A brief story of Karl Marx on the 199th Birth Anniversary

Sh. Ajit *

Karl Marx was born on 5th May 1818, in the town of Trier, in what was then called Rhenish Prussia, and which is today part of Germany. His father, Heinrich Marx, was one of the top lawyers of the town. The family was well to do and cultured, but not revolutionary. Both Marx' parents came from a long line of Jewish priests. Thus, though they were economically well off, they had to face social discrimination in the anti-Jew atmosphere of Prussia. In 1816, Marx' father was forced to convert to Christianity because the Prussian government had then brought out a rule stopping Jews from practicing law.

Similarly, in 1824, another Prussian law was passed to prevent non-Christians from being admitted to public schools. To overcome this, again Heinrich Marx was forced to baptize his son Karl, along with all his brothers and sisters. Thus, though he was no believer in organised religion, Marx' father was forced to adopt a new faith just in order to pursue his profession and give his children a good education.

Marx' hometown, Trier, is the oldest town in Germany, which for many centuries had been the residence of Roman emperors and later the seat of Catholic bishops, with a religious administration for the town and surrounding area. In August 1794 the French armies captured the town, instituted a civil administration, and brought in the ideas and institutions of the French Revolution. The town only went back into the hands of the Prussian king after the defeat of France's Napoleon in 1815. Thus during the time of Marx' birth and youth it still carried the definite impact of twenty-one years of French revolutionary ideas.

Trier was a small town, similar in size to our smaller taluka towns, with a population then of around 12,000. It was principally a market town for the surrounding area, which for centuries has been a famous wine-growing area. Its population was composed of occupations typical to a 'service' town civil servants, priests, small merchants, craftsmen, etc.

It had remained untouched by the Industrial Revolution and was thus economically relatively backward. During Marx' youth it also had a high degree of poverty. Official statistics in 1830 gave an unemployment figure of one in every four, though the actual figure must have been much higher. Beggars and prostitutes were common and the figures of petty crime like stealing was extremely high. Thus Marx from a very young age was witness to the misery of the poorer labouring classes.

After attending elementary school, Marx entered the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium (secondary school) in 1831, from which he passed out in 1835. Within three weeks he was sent for further studies at the law faculty of the university forty miles away from Trier, at the city of Bonn (an important centre which is today the joint capital of Germany). Marx, with a desire to learn as much as much as possible, immediately registered in nine courses that besides law, included poetry, literature, art, etc. He was at first regular at lectures but gradually lost interest, particularly in the law lectures, which he found dry and unsatisfying. He reduced his courses first to six and then to four.

He decided to study on his own and soon got involved in the stormy life of the students of whom he soon became a leader. Being deeply interested in writing poetry he also joined the Poetenbund, a circle of young writers founded by revolutionary students. In the constant struggle between the sons of the feudal nobles and the bourgeoisie, he soon became a leader of the bourgeois group.

He was often involved in fistfights and sometimes in sword-duels. He carried a stiletto knife (somewhat similar to our gupti knives), for which he was once arrested and had a police case put on him. He was also sentenced to one day in the university's student prison on charges of "nightly uproarious disturbances of the peace and drunkenness". Marx, in one sword-duel was even injured on his right eyebrow. This led to his father withdrawing him from the Bonn University and bringing him back to Trier in August 1836.

While he was in Trier he got secretly engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of Baron von Westphalen a nobleman and senior Prussian government official. Jenny, who was four years elder to him, and Marx, were childhood loves who had decided to get married while Marx was still in school. They now got engaged with the approval of Marx' parents, but without Jenny's parents approval, which was only obtained in 1837.

In October 1836 Marx moved to the University of Berlin, which was the capital of Prussia. The university was much larger than Bonn and was renowned as a major centre of learning. After registering for his University courses, Marx immediately jumped into a storm of work. He stayed up night after night, eating irregularly, smoking heavily, reading heavy books and filling up notebooks.

Instead of formal classes Marx pursued his studies on his own. Working at a tremendous pace he moved from law to philosophy to poetry to art and then to writing plays and stories and then back to philosophy and poetry. His overwork had a bad effect of his health, particularly his TB affected lungs, and he sometimes was forced to take a break. But he was always back to his excessive work habits, reading up everything, from the ancient to the latest works of scientists and philosophers. His bent was towards philosophy, always trying to find universal meaning; always searching for the absolute in principles, definitions and concepts.

