profit, the bourgeoisie constantly revolutionizes the means of economic production, the fulcrum of history. In so doing, it unwittingly sets in motion sociohistorical forces that it can no longer control, thus ironically calling into existence the class destined to end its rulethe proletariat. As the proletariat increases in number and political awareness, heightened class antagonism will, according to the Manifesto, generate a revolution and the inevitable defeat of the bourgeoisie (Rubel 86-90).

In the second edition, Marx identifies the Communists as the allies and theoretical vanguard of the proletariat. He emphasizes the necessity of abolishing private property, a fundamental change in material existence that will unmask bourgeois culture, the ideological expression of capitalism. After the revolution, economic production will be in the hands of the state, that is, the proletariat, organized as the ruling class. Because ownership will be in common, class distinctions will begin to disappear. (Rubel 90).

The third section, criticizing various alternative socialist visions of the time, is now largely of historical interest but displays the author’s formidable polemical skills. The final section, which compares Communist tactics to those of other opposition parties in Europe, ends with a clarion call for unity: Workers of All Countries, Unite! (Rubel 91). The Manifesto is the most concise and intelligible statement of Marx’s materialist view of history. Hence, although it produced little immediate effect, it has since become the most widely read of his works and the single most influential document in the socialist canon Rubel 101).

Karl Marx was in many respects the most influential political theorist of the 19th century. He sought to combine factual analysis and political prescription in a thorough survey of the modern economic system. Arguing that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, and that liberal governments and ideology were merely agents of the exploiting owners of property, Marx advocated the abolition of private property and predicted the demise of capitalism after a series of recurring crises.

The abolition of property, and therefore of class exploitation, would make possible a situation in which individuals would contribute according to their abilities and take according to their needs. The state, following a transitional period in which the working class would rule, would eventually wither away. In the 20th century, Marxism has been the subject of conflicting interpretations. It served as the official ideology of a number of totalitarian states, and it was also the inspirational credo of many revolutionary and nationalist movements throughout the world (Brzezinski 110-125).

In their writings, Marx and Engels tried to analyze contemporary society, which they described as capitalistic. They pointed out the discrepancies between ideals and reality in modern society: Rights granted to all had not done away with injustices; constitutional self-government had not abolished mismanagement and corruption; science had provided mastery over nature but not over the fluctuations of the business cycle; and the efficiency of modern production methods had produced slums in the midst of abundance. (Brzezinski 120-122).

They described all human history as the attempt of men and women to develop and apply their potential for creativity for the purpose of controlling the forces of nature so as to improve the human condition. In this ongoing effort to develop its productive forces, humanity has been remarkably successful; history has been the march of progress. Yet in developing productivity, various social institutions have been created that have introduced exploitation, domination, and other evils; the price humanity pays for progress is an unjust society (Berlin 200-202).

Every social system of the past, Marx argued, had been a device by which the rich and powerful few could live by the toil and misery of the powerless many. Each system, therefore, was racked by conflict. Moreover, each method of exploitation had flaws that sooner or later destroyed it, either by slow disintegration or by revolution. Engels and Marx believed that the capitalist system, too, was flawed and therefore bound to destroy itself.

They tried to show that the more productive the system became, the more difficult it would be to make it function: The more goods it accumulated, the less use it would have for these goods; the more people it trained, the less it could utilize their talents. Capitalism, in short, would eventually choke on its own wealth (Berlin 230-232). The collapse of the capitalist economy, it was thought, would culminate in a political revolution in which the masses of the poor would rebel against their oppressors.

This proletarian revolution would do away with private ownership of the means of production. Run by and for the people (after a brief period of proletarian dictatorship), the economy would produce not what was profitable, but what the people needed (Berlin 240-243). Abundance would reign. Inequalities and coercive government would disappear. All this, Marx and Engels expected, would happen in the most highly industrialized nations of Western Europe, the only part of the world where conditions were ripe for these developments (Brzezinski 130-135).

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