The Intellectual Development of Karl Marx

The first installment of Michael Heinrich’s three-volume biography of Karl Marx titled “Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society” is now available from Monthly Review Press. In keeping with MR’s long-time tradition as a movement rather than an academic press, the cloth edition is $34.95 and the eBook is only $19.95. Given the renewed attention to Karl Marx since the financial crisis of 2008, it will help us understand how his life and thought evolved. Heinrich is a consummate scholar of Marxism, best known until now for his 2012 “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital”, also available from MR.

At 384 pages, Heinrich’s first volume is almost as long as Francis Wheen’s 1999 “Karl Marx: a Life” that won the prestigious Isaac Deutscher award that year. Out of curiosity, I read the first 59 pages of Wheen that covers approximately the same time frame as Heinrich’s, namely from Marx’s birth in 1818 to the completion of his Ph.D. dissertation in 1841.

It must be said that Wheen is a very polished writer but I was struck by how it was written for people who wanted to read a good story rather than a rigorous examination of Marx’s early years. On Hegel’s dialectical method that influenced Marx as a college student, Wheen writes:

What is dialectic? As any schoolchild with a set of magnets —or, for that matter, any dating agency — will confirm, opposites can attract. If it were not so, the human race would be extinct. Female mates with male, and from their sweaty embrace a new creature emerges who will, eventually, repeat the process. Not always, of course, but often enough to ensure the survival and progress of the species. The dialectic performs much the same function for the human mind. An idea, stripped naked, has a passionate grapple with its antithesis, from which a synthesis is created; this in turn becomes the new thesis, to be duly seduced by a new demon lover.

As much as this prose sparkles, it is utter nonsense. Hegel never wrote about opposites attracting. To do justice to Marx’s intellectual development, you have to understand who Hegel was and how he fit into German society and politics in the early 1800s. To some extent, I have a head-start on this since I was a philosophy major in 1967, trying to stay out of the army. Unlike most American philosophy departments that were mired in logical positivism, the New School adhered to the continental tradition, which allowed me to take a course in Hegel and read his knotty and prolix “The Phenomenology of Mind”. While this was of some benefit, it did not help me understand how Hegel was a liberating philosopher of his time, especially for the Young Hegelians that included Karl Marx.

Heinrich makes the case that Hegel was not an apologist for the Prussian state, a charge leveled against him by some writers who have only a superficial understanding. Karl Marx studied at the University of Berlin, where Hegel was a highly respected lecturer. He influenced the students he taught as well as other professors who supported the movement toward democracy and basic human rights that would finally explode in the 1848 revolutionary movements across Europe. For this generation, the French Revolution was still a model even if Napoleon Bonaparte had trampled on its core values in the same way that Stalin did for a socialist revolution 120 years later.

To make sure that readers understand the Hegel-Marx connection in its totality, Heinrich writes—almost apologetically—that he will forgo a “rushed outline of Hegel’s philosophy” (like Wheen’s one-paragraph dating service metaphor) even if “engaging with Hegel is not very easy.” For some on the left, the image of Hegel as a pro-Junkers ideologue persists. For example, Antonio Negri called him the “philosopher of the bourgeois and capitalist organization of labor.” I should add that the late Jim Blaut, my old friend and critic of Eurocentrism, despised Hegel. Heinrich maintains that this hostility is based to a large degree on Hegel’s statement that “What is rational is actual, what is actual is rational”, a seeming endorsement of the status quo. In reality, this statement is much more of a stand against what is irrational in bourgeois society, including the denial of full citizenship to Jews. Heinrich Marx, Karl’s father, converted to Protestantism because that was the only way he could make a living as a lawyer, a profession that excluded Jews.

Despite Hegel’s reputation for impenetrable prose and political authoritarianism, Heinrich’s command of his entire corpus enables him to cite a few sentences from his earlier works that are not only crystal-clear but verge on anarchism:

First—I want to show that there is no idea of the state because the state is something mechanical, just as little as there is an idea of a machine. Only that which is the object of freedom is called idea. We must therefore go beyond the state!—Because every state must treat free human beings like mechanical works; and it should not do that; therefore it should cease. . . . At the same time I want to set forth the principles for a history of a human race here and expose the whole miserable human work of state, constitution, government, legislature—down to the skin.

