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The Big Question: What inspired Marx?

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019

His philosophy has outlived many States which claimed to be based on it, but what inspired Marx?

Karl Marx's grave, Highgate Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

In the first of two Big Questions on class, writer and philosopher Jonathan Rée looks at the thinking of Karl Marx, who predicted that class divisions would ultimately disappear. The Big Question follows Marx's time in Paris to examine a year in his life when he began to formulate his ideas - ideas that would come to influence billions of people around the world. Who and what inspired him?

In 1843, Marx and his wife Jenny von Westphalen arrived in Paris at the invitation of a German philosopher, Arnold Ruge to work on a new magazine called the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, dedicated to the "ruthless criticism of the present".

According to Marx's biographer, Francis Wheen, Paris was "absolutely swarming with utopian communists, anarchists, Christian socialists, poets, philosophers, it was a hotbed of new thinking."

After the French Revolution of 1789, Ruge wrote, "France represents the pure principle of freedom in Europe. It has proclaimed the rights of man and is now fighting for the realisation of the great social principles behind the revolution. But Germany will provide France with the discipline of philosophy, a development of the principles of Hegelian logic."

Marx had just spent six years in Berlin, studying the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which stated that the only way to understand things is by seeing them as part of an irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. Hegelian theory suggested that historical progress would lead eventually to perfect human freedom.

Ruge and Marx's belief that salvation lay not in religion but in humanity was inspired by a contemporary German philosopher called Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach accepted Hegel's idea of historical progress, but not in Hegel's religious terms. For Feuerbach, religion was a collective dream, "The mystery of religion is that humanity projects its existence into objectivity, then turns itself into an object of this projected image." But religion was also an essential phase in humanity's journey towards freedom.

Marx and Ruge invited another German in Paris, the poet and political dissident, Heinrich Heine to contribute to their magazine. A liberal and a bourgeois, Heine's work was also influenced by Hegel. He had written about the plight of the French proletariat and was the first to use the term Weltrevolution (world revolution). Heine let Karl Marx work on his poem about striking miners Die Schlesige Weber (Silesian miners) who rose up in protest at their working conditions.

For Marx, the revolt in Silesia (now in Poland, then in Germany) was evidence that German workers were catching up with their French counterparts. And for the first time, he started addressing working-class audiences, not only in print, but though face-to-face oratory as well. "You can see the magnificent results", he wrote, "whenever you see French socialist workers gathered together: the brotherhood of humanity is not a mere phrase with them, but a truth… the nobility which bursts forth from these toil-worn men."

It was these wage-earning proletarians, according to Marx, who would become the agents of the coming revolution - an argument strengthened by his immersion in the theory of "political economy" which he had been introduced to by a wealthy young radical called Friedrich Engels. According to political economy (rooted in the work of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Smith), a nation's wealth depended more on its use of labour than its natural resources; labour was at the heart of economic theory. But development economist Bob Sutcliffe tells us that for Marx, "it reduces labour to something which is inhuman, so the worker is no longer valued for him or herself as a human being, but rather as simply as a unit of productivity."

In Marx's notes on political economy known as the Paris Manuscripts, Marx wrote "It is clear that the more workers put into their work, the more power accrues to the alien objective world, which they create over against themselves; and the poorer they become the less it belongs to them as something of their own. The alienation of workers in what they produce means that it exists outside them, independently… And it becomes a power on its own, confronting them." So to abolish this alienated labour, says Stathis Kouvelakis, the whole conditions of production would have to be revolutionised.

Karl and Jenny left Paris in January 1845. Marx went on to expound his theories of the inevitability of class struggle, in which he predicted that capitalism would destroy itself, and the development of Communism. Just as the capitalist class had overthrown the feudal aristocracy, it in turn would be displaced by the proletariat.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 21st August 2004.

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