Karl Marx I: The briefest sketch of my father’s life

✑ ELEANOR MARX | 2,747 words
‟I shall confine myself to a simple statement of facts. Of his striking personality [...] it is not for me to speak.

Immediately after Karl Marx's death in 1883, his daughter Eleanor took up the task of writing a short "biography of a great man", a task which is "doubly difficult when it falls to one who knew and loved him".

Eleanor Marx (full name: Jenny Julia Eleanor Marx) (16 January 1855 – 31 March 1898) was the English-born youngest daughter of Karl Marx and a socialist/feminist activist during her short life.

Originally published as “Karl Marx I” in Progress, May 1883, pp.288-294. Transcribed by Ted Crawford and republished on the Marxists Internet Archive. (Note by transcriber: Karl Marx had died on March 17, 1883). Hyperlinks added by SE.

There is no time perhaps so little fitted for writing the biography of a great man as that immediately after his death, and the task is doubly difficult when it falls to one who knew and loved him. It is impossible for me to do more at present than give the briefest sketch of my father’s life. I shall confine myself to a simple statement of facts, and I shall not even attempt an exposition of his great theories and discoveries; theories that are the very foundation of Modern Socialism — discoveries that are revolutionising the whole science of Political Economy. I hope, however, to give in a future number of Progress an analysis of my father’s chief work — “Das Kapital,” and of the truths set forth in it.
‟Loved and feared by his school-fellows — loved because he was always in mischief, and feared because of his readiness in writing satirical verse and lampooning his enemies.
Karl Marx was born at Trier, on May 1818, of Jewish parents. His father — a man of great talent — was a lawyer, strongly imbued with French eighteenth-century ideas of religion, science, and art; his mother was the descendant of Hungarian Jews, who in the seventeenth century settled in Holland. Amongst his earliest friends and playmates were Jenny — afterwards his wife — and Edgar von Westphalen. From their father, the Baron von Westphalen — himself half a Scot — Karl Marx imbibed his first love for the “Romantic” School, and while his father read him Voltaire and Racine, Westphalen read him Homer and Shakespere. These always remained his favorite writers. At once much loved and feared by his school-fellows — loved because he was always in mischief, and feared because of his readiness in writing satirical verse and lampooning his enemies, Karl Marx passed through the usual school routine, and then proceeded to the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, where, to please his father, he for a time studied law, and to please himself he studied history and philosophy. In 1842 he was about to habilitate himself at Bonn as “Privat Dozent,” but the political movement arisen in Germany since the death of Frederick William III. in 1840, threw him into another career. The chiefs of the Rhenish Liberals — Kamphausen and Hansemann — had founded the Rhenish Gazette at Cologne, with the co-operation of Marx, whose brilliant and bold criticism of the provincial Landtag created such a sensation, that, though only twenty-four years old, he was offered the chief editorship of the paper. He accepted it, and therewith began his long struggle with all despotisms, and with Prussian despotism in particular. Of course the paper appeared under the supervision of a censor — but the poor censor found himself powerless. The Gazette invariably published all important articles, and the censor could do nothing. Then a second, a “special” one was sent from Berlin, but even this double censorship proved of no avail, and finally in 1843 the government simply suppressed the paper altogether. In the same year, 1843, Marx had married his old friend and playfellow, to whom he had been engaged for seven years, Jenny von Westphalen, and with his young wife proceeded to Paris. Here, together with Arnold Ruge, he published the Deutsche Französische Jahrbücher, in which he began the long series of his socialist writings. His first contribution was a critique on Hegel’s “Rechts-philosophie;” the second, an essay on the “Jewish Question.” When the Jahrbücher ceased to appear, Marx contributed to the journal Votwärtz, of which he is usually said to have been the editor. As a matter of fact, the editorship of this paper to which Heine, Everbeck, Engels, etc., contributed, seems to have been carried on in a somewhat erratic manner, and a really responsible editor never existed. Marx’ next publication was the “Heilige Familie” written together with Engels, a satirical critique directed against Bruno Bauer and his school of Hegelian idealists.
‟The whole organisation of the league was changed by him; from a hole-and-corner conspiracy it was transformed into an organisation for the propaganda of Communist principles.
While devoting most of his time at this period to the study of Political Economy and of the French Revolution, Karl Marx continued to wage fierce war with the Prussian government, and as a consequence, this government demanded of M. Guizot — it is said through the agency of Alexander von Humboldt,who happened to be in Paris — Marx’ expulsion from France. With this demand Guizot bravely complied, and Marx had to leave Paris. He went to Brussels, and there in 1846 published, in French, a “Discours sur la libre échange.” Proudhon now published his “Contradictions Economiques ou Philosophie de la Misère,” and wrote to Marx that he awaited his “férule critique.” He did not wait long, for in 1847 Marx published his “ Misère de la Philosophie, reponse à la Philosophie de la Misère de M., Proudhon” and the “férule” was applied with a severity Proudhon had probably not bargained for. This same year Marx founded a German Working-Man’s Club at Brussels, and, what is of more importance, joined, together with his political friends, the “Communistic League,” The whole organisation of the league was changed by him; from a hole-and-corner conspiracy it was transformed into an organisation for the propaganda of Communist principles, and was only secret because existing circumstances made secrecy a necessity. Wherever German working-men’s clubs existed the league existed also, and it was the first socialist movement of an international character, Englishmen, Belgians, Hungarians, Poles, Scandinavians being members; it was the first organisation of the Social Democratic Party. In 1847 a Congress of the League was held in London, at which Marx and Engels assisted as delegates; and they were subsequently appointed to write the celebrated “Manifesto of the Communist Party” — first published just before the Revolution of 1848, and then translated into well nigh all European languages. This manifesto opens with a review of the existing conditions of society. It goes on to show how gradually the old feudal division of classes has disappeared, and how modern society is divided simply into two classes — that of the capitalists or bourgeois class, and that of the proletariat; of the expropriators and expropriated; of the bourgeois class possessing wealth and power and producing nothing, of the labor-class that produces wealth but possesses nothing. The bourgeoisie after using the proletariat to fight its political battles against feudalism, has used the power thus acquired to enslave the proletariat. To the charge that Communism aims at “abolishing property,” the manifesto replied that Communists aim only at abolishing the bourgeois system of property, by which already for nine-tenths or the Community property is abolished; to the accusation that Communists aim at “abolishing marriage and the family” the Manifesto answered by asking what kind of “family” and “marriage” were possible for the working men, for whom in all true meaning of the words neither exists. As to “abolishing father-land and nationality,” these are abolished for the proletariat, and, thanks to the development of industry, for the bourgeoisie also. The bourgeoisie has wrought great revolutions in history; it has revolutionised the whole system of production. Under its hands the steam-engine, the self-acting mule, the steam-hammer, the railways and ocean-steamers of our days were developed. But its most revolutionary production was the production of the proletariat, of a class whose very conditions of existence compel it to overthrow the whole actual society. The Manifesto ends with the words:

