Who was Karl Marx?

Photograph of Karl Marx
Karl Marx was one of the most influential thinkers of all time (Image credit: Public Domain / International Institute of Social History)

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian and journalist who is best known for his work as a radical political theorist and socialist revolutionary. In collaboration with fellow theorist and benefactor Friedrich Engels, Marx published "The Communist Manifesto" in 1848, which became the basis for communism. His writings remain widely studied but also controversial, and they have influenced revolutionary movements and political regimes across the decades, particularly during the 20th century. 

Karl Marx's early life

The third of nine children, Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in what is now Trier, Germany but at that time was a city in the Kingdom of Prussia. Though ethnically Jewish, Marx's father Heinrich had converted to Christianity, and the young Karl was baptized as a Lutheran in 1824. However, his upbringing was largely non-religious.

Related: Why does Christianity have so many denominations?

In 1843 Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, and while their marriage was happy, there were rumors of infidelity. According to Gavin Kitching, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, Marx had an affair with the family servant, Helena Demuth, which produced a child named Freddy. "Terrified that his wife would find out, he managed to get Friedrich Engels to claim Freddy's paternity... The truth only emerged on Engel's deathbed," Kitching told Live Science in an email.

In 1843, the Marx and Jenny moved to Paris, where he became influenced by a group of German intellectuals called the Young Hegelians, who studied the work of the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Through reading Hegel, Marx adopted socialist ideas as well as a revolutionary view of the European political system. Although he was a humanist, meaning he centered his beliefs on all human interests equally, he came to believe that society could only function by the destruction of the privileged upper class, and the rise of the working class — Marx referred to these classes as the proletariat and bourgeoisie, respectively. 

While in Paris Marx co-edited the short-lived political journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (meaning "German-French Yearbooks") with Arnold Ruge, a fellow member of the Young Helegians. The journal was aimed at French and German socialists, to "mark the commencement and continuance of the new era that we are entering," (according to Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher) referring to Marx's predicted socialist revolutions in Europe. Many of Marx's articles in the journal discussed ideas that would later be expanded upon in "The Communist Manifesto."

What influenced Marxism?

Similar to Hegel, Marx was strongly influenced by economists such as David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Adam Smith (1723-1790), said Allen Wood, professor of philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington. "As a historian of the 19th century, he was also influenced by French historians of the 1789 revolution, including [François] Guizot," (1787-1874) Wood told Live Science in an email. 

Another influence on Marx was his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. "Engels was a fine historian (in my view, better than Marx), and because he lived in Manchester and actually ran a cotton factory, he knew far more about labour conditions and working-class life generally, than Marx himself," Kitching said. "I therefore think he influenced Marx… at least as much as Hegel and Ricardo."

Friedrich Engels was Marx's friend, collaborator and benefactor. (Image credit: Public Domain)

Marx and Engels first met in Cologne in 1842, while the latter was traveling to England, Smithsonian Magazine reported. Marx visited England three years later, after reading Engels' report, "The Condition of the Working-Class in England." There, he met leaders of the Chartists, a socialist, working-class movement that campaigned for universal male suffrage. Marx spent much of his time studying in the libraries of London and Manchester, and he eventually moved to the British capital in 1849. He remained in London for the rest of his life with his family, financially supported by Engels who sent him "up to £50 a year — equivalent to around $7,500 now," Smithsonian Magazine reported.

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Between 1852 and 1862, Marx wrote almost 500 articles for the New York Daily Tribune newspaper as one of its European correspondents. These included reports on political events in Europe, as well as pieces on civil rights, economics and the Crimean War. During this time, an important resource for his work was the British Museum's Reading Room, which was the precursor to the British Library. 

The Reading Room housed an enormous collection of books on history, politics and economics, newspapers from around the world, and government documents and official reports, according to historian Thomas C. Jones, writing for the Migration Museum in London. This vast archive provided information for Marx's newspaper articles and for his book "Das Kapital." The Reading Room's collection was so important to Marx's work, that "it is difficult to imagine Marx's thinking or oeuvre developing in any city other than London," Jones wrote. 

The British Museum Reading Room was important to Marx's research and writing.  (Image credit: Wellcome Collection)

Marx's revolutionary writing was considered controversial and even dangerous by some contemporaries, because of its attack on the status quo of capitalism, said Justin Holt, professor of humanities at Wilbur Wright College. This is because Marx theorized that capitalist profit was a result of exploiting workers. "Marx showed that the profit income of capitalists is based on the non-payment of workers," Holt told Live Science in an email. "Thus, if all workers are paid for their contribution at the margin, then there is no exploitation. So, Marx's theory of exploitation called into question the legitimacy of capitalist production." 

