Karl Marx

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It is true enough that many dwellers in the[Pg 58] perverted environment lack the intelligence which would enable them to understand its defects. Others, again, are induced by considerations of personal advantage to close their eyes to the evils they discern, or cynically to ignore them. But if a man who grows to maturity in such an environment be at once intelligent and free from base elements, the sight of the evil medium from which he himself has sprung will arouse in his mind a righteous wrath and a spirit of indomitable rebellion, will transform the easy-going and cheerful patrician into the prophet and the revolutionary.

Such has been the lot of the great rebels of the world, of men like Dante, Voltaire, Byron, Kropotkin, and Tolstoi, who all sprang from the gentle class, and whose birthright placed them among the owners of property. Similar was the lot of Karl Marx.

It would, indeed, be difficult to imagine a more typically refined and aristocratic [Pg 59]entourage than the one wherein the future high priest of the revolution was born and passed his early years. He was born at Treves on May 5, 1818. His ancestors on both sides had been distinguished rabbis, famed for their commentaries on the scriptures. The father's family was originally known as Mordechai, whilst the mother's family, Pressburg by name, had come from Hungary to settle in Holland. His father, an employee in the state service, became a Christian, and the whole family was baptised when Karl was five years of age. As he grew up, the young man was an intimate in the best houses of the district, and one of his closest friends was Edgar von Westphalen, who subsequently became a member of the reactionary Manteuffel ministry. In 1843 Marx married Westphalen's sister, the beautiful and brilliant Jenny. The match proved well assorted, and was blessed by a love so intense and so unfailing as to lead a certain German pastor to say that it had been ratified in heaven.

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Thus by origin Marx belonged to an extremely ancient stock devoted to the accumulation of wealth, whilst his marriage united him to the race of German feudatories, fierce paladins of the throne and of the altar. Is it not then truly remarkable that from such an environment, eminently calculated to foster ideas of obscurantism and reaction, there should emerge the most brilliant, most consistent, and most invincible example of a thinker and revolutionary agitator?

Unquestionably, Marx's thought, essentially slow-moving, laborious, and ever subjected to a rigorous process of self-criticism, does not seem at first sight characteristically negational and rebellious. In youth, indeed, he was still no more than the earnest student. Engels tells us that he closed his university career at Bonn in 1841 by writing a brilliant thesis upon the philosophy of Epicurus, while in leisure moments Marx penned verses of no mean order. These latter compositions display numerous[Pg 61] defects of style; they are heavy and turgid; the movement is sluggish; their sonorous gravity reminds the reader of a company of medieval warriors in heavy armour mounting the grand staircase: but they are none the less distinguished by remarkable profundity of thought, and they may be looked upon as versified philosophy rather than as poetry in the proper sense of the term.

In the following year we find Marx at Cologne as editor of the "Rhenish Gazette." His editorials, it is true, were at first devoted to harmless topics of general interest; but he soon began to turn his attention to social questions, such as forest thefts, the subdivision of landed property, the condition of the peasantry in the Moselle district, and French socialism. To this last doctrine, the editor declared himself adverse, while professing a great personal admiration for Proudhon. But the discussion upon socialism revealed to him his own ignorance and incompetence, and induced him[Pg 62] to withdraw from the journalistic arena that he might devote himself to study. An excuse for resigning his editorship was furnished in 1843, when the "Rhenish Gazette" found it necessary to assume an extremely cautious tone in order to avoid the attentions of the police.

But, like all the more brilliant and free-spirited among his contemporaries, he soon found himself incommoded by the obscurantism of Prussia, and, accompanied by his young wife, he hastened to Paris, the city of light, where there shortly assembled a circle of intellectual rebels from all lands—France, Germany, England, Italy, and Russia. The Russians predominated, and indeed we learn from Marx himself that the most fervent of his disciples at this date were drawn from among the scions of the Russian nobility and upper bourgeoisie, who, when they returned to their country, were unhesitatingly to become the sycophants of authority. In this cohort of spiritual rebels he assumed from the first the[Pg 63] position of dictator, and none competed for the crown with the revolutionary Cæsar.

