Marx Becomes aYoung Hegelian

After uneventful years at the Trier Gymnasium, theyoung Marx, following his father's advice, registered at the ageof seventeen at the faculty of law in the University of Bonn. In1836 he left Bonn to transfer to the University of Berlin.Although this transfer seems to have been motivated by nothingmore than the desire of a provincial to move to the more excitingand lively atmosphere of the capital, it was to prove thedecisive turning point in the young man's career.

Hegel was already dead when Marx entered the University ofBerlin, but his spirit still dominated it fully. And Marx, afterbut a short period of resistance, surrendered to that spirit.

His teachers at the faculty of law, Savigny in jurisprudenceand Gans in criminal law, exerted some influence over the youngMarx. Savigny, the founder of the Historical School ofJurisprudence, impressed him with his historical erudition andhis power of argumentation. Gans taught him methods oftheoretical criticism in the light of philosophy of history. Butit was not these older Hegelians or near-Hegelians who convertedthe young man to his new vision; it was a group ofnear-contemporaries, the Young Hegelians. These youngphilosophers had formed a little band of heretics who, though inmany respects beholden to the master, had moved away from histeachings. Through them Marx was initiated into the Hegelianworld system at the same time as he became a member of a group oficonoclasts who irreverently began to raise awkward and criticalquestions about major parts of the great man's synthesis.

The informal Doktorklub, of which Marx now became amember, was comprised of young marginal academics--a radical,somewhat antireligious, and more than slightly bohemian lot.Outstanding among them were the brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer,both radical and freethinking Hegelians of the Left, and MaxStirner, the later proponent of ultra-individualistic anarchism.Under the influence of these men Marx abandoned law and resolvedto devote himself to philosophy. He also became a"man-about-town," frequenting the advanced salons ofthe capital, as well as the beer cellars, where the YoungHegelians debated for hours on end the fine points of Hegeliandoctrine.

In these student years Marx saw himself as a future professorof philosophy. In fact, Bruno Bauer, who had recently beenappointed to the University of Bonn, promised that he would findhim a position there. But soon after this, Bauer himself wasdismissed for his antireligious, liberal views, and Marxabandoned forever his hope for an academic position. His studentdays came to an end with the submission to the University of Jenain 1841 of his thesis, On the Differences between the NaturalPhilosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. The dissertation was afairly traditional exercise, except for a flaming antireligiouspreface which, upon the advice of his friends, was not submittedto the academic authorities. Marx faced an uncertain future: hewas now twenty-three years of age, an amateur philosopher who hadmade a marked impression in advanced salons and bohemiangatherings, but had otherwise no prospects for a career.

It is no wonder that when an early admirer, the socialistfirebrand Moses Hess, asked him to become a regular writer forthe new liberal-radical and bourgeois paper Rheinische Zeitungin Cologne, he grasped the opportunity. He became itseditor-in-chief ten months later after writing a number ofoutstanding contributions. Back in his native Rhineland as aneditor of a leading radical publication, Marx for the first timebecame involved in the immediate practical battles of the day. Hewrote a series of articles on social conditions, among them, themisery of the Moselle vine-growing peasantry and the harshtreatment of the poor received for the theft of timber in foreststo which they thought they had a communal right. These articlesattracted considerable attention, and Marx began to be regardedas a leading radical publicist. But his editorship wasshort-lived. He had to battle with the censor continuously and touse all his ingenuity to get his thinly veiled democratic andrepublican propaganda past their scrutiny. When he acidlyportrayed the Russian government as the chief bulwark of reactionin Europe, his own government's tolerance gave out. The RussianEmperor Nicholas I, who happened to have read one of Marx'sattacks, complained to the Prussian ambassador, and consequentlythe Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed. The whole adventurehad lasted only half a year and Marx was again without aposition.

Soon afterward, in April 1843, he married his childhoodsweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen, to the dismay of most of herfamily who grumbled about the misalliance with a social inferior,indeed, one who had no standing whatever.

Following their marriage, the young couple stayed in BadKreuznach for several months. During those idyllic months ofhoneymoon and young love, Marx filled five large exercise bookswith extracts from nearly a hundred volumes of political andsocial history and theory, including Montesquieu's Spirit of theLaws and Rousseau's Social Contract. In November 1843, despairingof any hope to attain a position in the increasingly reactionaryatmosphere of Germany, Marx and his wife left for Paris.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 59-61.


Forward to"Parisian Days: Marx Becomes a Socialist"
Back to "Marx- The Person (Intro.)"
Back to the Index