While Hegel was the most highly regarded proponent of Enlightenment values at the U. of Berlin, the professor who had the biggest impact on his intellectual development was Eduard Gans, a fellow Jewish convert to Protestantism. Gans took over Hegel’s lecture course on jurisprudence in 1827 and went much further in his espousal of democratic rights. In 1831, Gans visited England and wrote upon his return about the terrible conditions he saw there. “Just as previously master and slave, later the patrician and plebeian, then the feudal lord and vassal confronted one another, now the idle one and the worker do. One visits the factories of England, and hundreds of men and women who are emaciated and miserable, who sacrifice their health, their enjoyment of life in the service of another merely in order to maintain themselves in this impoverished condition. Is that not called slavery, when one exploits a human being like an animal, even when he would otherwise be free to die of hunger?”

Is it possible that these words could have been lingering in Marx’s memory when he wrote this in the Communist Manifesto? “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

In addition to his words, Gans was an activist for democratic rights and raised money for the defense of leftwing professors who had been victimized for exercising their academic freedom. For Hegel and his followers, including Marx, it is plausible that they did not give up on the ideals of 1789 even though they had been cast aside after Napoleon’s seizure of power. For all those who despair of the difficulties of making a socialist revolution today, we should find inspiration in the democratic revolutionaries of Karl Marx’s young manhood who never gave up striving for a better world. It was Marx’s development of a socialism based on historical materialism that kept alive the possibility of achieving personal freedom and social justice in one single stroke.

Besides Gans, the other major influence on Marx’s intellectual development was Bruno Bauer, who was much more of a partner than a mentor. A Young Hegelian with a strong leftist bent, Bauer had taken Feuerbach’s insights to the extreme. Feuerbach believed that our concept of God is a projection of our inner strivings for universalism. If the conflict was between philosophy and religion for Feuerbach, it became one between the church hierarchy and science for Baer. He became an outspoken atheist and a debunker of miracles.

When Bauer came to these iconoclastic views, Marx had come to the same conclusions between 1836 and 1837, when he was 18 years old. Between 1840 and 1842, Marx had considered the possibility of writing a five-volume work on the philosophy of religion. Even though the industrial revolution was in full gear by then, most philosophers were still connected to religion through an umbilical cord reinforced by both Catholic and Protestant officialdom that expected intellectuals to toe the line. By the 1890s, the umbilical cord had been cut. However, we should never forget the power it had over leftist intellectuals in the earlier part of the century, including Karl Marx.

Between 1837 and 1842, Bruno Bauer was Marx’s best friend. Later on, he would break with both Feuerbach and Bauer, who had never moved outside of the academic and philosophical world that was obsessed with godhood, immortality and other metaphysical concerns. In 1844, Marx and Engels wrote “The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company” in their customary, no-holds-barred fashion, so dramatically recreated in Raul Peck’s masterpiece “The Young Karl Marx”. The introduction reminds me of how relieved I felt about dropping out of grad school in 1967 and devoting myself to socialist revolution, just as Marx had done 130 years earlier:

Real humanism has no more dangerous enemy in Germany than spiritualism or speculative idealism, which substitutes “self-consciousness” or the “spirit” for the real individual man and with the evangelist teaches: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” Needless to say, this incorporeal spirit is spiritual only in its imagination. What we are combating in Bauer’s criticism is precisely speculation reproducing itself as a caricature. We see in it the most complete expression of the Christian-Germanic principle, which makes its last effort by transforming “criticism” itself into a transcendent power.

Reading this makes me hunger for volume two of Heinrich’s biography. There’s a lot that’s obscure in “The Holy Family,” but I am sure that the good professor will make it transparently clear. Stay tuned for my review of volume 2 as soon as MR releases it.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.