Arindam Sen

Any attempt to capture the vast panorama of the eventful and brilliant life of the most outstanding public figure of our time in a few pages, can have but one purpose: encouraging the reader to go beyond the brief sketch and take up a comprehensive study of Marx’s major works in the historical context of his age.

Karl Marx had a life of many facets. But, as his best friend Friedrich Engels said, the great theorist was above all a “revolutionist”. Let us, then, proceed to study the first great model of combining scientific theory and revolutionary practice in the life and works of one whose “idea of happiness” was “to fight”, “idea of misery” was “submission” and who declared his “chief characteristic” to be “singleness of purpose”[1].

The Formative Years

Karl Heinrich Marx, the son of a well-to-do, progressive lawyer, was born on May 5, 1818, in the city of Trier in Prussia and studied in a local Gymnasium. His school-leaving essay on a young man’s choice of profession gives an idea of his frame of mind at the age of seventeen : “If he works only for himself he may perhaps become a famous man of learning, a great sage, an excellent poet, but he can never be a perfectly, truly great man.” On the other hand, if a man chose the station in life which enabled him best to serve mankind, he would feel not the petty and limited joys of egotism, for his happiness would belong to millions; and no burdens will bow him down.[2] These lofty ideals of love of freedom and humanism continued to grow on the basis of Hegelian idealism during his university years at Bonn and later at Berlin, where he studied law, philosophy and history. In Berlin he was a prominent member of a group of “Young Hegelians” who sought to draw atheistic and revolutionary conclusions from Hegel’s philosophy. They were opposed to the right wing Hegelians who read Christian orthodoxy into Hegel’s philosophy and vindicated the existing political order as a whole. The controversy between these two groups, though theological and academic in appearance, had a definite political content. For, by insisting that religion was not divine revelation but a product of human spirit and by putting forward the principle of transforming reality through criticism, the young Hegelians were undermining one of the major pillars of the Prussian absolutism. And this was what made their philosophy the philosophy of the radical German bourgeoisie.

After becoming a doctor in philosophy in 1841, Marx moved to Bonn to become a professor. But the growing opposition by the absolutist regime, which had already fired senior radical professors like Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, made Marx give up the idea of an academic career. Meanwhile the appearance, in 1841, of “The Essence of Christianity” by Feuerbach drew Marx and other young Hegelians irresistibly to the militant materialist views of Feuerbach who was the first to overcome, within limits, the idealism of young Hegelians. While Marx was zealously deepening his study of philosophy and developing his own philosophical methods and system, a radical bourgeois group in Rhine province set up an opposition paper called “Rheinische Zeitung” in early 1842 and because of the broad philosophical affinity mentioned above, invited Marx and Bruno Bauer to be the chief correspondents. Both of them accepted the offer, and in October 1842 Marx moved from Bonn to Cologne to become the editor. His journalistic career – such as his articles on the conditions of peasants – got him into sharp struggles against the Prussian censorship rules and the state. The paper’s increasingly pronounced revolutionary-democratic tone led first to Marx’s resignation and then to final closure of the paper on March 31 1843. However, this short but significant first schooling in real-life struggles had a profound impact. It greatly widened Marx’s cognitive horizons and at the same time made him aware of his scanty knowledge of political economy, the primary role of which in society he now came to realise and which he therefore zealously set out to study; it also brought home to him the urgent necessity of a critical review of Hegel’s idealist conception of society and the state (the latter was considered by Hegel as the embodiment of universal reason, of the interest of the whole society), and the need to identify the real motive forces behind social progress.

While deeply immersed in intense creative efforts on the above lines and producing several manuscripts and note-books on philosophy and history, Marx married Jenny, a childhood friend from an aristocratic family who remained a dedicated comrade-in-arms to her last breath and a constant source of inspiration. After a few months he went to Paris in order to publish a radical journal abroad jointly with Arnold Ruge. The first double issue of this journal, “Deutsch Franjo- sische Jahrbucher” appeared in late February of 1844 — but that was its last, too. Difficulties in secretly distributing it in Germany, and political differernces with Ruge brought a premature death to the paper. However, Marx’s articles put forth for the first time certain key theses of a new revolutionary outlook: e.g., that the modern proletariat is historically destined to destroy the old world and create a new, and that an advanced theory is a powerful weapon in the people’s struggle for a revolutionary transformation of society. “Of course”, he explained, “the weapon of criticism is no substitute for criticism by weapons and material force must needs be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force as soon as it takes hold of [also translated as “grips”] the masses.”[3]

