Exactly 203 years ago, Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany, on May 5, 1818 to a family of converted Christians belonging to the line of Jewish Rabbis which ended with Moses Lwow, Trier Rabbi from 1764 to 1788. His daughter Chaje, also called Ewa (Karl Marx’s grandmother) married Marx Lewy from the little town of Postolprti in distant Bohemia, today the Czech Republic.
The change of religion was mainly due to the rampant anti-Semitism in Europe and the impossibility of getting a government job for Marx’s father, Heinrich. Trier remained a deeply catholic city whose inhabitants rejected the Reformation.
And in such a world, rights and privileges, obligations and restrictions pertained not to individuals but to groups, whose membership came from status derived from birth, or from membership in a religious confession. Such as the privileges of the Catholic of the city to practice crafts and deny Protestants a residence there who accounted for just 1% of the total population.
The French Revolution had preceded Marx’s birth by almost three decades and had a significant impact on his intellectual development. The revolutionary wars that wrecked Europe toward the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century sounded the death knell of feudalism. The flames reached Trier on August 8, 1794 when the revolutionary armies defeated the Austrian defenders, abolished the Electorate of Trier, tore the city and the adjoining territory out of the Holy Roman Empire and formally annexed it to the French Republic in 1797.
The annexation marked the dissolution of feudal privileges. Subjects became citizens under the law, guilds were abolished, and occupational freedom reinstated, the property of monasteries and the nobility were confiscated and sold in auction. In Trier and its vicinity, about 9,000 hectares or 14% of agricultural land came under such measures.
From this political inferno emerged radical thought and one of its bearers was Johann Wyttenbach who had an important influence on the young Marx. The republican exuberance in Trier came to an end when Napoleon declared himself the Emperor in 1804 and signed the concordat with the Catholic Church. The conservative Catholics of Trier, then under French suzerainty, celebrated this with a public procession of the Holy Shroud of Jesus, which was smuggled out just before the French invasion.
After Napoleon's death, the likes of Wyttenbach found themselves as instructors in gymnasiums. He became the director of the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium where Karl Marx became his pupil. The latter was most receptive to ideas that were considered to be subversive, such as the unification of German-speaking lands, end of aristocracy and establishment of a republican government, and free-thinking. All these together constituted the political creed which we pithily call Leftism or, for that matter, pre-Marxist Leftism.
Interestingly, Karl Marx’s first display of rebellion was during this very period. As the conservative Prussian authorities became tired of the remnants of republicanism, they started reining in its representatives. Wyttenbach was adjusted from his position of director of the gymnasium by a co-director, a classics teacher with reliably conservative ideas, a gentleman named Vitus Loers.
Karl Marx could not take this affront meted out to his teacher. He declined to pay a welcoming visit to Loers, then considered to be a customary must, followed by a second such affront shortly before he left for his university studies in 1835, when he declined to attend the banquet in Loer’s honour, again a customary must in those times. Such was the tension caused by this that his father had to pacify Loer’s anger by telling him that his son had visited him but did not find him in his office.
At the University, the young Marx mingled his brook with Hegelianism, then the mightiest wave in the ocean of European philosophical thought. First, at Bonn, he spent most of his time in taverns drinking and brawling. Because of this, his father sought a change of place. He was enrolled at the University of Berlin. There he found the atmosphere most suited for his intellectual development.
Along with being a premier centre of learning, Berlin was the commercial-industrial hub brimming with political activity. In Berlin, he also courted and married Jenny Von Westphalen, the daughter of a family friend and state bureaucrat Ludwig Von Westphalen. Here again, Marx caused a direct affront to bourgeois society, this time its boisterous masculinity, by marrying Jenny who was four years elder than him.
Hegel’s dialectics, which obliterated the philosophical division between subject and object and put the onus on their mutuality leading to a qualitatively higher synthesis, tantalised young Marx to the extent that he penned a late-night epistle to his father and wrote that ‘I ran like a mad in the garden on the filthy water of the Spree…ran to Berlin and wanted to embrace everyday labourer standing on the street corner’. His father’s response was not entirely appreciative. He reproached Marx for being ‘disorderly, dull floating around in all areas of knowledge in the scholar’s nightgown and with uncombed hair’ followed by accusations of being a spendthrift who would spend 700 talers even when the richest lads would struggle to spend 500 in one year.
As Hegel hawked his wares in university classrooms, student buyers, given the complexity of the product, split into Left and Right factions. Marx naturally, and partially because of the impact of his tutor Eduard Gans, became a member of the former group. He became friends with Bruno Bauer, a charismatic Hegelian, who had thought of him to be best suited for the job of an academic. However, the accession of the conservative Friedrich Wilhelm IV and a famous incident wherein both Marx and Bauer rented a pair of donkeys on Easter day and galloped through the village of Godesberg in an act of atheistic provocation parodying Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, marked the end of any future prospects of a university lectureship for Marx. He then embarked on a journalistic career and wrote for the Rheinische Zeitung. The paper was disbanded in 1843 for its radical proclivities.
In mid-1843, while on a honeymoon trip with Jenny, Karl Marx wrote the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It was not published until 1927. Here he set out to refute Hegel’s idea that the state was above classes. In this essay, Ludwig Feuerbach’s impression was most apparent on him, whose Essence of Christianity had appeared in 1841 wherein he argued for a total rejection of Hegel’s philosophy, because for him the starting point of philosophy had to be neither God nor Idea—two of the most confusing end-concepts employed by Hegel possibly to hide the revolutionary content of the dialectic and thus retain his lectureship—but human beings and the material conditions in which they live.
