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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Selections from the Marx-Engels Reader


While the processes associated with the Industrial Revolution occurred gradually, Marx’s contemporaries could not fail to notice they were living through drastic change beginning with an unprecedented population explosion in the 18th century. By 1800, new technologies and forms of organization (the factory system) had significantly increased the productivity of textile manufacturing in Britain; similar developments shaped other industries through Europe and the beyond.  In the 1860s, inventions like Bessemer steel and advanced chemical processes ushered in the age of heavy industry. Along the way, the physical landscape of Europe was permanently changed by massive mining operations, new canals and railroads, and rapidly-growing cities. Europe’s social landscape was also transformed in this period, as new industrial, financial, and commercial interests challenged the older aristocratic elites through liberal reforms. Mechanization and the enclosure of common lands pushed peasants and craftspeople into low paying, grueling and dangerous jobs; urbanization further eroded traditional hierarchies and community bonds. Nevertheless the people brought together in these cramped, dirty towns and worksites organized to improve their conditions through riots, strikes and political campaigns.  

The Iron Mill (or the Modern Cyclops) by Adolph von Menzel, 1875. (Wikimedia Commons)The Iron Mill (or the Modern Cyclops) by Adolph von Menzel, 1875. (Wikimedia Commons)

Reform and Radicalism in a Conservative Age

With the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of deposed monarchies in 1815, Europe entered a period of backlash against the democratic gains of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions.  Wary of any threats to social stability, governments passed anti-union laws and tried to contain unrest among the poor through a mix of repression and social reform. At the international level, states cracked down on the movement of activists across borders and shared intelligence gathered by new surveillance techniques. Despite these efforts, liberalism, socialism and nationalism remained vibrant among the middle and working classes, even erupting in a “Year of Revolutions” across Continental Europe and its Latin American colonies in 1848. While the immediate gains of 1848 were quickly overturned, the next few decades saw the unification of Italy and Germany, waves of strikes, and liberal reforms in some countries. In the turmoil following the Franco-Prussian War and the abdication of the French king in 1870, the city of Paris elected a leftist government which attempted to institute feminist, secularist, and economic reforms. Within two months “The Paris Commune” was crushed by the moderate-liberal national government, killing 30,000 Communards and signaling a growing rift between middle-class constitutional reformers and more radical egalitarians. Subsequent debates over the lessons of the Commune also confirmed differences of strategy and identity  anarchist, communist, social democrat, etc.  on the left. 


Written by Jay Gundraker, Department of History, Columbia University 


Further Reading:

Terrel Carver (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, 1992

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life. London, 1999