Marx’s impact can only be compared with that of religious figures
like Jesus or Muhammad. For much of the second half of the
twentieth century, nearly four of of every ten people on earth
lived under governments that considered themselves Marxist and
claimed – however implausibly – to use Marxist principles to decide
how the nation should be run. In these countries Marx was a kind
of secular Jesus; his writings were the ultimate source of truth and
authority; his image was everywhere reverently displayed. The
lives of hundreds of millions of people have been deeply affected
by Marx’s legacy.
Nor has Marx’s influence been limited to communist societies.
Conservative governments have ushered in social reforms to cut the
ground from under revolutionary Marxist opposition movements.
Conservatives have also reacted in less benign ways: Mussolini and
Hitler were helped to power by conservatives who saw their rabid
nationalism as the answer to the Marxist threat. And even when there
was no threat of an internal revolution, the existence of a foreign
Marxist enemy served to justify governments in increasing arms
spending and restricting individual rights in the name of national
On the level of thought rather than practical politics, Marx’s
contribution is equally evident. Can anyone now think about society
without reference to Marx’s insights into the links between economic
and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology,
transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy,
literature, and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very
loose sense – we are all Marxists now.
What were the ideas that had such far-reaching effects? That is the
subject of this book. But first, a little about the man who had these
Karl Marx was born in Trier, in the German Rhineland, in 1818. His
parents, Heinrich and Henrietta, were of Jewish origin but became
nominally Protestant in order to make life easier for Heinrich to
practise law. The family was comfortably off without being really
wealthy; they held liberal, but not radical, views on religion and
Marx’s intellectual career began badly when, at the age of seventeen,
he went to study law at the University of Bonn. Within a year he had
been imprisoned for drunkenness and slightly wounded in a duel. He
also wrote love poems to his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von
Westphalen. His father had soon had enough of this ‘wild rampaging’
as he called it, and decided that Karl should transfer to the more
serious University of Berlin.
In Berlin Marx’s interests became more intellectual, and his studies
turned from law to philosophy. This did not impress his father:
‘degeneration in a learned dressing-gown with uncombed hair has
replaced degeneration with a beer glass’ he wrote in a reproving letter
(MC 33). It was, however, the death rather than the reproaches of his
father that forced Marx to think seriously about a career – for without
his father’s income the family could not afford to support him.