Dangerous Man?

Raza Naeem writes about the life and times of Karl Marx, on the occasion of his 200th birthday

Dangerous Man?
‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’

19th  century Europe gave birth to two thinkers who changed everything about how we see the world. One was Charles Darwin. The second was Karl Marx, who was born 200 years ago last week. Darwin discovered the law of evolution of plants and animals (the law of natural selection and survival of the fittest), while Marx sought the law of evolution of human history. Darwin’s discoveries sparked a revolution in the scientific world while Marx’s discoveries illuminated the pathways to social revolution. At that time what eluded many people was the plain and simple fact that before serving the cause of politics, science and art, etc. humans need water to drink, food to eat, clothing to cover themselves and homes for shelter. To attain these necessities of life, they make tools and implements and are forced to establish relations with other humans. The relations of production are determined by the nature of the geographical environment and the tools of production. Society keeps changing them according to its needs. Changes in the method and relations of production themselves are the reason for social revolution.

With the help of these ideas, Marx recognised and evaluated the capitalist system and pointed towards the sun of the new system which was about to dawn from the former’s womb.

Karl and Jenny - from a photographic print

Karl Marx was born on the 5th of May, 1818 – 200 years ago last week – in the German city of Trier which is located along the bank of the Moselle stream, a tributary of the river Rhine. His family was Jewish and was settled in Trier for many generations. Marx’s father Heinrich was a prosperous lawyer, who many years before Karl Marx’s birth, had abandoned the ancestral religion to adopt the Christian faith. He was much inspired by the revolutionary movements of France, so his library included books by Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Leibniz and other enlightened thinkers. Such a home environment proved to be very useful and favourable for Karl Marx.

Marx’s initial education was in the local school. This was the time when Europe, especially Germany, was undergoing a period of repression following Napoleon’s defeat. Freedom of citizens was near-extinct – because of which people were very restive, so much so that there was no shortage of government opponents even at Marx’s school. Once, when the police raided it, a lot of banned literature was found, including such poems which bitterly satirised the officials. The valedictory essay which Karl Marx had presented while leaving school in 1835 gives a great indication of this young student’s intellectual proclivities. The title of the essay was Choice of Profession and Marx had written:

‘While choosing a profession, we should especially care about the welfare of mankind. If we adopt a profession in which we have the opportunity to serve humans as best as we can, our waist will never bend under the greatest weight.’

His writings on South Asia continue to spark much discussion and critique

The same year Marx entered Bonn University. His specialist subjects were law and philosophy. At the same time, he was engaged to Jenny, his childhood playmate and friend of his elder sister Sophia. Jenny was considered as being amongst the greatest beauties of the city. His father Ludwig von Westphalen was a hereditary noble and had been appointed to a high government office in Trier. Jenny’s mother was the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. Both Karl’s and Jenny’s parents were neighbours and their relations were very friendly. Jenny’s father, unlike the general nobility, was very enlightened, so it was through him that Karl Marx was introduced to the ideas of French utopian socialist Saint-Simon. Marx respected him a lot, so much that he even dedicated his PhD degree to Ludwig von Westphalen.

They got engaged, but on the condition that Marx would work really hard in university and would not meet Jenny for a year.

Marx spent a year in Bonn, then took admission in Berlin University on his father’s advice. He also began composing poetry while in Berlin, and when the memory of his beloved would torment him too much, he would sit down to pen verses. Within a year, he dedicated 3 collections of poems to ‘my dear benevolent Jenny’. He also attempted writing drama and novel, but he soon found out that he was not made for those.

In those days, German philosopher Hegel (1831-1770) was the most influential thinker in Berlin. Much like the worshippers of power these days use the poetry of Allama Iqbal for their purposes and try to cloak his progressive ideas, official circles in Germany had also become devotees of Hegel and were trying to provide a justification for the oppression of the German states through his writings. Nevertheless, there was a group of young philosophers present, which emphasised the progressive aspect of Hegel’s philosophy and extracted the ideas of Man’s attainment of self and social reform. These young thinkers had created a small organization by the name of the ‘Doctor’s Club’ in Berlin University. Marx, too, joined this club.

Marx’s father desired his son to be a lawyer and become famous through that profession, but Marx was inclined towards philosophy. After the death of Heinrich Marx, Marx bade farewell to law and immersed himself in the study of philosophy. In 1841, he earned a PhD degree from Jena University. In his dissertation he had presented a comparison of the atomic ideas of Democritus, the materialist philosopher of ancient Greece, and Epicurus. After completing his education, Marx made an unsuccessful attempt to work in the Department of Philosophy in Bonn University. Then he turned towards journalism and became associated with the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. The owners of this newspaper were a few radical capitalists of the Rhine who were also in touch with the intellectuals of the ‘Doctors Club’. In October 1842, Marx was appointed the Chief Editor of this newspaper.
Much like the worshippers of power these days use the poetry of Allama Iqbal for their purposes and try to cloak his progressive ideas, official circles in Germany had also become devotees of Hegel

Under Marx’s editorship, the publication of the Zeitung expanded 3 times within a few weeks. Marx had continuously written many articles in favour of the rights of peasants and freedom of press, which were very popular amongst readers. He not only considered the freedom to write a basic right of every individual but a vital condition for the development of Man’s personality. Opposing censorship, he had written that:

‘Censorship is the denial of human nature. Censorship wants to make the press believe that you are sick and the government is your doctor but this doctor is that village surgeon who only has a single tool and this is a scissors. This self-taught surgeon cuts and throws away every part of the human body which he dislikes.’

According to Marx, the owners of the newspapers, who had made journalism a trade rather than a sacred mission or a national duty, were also responsible for this situation.

