A Brief Biography of Karl Marx

One of Sociology's Founding Fathers

Karl Marx. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Karl Marx (1818-1883), the famous Prussian political economist, journalist, and activist, is considered to be one of the founding thinkers of sociology. He is widely known for his critiques of the social, economic, and political implications of industrial capitalism, which he expressed in works including  The Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital, Volumes 1 and 2, and which are known as a whole as "Marxism." Among Marx's most well-known and cited intellectual contributions are the concepts of historical materialism, base and superstructure, and false consciousness.

Early Life And Education

Karl Marx was born in Trier, Prussia (present-day Germany) on May 5, 1818 to Heinrich Marx and Henrietta Pressberg. Marx's parents were Jewish, and he came from a long line of rabbis on both sides of his family. However, his father converted to Lutheranism to evade anti-semitism prior to Marx's birth.

Marx was educated at home by his father until high school, and in 1835 at the age of 17, enrolled at Bonn University in Germany, where he studied law at his father's request. Marx, however, was much more interested in philosophy and literature.

Following that first year of university Marx became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, an educated baroness. They would later marry in 1843. In 1836 Marx enrolled at the University of Berlin, where he soon felt at home when he joined a circle of brilliant and extreme thinkers who were challenging existing institutions and ideas, including religion, philosophy, ethics, and politics.

Marx graduated with his doctoral degree in 1841.

Career and Later Life

After school, Marx turned to writing and journalism to support himself. In 1842 he became the editor of the liberal Cologne newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, but the Berlin government prohibited it from publication the following year.

Then, Marx spent two years in Paris, where he first met his collaborator Friedrich Engels.

However, chased out of France by those in power who opposed his ideas, Marx moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1845, where he founded the German Workers’ Party and was active in the Communist League. There Marx networked with other leftist intellectuals and activists and wrote his most famous work, The Manifesto of the Communist Party. After being exiled again from Belgium, Marx finally settled in London where he lived as a stateless exile for the rest of his life.

In London, Marx worked in journalism and wrote for both German and English language publications. From 1852 to 1862 he was a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, writing a total of 355 articles. He also continued writing and formulating his theories about the nature of society and how he believed it could be improved, as well as actively campaigning for socialism.

Marx's theories about society, economics, and politics, which are collectively known as Marxism, argue that all society progresses through the dialectic of class struggle. He was heavily critical of the current socio-economic form of society, capitalism, which he called the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie," believing it to be run by the wealthy middle and upper classes purely for their own benefit, and predicted that it would inevitably produce internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system, socialism.

Under socialism, he argued that society would be governed by the working class in what he called the "dictatorship of the proletariat." He believed that socialism would eventually be replaced by a stateless, classless society called pure communism.

While Marx remained a relatively unknown figure in his own lifetime, his ideas and the ideology of Marxism began to exert a major influence on socialist movements shortly after his death. He succumbed to cancer on March 14, 1883, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in London.

Marx has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and in a 1999 BBC poll was voted the "thinker of the millennium" by people from around the world. The memorial at his grave is always covered by tokens of appreciation from his fans.

Other Major Publications

  • "These on Feuerbach" (1845)
  • The German Ideology (1845)
  • Wage-Labor and Capital (1847)
  • A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "A Brief Biography of Karl Marx." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/karl-marx-biography-3026494. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, March 2). A Brief Biography of Karl Marx. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/karl-marx-biography-3026494 Crossman, Ashley. "A Brief Biography of Karl Marx." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/karl-marx-biography-3026494 (accessed January 23, 2018).