“Communists scorn to conceal their aims and views. They declare openly that their ends are only attainable through the violent overthrow of all existing conditions of society. Let the governing classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The Proletarians have nothing to lose by it but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

In the meantime Marx had continued in the Brüsseler Zeitung his attack on the Prussian government, and again the Prussian government demanded his expulsion — but in vain, until the February revolution caused a movement among the Belgian workmen, when Marx, without any ado, was expelled by the Belgian government. The provisional government of France had, however, through Flocon, invited him to return to Paris, and this invitation he accepted. In Paris he remained some time, till after the Revolution of March, 1848, when he returned to Cologne, and there founded the New Rhenish Gazette — the only paper representing the working class, and daring to defend the June insurgents of Paris. In vain did the various reactionary and Liberal papers denounce the Gazette for its licentious audacity in attacking all that is holy and defying all authority — and that, too, in a Prussian fortress! In vain did the authorities by virtue of the State of Siege suspend the paper for six weeks. It again appeared under the very eyes of the police, its reputation and circulation growing with the attacks made upon it. After the Prussian coup d'état of November, the Gazette, at the head of each number, called on the people to refuse the taxes, and to meet force by force. For this, and on account of certain articles, the paper was twice prosecuted — and acquitted. Finally after the May rising (1849) in Dresden, the Rhenish Provinces, and South Germany, the Gazette was forcibly suppressed. The last number — printed in red type — appeared on May 19th, 1849.

Marx now again returned to Paris, but a few weeks after the demonstration of June 13th, 1849, the French government gave him the choice of retiring to Brittany or leaving France. He preferred the latter, and went to London — where he continued to live for over thirty years. An attempt to bring out the New Rhenish Gazette in the form of a review, published at Hamburg, was not successful. Immediately after Napoleon’s coup d'état, Marx wrote his “18th Brumaire de Louis Bonaparte,” and in 1853 the “Revelations Concerning the Cologne Trial.” — in which he laid bare the infamous machinations of the Prussian government and police.

After the condemnation at Cologne of the members of the Communist League, Marx for a time retired from active political life, devoting himself to his economical studios at the British Museum, to contributing leading articles and correspondence to the New York Tribune, and to writing pamphlets and fly-sheets attacking the Palmerston régime, widely circulated at the time by David Urquhart.

