The name Karl Marx, to many, conjures an image of the beatific, wrathful, grey-bearded elder (from the famous portrait taken by the English pioneer of photography John Jabez Mayall) or else an endless scene of Soviet gulags and Siberian taiga, Marx as the progenitor of ultimate unfreedom. In reality, he was an intellectual dropout who spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Library and his nights in the neighbouring pubs. It was precisely 200 years ago today that he was born in the Prussian city of Trier, on the border with Luxembourg, and he died, six decades later, impoverished, stateless and virtually unknown; the number of attendees at his Highgate funeral could, famously, be counted on two hands (although perhaps with the inclusion of an extra finger).
Marx the man was inevitably obscured in the 20th century by the caricature presented by the nominally socialist regimes of Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Now we are much freer to situate him in a truer context, as a man of his time. He was born into a moderately wealthy family, his father a lawyer, and he soon married Jenny von Westphalen, a scion of German nobility, but he was not cut out merely for maintaining the comfortable life he had inherited. He had always harboured academic ambitions, under the tutelage of the Hegelian philosopher Bruno Bauer, but official opposition soon made such goals impossible; he was, nonetheless, a man of letters, and wrote a philosophico-comic novella (styled after Sterne’s Tristram Shandy), a tragic play in classical verse and reams of unread and largely unreadable love poetry (devoted, of course, to Jenny), but then as now literature offered little in the way of monetary gain, so he finally began work as a political journalist, publishing his own newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was soon suppressed by the authorities for its radical stances and was even the cause of his deportation from his native Prussia (he was later thrown out of France and Belgium too), and he later became the European correspondent of the New York Tribune. However, Marx’s employment was always precarious and he lived often in genuine poverty. He first met Friedrich Engels in Paris and it is often said, uncharitably, that Marx sponged off the wealthy industrialist for the rest of his life in London; Engels, however, saw Marx as a true genius with a deep understanding of the forces shaping society and set himself as his patron. As Francis Wheen neatly, if a little tritely, put it in his biography, it was not uncommon for such radicals to offer their “wealth of knowledge in exchange for the tycoons’ knowledge of wealth”. A Prussian spy who had followed him to London (in the hope of finding evidence of subversive activities that might persuade the British government to banish him) described his lifestyle:
He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing and grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he is often drunk. Though he can often be idle for days on end, he will work day and night, with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the whole world coming and going though the room.
Das Kapital remains the tome best associated with his name, his magnum opus, yet so few people have read it, and not unsurprisingly, because it was a discursive attempt at a comprehensive system of political economy — it also remains unfinished. Many more people have, however, read the Communist Manifesto, which was just one of many such political programmes and pamphlets published by agitators in the fractious year of 1848. In fact, many of the concrete demands he made in that Manifesto have now been put into practice throughout much of the world, such as publicly funded education and a graduated income tax; others, such as the abolition of land ownership and of all inheritance rights, still seem extremely revolutionary. Yet the seeds of authoritarianism were there from the start, given that he believed the state would need to become supreme, under a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, in order to avert the otherwise inevitable class conflicts. On this point, he was famously challenged by the early anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who was expelled from the International Workingmen’s Association (known as the “First International”, because other such organisations were created and, in turn, collapsed following its dissolution) for straying too far from the party line. However, all policy positions aside, one of the reasons why it survived when so many similar texts did not can surely be found in the quality of the writing, evidenced by the fact that so many of its turns of phrase entered into common currency: “workers of the world unite”, “a spectre is haunting Europe”, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles”, “all that is solid melts into air”, “nothing to lose but your chains”, etc. His journalistic work had given Marx a good ear for the emotional pull of rhetoric. The Manifesto was politically potent, but it was also replete with soundbites.
