Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5th, 1818 in the city of Trier, Germany to a comfortable middle-class, Jewish family. His father, a lawyer and ardent supporter of Enlightenment liberalism, converted to Lutheranism when Marx was only a boy in order to save the family from the discrimination that Prussian Jews endured at the time. Marx enjoyed a broad, secular education under his father, and found an intellectual mentor in Freiherr Ludwig von Westphalen, a Prussian nobleman with whom Marx discussed the great literary and philosophical figures of his day. Notably, it was Westphalen who introduced the young Marx to the ideas of the early French socialist Saint-Simon.
As a student in Bonn and Berlin, Marx was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. While Marx was impressed with the Hegelian professors under whom he studied, he ultimately found himself attracted to a group of students known as the "Young Hegelians." This group of young iconoclasts, including David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Max Stirner, were inspired by Hegel but were determined to champion the more radical aspects of the old master's system. In particular, these Left Hegelians called into question the conservatism they saw in Hegel's avowed political and religious philosophies. Although Marx desired a career as an academic at the time, his political sympathies prevented him from receiving an position in the state-controlled university system. Instead, Marx turned to journalism where his radical politics attracted the attention of Prussian censors. The publication for which he worked was shut down for its politically incorrect commentary, and the frustrated Marx traveled to Paris.
Paris in 1843 was an international center of social, political, and artistic activity and the gathering place of radicals and revolutionaries from all over Europe. In Paris Marx became involved with socialists and revolutionaries such as Proudhon and Bakunin. Most significantly, though, it was in Paris that Marx met Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer in England who had become a socialist after observing the deplorable condition of workers in his father's factories. Together, Marx and Engels began to develop the ideas which became Revoultionary Proletarian Socialism, or, as it is better known, Communism. Eventually, Marx was exiled from France in 1845 at the behest of the Prussian government for antiroyalist writings.
After leaving Paris, Marx traveled to Belgium where he became involved with a group of artisans calling themselves the Communist League. In 1847 the Communist League commissioned Marx and Engels to pen a statement of their beliefs and aims. This statement became the Communist Manifesto, which Marx zealously composed in anticipation the revolutions of 1848. When revolution did begin in Germany in 1848, Marx traveled to the Rhineland to encourage its progress. When the revolution failed, Marx returned to Paris but soon left for London where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Marx waited in London for the fires of revolution to ignite again. In preparation for this, he spent his time in correspondence with revolutionary leaders on the Continent, ignoring the English Chartists and Trade Unionists whom he thought simpleminded and ineffectual. Eventually, Marx realized that the revolution was not imminent, and he withdrew from his associations, burying himself in the British Museum to research the history of class conflict. The fruit of this research was Marx's great Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published in 1867.
Things began to turn around for Marx in 1863 when French workers traveled to England in order to establish a federation of working men pledged to overthrow the economic status quo. Although Marx disagreed with many of the ideological factions in the group, he recognized the significance of this event and left his self-imposed exile to join them. Marx successfully insinuated himself into the leadership of the group, now known as the International, and delivered his famous Inaugural Address to the First International as a triumphant proclamation of his principles. At last Marx had what he had desired since 1847; he had provided the intellectual foundation for a socialist movement over which he exercised full organizational control
Marx's satisfaction soon ended, however, as the Paris Commune of 1871, the first true instance of workers achieving power for themselves, turned into a bloody disaster. The more pacifistic English workers became frightened and the French movement fell to infighting. The anarchist supporters of Bakunin tried to wrest control of the International from Marx, and the struggle between Marx and the anarchists finally lead to the dissolution of the group in 1876.
In the few remaining years of his life, Marx wrote almost no significant works. His stature as the former leader of the International, though, did make him a sought after resource for new revolutionary groups throughout Europe and, in particular, in Russia. Although Marx helped these new leaders as he could, he did not take on any leadership roles in any movement again. Marx died in London in 1883, still awaiting the inevitable revolution which he had predicted.
About the Communist Manifesto
In 1846 Karl Marx was exiled from Paris on account of his radical politics. He moved to Belgium where he attempted to assemble a ragtag group of exiled German artisans into an unified political organization, the German Working Men's Association. Marx, aware of the presence of similar organizations in England, called these groups together for a meeting in the winter of 1847. Under Marx's influence this assemblage of working-class parties took the name "The Communist League," discussing their grievances with capitalism and potential methods of response. While most of the delegates to this conference advocated universal brotherhood as a solution to their economic problems, Marx preached the fiery rhetoric of class warfare, explaining to the mesmerized workers that revolution was not only the sole answer to their difficulties but was indeed inevitable. The League, completely taken with Marx, commissioned him to write a statement of their collective principles, a statement which became The Communist Manifesto.
After the conference, Marx returned to Brussels, carrying with him a declaration of socialism penned by two delegates, the lone copy of The Communist Journal, the publication of the London branch of the Communist League, and a statement of principles written by Engels. Although Marx followed Engel's principles very closely, the Manifesto is entirely of his own hand. Marx wrote furiously, but just barely made the deadline the League had set for him. The Manifesto was published in February 1848 and quickly published so as to fan the flames of revolution which smoldered on the Continent. When revolution broke out in Germany in March 1848, Marx traveled to the Rhineland to put his theory into practice. When this revolution was suppressed, Marx fled to London and the Communist League disbanded, the Manifesto its only legacy to the world.
The Manifesto has lived a long and illustrious life. While it was hardly noticed amongst the crowded field of pamphlets and treatises published in 1848, it has had a more profound effect on the intellectual and political history of the world than any single work in the past 150 years. It has inspired the communist political systems which ruled nearly half the world's population at its height and defined the chief ideological conflict of the second half of the twentieth century, altering even those countries which stood firmly against communism, e.g. Western European and American Welfare States. Intellectually, Marx's work has profoundly influenced nearly every field of study from the humanities to the social sciences to the natural sciences. It is hard to imagine an area of serious human inquiry which Marxism has not touched.
But even in the enormous body of work related to Marxism, The Manifesto is undoubtedly unique. Even at its short length (only 23 pages at its first printing), it is the only full exposition of his program that Marx wrote. And while Marx developed his views throughout his career, he never departed far from the original principles outlined therein. The Manifesto is, without a doubt, Marx's most enduring literary legacy, setting in motion a movement which has, although not in exactly the way Marx predicted, radically changed the world. As Marx famously asserted in his Theses on Feuerbach, "The philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways. What matters is changing it." No one has epitomized this as much as he.