Marx: Biography

Updated Monday 21st November 2005

Karl Marx spent only a few years in Paris (1843-1845) but it was a defiining period in his life. Jonathan Rée explains why.

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In 1843 Karl Marx's life was in some turmoil. It was less than two years since he had given up his ambition of becoming a University professor of philosophy. He had tried his hand as a journalist and editor of the liberal Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, but the paper collapsed under pressure from the Prussian censors after less than a year. Then he had the good luck to be invited by the radical philosopher Arnold Ruge to collaborate on a new monthly periodical, to be called the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher ("Germano-French Annals"), designed to give backward Germany a rush of progressive French ideas. The offer gave Marx sufficient feeling of security to be able to consummate a passionate seven-year engagement and marry Jenny von Westphalen. She was four years older than him, and socially far superior; but she shared most of his attitudes and interests. By that time Ruge had decided to run his paper from Paris, and the 25-year old Karl Marx arrived there, with his pregnant wife, in October.

In the event the Jahrbücher collapsed after only one issue, and Marx transferred his journalistic energies to the bi-weekly Vorwärts, produced by and for radical German workers in Paris . Here he also had the opportunity of working closely with the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).

Meantime, Marx was struggling to put together a new way of thinking about history – a set of concepts that would provide the framework for all his subsequent writings. The main component would be the "humanism" of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72). Feuerbach's central argument was that religion is a kind of collective illusion – an illusion in which humanity projects its creative powers onto "God" – a purely imaginary object which is nevertheless then worshiped as if it were an independent power. But Feuerbach did not think that religion was just an illusion; indeed he regarded it as a necessary phase in the evolution of the human race. It was only by passing through the "inverted world" of religion that humanity's powers could be developed to their full extent, and thus become capable of taking control of its own destiny. Hence Feuerbach sought to develop not a refutation of religion but a critique; he would seek, in other words, to show that it contained truths which, when fully thought through, lead beyond religion to the post-religious state which he called "humanism."

In 1844, inspired by an article that Friedrich Engels (1820-95) had published in Jahrbücher, Marx started to immerse himself in a body of theory known as political economy . The founder of political economy – the Scots philosopher Adam Smith (1723-90) – had intended it as an explanation of what he saw as the great social paradox of his time: how the apparently chaotic institutions of money, free exchange, and capitalist private property could produce a massive growth in a nation's productivity. The more Marx read of Smith the more impressed he was; and at some point he had an extraordinary brainwave: that Feuerbach's "critique" of religion and theology could be extended and applied to capitalism and political economy. Where Feuerbach had derived a vision of a post-religious condition from his critique of theology, Marx would try to derive a vision of a post-capitalist condition from a critique of political economy. The capitalist market, Marx began to think, was – like religion – an "inverted world", where humanity "alienated" its own powers and enslaved itself to them as if they were alien and even hostile to it. The notes Marx made that summer were not published for nearly a century; but his idea of socialism or communism as the logical outcome of capitalism was spelled out in many subsequent works, notably his incomplete masterpiece, Capital, which was subtitled "Critique of Political Economy".

1818 5th May - Karl Marx born to bourgeois Jewish parents in the Rhineland city of Trier (Trèves)

1824 baptised as Protestant

1835 leaves school in Trier and starts studying law and classics at Bonn

1836 becomes engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, and moves to Berlin to study philosophy

1841 brings his studies to an end by gaining a doctorate with a dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy; gives up hope of a University post at Bonn; reads Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity

1842 starts working for the liberal paper Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, meets Friedrich Engels and undertakes to write a critique of French "socialism"

1843 Prussian authorities suppress the Rheinische Zeitung; Marx is recruited by Arnold Ruge to collaborate on a monthly periodical, the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (Germano-French Annals); marries Jenny von Westphalen and moves with her to Paris

1844 publication of the first issue of the Jahrbücher (also the last), including Marx's On the Jewish Question and Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction; birth of Jenny Marx; works towards the idea of a "critique of political economy" and begins his collaboration with Friedrich Engels with their joint work The Holy Family: a Critique of Critical Critique (published 1845)

1845 expelled from Paris, moves to Brussels; works with Engels on The German Ideology; plans to move to America; first visit to England

1847 publication of The Poverty of Philosophy

1848 writes Manifesto of the Communist Party with Engels; in Cologne as editor of Neue Rheinische Zeitung

1849 moves to London and settles there

1852 publishes The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; starts writing for New York Herald Tribune

1857-8 writes rough draft of Capital (Grundrisse)

1859 publication of Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy

1867 publication of Capital: a Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1

1871 publication of The Civil War in France

1883 14th March - dies

1885 publication of Capital: a Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 2 (edited by Engels)

1894 publication of Capital: a Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3 (edited by Engels)

1926 publication of The German Ideology
1932 Publication of the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts"


Karl Marx: Early Writings, edited by Lucio Colletti, Harmondsworth, Penguin

David McLellan, Karl Marx: his Life and Thought, London, Palgrave Macmillan


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