Marx and His Early Thirty Years

R Arun Kumar

KARL Marx is two hundred years young. He is still widely read, thoroughly discussed and critically analysed. It should be our endeavour to trace the path he had traversed and however difficult, to live true to it.

Marx was born into a middle-class family. In his school, he was an ordinary child, who was considered to be weak in Mathematics and history. Through his sheer determination to learn and understand the world, he developed mastery over both these subjects. His mastery, acquired by spending hours and hours at the reading table, are visible in all his subsequent works through which he expounded the historical evolution of society, the economic exploitation of the present system and the need to transform it.

Marx’ father was a lawyer, who was influenced by the rational thought of Voltaire, Rousseau and spent his time reading. Marx respected his father, but rebelled against his advice. This however did not mean that Marx lost his admiration for his father as, he always used to carry his fathers’ picture in his coat pocket. Another important person in Marx’ life who had tremendous influence on him during his formative years was Ludwig von Westphalen, Jenny’s father, with whom he used to go on long walks discussing literature, philosophy and various other pertinent issues. It is through Westphalen that Marx developed his interest towards Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe. Through these discussions with the sixty-two year old Ludwig Westphalen, Marx got acquainted with the ideas of utopian socialists and other thinkers. What is remarkable is, Westphalen treated Marx, who is the age of his youngest son, as a man and an intellectual, worthy of such serious discussions.

Prussian State during Marx’ time was not liberal and was intolerant towards dissent. Political discussion was strictly not allowed. A government spy had reported (in 1833-1834, when Marx was 15-16 years old) that the Trier public school in which Marx was studying consisted of teachers who were liberal and that students were reading banned literature. Marx observed government’s crackdown on dissent from close quarters, when acting on that report, it had a boy arrested and a headmaster demoted. Marx father too was placed under scrutiny for a speech he had given in a club in Trier. For Marx, freedom, equality and liberty no longer remained abstract concepts for discussion. He was forced to consider the reasons for their existence or lack of it in the then society.

Marx was also influenced by the prevailing situation around him in his city, Trier, which is part of Rhineland. During that period, Rhineland was the ‘most industrialised’ part of the Prussian State. The economy of Rhineland transformed, with the growth in affluence for some sections, while poverty reigned among the majority. This had brought about several distinct changes in the social relations. Industrial classes – both the bourgeois and the proletariat – made their appearance, along with the existing feudal classes.

Marx captured the resultant ferment in his brain, in a poem he had written during this period (end 1836). He writes, ‘I am caught in endless strife/Endless ferment, endless dream;/I cannot conform to Life,/Will not travel with the stream’.

It is in this background that the seventeen year old Marx had written his famous essay, ‘Reflections of a young man on the choice of profession’, outlining his future course of action. He begins this essay by stating that nature has bestowed upon man the capacity to choose a position most suited to him in the present society, through which, he ‘can best uplift himself and the society’. He argues that ‘the chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection’. Stating that these two are not in contradiction with each other, but on the contrary complimentary, he concludes that one can achieve perfection only through ‘working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men’. This for Marx is happiness. “If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work….”

Marx left his school in Trier and joined the university in Bonn, where he enrolled as a law student, but continued his pursuits in philosophy and literature. A year later, he left the university in Bonn to join the university in Berlin, much bigger and considered to be one of the topmost universities of that time. Here he wrote three volumes of poetry, professing his love for Jenny, with whom he was engaged by this time. Marx studied civil, criminal and canonical law. He translated books on ancient Roman law into German, translated works of Aristotle and other famous Greeks, from Greek to German, wrote his own three hundred pages, Philosophy of Law, a novel and a play. Apart from all these, he continued to learn new languages, English and Italian (in addition to his proficiency in Greek, Latin and German). Commenting on his pursuits, Marx stated: “at the end, I emerged not much enriched”. This shows nineteen year old Marx’ never ending thirst for reading books, learning new skills and acquiring knowledge.

Marx joined the circle of ‘Young Hegelians’ and was considered as a natural leader. This group consisted not only of his peers, but mostly of his professors and established writers, who were elder to him by nearly ten years or more. Recognising the genius of young Marx, a professor from this group had commented that Marx was ‘Rousseau, Voltaire, Heine and Hegel combined in one person’.

Marx came out of the university, with no intention of becoming a public servant. He took the profession of journalism and put his pen to the service of the people. He considered newspapers as ‘educated classes primary means of defiance’. Thirty-three year old Marx shifted his base to Cologne, the intellectual centre of Rhineland. Within one year, he became the editor of one of the most influential dailies of Prussia, Rheinische Zeitung. He used the paper to study the practical questions confronting the society, the functioning of the government or rather the State and subject them to his critical theoretical analysis. Marx clearly stated that newspaper should not engage in ‘abstract theory’, but should consider ‘practical questions’. Through his articles, he showed how to consider ‘practical questions’, by studying them in-depth, tracing their roots and offering solutions. It is this process, as he himself admitted to Engels, that “led him from politics pure and simple to economic conditions and thus to socialism”.

In 1843, Marx, then twenty-five had married Jenny, seven years after their engagement. For their honeymoon, Marx carried his trunks containing forty-five volumes of books to continue his pursuit of acquiring new knowledge. Marx considered Jenny as his equal and the discussions they had sharpened his intellect. The same year, both of them shifted to Paris, the ‘most liberal and revolutionary city’ of those times. Here Marx came into contact with people like Bakunin and Blanc and new ideas.

It is in 1844 that Marx read extensively the works of French and English economists and jotted down his own ideas, which later became the ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’. It is in 1844 that Marx witnessed the working class anger during the Silesian weavers uprising, the first of its kind in industrialised Germany. Though it had failed, Marx clearly understood the link between the proletariat, economy and the State.

It is in Paris that Marx met Engels in 1844 and established their life-lasting friendship on the basis of mutually shared beliefs and ideas. Both of them arrived at same conclusions, but from different directions and decided to collaborate, further expanding their line of thought. The Holy Family, is the first product of their collaborative effort. They followed this up with German Ideology in 1846.

Due to his sharp analysis and critique of the State, Marx was expelled from Prussia, France and Belgium, forcing him to settle in England. In England, Marx went around Manchester along with Engels and witnessed first-hand the horrendous condition of the working class lives. Marx and Engels participated in the Congress of the Communist League in England (1847) and were deputed to draft its Manifesto. In 1848, they produced the earth-shaking, Communist Manifesto. Marx was thirty and Engels, three years his junior. They have proclaimed that the future belongs to the proletariat and it has got a ‘world to win’.

Thirty years of age is considered too young to achieve anything substantial in our lives, but Marx had by that time marked it with many significant milestones. Achieving even few of them or at least one will be substantial for many and it needs relentless strife. As young Marx stated:

“Therefore let us risk our all,
Never resting, never tiring;
Not in silence dismal, dull,
Without action or desiring;

Not in brooding introspection

Bowed beneath a yoke of pain,

So that yearning, dream and action

Unfulfilled to us remain”.


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