The paper also carried two articles by its London correspondent Frederick Engels, who first met Marx in Paris in late August, 1844. And thence began the illustrious friendship between the two great revolutionaries. Together (mainly through correspondence) they waged a vigorous struggle against the various schools of petty bourgeois socialism. And this continued even when Marx went to Cologne after he was banished from Paris in February 1845 at the repeated insistence by the Prussian authorities. His most notable works in the 1844-46 period included the brilliant ‘Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844”; several articles in the Paris journal “Vorwarts!”; the “Holy Family” (February 1845), which he wrote together with Engels and which dealt the final blow to Young Hegelians’ idealism and passivity; the “Theses on Feurbach” (eleven brief theses that Marx hastily jotted down in his notebook in April 1845, the concluding one being “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”); and the “German Ideology” (completed for the most part by April 1846 in collaboration with Engels). Through these works, Marx and Engels hammered out the theory and tactics of scientific socialism, or communism. The most important of these works — the “German Ideology” — never saw the light of the day during their lifetime for want of a publisher. However, as Marx would observe in 1859, “We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly as we had achieved our main purpose — self-clarification.”[4] With profoundly clear convictions, Marx now set out on the next phase of his eventful life.

The First Proletarian Party And The First Marxist Programme

In the 1840s, Germany comprised of 38 independent states ruled by feudal absolutism, only formally aligned in a German confederation. The socio-economic and political stagnation gave rise to various opposition (bourgeois and petty-bourgeois, most of them with various utopian socialist doctrines) movements, particularly in the Rhine province of Prussia. Among them were the “League of the Just” — a secret organisation of German workers and artisans abroad, mainly in London and Paris — which believed in sectarian communism and conspiratorial tactics. This situation confronted Marx and Engels with two major tasks — first, to build a proletarian movement and proletarian organisation with socialist orientation based on the political and organisational independence of the working class; and on that basis, to leave a proletarian imprint on the general democratic movement.

To accomplish the first task, they started by setting up, in January 1846, the “Brussels Communist Correspondence Committee” (BCCC). It carried on correspondence on living theoretical and political questions with workers’ and other socialist leaders and organisations in Belgium and other countries. By June of that year Marx and Engels persuaded the London leaders of the League of the Just to set up a CCC there; another Committee was set up in Paris. All these committees were inter- national in their composition and content of work. They forged close links with the Chartist movement in England and helped sharpen the struggle of the proletarian wing against the petty bourgeois wing. Under the guidance of the BCCC, socialists and communists in many German industrial centres gained a more or less strong foothold in the local democratic movements and to some extent left behind their narrow sectarian mentality. Marx and Engels also had to fight against many other wrong but influential trends – such as the “artisan communism” of Weitling, the “true socialism” of Grun, Krieg and others, and Proudhonism[5] — in such a way as to win over their mass following. Through all these extensive activities, Marx and Engels made a deep impact on the European and American working class movements and socialist discourse, and the ground was prepared for making a breakthrough in Party building.

So in the London Congress of June 1847, the League of the Just was renamed the Communist League, which replaced the League’s politically erroneous motto “All men are brothers!” (the bourgeoisie and the workers are surely not brothers!) by the class-conscious battle cry of the proletariat: “Workers of All Countries, Unite!”. The League branches spread across various countries remained secret, but were surrounded by open Workers’ Educational Societies which in their turn organised libraries, choirs, and lecture-series for workers,[6]. The erstwhile CCCs in different countries were merged with the organisations of the League. Thus a new period of integration of communist propaganda and mass working class movement was ushered in, and this was facilitated by two journals brought out by Marx and Engels. The Second Congress of the Communist League met in London in November-December, 1847. Through heated debates, the new proletarian doctrine upheld by Marx and Engels won decisive victory, and the Congress decided to formulate that doctrine into a programmatic manifesto. Marx and Engels were the obvious choice for the task, and this was how the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” came to be written.

“With the clarity and brilliance of genius, this work outlines a new world conception, consistent materialism, which also embraces the realm of social life; dialectics, as the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development; the theory of the class struggle and of the world-historic revolutionary role of the proletariat –– the creator of a new, communist society.”

