Skip navigation


The Core Curriculum

Karl Marx

1818 CE – 1883 CE

Karl Marx was born 1818 in Trier in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy middle-class family descended from rabbis on both sides. Marx’s father was a pro-Enlightenment thinker who converted to Protestantism in order to practice law. Marx also studied law at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, but his real interests were in history and philosophy, especially the ideas of the radical Young Hegelians. Marx received a Ph. D. in 1841 and began working as a political journalist in Cologne. In 1843, he controversially married the aristocratic Jenny von Westphalen. Political repression forced the family into exile, including time in Paris (1843-45) where Marx began his lifelong collaboration with co-author and financial supporter Friedrich Engels. In 1849, the family settled permanently in London. Despite poverty, illness, and the death of three children, Marx continued to study, write, and organize in support of communism. He helped establish the International Working Men’s Association (“The First International”) in 1864, and subsequently lead the opposition to anarchist tendencies in the IWMA until the organization’s dissolution in 1876.  Marx died in London in 1883. His work has had a significant continuing influence on social scientists, philosophers, and political movements across the world.

Marx was a prolific writer in many genres; the collected writings of Marx and Engels are projected to fill 110 printed volumes. The complicated publication and translation history surrounding Marx’s writings, as well as the developments of his thought by others, is a challenge for understanding his work on its own terms, rather than those of Engels, Lenin, or Mao. Many of Marx’s more influential writings such as the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: of 1844 and The Grundrisse were published posthumously, some of them based on preliminary notes or unfinished works edited by later hands. In general, Marx’s early works primarily address the Young Hegelians and the ideas of other, ‘utopian,’ socialists ("The German Ideology";  "The Poverty of Philosophy"). In the 1850's, Marx focused primarily on problems of political economy, reflected especially in his massive, unfinished Capital.  A number of Marx’s works analyze historical or current events (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; "The Civil War in France"); others are political propaganda or strategy ("The Communist Manifesto"; "Critique of the Gotha Programme"). 

Works Consulted:

Terrel Carver (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, 1992.
Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life. London, 1999.  

Jay Gundraker, Department of History, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

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.  

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.

Further Reading :
Terrel Carver (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Marx. Cambridge, 1992.
Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life. London, 1999.  

Jay Gundraker, Department of History, Columbia University