Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Marx's Birthday Remembering the Early Life of Marx and Engels until they became Marxists

Obviously nobody can be born a Marxist – not even Marx. There has to be a process through which ideas and views are developed and formulated and take a basic shape which can be called an ideology. Naturally Marx and Engels too had to go through such a process before they came to discover and themselves grasp the basic truths of what we today know as Marxism. This process of thought was naturally determined to a great extent by the concrete experiences that both of them went through. In order therefore to understand this in some depth let us briefly look at the early life experiences of these two great teachers.

Karl Marx was born on 5th May 1818, in the town of Trier, in what was then called Rhenish Prussia, and which is today part of Germany. His father, Heinrich Marx, was one of the top lawyers of the town. The family was well to do and cultured, but not revolutionary. Both Marx’ parents came from a long line of Jewish priests. Thus, though they were economically well off, they had to face social discrimination in the anti-Jew atmosphere of Prussia.

In 1816, Marx’ father was forced to convert to Christianity because the Prussian government had then brought out a rule stopping Jews from practicing law. Similarly, in 1824, another Prussian law was passed to prevent non-Christians from being admitted to public schools. To overcome this, again Heinrich Marx was forced to baptize his son Karl, along with all his brothers and sisters.

Thus, though he was no believer in organised religion, Marx’ father was forced to adopt a new faith just in order to pursue his profession and give his children a good education.

Marx’ hometown, Trier, is the oldest town in Germany, which for many centuries had been the residence of Roman emperors and later the seat of Catholic bishops, with a religious administration for the town and surrounding area.

In August 1794 the French armies captured the town, instituted a civil administration, and brought in the ideas and institutions of the French Revolution. The town only went back into the hands of the Prussian king after the defeat of France’s Napoleon in 1815.

Thus during the time of Marx’ birth and youth it still carried the definite impact of twenty-one years of French revolutionary ideas.

Trier was a small town, similar in size to our smaller taluka towns, with a population then of around 12,000. It was principally a market town for the surrounding area, which for centuries has been a famous wine-growing area. Its population was composed of occupations typical to a ‘service’ town – civil servants, priests, small merchants, craftsmen, etc.

It had remained untouched by the Industrial Revolution and was thus economically relatively backward. During Marx’ youth it also had a high degree of poverty. Official statistics in 1830 gave an unemployment figure of one in every four, though the actual figure must have been much higher. Beggars and prostitutes were common and the figures of petty crime like stealing was extremely high. Thus Marx from a very young age was witness to the misery of the poorer labouring classes.

After attending elementary school, Marx entered the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium (secondary school) in 1831, from which he passed out in 1835. Within three weeks he was sent for further studies at the law faculty of the university forty miles away from Trier, at the city of Bonn (an important centre which is today the joint capital of Germany).

Marx, with a desire to learn as much as much as possible, immediately registered in nine courses that besides law, included poetry, literature, art, etc. He was at first regular at lectures but gradually lost interest, particularly in the law lectures, which he found dry and unsatisfying. He reduced his courses first to six and then to four.

He decided to study on his own and soon got involved in the stormy life of the students of whom he soon became a leader. Being deeply interested in writing poetry he also joined the Poetenbund, a circle of young writers founded by revolutionary students. In the constant struggle between the sons of the feudal nobles and the bourgeoisie, he soon became a leader of the bourgeois group. He was often involved in fistfights and sometimes in sword-duels.

He carried a stiletto knife (somewhat similar to our gupti knives), for which he was once arrested and had a police case put on him. He was also sentenced to one day in the university’s student prison on charges of “nightly uproarious disturbances of the peace and drunkenness”. Marx, in one sword-duel was even injured on his right eyebrow. This led to his father withdrawing him from the Bonn University and bringing him back to Trier in August 1836.

While he was in Trier he got secretly engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of Baron von Westphalen a nobleman and senior Prussian government official. Jenny, who was four years elder to him, and Marx, were childhood loves who had decided to get married while Marx was still in school. They now got engaged with the approval of Marx’ parents, but without Jenny’s parents approval, which was only obtained in 1837.