During his second year at the University he joined a group of philosophy students and teachers called Young Hegelians. They were followers of the famous German philosopher, Frederick Hegel, who had taught at Berlin University and died in 1830. They tried to give a radical interpretation to Hegel's philosophy and for this were sometimes called Left Hegelians.

One of Marx' friends in this group, its intellectual leader, was a professor called Bruno Bauer who was a militant atheist who constantly attacked the church's teachings. Such attacks, along with the radical political views of the Young Hegelians, made them a target of the Prussian authorities. Thus when Marx completed his doctoral thesis he could not obtain his degree from the Berlin University, which was dominated by reactionary appointees of the Prussian government. After completing his studies in Berlin, he submitted his thesis and obtained his Ph.D. in April 1841 from the liberal leaning University of Jena that was outside Prussian control.

After obtaining his degree he had hoped to become a lecturer at the Bonn University where Bruno Bauer had shifted to in 1839. But Bauer himself was in trouble because of the student disturbances his anti-religion lectures were causing. Finally the King himself ordered the removal of Bauer from the Bonn University. This meant the end to Bauer's teaching career as well as any hope of a teaching job for Marx.

Marx started concentrating on journalism, which he had already started immediately after leaving University. This also helped him to participate more thoroughly in the rapidly growing radical democratic opposition movement then developing in his Rhineland province and the neighbouring province of Westphalia. These provinces which had experienced the liberating influence of the French anti- feudal reforms were major centres of opposition to the Prussian king. Industrialisation had also led to the growth of the bourgeoisie, particularly in Cologne, the richest city of the Rhineland. This meant strong support for this radical opposition movement by the industrialists, who were fed up with the excessive controls of the feudals.

Marx first started writing for, and then, in October 1842, became the chief editor of The Rheinische Zeitung, a daily newspaper supported by such industrialists. In Marx' hands the newspaper soon became a fighter for radical democratic rights. This however brought Marx into constant conflict with the Prussian censors who were very repressive. Finally, when the paper published a criticism of the Russian Czar's despotism, the Czar himself brought pressure on the Prussian King to take action. The paper was banned and had to be closed down in March 1843. Marx then started involving himself in a plan to bring out a new journal The German-French Yearbooks.

During this period, from 1841 to 1843, Marx was deeply involved in the stormy political life of that period. However he was basically a radical democrat and did not at that time hold communist views. At the level of philosophy his major transformation during this period was in 1841 after reading a book The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach which presented a criticism of religion from the standpoint of materialism. This book played a major role in shifting Marx' ideas from the idealism of the Young Hegelian group to materialism. Another philosophical work of 1841 (The European Triarchy) that influenced Marx was the attempt by his friend, Moses Hess, to develop a communist philosophy by combining French socialist and Left Hegelian ideas.

However at that time Marx yet had only a limited knowledge of the ideas of the socialists and communists. His first contact was in 1842 when he read with interest the works of many of the leading French socialist theorists. He was however not converted to communism or socialism by these readings. This change came about more through his contact with working class communist groups and study of political economy, both of which took place mainly after moving to Paris at the end of 1843.

Seven years after their engagement, Marx and Jenny were married in June 1843. They had a short honeymoon in Switzerland during which Marx wrote a booklet where he presented his initial criticisms of Hegel. After the honeymoon he started the study and preparations for moving to Paris from where the earlier mentioned German-French Yearbooks was to be brought out. This move to Paris was planned in order to avoid the Prussian censors. However, though the journal was planned as a monthly, it collapsed after only one issue that came out in February 1844.

Marx' period in Paris was however marked by very significant new experiences. Of the greatest importance was direct contact with the various socialist and communist groups of which Paris was a hot centre. Besides meeting a large number of theoreticians and revolutionaries Marx benefited greatly by regular contact with the many working class revolutionaries in Paris. At the same time Marx started a study of political economy in which he read most of the works of the famous English economists.

In this way, Marx, starting from the economy's most basic unit the commodity brings out the nature of the economic laws governing capitalism. He thus exposes the scientific economic basis for the socialist revolution and the road to communism.

On March 14, 1883 Marx died at the aged 64.

* Sh. Ajit wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at sanamatumsh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on May 08, 2017.

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