- Lenin on Communist Manifesto[7]

To accomplish the second task, i.e., to remold the general democratic movement in a proletarian spirit, Marx and Engels set up the “Brussels Democratic Association” (BDA) – with a bourgeois republican as chairman and Marx and a French socialist as vice-chairmen – in November 1847. Thanks to Marx’s brilliant efforts, the Association developed close contacts with the Chartist Party and gradually emerged as the coordinating and leading centre of almost all general democratic movements throughout Europe. At the same time, there was considerable two-line-struggle within and without the Association between the proletarian democrats on the one hand and the petty bourgeois democrats and bourgeois republicans (including the chairman) on the other.

In the meantime, bourgeois democratic revolution was brewing in many European countries including the German states. Marx displayed great organisational skill and tactical ingenuity in rapidly developing the activities of the Communist League, the various Workers’ Societies, and the BDA both in quantity and quality (e.g., under Marx’s initiative the BDA started arming the workers on the eve of the revolution of 1848), and in coordinating all these streams. Naturally he was banished from one country after another, and in April he and Engels arrived in their native land. They and other Communist League members set up numerous Workers’ Associations and Democratic Societies, successfully developed a broad-based united front organisation (the Democratic District Committee). The “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” drawn up by Marx and Engels formulated for the first time the proletariat’s minimum national programme in the democratic revolution and was thus complementary to the “Communist Manifesto”. In June 1848 Marx and Engels established their revolutionary daily “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”, with the sub-title “Organ of Democracy”. As Engels subsequently pointed out, in the stage of democratic revolution their banner “could only be that of democracy, but that of a democracy which emphasised everywhere in every point its specific proletarian character,”[8] The paper supported the peasants’ seizure of landlords’ lands and directed its attacks not only against the avowedly reactionary forces, but also against the German big bourgeoisie, which put up a fake op- position. With Marx as its editor-in-chief the editorial board in fact took over the functions of the old Central Committee of the Communist League.

With the crushing defeat of the June uprising in Paris, counter-revolution began to gain the upper hand everywhere. Marx’s revolutionary activities, during this period, included : setting up of a broad-based, democratic “Safety Committee” in September 1848, organising a “People’s Committee”, with a still broader basis in November, taking care of arms collection, re-establishment of the disbanded Civil Guard, addressing numerous mass rallies, and so on. Marx provided outstanding strategic and tactical leadership on a carefully-prepared no-tax campaign in November 1848, a revolutionary utilisation of elections in February 1849 and, very notably, a people’s committee to supervise the elected deputies. At the same time, he continued to provide ideological and political guidance to revolutionary movements in countries like France, Italy and Hungary.

However, counterrevolution was reigning high. The “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” was closed down in May 1849, and Marx was repeatedly prosecuted in reactionary courts. Of these trials, the most important was the one at Cologne in February 1849. In the dock were Marx, Engels and the publisher of “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”; the charge: insult and libel on the Chief Public Prosecutor and the police. Though Marx and Engels had a defense counsel, they took upon themselves the task of beating their opponents with the latter’s own weapons. And they were highly successful. To the great admiration of even his opponents, and to cheers from the teeming public gallery, Marx gave a detailed legal analysis to prove the charges untenable in law and smoothly proceeded to uphold the freedom of the press and to spread the ideas of a people’s revolution. They had to be acquitted, but on the following day Marx and some others were arraigned in court. This time the charge was: incitement to revolt on the part of the Rhenish District Committee of Democrats. In a long speech Marx gave a profound theoretical analysis of the factors behind the recent coup in Prussia and of its true nature. He argued in favour of the tactics followed by the said District Committee and repudiated the idea that a revolution had to confine itself to the framework of legality. Referring to the Rhenish District Committee’s appeal to the masses for the non-payment of taxes, he cited examples from history to show that this was a legitimate means of popular self-defence against a government that was violating the people’s interests. He added, “If the crown makes a counterrevolution, the people have the right to reply with a revolution.”

As Engels subsequently pointed out, Marx confronted the bourgeois jury as a communist, forcefully demonstrating that the bourgeoisie themselves should have done the things for which he was being tried. The jury was so much impressed that, while acquitting Marx, their foreman thanked him for his instructive explanations.

After the trials failed, the authorities banished him from one country after another with wife and children. Finally he settled down in London where he lived from August 1849 to the end of his life.

