A Brief Biography of Karl Marx

The Father of Communism influenced world events.

Karl Marx
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Karl Marx (May 5, 1818–March 14, 1883), a Prussian political economist, journalist, and activist, and author of the seminal works, "The Communist Manifesto" and "Das Kapital," influenced generations of political leaders and socioeconomic thinkers. Also known as the Father of Communism, Marx's ideas gave rise to furious, bloody revolutions, ushered in the toppling of centuries-old governments, and serve as the foundation for political systems that still rule over more than 20 percent of the world's population—or one in five people on the planet. "The Columbia History of the World" called Marx's writings "one of the most remarkable and original syntheses in the history of human intellect." 

Personal Life and Education

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 antisemitism 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 at the 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 Exile

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 banned it from publication the following year. Marx left Germany—never to return—and 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, 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—together with Engels—wrote his most famous work, "The Communist Manifesto." Published in 1848, it contained the famous line: "Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." After being exiled from Belgium, Marx finally settled in London where he lived as a stateless exile for the rest of his life.

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.

He spent the rest of his life working on a three-volume tome, "Das Kapital," which saw its first volume published in 1867. In this work, Marx aimed to explain the economic impact of capitalist society, where a small group, which he called the bourgeoisie, owned the means of production and used their power to exploit the proletariat, the working class that actually produced the goods that enriched the capitalist tsars. Engels edited and published the second and third volumes of "Das Kapital" shortly after Marx's death.

Death and Legacy

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'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 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 communism.

Continuing Influence

Whether Marx intended for the proletariat to rise up and foment revolution or whether he felt that the ideals of communism, ruled by an egalitarian proletariat, would simply outlast capitalism, is debated to this day. But, several successful revolutions did occur, propelled by groups that adopted communism—including those in Russia, 1917-1919, and China, 1945-1948. Flags and banners depicting Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, together with Marx, were long displayed in the Soviet Union. The same was true in China, where similar flags showing the leader of that country's revolution,  Mao Zedong, together with Marx were also prominently displayed.

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. His tombstone is inscribed with words that echo those from "The Communist Manifesto," which seemingly predicted the influence Marx would have on world politics and economics: "Workers of all lands unite.”