Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–83)

Karl Marx’s thinking has profoundly influenced our understanding of the process of industrialisation in Europe. The implications of the first sentence of his Communist Manifesto of 1848, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ have shaped the vocabulary of many accounts of industrial development, even those written by writers with philosophies directly opposed to Marxism.

Karl Marx was born in Trier and studied at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, where he was identified with the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Hegel. In 1844 he went to Paris where he began a lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels. The two were forced to move to Brussels in 1845, but Marx returned to Paris in 1848 where he witness the revolutionary rising in June of that year, about which he wrote an incisive pamphlet.

He moved to London in the following year and remained there for the rest of his life, living in relative poverty with his wife, and maintaining regular contacts with Engels. He spent much of his time studying in the library of the British Museum and wrote a succession of lengthy works on philosophy and political economy, some of which remained unpublished until well into the 20th century. The most celebrated was Das Kapital, published in 1867.

He maintained links with revolutionaries in many countries, particularly through the First International, formed in 1864. His analysis of economic history, that industrial capitalism had created a proletariat, whose members could only live by selling their labour, has proved influential, and many historians would still regarded it as stimulating, but his vision of a future in which communist revolution would be followed by the withering away of the state has materialised neither in those states that have adopted a supposedly Marxist form of communist government nor in those that have remained unrepentedly capitalist.

The well-known memorial on Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, for many years the object of pilgrimage by visitors to England from communist countries, dates from 1954 when it was erected by the Communist Party of Great Britain.