Born in 1818 in Trier, Marx came from distinctly affluent stock. The son of a lawyer, Heinrich, the young Marx had opportunities and prospects that would set him up for life, if he had chosen them.
Yet Marx showed his radical colours early on, joining a number of societies that agitated against the absolutist policies still in place across Prussia, the kingdom of his birth. There, he came to the attention of authorities, and he’d be under scrutiny for the rest of his time in Germany.
Ironically, considering his later work, Marx married up – way up. His wife, Jenny von Westphalen came from a well-to-do, newly ennobled family, and some considered their relationship scandalous, particularly since Marx’s family had converted from Judaism. Despite the up and downs of their lives together – and there would be several, as they experienced periods of sharp poverty – they stayed devoted to one another for the whole of their lives.
The young couple moved a lot over the next couple of years, as Marx worked as a writer and journalist, beginning to put together his theory of class struggle, based on the inequity he saw around him.
A statue of Marx in his hometown of Trier, which was officially unveiled on May 5th, 2018. Photo: DPA
Every civilization, he came to believe, was enabled by a working classes supporting a ruling class holding capital, or wealth. This was always doomed to failure by its very design, he thought, and the only way forward was socialism, where the needs of the many would be met by the equitable and sustained distribution of capital – the political ideology of socialism.
Having combined with a number of like-minded organizations in the 1840s, Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels formed the Communist League in 1847, and the following year, on February 21st, 1848, published their manifesto.
Outlining their idea of the class struggle, and defining what was needed to break the cycle of oppression, the rather brief work ends with an exhortation for world revolution – ‘Workers of the world, unite!’.
Of course, ideas like this weren’t particularly popular in the Europe of the first half of the 19th century, and they became downright dangerous after 1848, when a string of revolutions led to the emergence of the nation state across the continent, challenging the old order. Marx was forced to flee to England permanently, where he would spend the rest of his life.
During his time in England, Marx would not only publish ‘Das Kapital’ (‘Capital’) – his in-depth, ideological outlining of communism – but play host to a number of groups and organizations that were attempting to put his words to effect. He would die in 1883 of respiratory disease – something that had plagued him his entire life. Smoking didn’t help either.
Over the second half of the 19th century, a number of uprisings, such as the Paris Commune, made clear the urgency and relevance of his words, but it was not until the dawn of the 20th century that his ideas were tested for the first time, in the Russian Revolution.
The Marx-Engels Forum in former East Berlin. Photo: DPA
The ensuing decades would see Russia becoming a communist superpower, and a boogeyman to millions. Conversely, the rise of the USSR was an inspiration to China and several former colonial possessions, who had their own communist revolts, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Debate still rages as to whether the crimes of Lenin, Stalin and other despots who ruled over communist nations can be laid at the feet of Marx – indeed, now more than ever, battle lines are firmly drawn, with US President Donald Trump going so far as to denounce socialism in his recent State of the Union address.
Perhaps a more nuanced response can be seen in how Germany remembers him. While many of the trappings of the communist GDR have been shed, and rightly so, Marx is still remembered in street names, buildings, museums and other locations across the country. He occupies a similar space to many other German thinkers whose ideas changed our world through their influence, such as Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer.
If you’re in Trier, you can visit his birthplace, that is now a museum. Elsewhere in the city, there are occasionally exhibits dedicated to him in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier.
Additionally, items relating to Marx’s life and work sometimes go on display at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.
Marx’s legacy lives on, fractiously and and volubly, and that’s probably the way he would have liked it. He got many to question the power structures that surround us, and his ideas did demonstrably improve the lot of millions. That others used his ideas to establish tyrannies should also be considered. It’s a complex situation – but who said philosophy was meant to be easy?