Painting of Marx talking to workers

Marx’s writings were a double-edged sword whose blows fell on both the feudal system and oppressive government of Germany. Therefore the government tightened the censorship policies to such an extent that in January 1843, Marx was forced to dissociate himself from the Zeitung. He was married to Jenny von Westphalen in June and he went to his in-laws where he wrote a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In this essay, Marx rejected Hegel’s claim that the bourgeois state, especially the German state, is the zenith of human evolution. Marx in his essay had also slightly pointed towards a new age which will be ushered in by the working class and for the first time had also discussed the creative quality of Man and the revolutionary position of the proletariat.

For Marx, there was no further space to work in Germany, so he along with his newly-wed bride, went to Paris at the invitation of his old friend Arnold Ruge. Ruge wanted to publish an ideological magazine in German from Paris. Marx joined him but this paper closed after just one issue. Nevertheless, due to this paper, Marx got the opportunity to correspond with Friedrich Engels, whose article was published in Ruge’s paper. A few days later when Engels – while traveling from Manchester to Germany – stopped in Paris and was hosted by Marx, he found out that both had exactly the same ideas. This harmony of ideas resulted in the foundation of an enviable friendship until death.
Marx closed the newspaper and paid off the dues of his employees by selling off his printing press cheaply. Jenny's silverware dowry, which had already been mortgaged once in Brussels, was re-mortgaged

Friedrich Engels was born in 1820 in Barmen, a city in Rhineland. His father was a wealthy industrialist who had put his son to work at business before he completed his education, But Engels was not interested in business. He was a natural rebel and used to write enthusiastic poems in imitation of Heine and Shelley. He also had a passion for philosophy and economics and when his father sent him to Manchester to look after his factory, Engels also had an opportunity to witness the conditions of British workers closely. He wrote an essay for Ruge’s magazine with the title A Critique of Political Economy, about which Marx had openly confessed that it was thanks to Engels’s essay that he paid attention to the economics of the capitalist system. Engels also frequently met socialists and communists in Britain and wrote for their newspapers. After spending ten days in Paris with Marx, Engels became such an admirer of Marx’s knowledge and learning that he sacrificed his wealth and pen for Marx – all his life.

In those days, the whole of Paris resounded with revolutionary slogans. Marx also became a participant in the city’s revolutionary circles and devoted most of his time to the study of economics and politics. He was also in touch with German workers who were settled in Paris to earn their livelihood and were associated with secret revolutionary organizations in Germany. When the German government found out about these activities of Marx, it put pressure on the French government, and Marx had to move from Paris to Brussels (Belgium) in December 1845. By that time, he had become the father of a daughter. In Brussels, Marx was prohibited from participating in local politics, although he was free to meet exiled workers. Marx wrote many books while living there. He began propagating socialist ideas, lectured on socialism at a worker’s club and along with Engels participated in the meetings of the Communist League of London for the first time. This was the same Communist League upon whose directive Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto.

Youthful depictions of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in the new Raoul Peck film

The Communist Manifesto is the revolutionary work of Marx and Engels which took the world by storm upon its publication and even after the passage of more than 150 years, its popularity hasn’t waned. Lenin used to say,”This pamphlet has precedence over several libraries full of books. Its spirit still creates enthusiasm and excitement among workers worldwide and guides them.” This is why the Manifesto is also known as the “Workers’ Bible”.

In this book, Marx and Engels have described the basic principles and objectives of scientific socialism in very concise words. They say that society has been ascending the ladder of progress through social struggle since thousands of years. The capitalist system too is the product of class struggle within a specific time. It has many historic achievements. But now its days are numbered because though the productive process within mills, workplaces and factories has become socialised, but both the production and means of production are the personal property of a few individuals. Economic crisis frequently occurs in society due to this contradiction and millions of able-bodied women and men are deprived of livelihood. There is an abundance of material things, but they are out of reach of the common people. The capitalist system cannot solve this contradiction because this contradiction is inherent to it. Therefore it is the historical task of the working people to end this outdated system which is an impediment for the further progress of Man, through a revolutionary struggle and to raise the flag of the people’s republic by collectivising the means of production as well.

The Communist Manifesto had been published hardly a few days when the uproar of revolution rose in Europe once again. It began with Paris where the reign of Louis-Philippe was overthrown in February 1848. Marx and Engels were in Brussels at that time. They were thinking of going to Paris when the police arrived with a warrant of deportation and Marx was arrested. When Jenny visited the police station to inquire about her husband, she too was put behind bars. The next day when there was an outcry in the city over such unchecked aggression, Marx was sent to Paris under police supervision. He was unable even to carry his belongings.

Marx and Engels were in Paris when revolution arrived in Germany too. Therefore both comrades travelled to Cologne. Engels chose to fight by joining the people’s army, but Marx issued his newspaper New Rheinische Zeitung from Cologne and also frequently participated in revolutionary activities; but the German government was not prepared to tolerate Marx’s writings. It instituted 23 simultaneous cases against him but the offences could not be proved, so in May 1849 he was ordered to leave Germany within 24 hours. Marx closed the newspaper and paid off the dues of his employees by selling off his printing press cheaply. Jenny’s silverware dowry which had already been mortgaged once in Brussels, was re-mortgaged, and Marx returned to Paris with his wife and three children. But hardly three months had passed when the government of France ordered him to leave France within 24 hours. At that time, Marx did not have enough money even to take his family with him. Helpless, Jenny who was pregnant, was left in Paris with the children, and he himself headed to London on August 24, 1849. He subsequently never left London thereafter.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently teaching in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel ‘The Weary Generations’. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979