Monday, 15 December 2014

Marx & Engels: Basic Dates and Early Careers

1818    Karl Marx born
1820    Friedrich Engels born
1836+  Marx at university in Bonn, then Berlin
1842+  Marx’s early journalism
1843    Marx marries Jenny von Westphalen: works in Paris & Brussels
1844-5    Engels writes “Condition of the Working Classes in England”.
             Marx & Engels first meet
1847    Formation of Communist League
1848    Year of Revolutions. “Communist Manifesto” written.
             Communist League dissolved
             Marx in Cologne: edits “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”: soon suppressed
1849    Marx moves to London. For the next few years he lives in poverty,          researching and writing
1864    “First International” founded; soon dominated by Marx
1867    First volume of “Das Kapital” published
1869    Engels retires from business to devote himself to politics and writing
1871    Paris Commune
1877    Engels writes “Anti-Duhring”, later reprinted as “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”. Marx’s active career now over
1883   Death of Marx, leaving “Das Kapital” incomplete
1893    Rise of European socialist parties brings a reprint of “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
1895    Death of Engels

Marx in his prime

Karl Marx was born in 1818, to a Jewish family at Trier in the German Rhineland. His father, Herschel, came from a long line of rabbis, and his mother, about whom little is known, was descended from Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to Holland.
     For many centuries Trier was ruled by a Prince-Bishop. It was a more-or-less independent state which was one of the 300-odd states which constituted the Holy Roman Empire, under the largely theoretical authority of the Habsburg Emperors of Austria. But in 1806 Napoleon, having smashed the Austrians and Prussians in whirlwind campaigns, redrew the map of Germany an abolished the Holy Roman Empire, replacing it with a body called the Confederation of the Rhine. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 the map was redrawn again. The Rhineland, including Trier, was awarded to Prussia. Germany now consisted of about 30 states, joined together in the German Confederation; an invertebrate body dominated by the monarchs of Austria and Prussia, whose main aim was to eliminate any trace of liberal or revolutionary ideas.  The Prince-Bishopric of Trier, like most of the small German states, was not resurrected: instead the Rhineland was given to Prussia. Since Prussia was a Protestant state, this cannot have pleased the people of Trier, who were overwhelmingly Catholic.
    Wherever the French Revolutionary armies had gone, they had abolished laws discriminating against Jews, but in 1816 new anti-Semitic laws were enacted. Herschel Marx found that, in order to work as a lawyer, he would have to renounce his Jewish religion. Since he was a lifelong devotee of the Enlightenment, with no strong religious feelings, he promptly joined the Lutheran church and changed his name to Heinrich. He does not appear to have been a particularly courageous man: in the 1830s he delivered an after-dinner speech suggesting some moderate reform, but then swiftly recanted it under police pressure.     
 This background helps us to understand why Marx consistently underestimated two important human motivations: religion and nationalism. Religious belief was clearly of little importance in the Marx household. His father had worn his Judaism lightly, and had converted to Christianity purely for career reasons. And how could the young Marx feel any sense of nationality? There was as yet no German state for him to identify with, and in any case, as a Jew he would have been an outsider in one. The romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by such leaders as Garibaldi, Mazzini and Kossuth, was always wholly incomprehensible to Marx.

The Marxes were friends with a neighbour, Ludwig von Westphalen, an enlightened government official who came from the minor nobility (there were many thousands of minor nobles in Germany). Ludwig had a daughter, Jenny. Karl Marx became engaged to her in 1837 and married her in 1843.

Karl Marx’s studies began in 1835 at the University of Bonn, then after a year he transferred to Berlin. For much of the time he lived a life typical of any German student, in rowdy drinking clubs. He changed his field of study from law to philosophy, to the disappointment of his father, who (correctly, as it turned out) did not see how philosophy could bring him a decent standard of living. 
   The dominating influence in German universities at the time was the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel remains the most obscure of the great philosophers, and his thought is impossible to summarize in a few sentences, but basically he taught that history is the story of progress. History goes through a series of stages, like steps on an upward staircase, with each step being an advance on the previous one. (The notion of “history as progress” is obvious to us, but the idea was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century: a great historian like Edward Gibbon saw history as a tale of degeneration). Hegel named this mechanism “the dialectic”. It is largely due to Hegel that we still use such terms as “the middle ages” and “the Elizabethan age”, with the implication that they were quite different in character, and crucially, that people thought differently from one age to another. We do not think like people did in the Middle Ages, and they too thought differently from people in the ancient world. (Equally, such key concepts as “the industrial revolution” did not emerge till the mid-nineteenth century, when people looked backwards and realized that society and the economy had changed radically). Hegel ascribed the driving mechanism of this theory of history to a somewhat mystical entity called “spirit”. What he appeared to mean was that men’s thinking changed first, and caused the structure of society to change and adapt to it.
      Marx’s contemporaries, the “Young Hegelians”, applied Hegel’s ideas to radical politics, seeing the Prussian state as reactionary. From Hegel, Marx took the notion that history had laws which could be understood, giving change a measure of inevitability; and that to try to stop this change was not only futile, but also in a sense wrong. As with Hegel, he never doubted that change was progress to a better form of society. But to Marx, the motive force of change was not “spirit”, but economics. He was well aware that the developing industrial revolution was changing the world in an unprecedented way. Economic change caused changes in the class structure of society, and ultimately to changes in mental outlook, in culture, in consciousness; in ways of looking at the world. This interpretation came to be known as “Dialectical Materialism”. As was once said, “Marx stood Hegel on his head”; to which was sarcastically added, “and all the brains fell out”.

