Karl Marx – A man of encyclopaedic learning


Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
The founder of Marxism, Karl Marx, was born in Tiers, Prussia in Germany, on 5 May 1818. His family had converted from Judaism to Christianity to escape anti-Semitism which was widespread in Germany and neighbouring countries. His father was a lawyer by profession.
Marx studied law and Hegelian philosophy. He wrote his doctoral thesis on ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ which he defended successfully in 1841 at the University of Jena. Although a study of two competing schools of philosophy of ancient Greece the thesis he advanced was that theology must yield to the superior wisdom of philosophy. By that he meant reason and science.
If I were to sum up his distinctive contribution to understanding society it would be one sentence which what he wrote in his work, The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’.
Marx was a man of encyclopaedic learning. His intellectual mettle is preserved in a huge corpus of prolific writings. He wrote on history, philosophy, sociology, politics, economics while simultaneously being an activist who organized workers and campaigned for their right to an eight-hour working day, their right to vote and to get education. Changing the world and not just interpreting it combined in him to produce the unique – philosopher, activist and prophet, all in one.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was at that time celebrated as the greatest German philosopher who had established Idealism as the preeminent German high philosophy. Marx began his intellectual career as a Left Hegelian. However, while accepting the dialectical method of analysis which Hegel had propounded to explain the movement in history resulting from contradictions inherent in ideas which were resolved through thesis-antithesis-and-synthesis Marx turned it upside down by asserting that contradictions in matter and not ideas produced change in history. The materialism which Marx set forth was considered subversive of morality and ethics. However, it was not just on the level of abstract epistemology that his views were found to be heretical. Even more threatening were his critical articles and editorials he wrote during his career as a journalist. Such views got him into trouble. He had to leave Germany and went to Paris and then Brussels before he was forced to leave the continent and arrived in London in 1845. He had married a German aristocrat but because of his anti-conformist views he and his family were in trouble everywhere. He lived in great poverty in a run-down area of London. One of his children died because of poor diet and harsh living conditions in a cold and dark living place.

Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery, London.

He met a fellow German Friedrich Engels in France who was an industrialist but had been thinking on similar lines as Marx. He had lived in Manchester and recorded the sad plight of workers in that industrial city in his book, Making of the English Working Class. Engels influenced Marx to accept the leading role the proletariat would play in the emancipation of humanity from class society and the oppression it maintained over working people. A great friendship was born, and both wrote several books together. Engels helped Marx financially tide over difficult times.
The most famous of their collaboration was the Communist Manifesto which was published on 24 February 1848.
No other book has influenced revolutionary thinking and movements more that that short track in which they proclaimed their idea of universal brotherhood: ‘Workers of the World unite you have nothing to lose but your Chains’. Such a call went beyond religions, race and continents.
Their theories of class struggle and proletarian revolution were perhaps the most ambitious project in social change and transformation, some would say in social engineering, ever attempted by intellectuals. They critiqued contemporary European society as rapacious of the labour – the surplus – produced by workers as well as of the resources and their colonies in Asia and Africa. Claiming to have found the science of society, known as historical materialism, they argued that human society has been evolving from a lower level of existence to a higher level through changes wrought by men to increase production through technology and science. However, the changes in production resulted in changes in the relations of productions between those who worked and produced a surplus and those who appropriated the surplus; hence class antagonisms which resulted in class struggles.
The State according to them maintained was an instrument of the ruling class which through a standing army, police, courts, education and religion justified inequality. However, they considered capitalism a revolutionary but unequal system of production. In their teleology capitalism would give way to socialism, and socialism would lay the foundation of the universal liberation of humankind from want and hunger. Liberated humanity would then step out of the history of class divisions and class struggles and embrace one another as fellow human beings and build Communism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels liberated me from narrow nationalism, religious bigotry and I adopted humanism as my philosophy of life.
As a social scientist, however, I realized that historical materialism was not a science of society but a method or methodology of studying society. Its predictions could never be as certain and reliable as those of natural sciences; they could even be wrong. I found Marx’s several articles on India and the Asiatic Mode of Production very incisive and sophisticated and they inform me about the role of British colonialism: both destructive and constructive.
Friedrich Engels was modest enough to acknowledge that Karl Marx was the original founder of their philosophy and indeed the economic theory underpinning Marxism was the work of Karl Marx. The first two volumes of Das Kapital were published during Marx’s life time. The third and last was edited and published posthumously by Engels.
I continue to be inspired by the humanism of Marxism, but I have given up dogmatism and consider democratic social democracy combining equality and freedom as the better balance and the correct goal for humanity now and in the future. Science and reason must guide us forward.
Marx died on March 14, 1883. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London.
(The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on billumian@gmail.com)