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Marx’s life of revolutionary theory and organisation

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. Sarah Bates looks at what his remarkable life can tell us about fighting for change
Issue 2590
Marx and his daughter Jenny in 1869

Marx and his daughter Jenny in 1869

Karl Marx was a revolutionary who dedicated his life to the struggle of working class people.

He endured a lifetime of frequent hardship and died almost penniless, with only a handful of people attending his funeral.

Born in Trier, Germany, in 1818 to a middle class family, Marx studied law at Bonn University.

While studying he joined the Young Hegelians—a group of students that would get drunk and become embroiled in bar fights.

They also found time to discuss the work of German philosopher Hegel.

Throughout his life Marx learned from the struggles of the working class.

After he left university and moved to France, Marx was confronted by a larger and more advanced working class than the one he had seen in Germany.

This contributed to his understanding of the uniquely powerful position that the working class had.


In 1841 Marx turned his hand to journalism, where he remembered experiencing “for the first time the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests.”

During this time writing on the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper, he began to develop an interest in economics.

Mark began to understand history, not as the actions of courageous individuals, but as a product of social forces.

Others—like the Young Hegelians—scornfully looked down on workers’ struggles because they thought those involved weren’t politically advanced enough.

But Marx believed that historical change happened because ordinary people took action, which changed them at the same time as changing society.

He met Frederick Engels in 1844 and they began a friendship that would last for the rest of his life. Engels’s unwavering political and financial support was critical for Marx.

His commitment to perfectionism meant he spent years writing Capital, and only the first volume was released before his death.

His studies of capitalism were never intended as an academic exercise, but as a powerful weapon in the class struggle. Marx was instrumental in the founding the Communist League in 1847 and the First International 17 years later.

In 1848 a revolutionary wave swept through Europe and the Communist Manifesto was published.

The experience of defeat led Marx to believe that socialist organisation was as important than ever.


Marx learned from the situations of the day to draw out lessons for the future.

He was deeply influenced by the workers movement that was developing alongside industrial capitalism.

And when workers took control in the 1871 Paris Commune it had a profound impact on him.

The Commune was a living, breathing example of the power of the working class and the need to smash the state machine.

When he died in 1883 Marx left behind a legacy of not just a great thinker and prolific writer, but as an active socialist. It was never enough for him to comment on the world around us—it was necessary to shape it.

Speaking at his graveside in Highgate cemetery Engels said Marx’s death was an “immeasurable loss”. “His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society,” he said.

The best tribute to Marx’s extraordinary life is to use his insights to fight for revolutionary change.

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