Marx obtained his Doctorate in 1841. Under other circumstances he might have pursued an academic career, but the new King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, decided to purge the “Young Hegelians” from the universities. Despite the fact that Marx was shortly to become a married man, and that his father died, leaving him short of money (a situation which remained the case for almost all the rest of his life), he instead became involved in the precarious world of radical journalism. He began to write for the “Rheinische Zeitung”, denouncing Prussian absolutism, and when that paper was duly suppressed in 1843 he left for the centre of radical class-struggle politics: Paris. Here he wrote his earliest books, coining the memorable phrase, “Religion is the opium of the people” in 1844. (Writing nowadays, he would probably have named football rather than religion)

Engels as a young man

Friedrich Engels was also born in the Rhineland, two years after Marx, but his family background was commercial rather than academic. His father, also Friedrich, was a partner in the firm of Ermen & Engels, which owned cotton factories both locally and in Manchester, in England. They were a happy, strongly Protestant family, influenced by German romanticism and nationalism, hostile to Prussia and Austria.
    Young Friedrich was taken from school in 1837 and trained for the family business, being sent to Bremen to learn about exporting.  In 1841 he volunteered for a year of military training. But he always had literary leanings, wrote poetry, and via Hegel and Feuerbach came to socialism. This led to his first meeting with Marx, at the “Rheinische Zeitung”. His father, however, did not approve, and sent him to Manchester as the family representative at the Ermen & Engels factory.
    Manchester in 1842 was the first-ever factory city in the world, generating enormous wealth from its cotton mills, but at the same time filthy and grossly overcrowded, and seething with radical activity. This was the year of the Chartist “Plug Plot” to disrupt industrial production, and the Owenite socialists were also active. Engels met Julian Harney, the militant Chartist leader, and he also met an illiterate Irish mill-girl, Mary Burns, who became his long-term mistress and provided him with a link to the slums. In 1845 he wrote his first book, “The Condition of the Working Classes in England”; a young man’s scream of rage against the appalling conditions he found in Manchester. It was written in German, and was not translated into English for forty years, but has remained in print ever since. Engels therefore knew factory conditions at first hand, whereas Marx did not.

Engels’s work as a businessman in Manchester, which was to bring him a very comfortable and prosperous lifestyle (though little personal enjoyment) left him enough time to visit Marx.  Paris in the early 1840s had many schools of socialist thought, mixed in with the revolutionary Jacobin tradition of the French Revolution. Such figures as Saint-Simon, Fourier, Blanqui, Louis Blanc and Proudhon offered different nostrums, alongside the revolutionary schemes of Weitling and the anarchism preached by the exiled Russian Bakunin. Marx disagreed profoundly with all these people, and as Bakunin observed, he was brutally vindictive in the character-assassination of any rival socialist philosopher. But Engels came to Marx as a disciple, not a rival, and was always happy to minimize his own undoubted contribution to Marxist thought.

   Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845 (“We must purge Paris of German philosophers”, said King Louis-Philippe) and went to Brussels, where he began to organize the Communist League: an international revolutionary movement consisting largely of German-speaking artisans. Engels meanwhile was composing a “Revolutionary Catechism” for communists, and in 1847 brought Marx to London. There they were commissioned to write a definitive statement of the beliefs and aims of the Communist League. The result was one of the most famous and influential short books of all time: the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, just 40 pages long in a modern edition.

It was published in early 1848: just in time for the revolution in Paris which overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the “year of revolutions” throughout Europe – which however is another story.


(The best biography of Marx is still that written by Isaiah Berlin in 1939. Tristram Hunt's life of Engels: "The Frock-Coated Communist" is very good)

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