The first fruits of his long, earnest studies in Political Economy appeared in 1859, in his “Kritik zur Politischer Economie” — a work which contains the first exposition of his Theory of Value.
‟While never being more than the Corresponding secretary for Germany and Russia, he was the leading spirit of all the general councils.
During the Italian war, Marx, in the German piper Das Volk, published in London, denounced the Bonapartism that hid itself under the guise of liberal sympathy for oppressed nationalities, and the Prussian policy that under the cloak of neutrality, merely sought to fish in troubled waters. On this occasion it became necessary to attack Carl Vogt, who in the pay of the “midnight assassin” was agitating for German neutrality, nay sympathy. Infamously and deliberately calumniated by Carl Vogt, Marx replied to him and other gentlemen of his ilk in “Herr Vogt,” 1860, in which he accused Vogt of being in Napoleon’s pay. Just ten years later, in 1870, this accusation was proved to be true. The French government of National Defence published a list of the Bonapartist hirelings and under the letter V appeared: Vogt, received August,1 1859, 10,000:francs.” In 1867 Marx published at Hamburg his chief work “Das Kapital,”2 to a consideration of which I shall return in the next number of Progress.

Meanwhile the condition of the working men’s movement had so far advanced that Karl Marx could think of executing a long-cherished plan — the establishment in all the more advanced countries of Europe and America of an International Working Men’s Association. A public meeting to express sympathy with Poland was held in April, 1864. This brought together the working men of various nationalities, and it was decided to found the International. This was done at a meeting (presided over by Professor Beesley) in St. James’ Hall on September 28, 1864. A provisional general council was elected, and Marx drew up the Inaugural Address and the Provisional Rules. In this address, after an appalling picture of the misery of the working classes, even in years of so-called commercial prosperity, he tells the working men of all countries to combine, and, as nearly twenty years before in the Communist Manifesto, he concluded with the words: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” The “Rules” stated the reasons for founding the International:


“That the emancipation of the working classes insist be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule;

“That the economical subjection of the man of labor to the monopoliser of the means of labor, that is, the sources of life, lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms of social misery, mental degradation, and political dependence;

“That the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means;

“That all efforts aiming at that great end have hitherto failed from the want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labor in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries;

“That the emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries

“That, the present revival of the working classes in the most industrious countries of Europe, while it raises a new hope, gives solemn warning against a relapse into the old errors, and calls for the immediate combination of the still disconnected movements


“The International Working Men’s Association has been founded.”

To give any account of Marx’ work in the International would be to write a history of the Association itself — for, while never being more than the Corresponding secretary for Germany and Russia, he was the leading spirit of all the general councils. With scarcely any exceptions the Addresses — from the Inaugural one to the last one on the “Civil War in France” — were written by him. In this last address Marx explained the real meaning of the Commune — “that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind.” In words as vigorous as beautiful he branded the corrupt government of “national defection that betrayed France into the hands of Prussia,” he denounced the government of such men as the forger Jules Favre, the usurer Perry, and the thrice infamous Thiers, “that monstrous gnome” the “political shoe-black of the Empire.” After contrasting the horrors perpetrated by the Versaillists and the heroic devotion of the Parisian working men, dying for the preservation of the very republic of which M. Perry is now Prime Minister, Marx concludes:

“Working men’s Paris with its Commune will be for ever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators’ history is already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.”

The fall of the Commune placed the International in an impossible position. It became necessary to remove the General Council from London to New York, and this, at Marx’ suggestion, was done by the Hague Congress in 1873. Since then the movement has taken another form; the continual intercourse between the proletarians of all countries — one of tho fruits of the International Association — has shown that, there no longer exists the necessity for a formal organisation. But whatever the form, the work is going on, must go on so long as the present conditions of society shall exist.

Since 1873 Marx had given himself up almost entirely to his work, though this had been retarded, for some years by ill-health. The M.S. of the second volume of his chief work will be edited by his oldest, truest, and dearest friend, Frederick Engels. There are other MSS., which may also be published.

I have confined myself in strictly historical and biographical details of the MAN. Of his striking personality, his immense erudition, his wit, humour, general kindliness and ever-ready sympathy it is not for me to speak. To sum up all -

“the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world, “This was a Man!”


1 “Vogt — il lui a été remis en Aout, 1859 ... 10,000 francs” is the literal text.

2  A second edition appeared in 1872, and a third is about to be published. Translations in French and Russian were made in the seventies, and condensations or extracts of the hook have appeared in most European languages.


”Karl Marx II: An Analysis of my Father’s Chief Work”, by Eleanor Marx (1883). An analysis of Marx's theory of value and profit, showing that profits can only result from the "surplus labor which the capitalist extracts from his workpeople, but for which he does not pay".

”On the Relevance of Marx’s Capital for Today”, by Andrew Kliman (2015), discussing the "many aspects of the book" that are "of special relevance today".