People were already beginning to talk of the Marxists, and the police made a black cross against the name of a Parisian café where the associates of Marx were wont to assemble. He struck up a friendship with Heinrich Heine, and one day, accompanied by his staff, he paid a formal visit to the poet and declared that the latter ought to divide among the exiles the pension granted him by Guizot, to which suggestion Heine cynically replied that he could spend the pension more profitably upon himself. Marx had a yet closer intimacy with Proudhon, with whom he passed long evenings talking about Hegel and discussing the problems of socialism; but this friendship was destined ere long to be replaced by fierce hostility, aroused by fundamental differences of opinion.

In 1844, in conjunction with Arnold Ruge, Marx founded the "Franco-German Year[Pg 64] Book," of which, however, there appeared but one volume, containing writings by Marx himself on the philosophy of law and upon the Jews, in addition to letters from Holland, and articles by Engels, Heine, Freiligrath, and other more or less rebellious spirits.

These outward activities represent nothing more than an interlude or partial episode in the series of his essential occupations, science and philosophy. Engels' contribution to the "Year Book," a criticism of political economy, initiated between the two thinkers a friendship which time was to strengthen and to render indissoluble. The first fruit of this friendship was a joint work entitled The Holy Family, a criticism of the philosophy of Bruno Bauer and his followers (1845), stuffed with sallies and orphic sayings of doubtful taste and still more doubtful value. The young men next turned to a weightier task, a criticism of posthegelian philosophy, which filled two huge octavo manuscript volumes, but has never[Pg 65] found a publisher. Nevertheless, Marx tells us, this enormous labour cannot be regarded as utterly wasted, for it enabled the writers to gain an understanding of themselves, and traced the lines by which henceforward they were to be safely guided through the labyrinth of social investigation.

But revolutionary agitation (which Marx continued even amid his philosophical meditations), and the editorship of the definitely antiprussian journal "Forward," now attracted the hostile attention of the Prussian government, upon whose demand, in January, 1845, Guizot suppressed the periodical and expelled Marx from France. Marx removed to Brussels, where Engels was living, and for the first time devoted himself to prolonged and profound labours. In the year 1847, he published in the Belgian capital his book The Poverty of Philosophy, a Reply to Proudhon's Philosophy of Poverty, a harsh criticism of the "economic contradictions" of his rival. Marx [Pg 66]reproached Proudhon for complete ignorance of that Hegelian philosophy which Proudhon tried to apply to economics, and reproached the French socialist yet more for arbitrary and fallacious expositions, for the idealisation of a tortuous series of fantastic categories (division of labour, machines, competition, rent, etc.), declaring that Proudhon confined himself in each case to an examination of the good and the bad effects without ever troubling to throw light upon the nature of the phenomena under consideration or upon the course of their formation and development. The criticism is apt, but might well rebound upon Marx himself, enmeshed at this epoch in a series of categories whose progressive evolution he arbitrarily asserted. Further, Marx fiercely criticised Proudhon's theory of "constituted value," according to which the reduction of value to labour cannot be effected in extant society, and must be deferred to the future society, fashioned in the brain of the thinker.[Pg 67] It is well to point out that Marx, though in the first volume of Capital he conceives the reduction of value to the quantity of effective labour to be one of the immanent laws of capitalist economy, nevertheless admits in the third volume that in the capitalist economic phase value neither is nor can be reduced to the quantity of labour, and that value as measured by labour is merely an archetype or suprasensible entity, but not a concrete reality. Substantially this means that Marx's labour measure of value is, after all, not essentially different from the constituted value of Proudhon. But amid these unjust or excessive criticisms, Marx's book gives utterance to the idea, profoundly true, and at that time practically original, that economic relationships are no mere arbitrary products or derivatives of human will, but are the inevitable issue of the existing condition of the forces of production. The deduction drawn from this is that utopian socialism, which exhausts itself in futile declamations or[Pg 68] in yet more futile imaginary reconstructions of the social order, must yield place to scientific socialism, wholly devoted to the analysis of the necessary process of economic evolution and to the possibility of accelerating that evolution.

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