In October 1836 Marx moved to the University of Berlin, which was the capital of Prussia. The university was much larger than Bonn and was renowned as a major centre of learning. After registering for his University courses, Marx immediately jumped into a storm of work. He stayed up night after night, eating irregularly, smoking heavily, reading heavy books and filling up notebooks. Instead of formal classes Marx pursued his studies on his own. Working at a tremendous pace he moved from law to philosophy to poetry to art and then to writing plays and stories and then back to philosophy and poetry.

His overwork had a bad effect of his health, particularly his TB affected lungs, and he sometimes was forced to take a break. But he was always back to his excessive work habits, reading up everything, from the ancient to the latest works of scientists and philosophers. His bent was towards philosophy, always trying to find universal meaning; always searching for the absolute in principles, definitions and concepts.

During his second year at the University he joined a group of philosophy students and teachers called Young Hegelians. They were followers of the famous German philosopher, Frederick Hegel, who had taught at Berlin University and died in 1830. They tried to give a radical interpretation to Hegel’s philosophy and for this were sometimes called Left Hegelians. One of Marx’ friends in this group, its intellectual leader, was a professor called Bruno Bauer who was a militant atheist who constantly attacked the church’s teachings.

Such attacks, along with the radical political views of the Young Hegelians, made them a target of the Prussian authorities. Thus when Marx completed his doctoral thesis he could not obtain his degree from the Berlin University, which was dominated by reactionary appointees of the Prussian government. After completing his studies in Berlin, he submitted his thesis and obtained his Ph.D. in April 1841 from the liberal leaning University of Jena that was outside Prussian control.

After obtaining his degree he had hoped to become a lecturer at the Bonn University where Bruno Bauer had shifted to in 1839. But Bauer himself was in trouble because of the student disturbances his anti-religion lectures were causing. Finally the King himself ordered the removal of Bauer from the Bonn University. This meant the end to Bauer’s teaching career as well as any hope of a teaching job for Marx.

Marx started concentrating on journalism, which he had already started immediately after leaving University. This also helped him to participate more thoroughly in the rapidly growing radical democratic opposition movement then developing in his Rhineland province and the neighbouring province of Westphalia. These provinces which had experienced the liberating influence of the French anti- feudal reforms were major centres of opposition to the Prussian king. Industrialisation had also led to the growth of the bourgeoisie, particularly in Cologne, the richest city of the Rhineland. This meant strong support for this radical opposition movement by the industrialists, who were fed up with the excessive controls of the feudals.

Marx first started writing for, and then, in October 1842, became the chief editor of The Rheinische Zeitung, a daily newspaper supported by such industrialists. In Marx’ hands the newspaper soon became a fighter for radical democratic rights. This however brought Marx into constant conflict with the Prussian censors who were very repressive. Finally, when the paper published a criticism of the Russian Czar’s despotism, the Czar himself brought pressure on the Prussian King to take action. The paper was banned and had to be closed down in March 1843. Marx then started involving himself in a plan to bring out a new journal The German-French Yearbooks.

During this period, from 1841 to 1843, Marx was deeply involved in the stormy political life of that period. However he was basically a radical democrat and did not at that time hold communist views. At the level of philosophy his major transformation during this period was in 1841 after reading a book The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach which presented a criticism of religion from the standpoint of materialism. This book played a major role in shifting Marx’ ideas from the idealism of the Young Hegelian group to materialism. Another philosophical work of 1841 (The European Triarchy) that influenced Marx was the attempt by his friend, Moses Hess, to develop a communist philosophy by combining French socialist and Left Hegelian ideas.

However at that time Marx yet had only a limited knowledge of the ideas of the socialists and communists. His first contact was in 1842 when he read with interest the works of many of the leading French socialist theorists. He was however not converted to communism or socialism by these readings. This change came about more through his contact with working class communist groups and study of political economy, both of which took place mainly after moving to Paris at the end of 1843.