In the Critique, Marx argued for class struggle in Germany but not the struggle of the working classes. In the Critique, class struggle was declared to be the most necessary condition for the political emancipation of the German nation. He observed that ‘no class of civil society can play this role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative, a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself, a moment in which it is truly the social head and the social heart’.
It was only after a year of writing the Critique and relocation to Paris, that Marx openly advocated the working class revolution and found workers to be the only carriers of this revolution. He wrote to Feuerbach in August 1844: “You would have to attend one of the meetings of the French workers to appreciate the pure freshness, the nobility which burst forth from these toil-worn men… It is among these ‘barbarians’ of our civilised society that history is preparing the practical element for the emancipation of mankind”.
A bit of digression from the topic is warranted here. The fuss created by post-colonial scholars after rummaging through all that is inconsequential in Enlightenment philosophy and Marx that the latter used the categories such as ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘hordes’ for the colonial subjects, is largely an exercise in academic bankruptcy since the same language was used for those to whom he dedicated his entire life. Linguistic flourish seems to have become an opportunity for penalising Marx and his ideas. A thorough retrogression, to say the least.
In 1844, Marx wrote ‘On the Jewish Question’ wherein he broke with the tradition of a French type of political revolution which he had hitherto advocated in Germany and argued that ‘such a revolution would only liberate man as an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of private interests and private caprices, and separated from the community. He concluded that only a social revolution that swept away private property could emancipate humanity.
It was in Paris that Marx began a serious study of famous political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And in 1844, he wrote the now-famous Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts which remained hidden from the public eye until 1932. Coincidentally, his study chimed with the rebellion of Silesian workers which erupted in June 1844 and the army was called in to restore order.
Arnold Ruge, Marx’s former editor and friend and Left Hegelian, vehemently criticised the uprising in a German émigré paper. Marx wrote a furious reply denouncing Ruge and argued that it was the workers who were the only dynamic element of the German revolution. And later, when the 1848 revolutions broke out in Europe, all the hopes which Marx placed on the German bourgeoisie to play the role of the French Jacobins were dashed. The former remained terrified of the workers' movement and ended up accommodating with the Prussian monarchy.
At the end of August, the fateful meeting between Marx and the son of an industrialist, Frederick Engels, happened. The meeting marked the beginning of a life-long friendship with a few parallels in history. A friendship forged in the melting pot of revolutionary Europe, they became members of the League of the Just and transformed it into the Communist League and wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
First commissioned by the League, the Manifesto, after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, was remembered by no more than a few hundred German-speaking veterans. The English translation appeared as early as 1850 in the journal, The Red Republican, edited by the English Chartists. It was first republished in 1872 when Bismarckian Germany put on trial the Social-Democratic leaders August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. And in search for treasonable evidence, the prosecution entered into the records of the court the hitherto forgotten Manifesto, hoping to make the most out its “anti-patriotic” claim that ‘workers have no country.
The unintended consequence of this was that the socialist publishers were now able to evade the censors and embark upon its massive republication. And with the extraordinary growth of socialist and social democratic parties across the Europe, the Manifesto was translated into several languages.
The first Chinese translation appeared as late as 1920. In 1922, Ranchhoddas Bhuvan Lotwala brought out a series of pamphlets on socialism in English, among which was the Manifesto. Interestingly, the first Indian language in which the Manifesto was translated was Bengali. It was done by Saumyendranath Tagore, the grandnephew of Rabindranath Tagore, then a member of the Communist Party of India, who later broke with Stalinism and became a follower of Leon Trotsky. The Bengali version appeared in six issues of Ganabani between August 12, 1926 and July 21, 1927.
After constant ouster from the main European cities, Marx finally settled down in London with his family and undertook the monumental work of writing the critique of classical political economy—Capital. In 1851, he wrote to Engels that “I am so far advanced that in five weeks I will be through with the whole economic shit”.
But even after Marx died in 1883, the ‘economic shit’ remained unfinished. And the immense task of compiling the second and third volumes fell on Engels, as the first volume came out in Marx’s lifetime in 1867. In it, Marx gave a scientific basis to the workers' movement and established that what is seen as profit under capitalism is not the result of the ingenuity of the capitalist, nor the result of the old mercantilist logic of buying cheap and selling dear, but the specific transfer of value to the production process by the workers who spend more time in the production unit than what is normally required of him/her for sustenance. And it was this surplus time worked by the worker for the capitalist that added to the latter’s wealth who would end up paying the former only a bare remuneration for the formers’ daily reproduction, pocketing the profit which arose out of the difference between the value of labour and his/her product.
The secret of the immense wealth of the bourgeois society lay in this cunning transaction. This was Marx’s greatest gift to the toilers of the world who were, and still are, being defrauded in the name of national growth and national interest, to intensify the rate of this cunning transaction.
Today, we honour the man and his ideas. Although no one is indispensable in history, without him, we are sure the working classes across the world would have struggled to penetrate the now mathematised fortification of what has come to be called ‘economics’. And the battle for social equity would have been lost in abstract equations.
The writer is a research scholar with the Department of World History, University of Cambridge. The views are personal.