Summing Up the Experience and Theoretical Achievements

In London, Marx carried on organisational activities in the Communist League, the German Workers’ Educational Society etc. and founded the Journal “Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Politisch Oknomische Revue”. Through all these he simultaneously summed up and propagated the lessons of the 1848-49 revolutions, most notably in his “The Class Struggle in France”, which was serialised in the Revue. He also took the most prominent part in setting up the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries which brought together the Communist League, the left-wing Chartists and Blanquist emigrants. Immediately after President Louis Bonaparte staged a coup d’état in Paris on December 2, 1851, he wrote, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”. This, together with “Class Struggle in France”, remains to this day outstanding sourcebooks of historical materialism and scientific socialism. In November 1852, counter-revolution forced the Communist League to close down. Marx, however, kept in close touch with the Chartist movement and the American working class movement, and wrote in various progressive bourgeois papers, notably the “New York Daily Tribune”. It was in the “Tribune” that his articles on India, such as “The British Rule in India” and “The Future Results of British Rule in India” were published. But he paid utmost attention to political economy. Of great importance was his Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, parts of which were set out in Grundrisse published after his death and, in the words of Lenin, “revolutionised this science ... in his ‘Contributions to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859) and ‘Capital’ (Vol. I, 1867)”.[9]

Marx achieved all these at a time when he was extremely oppressed by reaction and penury. In his own words, he often had to go without “pants and shoes”, number of his children died of malnutrition, and he could not even afford a small coffin for one of his daughters. But for Engels’s constant and self-less financial help, perhaps it would have been impossible for Marx to keep body and soul together, let alone complete the “Capital”:

  • “... I was constantly hovering at the edge of the grave. Hence I had to make use of every moment when I was able to work to complete my book. To which I have sacrificed health, happiness, and family. ... I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men and their wisdom. Of course, if one wants to be a swine, one can turn one’s back on mankind’s torments and worry about one’s own skin.[10]

Even after publishing the first volume, he continued work on the same till his death, and Engels brought out volumes II and III after taking great pains in revising and completing the rough manuscripts left by Marx.

From IWA to the Paris Commune

While Marx was deeply immersed in theoretical and political endeavours, the revival of democratic movements in the late fifties and the early sixties prompted Marx to make himself busy once again with practical political activities. The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was founded in London on September 28, 1864 and soon Marx emerged as its best-known leader. He wrote its “Inaugural Address”, “Provisional Rules” and numerous resolutions, declarations, etc. “In uniting the labour movement of various countries”, said Lenin of Marx’s astounding work in the IWA, “striving to channel into joint activity the various forms of non-proletarian, pre-Marxist socialism (Mazzini, Proudhon, Bakunin, liberal trade-unionism in Britain, Lassallean vacillations to the right in Germany etc.) and in combating the theories of all these sects and schools, Marx hammered out a uniform tactic for the proletarian struggle of the working class in various countries.”[11] The work of the IWA spread across the developed capitalist countries, and the Paris Commune of 1871 marked the high point in its activism. On behalf of the IWA Marx kept in close touch with the Parisians. Issued in the name of the International, his “The Civil War in France” presented a profound revolutionary analysis of the Commune, which he regarded as the first historical form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Commune, with all its path-breaking achievements, lived only a little more than two months. After its fall, ideological struggle between the different sects within the IWA crossed all limits and the “naive conjunction of all factions”, as Engels put it[12], started falling apart. Both he and Marx took it in a sporting spirit and bravely looked forward to the future. Their final view on the International was that it had a glorious history, but “in its old form it has outlived its usefulness. ... I believe the next International – after Marx’s writings have exerted their influence for some years – will be directly communist and will candidly proclaim our principles.”[13]

Engels was quite right when he said, “Without the International Moore’s (Marx’s family nickname) life would have been a diamond ring without the diamond”. For further details on the IWA and the Paris Commune, interested readers may see the three-part article Creatively Apply the Lessons of the First International published in Liberation, October and November 2014 and January 2015 numbers.

A Proletarian Fighter to the Last Breath

After pre-Marxian petty-bourgeois socialists of all hues beat a retreat in the face of the theoretical and practical-political work done by Marx and Engels centering around the IWA, Marx once again delved deep into scientific research, primarily for completing “Capital”. But decades of extreme over-work — and that under the most oppressive penury most of the times — brought him to the verge of disablement. However, thanks to the loving care of his wife and comrades, notably Engels, and a few recuperation trips abroad, he managed to remain active. He maintained a very close relation with the socialist parties and groups in various countries, notably Germany. There, the urgent need of unity between the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (popularly known as the Eisenach Party) with which Marx and Engels were closely associated and the Laasallean General Association of German Workers was felt by everybody. Since Marx and Engels believed that condemnation of the retrograde Lassallean dogmas was a necessary condition for unification –– which was therefore a time-consuming affair — they advised leaders of the Eisenach Party not to be impetuous about organisational unifications, but to take real steps towards unity of action. This profound piece of advice, though adhered to initially, was gradually set aside by leaders like Liebknecht for petty tactical reasons, and in early 1875 a unification programme was drawn up by making major theoretical concessions and compromises on questions of principle. Both Marx and Engels instantly drew attention of the leaders of the Eisenach Party to the grave consequences of this blunder, but with little effect. Marx set out the main points of his criticism in what later came to be known as the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”.[14] A most important programme document of scientific communism, this critique was first published by Engels only in 1891, when the programme came up for review.

