10 Facts About Karl Marx
German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) didn't invent communism, but he spent most of his life popularizing the socialist mantra, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Marx envisioned that the last phase of capitalism would be an inevitable workers’ revolt as the working class (or proletariat) would seize the means of production from the elites (or bourgeoisie) and share them in a new, classless society marked by economic equity. Here are 10 facts about Marx's life and work.
1. HIS BAPTISM AT AGE 6 WAS MOST LIKELY FOR POLITICAL REASONS.
Marx’s paternal ancestors had served as rabbis in Trier, Prussia (now in eastern Germany) since 1723, and his mother’s father was a rabbi. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the French administration left Prussia and the new government began enforcing a law barring Jews from serving in professions or public office. Marx’s father Heinrich, a successful lawyer, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, most likely in response to the law. Marx and his siblings were all baptized in 1824.
2. HIS HIGH SCHOOL WAS RAIDED BY AUTHORITIES.
Heinrich, who was deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, taught Marx at home until 1830. Marx then attended the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium. The headmaster, Johann Hugo Wyttenbach, frequently hired liberal teachers who advocated reason and the freedom of speech. The police suspected the school of protecting revolutionaries, and even went so far as to raid the school in 1832 during Marx's matriculation.
3. HIS "WEAK CHEST" HELPED HIM AVOID MILITARY SERVICE.
Marx evaded military conscription thanks to his "weak chest," a vague diagnosis which was certainly exacerbated by his late-night partying, bad diet, drinking, and chain-smoking. His father even told him how best to avoid the draft, writing to Marx, “If you can, arrange to be given good certificates by competent and well-known physicians there, and you can do it with good conscience … but to be consistent with your conscience, do not smoke too much.”
4. A DUEL AND JAIL TIME CHARACTERIZED HIS COLLEGE EXPERIENCE.
Marx attended the University of Bonn beginning in 1835, but most of his time seems to have been spent being drunk and disorderly. He joined a radical political group called the Poets’ Club and was co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, a drinking society that antagonized the more aristocratic organizations on campus. His involvement in the latter got him tossed in jail for 24 hours. He also ran afoul of the Borussia Korps, a militant group that forced college students to swear fealty to Prussian leadership. Marx carried a gun to defend himself (which got him into more trouble with the police) and once accepted a duel with a Borussia Korps member which resulted in Marx being cut over his left eye. After a year in Bonn, he transferred to the more rigorous atmosphere of the University of Berlin.
5. HE HAD A CONTROVERSIAL MARRIAGE TO A CHILDHOOD FRIEND.
A couple of years before Marx was born, his father had befriended Ludwig von Westphalen, a Prussian aristocrat with some liberal leanings. His daughter Jenny von Westphalen met Marx when she was 5 years old and he was 1. When she was 22, Jenny and Marx became engaged—she canceled a previous engagement to a young member of the aristocracy—even though they weren’t from the same social class, and men marrying older women was frowned upon at the time in Prussia.
6. MARX DIDN’T ATTEND HIS FATHER’S FUNERAL.
Marx’s wild college years drove a wedge between him and his family—an indication of his intellectual rebellion from their bourgeois complacency. Marx refused to visit them once he began attending the University of Berlin. His father was dismayed at his son’s recklessness and wrote, a year before he died, that Marx should try to establish his social respectability by writing an ode heaping praise upon Prussia and its rulers. It should "afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy ... If executed in a patriotic and German spirit with depth of feeling, such an ode would itself be sufficient to lay the foundation for a reputation." But Marx had no desire to capitulate. When Heinrich Marx died of tuberculosis in May 1838, Karl did not make the journey home from Berlin.
7. HE RELIED ON ENGELS FOR MONEY.
Marx lived in Paris—a hotbed of political thought in the mid-19th century—for only two years, but it was during that time that he met Friedrich Engels at the Café de la Régence and launched one of the most important philosophical friendships in modern times. Engels shaped Marx’s view on the proletariat with his real-world experience as an owner of his family's textile mill. They also collaborated on several essays (including The Communist Manifesto) and Engels fronted the money to publish Das Kapital. What’s more, Engels regularly gave the struggling Marx money for his family to live on (capitalism was not kind to the philosopher). The well-off industrialist reaped the rewards of his workers’ production while aiding Marx in championing a system that would overthrow his own power.
8. HE KEPT GETTING BANNED FROM COUNTRIES.
Orders that Marx should leave a country within 24 hours crop up regularly in his biography. He started the trend in Prussia in 1843 when Tsar Nicholas I asked the government to ban Marx’s newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, which caused Marx to become co-editor of a radical left newspaper in Paris and head to France. In 1845, the French government shut down his new periodical, Vorwarts!, and expelled Marx. He then went to Belgium, but authorities arrested him in 1848 on allegations that he’d spent a third of his inheritance on arming workers, and he fled back to France (then under a new government) before going back to Prussia to launch the doomed Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The government suppressed the paper and ordered Marx to leave Prussia in May 1849, but when he fled for France, the Parisian government also sent him packing, so he sought refuge in London with his wife, who was expecting their fourth child. He built a life in England, but died a stateless person.
9. HE WAS PLAGUED BY POOR HEALTH.
He referred to his health problems as “the wretchedness of existence.” According to biographer Werner Blumenberg, Marx suffered from headaches, eye inflammation, joint pain, insomnia, liver and gallbladder problems, and depressive symptoms. The pain was most likely exacerbated by Marx's bad habits: working late nights, eating liver-taxing food, and smoking and drinking excessively. Yet Marx kept up the pace of his work even after developing boils in 1863 that were so painful he couldn’t sit down. New research suggests some of Marx’s problems may have stemmed from a chronic, painful skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa that can also cause depressed self-image and foul moods. And let's not forget the “weak chest” that kept him from serving in the military at 18, which may have been caused by pleurisy, an inflammatory condition of the lungs and thorax. It was that disease that ultimately killed him at age 64.
10. HIS LOVE POEMS AND NOVELS WERE UNPUBLISHED DURING HIS LIFETIME.
Beyond his political philosophy and economic projects, Marx also penned several love poems to Jenny, a play set in a mountain town in Italy, and a satirical novel called Scorpion and Felix. None of his fiction saw the light of day during his lifetime, and Scorpion and Felix has only survived in fragments, but all of his work was published posthumously in the 50-volume set of Marx and Engels's Collected Works.