 Seven years after their engagement, Marx and Jenny were married in June 1843. They had a short honeymoon in Switzerland during which Marx wrote a booklet where he presented his initial criticisms of Hegel. After the honeymoon he started the study and preparations for moving to Paris from where the earlier mentioned German-French Yearbooks was to be brought out. This move to Paris was planned in order to avoid the Prussian censors. However, though the journal was planned as a monthly, it collapsed after only one issue that came out in February 1844.

Marx’ period in Paris was however marked by very significant new experiences. Of the greatest importance was direct contact with the various socialist and communist groups of which Paris was a hot centre. Besides meeting a large number of theoreticians and revolutionaries Marx benefited greatly by regular contact with the many working class revolutionaries in Paris. At the same time Marx started a study of political economy in which he read most of the works of the famous English economists. The revolutionary contacts and further study had their impact. These were reflected in Marx’ writings.

The only issue of the Yearbooks was of crucial importance because it contained Marx’ first broad generalisation of a Marxist materialist understanding of history that was contained in an article criticising Hegel’s philosophy. It was in this article that Marx made the highly important formulation regarding the historical role of the proletariat. He also here made his famous formulation that religion is the opium of the people. The same issue also contained an article by Engels on political economy, which also gave a materialist understanding regarding the development of modern capitalism.

It was Marx’ interest in Engels’ writings that led to their meeting in Paris between August 28 and September 6 1844.This turned out to be a historic meeting that helped the two great thinkers to clarify their ideas and lay the first foundations of Marxism. Though they had both independently come to similar conclusions earlier, this meeting helped them to achieve complete theoretical agreement. It was at this meeting that they more clearly came to an understanding regarding the materialist conception of history, which was the cornerstone of Marxist theory.

Frederick Engels was born on 28th November 1820 in the textile town of Barmen in the Rhine province of Prussia. His father was the wealthy owner of a cotton-spinning mill and was a fiercely religious Protestant Christian with a reactionary political outlook.

Barmen, like Marx’ Trier, also belonged to the part of Prussia which had seen twenty years of French conquest. It thus also had progressive influences on it. However its main characteristic was that it was one of the biggest Rhenish industrial centres. Thus Engels from a very early age saw the severe poverty and exploitation of the working class. To survive against factory competition craftsmen were forced to work from morning to night. Often they tried to drown their sorrows in drink. Child labour and occupational lung diseases were rampant.

Engels attended the Barmen town school till the age of 14. He was then sent to the gymnasium at the neighbouring town of Elberfeld (today both Barmen and Elberfeld are merged into one town). This gymnasium (secondary school) had the reputation of being one of the best in Prussia. He was an intelligent student with an early flair for learning languages. He was also part of a poetry circle among the students and wrote his own poetry and short stories. He was planning to study economy and law but his father was more interested in making his eldest son learn the family business. At the age of 17 he was suddenly removed from school and made to join as an apprentice in his father’s office.

 Though this was the end of Engels’ formal schooling he continued to use his free time to study history, philosophy, literature and linguistics and to write poetry, which he was attracted to. The next year, in July 1838, Engels was sent to work as a clerk in a large trading firm in the large port city of Bremen. The big city atmosphere brought Engels in contact with foreign literature and the press. In leisure he started reading fiction and political books. He continued learning new languages and besides German got some knowledge of Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, etc. This ability to learn languages continued throughout Engels’ life during which he learnt to be quite fluent in over 20 languages including Persian and Arabic. Also in Bremen, Engels became a good horseman, swimmer, swordsman and skater.

While at school itself Engels had been a fighter against bureaucracy. Now as a grown youth he was attracted to the radical democratic ideas of the bourgeois democratic revolution then taking shape in Germany. The first group he was attracted towards was the Young Germany literary group that stood for radical political views. He soon started writing for a journal being brought out by them from the port city of Hamburg, not far from Bremen. He wrote two articles on the situation in his home district. He exposed the severe exploitation of the workers in Barmen and Elberfeld, the diseases suffered by them, and the fact that half the children of the town were deprived of school and forced to work in the factories. He particularly attacked the hollowness of the religiosity of the exploitative industrialists (which included his own father).

