Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in the German city of Trier. His family was Jewish, but later converted to Protestantism in 1824 in order to avoid anti-semitic laws and persecution. For this reason among others, Marx rejected religion early on in his youth and made it absolutely clear that he was an atheist.
Marx studied philosophy at Bonn and then later Berlin, where he came under the sway of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel. Hegel’s philosophy had a decisive influence upon Marx’s own thinking and later theories. Hegel was a complicated philosopher, but it is possible to draw a rough outline for our purposes.
Hegel was what is known as an “idealist” — according to him, mental things (ideas, concepts) are fundamental to the world, not matter. Material things are merely expressions of ideas — in particular, of an underlying “Universal Spirit” or “Absolute Idea.”
Marx joined the “Young Hegelians” (with Bruno Bauer and others) who were not simply disciples, but also critics of Hegel. Although they agreed that the division between mind and matter was the fundamental philosophical issue, they argued that it was matter which was fundamental and that ideas were simply expressions of material necessity. This idea that what is fundamentally real about the world is not ideas and concepts but material forces is the basic anchor upon which all of Marx’s later ideas depend.
Two important ideas which developed bear mentioning here: First, that economic realities are the determining factor for all human behavior; and second, that all of human history is that of class struggle between those who own things and those who do not own things but must instead work to survive. This is the context in which all human social institutions develop, including religion.
After graduating from university, Marx moved to Bonn, hoping to become a professor, but the policies of the government made Marx abandon the idea of an academic career after Ludwig Feuerbach had been deprived of his chair in 1832 (and who was not allowed to return to the university in 1836. In 1841 the government had forbade the young Professor Bruno Bauer to lecture at Bonn. Early in 1842, radicals in the Rhineland (Cologne), who were in touch with the Left Hegelians, founded a paper in opposition to the Prussian government, called the Rheinische Zeitung. Marx and Bruno Bauer were invited to be the chief contributors, and in October 1842 Marx became editor-in-chief and moved from Bonn to Cologne. Journalism was to become a chief occupation of Marx for much of his life.
After the failure of various revolutionary movements on the continent, Marx was forced to go to London in 1849. It should be noted that through most of his life, Marx did not work alone — he had the help of Friedrich Engels who had, on his own, developed a very similar theory of economic determinism. The two were of like mind and worked exceptionally well together — Marx was the better philosopher while Engels was the better communicator.
Although the ideas later acquired the term “Marxism,” it must always be remembered that Marx did not come up with them entirely on his own. Engels was also important to Marx in a financial sense — poverty weighed heavily on Marx and his family; had it not been for Engels’ constant and selfless financial aid, Marx would not only have been unable to complete most of his major works, but might have succumbed to hunger and malnutrition.
Marx wrote and studied constantly, but ill-health prevented him from completing the last two volumes of Capital (which Engels subsequently put together from Marx’s notes). Marx’s wife died on December 2, 1881, and on March 14, 1883, Marx passed away peacefully in his armchair. He lies buried next to his wife at Highgate Cemetery in London.