In the early 19th century, millions of poor Europeans had moved from widely dispersed agricultural communities to seek secure employment concentrated together in factory towns, and Marx expected this numerous and newly formed industrial-proletariat eventually to overthrow its bourgeois masters, just as those selfsame masters had earlier toppled the aristocratic élite. He was wrong, of course. The proletariat is perhaps the least revolutionary class in history: indeed, it has to be so precisely in order to perform its function as a proletariat, for, to put it bluntly, compliance is taught and selected for. And in the 20th century the wealthier countries of the world created welfare systems that were just strong enough to guard against the worst forms of poverty and so to discourage potential uprisings of the dispossessed, although not so all-encompassing as to change the fundamental class relationships: workers still had to rent their labour to live and capitalists still profited from the ownership of factories and technology.
Odd, then, that revolution should have struck where it did, since Marx himself considered Russia and China autocratic, tribal and autarkic backwaters that would need to pass first through capitalist development, to build on its great productive capacities, before socialism could become possible. In fact, such countries ultimately used Marxist-Leninist ideology to become capitalist, to industrialise and to turn the peasantry into regimented proletarian labour faster than would otherwise have been possible without one-party rule and the cruel efficiencies of central planning!
If there’s another thing we know about Marx, it’s that he was an atheist (excusing those, mostly with ulterior motives, who consider him a Jew, because his father, Heinrich, had been born one before converting to Lutheranism around the time of Karl’s birth). But he didn’t just dislike religion, he wanted to destroy it. For it was, as another of his soundbites had it, “the opiate of the masses”. This is now taken to be a wholly negative formulation — the priests and the prelates are purposely drugging their flock so as to profit, during its slumber, from rapine, or other lupine activities — but it wasn’t. Opium, we must remember, was a legal and, among the wealthier classes of Europe, widely used recreational drug: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, wrote Kublai Khan after waking from an opiate-induced slumber, Lord Henry in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorain Gray blew smoke into “fanciful whorls from his heavy, opium-tainted cigarette” and Branwell Brontë, brother of more famous literary sisters, had an addiction to laudanum (a tincture of alcohol and opium), perhaps a consolation for his thwarted ambition. So in comparing religion to the poppy, Marx was indeed attacking it, but he was also commenting on its ability to soothe and to comfort. If we go back to the original text, he explictly says as much in the preceding sentences that are less commonly quoted: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
This may at least partly explain why the world today is becoming more religious, not less so as had been commonly believed. The secular West is an anomaly. It is, also, cosseted from many of the grinding struggles that workers and the unemployed face in, for example, Africa or the Middle East where both religiosity and population growth rates remain high (the two closely connected, of course, in a positive feedback loop) and where pastors and imams provide an important source of education, status, stability and hope to the many who cannot expect to receive such basic boons either from the market or from the state. Yet some have seen the religious impulse in Marxism itself, the eventual creation of a communist society where the classes have each evaporated into an harmonious whole as standing in for traditional Abrahamic eschatology where all wrongs will be righted on the Day of Judgement. And there is some merit to that comparison. Though just as the Bible says much more about the goings on of this world than the hereafter, so Marx writes much more about capitalism than the forms of social organisation that will succeed it.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, the year that history ended, and Marxism, since then, is no longer assumed as a state-sanctioned ideology in Europe, or nearly anywhere else in the world (excepting the syncretism of hypercapitalism and totalitarianism seen in the PRC). But, in those same decades, economic inequality has increased, the “gig economy” has “freed” the poorest workers from many of the protections that unions in the 20th century secured, welfare entitlements have withered away, working hours have not significantly decreased and housing is, again, a commodity beyond the reach of many. We cannot look to Marx for sweeping solutions to these problems, since the few that he offered were drafted in response to a simpler society where child labour in the “dark, Satanic mills” was the norm and where the cities were manned with newly formed armies of industrial workers, and it is true that some of the solutions he gave were not without inevitably harmful consequence, but his analysis will remain vital so long as so many toil to survive while others are able to cream off the returns on their capital, and his work will continue to be read so long as there are seekers after his humane eloquence and indignance.