Karl Marx

The Person

Karl Marx, the eldest son of Heinrich and Henrietta Marx, wasborn on May 5, 1818 in the Rhenish city of Trier, where hisfather practiced law and later rose to become head of the bar.Both his mother and father came from long lines of rabbis,Heinrich's in the Rhineland and Henrietta's in Holland.52

Marx's father, the first in his line to receive a seculareducation, had broken with the world of the ghetto and had becomea disciple of the Enlightenment--of Leibniz and Voltaire, of Kantand Lessing. His native Trier had once been the seat of aPrince-Archbishop, but early in the century it had been occupiedby the French and incorporated by Napoleon in the Confederationof the Rhine. Under the French regime, the Jews, who had sufferedfrom grievous civil disabilities earlier, achieved equal rightsas citizens. The doors of trades and professions hitherto closedto them were now open. Since the Jews of the Rhineland owed theiremancipation to the Napoleonic regime, they supported it withardor. They faced a major crisis, however, when, after Napoleon'sdefeat, the Rhineland was assigned by the Congress of Vienna toPrussia, where Jews were still deprived of their civil rights.Threatened with the loss of his legal practice, Marx's fatherdecided in 1817 to convert to the mildly liberal Lutheran Churchof Prussia. Being a vague deist and having had no contacts withthe synagogue, he regarded conversion as an act of expediencywithout great moral significance.

The young Marx grew up in a bourgeois household where tensionsstemming from its minority status were at best subjacent. Hismother, a fairly uneducated woman who never learned to writecorrect German or to speak it without an accent, does not seem tohave had a major influence on him. In contrast, relations withhis father, despite some strain, remained close almost throughoutthe latter's life. He introduced the young Marx to the world ofhuman learning and letters--to the great figures of theEnlightenment and to the Greek and German classics. Although Marxwas early repelled by his father's subservience to governmentalauthority and the high and mighty, the intellectual bonds thathad been created between father and son began to be severed onlyin the last year of the father's life, when the son became aYoung Hegelian rebel at Berlin University.

The young Marx was fortunate to have another role modelbesides his father, the Freiherr Ludwig von Westphalen, anext-door neighbor. Westphalen, though socially his superior,enjoyed cordial relations with Marx's father: they were both atleast nominal Protestants in a largely Catholic city, and theyshared an admiration for the Enlightenment and for liberal ideas.An uncommonly cultivated man, Westphalen spoke several languages,knew Homer by heart, and was exceedingly well read in ancient andmodern philosophy and literature. He soon found himself attractedto his neighbor's son; he encouraged him, lent him books, andtook him on long walks during which he talked to him aboutShakespeare and Cervantes and also about the new socialdoctrines, especially that of the Saint-Simonians, which hadlately created such a stir in Paris. The bond between the two wasclose, and the distinguished upper-class Prussian governmentofficial became the spiritual mentor of the future leader ofproletarian socialism.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 58-59.

ENDNOTES

  1. This section is based in the main on standard biographies among which Franz Mehring's classic, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, trans. By Edward Fitzgerald, new ed. (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1967), is still most helpful, though it is superseded in much detail by later work. E. H. Carr's Karl Marx, A Study in Fanaticism (London, Dent, 1934) has much new detail not available to Mehring, and counterposes a very sceptical view to Mehring's worshipful attitude. Isaiah Berlin's Karl Marx, His Life and Environment, 2nd ed. (New York, Oxford Press, 1948) is by far the best short study in English or in any other language. I have relied on it heavily here. Nothing that has appeared since (and there have been whole shelves of books written on Marx since the forties) overshadows it.


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