Towards the end of 1839 he started a study of Hegel, whose philosophy he tried to link with his own radical democratic beliefs. However he only made further progress in this when he finished his clerkship in Bremen in 1841, and, after a few months gap, moved to Berlin for one year’s compulsory military service.

While in military service he joined the Berlin University as an external student and did a course in philosophy. He then became closely connected with the Young Hegelian group which Marx had been part of. He, like Marx, was also influenced greatly by the materialist views in Feurbach’s book that came out in that year. Engels’ writings now started to have some materialist aspects. The main thing he always stressed was political action. This was what made him split, in 1842, from his earlier Young German group, which he felt restricted itself only to empty literary debate. He however continued to strongly be linked with the Young Hegelians, particularly Bruno Bauer and his brother.

It was this closeness of Engels with the Bauers that prevented a friendship with Marx, when they met for the first time in November 1842. Engels at that time had finished his military service and was on his way from his hometown to join as a clerk in his father’s business in Manchester, in England. On the way he visited Marx at the newspaper office in Cologne where Marx was then the chief editor. Marx, by then, had however started criticising Young Hegelians, and particularly the Bauers, for concentrating their propaganda too much on religion rather than politics. Hence Marx and Engels, having different political affiliations, could not come close at this, their first meeting.

 It was Engels’ experiences in England that made him a communist. He developed very close links with the workers of Manchester, as well as the leaders of the revolutionary workers Chartist movement. Manchester was the main centre of the world’s modern textile industry and soon Engels undertook an in-depth study of the working and living conditions of its workers. He would regularly visit the working class areas to gain direct knowledge. In this process a love grew between him and Mary Burns, young Irish factory worker, who would later become his companion and wife. Besides collecting material for his future book on the conditions of the working class in England, Engels came to understand the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. His regular participation in the movement convinced him that the working class was not merely a suffering class, but a fighting class whose revolutionary actions would build the future.

Besides working class contact, Engels also made a deep study of the various socialist and communist theories and even met many of the French and German leaders and writers who had formulated these theories. Though he did not adopt any of these theories, he made an analysis of their positive and negative points. At the same time he started a deep study of bourgeois political economy. This was in order to help him analyse the economic relations of society, which he had started feeling was the basis of all social change. The initial results of his study he put down in his article that was published by Marx in his journal brought out from Paris. As we have mentioned earlier, this led to correspondence between Marx and Engels and their historic meeting in 1844.

Engels was then on his way back from Manchester to his hometown Barmen, when he stopped on the way to meet Marx who was then staying in Paris. Their discussions helped Marx to better formulate the materialist understanding of history which they had both started believing in. They also, at this meeting, started work on their first joint book, which was an attack on Bruno Bauer and the Young Hegelian group, which they had both earlier belonged to.

Engels spent the next eight months doing intensive communist propaganda and organisational work in Germany. During this period he was in constant revolt against his father who opposed his communist work and tried to get him to work in his factory. After just two weeks at his father’s office Engels rejected it completely and left Barmen to join Marx. Marx by that time had again become the target of feudal authorities. The Prussian King had brought pressure on the French King, who expelled Marx from Paris. Marx was forced to move to Brussels in Belgium along with his wife and eight-month-old child. This is where Engels came and set up house right next to Marx’s house.

Marx in the meantime had done deep work and had developed the main features of the new world outlook, which they had discussed at their earlier meeting. In Brussels both Marx and Engels started intensive joint work. This was, as Engels said, to develop the new outlook in all possible directions.

The result was the historic book, The German Ideology, which however only got published almost a hundred years later. The main purpose served this book served at that time was for the two great thinkers to self – clarify regarding their old understanding and set up the pillars of the new world outlook, which later came to be known as Marxism.

Marx and Engels had become Marxists!

Source : MLM Textbook from India

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