The Political Activism of Karl Marx

Mention the name Karl Marx and most people will conjure an imagine a gray long-haired, bearded man hunched over piles of books and papers in the London Library. This is, of course, an accurate image of much of what occupied Karl Marx’s life, not only the writing of his masterwork “Capital” but a body of work which was to become the basis for a global movement for socialism. Yet Marx was more than just a specter haunting the reading rooms of the London library. He was also actively engaged in many of the earliest struggles of the communist movement in which he played such a vital role.

One of his earliest forays into political activity was as a radical journalist. In 1842, at the age of 24 Marx became the editor of Neue Rheinische Zeitung, As a result of Marx’s fiery articles opposing Prussian authoritarianism the paper was suppressed by the authorities. After the closing of NRZ Marx made his way to Paris in 1843 where he edited Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher. He hoped to open up new lines of communication between French Communists and the German left Hegelians with this new effort. The publication did not last long, however. Only one issue appeared ,and it failed to open the lines of communication Marx had hoped to develop.

It was also during this time in Paris that Marx made what would become his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels. Engels would become Marx’s closest collaborator and confidant. Engles would also financially support Marx and his family through much of the rest of their lives.

For his journalism and political activism, Marx was expelled from Paris in 1844. He spent the next three years in Brussels. During this time he became a member of the Communist League. It was during a conference of the Communist League in 1847 that Marx and Engels were appointed to write a short and accessible document stating the Position of the CL. The resulting work appeared in 1848 when Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. “The Manifesto” would become the most popular exposition of the principles of socialism as developed by Marx and Engels during their time in the Communist League. It remains a statement of the core principles of socialism to this day.

In 1848 Marx found himself, once again, in Paris. There he attempted to revive Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The Communist League by this time had all but collapsed allowing Marx to devote his full attention to the publication of the new NRZ. It was also during this period that Marx began a newly intensified study of political economy which would lead ultimately to “Capital,” Marx’s masterwork and, arguably, the best exposition on the nature and function of capitalism ever penned.

It would seem clear from this brief survey of Marx’s early political activity that he was anything but an isolated academic. His work on Neue Rheinische Zeitung and Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher represented more than simple radical journalism. At the age of 24 Marx had managed to intimidate and politically unnerve some of the most powerful and reactionary people and institutions in Europe. This lead to repeated expulsions from France and German. Finally, he found himself exiled in London. He would spend the rest of his life there. He died on March 14, 1883 at the age of 64.

It is interesting to note that early in his career, even with the multiple pressures of his radical journalistic projects, the constant expulsions and uprooting of his life Marx managed to pen one of his most important contributions to socialist theory; “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844." Even work on “Capital” which is generally considered his magnum opus was repeatedly interrupted and delayed because of his work in the First International. The first volume of Capital would not see publication until 1867. The latter two volumes would be published by Engels after his death.

Marx was elected to the general council of the first international in 1864. He became especially active in preparing for the International’s annual congresses as well as leading the struggle against Mikail Bakunin who was the leading political and theoretical voice of the Anarchists within the International.

Even in the final years of his life with his health failing and unable to do the kind of sustained work that characterized his life up until then he remained active in contemporary politics. He wrote “A Critique of the Gotha Program” which started out as a letter to Eisenach faction of the German social democratic movement (Which Marx and Engels supported) in 1875. The critique was a polemic against Wilhelm Liebknect and August Bebel, both of whom considered themselves followers of Marx. In the Critique Marx attacks their position of compromise with Ferdinand Lasalle Lassalle was an advocate of state socialism and Liebknect and Bebel felt without a compromise the socialist party would be unable to maintain unity. Critique of the Gotha program is thought by many to be Marx’s clearest exposition on practical politics.

Marx’s life and work serves as an example to both activists and theoreticians. He showed that in the pursuit of radical political change both action and theory depend on each other in their mutual attempts to understand and change the world. Marx was a living embodiment of revolutionary praxis.

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