March 22, 1883 – Frederick Engels Speaks at the Funeral of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, a town then part of Prussia.

While studying law and philosophy in Berlin, Marx became interested in the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and got involved in a group of radical thinkers calling themselves Young Hegelians. Marx rejected some of Hegel’s ideas, but not, famously, his dialectical method to critique society. He also became an atheist. (Ironically, Marx has been reviled throughout history as a “Jewish radical.” Although his parents were originally Jews, his father converted to Lutheranism and baptized all the children as Lutherans.) Marx wrote his philosophy doctoral thesis arguing that theology must yield to the superior wisdom of philosophy.

Karl Marx in 1861

Karl Marx in 1861

In 1844, Marx met the German socialist Friedrich Engels at the Parisian Café de la Régence, beginning a lifelong friendship. Engels convinced Marx that the working class would be the agent and instrument of the final revolution in history. Before long, Marx and Engels were collaborating on a number of works analyzing political economy.

In 1845, after moving from Paris to Brussels, Marx wrote his eleven Theses on Feuerbach, best known for Thesis 11, which states that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This work introduced Marx’s historical materialism, an argument that the world is changed not by ideas but by actual, physical, material activity and practice. Engels moved to Brussels to join Marx, and Marx continued to write books espousing his belief that people tend to act in accordance with their own economic interests. Thus, in order to bring about revolution in a society, it is key to convince the working class of the benefits to themselves of doing so.

Friedrich Engels, 1860

Friedrich Engels, 1860

Marx’s most famous work was an 1847 collaboration with Engels, a political pamphlet published in February, 1848 that has since come to be known as “The Communist Manifesto”. The opening lines of the pamphlet set forth the principal basis of Marxism: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It then examines the antagonisms arising in the clashes of interest between the bourgeoisie (the wealthy capitalist class) and the proletariat (the industrial working class). The Manifesto presents the argument for why the Communist League, as opposed to other socialist and liberal political parties and groups at the time, was acting in the interests of the proletariat to overthrow capitalist society and to replace it with socialism. It famously ends with the slogan: “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!”

Cover of the Communist Manifesto’s initial publication in February 1848 in London.

Cover of the Communist Manifesto’s initial publication in February 1848 in London.

This work exerted a massive influence on politics from that time forward. His theories, now referred to collectively as “Marxism,” averred that human societies progress by means of class struggles. He saw capitalism as a progressive historical stage that would eventually stagnate from internal contradictions and be followed by socialism. In fact, his criticisms of capitalism will sound familiar to those who follow the news now, especially with respect to agitation over unequal taxation: Employers exploit the labor of workers, amassing huge amounts of wealth, while the workers suffer. Workers are kept complacent however by various mechanisms to placate them, such as – in Marx’s time – religion, “the opiate of the Masses” – and in our time, by mass media, social media, and cultivation of greed through “commodity fetishism” and encouragement of the satisfaction of individual wants instead of feeling concern for the good of all. Indeed, capitalist polities tend to emphasize stories of individual “grit and determination” as factors that are determinative of success, playing down systemic factors that might militate against success, such as the cycle of wealth that allows for money and benefits to flow down to successive generations.

Marx in 1875

Marx in 1875

As Marx pointed out, the success of such a system depends on a political and juridical system that valorizes and protects private property and the amassing of wealth and assets, as indeed expressed by the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC (558 U.S. 310, 2010). Capitalism also promotes the idea, both in schools and in the media, that courageous individuals can overcome obstacles and succeed; those who don’t just don’t work hard enough. Because that myth bears little resemblance to reality, citizens in such a system inevitably become alienated and resentful, and susceptible to appeals of populist and/or fascistic leaders who promise to redress their grievances.

The more successful of the so-called “Communist” regimes that arose out of the movement he helped to popularize were actually no more than brutal dictatorships. This unfortunate fact helped to discredit Marx and his prescient analysis of society.

Marx died on March 14, 1883. His long-time friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, said in part at his funeral on this day in history:

. . . Marx was the best-hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow-workers — from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America — and I make bold to say that though he may have had many opponents he had hardly one personal enemy.

His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!”

You can read the entire speech Engles delivered here.

In Teatralnaya Square, directly across the street from the Bolshoi Theatre stands Moscow’s last remaining monument to Karl Marx, which was erected in 1961. The inscription reads “Proletariat of all countries, solidarity!” (aka “Workers of the world, unite!”)

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