Socialist Worker

Karl Marx: interpreting the world in order to change it

As interest in Karl Marx revives, Matthew Cookson looks at how his ideas developed in the first part of our new series

Issue No. 2121

Fighting in Paris, February 1848

Fighting in Paris, February 1848

The financial crisis has reached such levels that even Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that Karl Marx’s critique of “unbridled capitalism” is correct.

Marx was a 19th century revolutionary socialist who analysed the dynamic of capitalism.

As well as being a great thinker, Marx was also an activist – a revolutionary who fought to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist society.

Marx was born in 1818 into a well-off Jewish family in the Rhineland in Germany. The dictatorial Prussian state ruled over this area.

Marx was attracted to radical ideas from an early age, particularly those of the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel.

Marx fell in with a group called the Young Hegelians while at Bonn University.

After leaving university he became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper in 1842. It was financed by industrialists opposed to the Prussian state.

Even though Marx resigned over censorship in 1843, the state still closed the paper down. Marx moved to Paris to escape the censorship.

Here he came into contact with communist groups and the organised working class movement for the first time. This had a tremendous effect on further radicalising his ideas.

He also met another young German – Frederick Engels – who was to remain Marx’s lifelong political collaborator and supporter.

Engels was working for his family’s industrial firm in Manchester and had seen first-hand the new industrial capitalism, the poverty and exploitation of the workers, and their fight for better rights – most notably through the Chartist movement.

Marx and Engels set out to develop their theories and create an organisation that could help to prepare for the revolution.

Their first true collaboration, the German Ideology, emphasised their new materialist outlook – that the conditions of life determined people’s ideas, and not the other way round as the Young Hegelians believed.

In 1846 Marx, exiled in Brussels, and Engels set up the Communist Correspondence Committees. They saw these as groups that could win the working class to communism.

New branches of the committees were set up across Europe. After a call from Marx and Engels they held regular meetings, discussing the key issues of the day.

The first international meeting of the newly named Communist League took place in London in June 1847, with Engels in attendance.

It asked Marx and Engels to draw up a manifesto for the organisation at its second congress in November that year.

The Communist Manifesto, mainly written by Marx, appeared in February 1848. Capitalism was still a very young system located in a few parts of the world at the time. But their analysis is incredibly relevant today.

The bourgeoisie, the capitalists, and their new productive system were changing the whole world.

Marx and Engels wrote, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

But capitalism had also created a working class, gathered together in the industrial centres of the new system.

It was in this class’s interest to overthrow capitalism and found a new, communist society – and it had the power to do so.

The Communist Manifesto hit the streets just as the flames of revolution burst out across Europe. An uprising in France forced the king to abdicate in February 1848.

Revolts followed in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Poland and Romania. There were great hopes that this would be the end of the old feudal regimes.

Marx and Engels returned to Germany to join the revolt there. Marx set up a daily newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, to intervene in the struggle.

But the counter-revolutionary forces across Europe found space to regain their breath and launched an offensive on the movements. Everywhere the fire of hope was brutally extinguished.

Marx and Engels were forced to leave Germany in 1849. The final issue of Neue Rheinische Zeitung was printed completely in red ink.

It declared in defiance, the editors’ “last word everywhere and always will be – emancipation of the working class”.

Marx would soon have to adjust to the long years of downturn in struggle that followed this major defeat.

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