In the last few years, apart from providing ideological guidance to working class movement on a really universal scale, Marx was immersed in unprecedentedly extensive research work, the fruits of which went into volumes II and III of Capital (both of which remained unfinished; these were given a printable shape and published by Engels after the death of Marx) the “Chronological Notes” (on the history of a number of European, Asian and African countries, originally intended to cover the whole world), articles in journals of many countries and so on. The death of Jenny Marx on December 12, 1881, came as a mortal blow for her husband, and so did the death of their eldest daughter Jenny in January 1883. His health deteriorated irreparably.

And then came the terrible March 14, 1883, when Karl Marx passed away silently and peacefully alone in his room.

“Yesterday afternoon at 2.30 ... I arrived to find the house in tears. ... Our good old Lenchen, who had been looking after him better than any mother cares for her child, went upstairs and came down again. He was half asleep, she said, I might go in with her. When we entered the room he was lying there asleep, but never to wake again. His pulse and breathing had stopped. ...

Medical skill might have assured him a few more years of vegetative existence, the life of a helpless being, dying – to the triumph of the physician’s art – not suddenly, but inch by inch. Our Marx however would never have borne that. To live, with all the unfinished works before him, tantalized by the desire to complete them but unable to do so, would have been a thousand times more bitter to him than the gentle death that betook him. ...

Be that as it may. Mankind is shorter by a head, and that the greatest head of our time. The movement of the proletariat goes on, but gone is the central point to which Frenchmen, Russians, Americans, and Germans spontaneously turned at decisive moments to receive that clear indisputable counsel which only genius and consummate knowledge of the situation could give. ... The final victory remains certain, but the detours, the temporary and local mistakes – which are unavoidable in any case – will now occur much more often. Well, we must see it through; what else we here for? And we far from losing courage because of it.”

Engels to F A Sorge
15 March 1883

Speaking at the funeral ceremony at Highgate Cemetery, London, which was attended by representatives of many workers’ parties including veterans like Liebknecht, Engels impressively brought out the multi-dimensional genius of Karl Marx as a scientist and revolutionary fighter. Said he, “... Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders on him. All this he brushed aside as though it were cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered, and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow-workers — from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America — and I make bold to say that though he may have had many opponents he had hardly one personal enemy.

His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.”[16]

[This is a slightly modified version of an article published in the September 1983 Special Number of Liberation commemorating the anniversary of the death of Karl Marx.]


“... Against the collective power of
the propertied classes
the working-class cannot act,
as a class,
except by constituting itself into a
political party,
distinct from,
and opposed to,
all old parties formed by the
propertied classes.”


1. Marx’s answers to a questionnaire circulated in 1865 in England and Germany; quoted in the compendium “Marx and Engels: On Literature and Art”.

2. “Karl Marx A Biography” (English Translation of the Russian edition, Moscow, 1968, written by P.N. Fedoseyev and others on behalf of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the CPSU Central Committee.)

3. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by Karl Marx, Introduction.

4. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Vol. I.)

5. Named after Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, French anarchist politician and author of “Philosophy of Poverty”. It was this work that Marx mercilessly criticised in his “Poverty of Philosophy” (1847).

6. Marx’s lectures in one of these societies provided the body of his well-known pamphlet “Wage Labour and Capital”.

7. Karl Marx by Lenin (Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Vol 21.)

8. Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Vol. III.

9. Lenin in Karl Marx, ibid.

10. Letter to Sigfred Mayer, dated April 30, 1867; see Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence.

11. Karl Marx, ibid.

12. Letter to Friedrich Adolf Sorge, September 1874 (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence.)

13. Ibid.

14. Gotha was the seat of the unification Congress held in May, 1875.

15. Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence.

16. Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx, Selected Works. Vol. III.