After the Paris Commune of 1871, in which far-left socialist revolutionaries formed a short-lived government in the French capital, Marx published "The Civil War in France," which voiced support for the revolutionaries. The book brought Marx notoriety in London as "the red terror doctor" because of his support for the violent revolutions that threatened to spread across Europe. This reputation is likely what caused his application for British citizenship to be rejected, Jones wrote.

The Communist Manifesto

Marx is best known for authoring "The Communist Manifesto" and "Das Kapital." 

The former, originally called "The Manifesto of the Communist Party," was co-written with Engels and published as a pamphlet in 1848. One of the principal statements of European socialist and communist ideology, the manifesto described Marx's conception of history in terms of class struggle, from medieval feudalism to 19th-century capitalism. In the document, Marx predicted that communists would overthrow the bourgeoisie and accomplish the "abolition of private property," before raising "the proletariat to the position of ruling class."

The first page of the "The Manifesto of the Communist Party" published in London, 1848  (Image credit: Public Domain)

The "Manifesto of the Communist Party" is now considered one of the most significant political works in history and contains famous lines such as: "A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism," and, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!" 

Between 1867 and 1883, Marx published "Das Kapital," a huge, three-volume analysis of the economic and social failings of capitalism. Focusing on economic arguments, "Das Kapital" argued that capitalism was ultimately doomed because it could not endlessly sustain profits. 

What impact has Marxism had on the world?

Marx died of bronchitis and pleurisy at his home in London on March 14, 1883. At the time of his death he was officially a stateless person and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, north London. 

Marx is buried with his wife Jenny, who died two years earlier, his daughter Eleanor, the family servant Helena Demuth, and his grandson Harry Longuet who tragically died just six days after Marx.

Marx's writings gained popularity in the late 19th century, after Marxism became the official ideology of the German Social Democrats, which is Germany's oldest political party, according to Deutsche Welle

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) was heavily influenced by Marx's work and became the leading figure of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. This led to the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, a huge multinational state that was governed by the Communist Party.

A 1968 Soviet Union stamp commemorating 150 years since Marx's birth.   (Image credit: Public Domain)

Communist revolutions influenced by Marx's writing spread elsewhere in the world during the 20th century, most notably in China, North Korea, Cuba and southeast Asia. This eventually led to the onset of the Cold War, a period of geopolitical tension for nuclear dominance between democratic, capitalist governments such as the U.S., and communist regimes such as the Soviet Union.

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In 1980, approximately 1.5 billion people — more than a third of the Earth's population — were living under governments that claimed to be Marxist-Leninist, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank located in Washington, D.C. 

Marx's association with the enemies of the U.S. and its allies during the Cold War made his writing controversial, Holt said. "Much of our current political awareness was shaped by the conflict with communist countries," he said. "Accordingly, Marx’s writings are controversial since they are associated with the main political antagonist of non-communist countries in the 20th century." 

Historians continue to debate about the extent to which Marx can be blamed for the governments that claimed inspiration from his writings. "Marx is often identified with the regimes in eastern Europe and in Asia that did not come into existence until a generation or more after his death and whose policies, actions and propaganda bear very little resemblance to anything you could find in Marx's writings," Wood told Live Science in an email. 

Regimes associated with Marxism committed many atrocities over the century, although Marx himself never advocated such measures. "However, this does not mean that Marx bears no responsibility for the dictatorships that were created in his name," Kitching told Live Science in an email. "He does, but that responsibility derives from his silences, from what he does not say, rather than from anything in his work."

Is Marxism still relevant?

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century, Marxism was widely regarded as a failed ideology. In a 1985 speech, president Ronald Reagan, quoting novelist John dos Passos, said: "Not only has Marxism failed to promote human freedom, it has failed to produce food." 

Toward the end of the 20th century, many communist regimes either collapsed, such as the Soviet Union, or adapted. For example, the ruling Chinese Communist Party was heavily influenced by Marxism, but its huge economy is now market-orientated. Other countries whose ruling governments derive from communist and Marxist ideology include Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. 

Marxism is widely considered to be politically and economically irrelevant in today's world but it is still "highly influential," philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University wrote in an article for the World Economic Forum

Although most of Marx's theories on capitalism are now antiquated, the contradictions he exposed between the freedom of capitalist economies, and the severe inequalities they produce, remain relevant, Kitching said, "so long as human beings continue to live in the forms of society he called 'capitalist' or 'bourgeois'... so long as we have capitalism, so long will human beings have to live with, and cope with, the contradictions he identified." 

Additional resources

Tom Garner
Features Editor

Tom Garner is the Features Editor for History of War magazine and also writes for sister publication All About History. He has a Master's degree in Medieval Studies from King's College London and has also worked in the British heritage industry for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as well as for English Heritage and the National Trust. He specializes in Medieval History and interviewing veterans and survivors of conflicts from the Second World War onwards.