May 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, the most destructively influential writer on economics in world history. Below are five facts you should know about the German philosopher and co-author of The Communist Manifesto.
1. As a young man, he was prone to drunkenness and duels.
As a student at the University of Bonn, Marx was introduced to the philosophy of the late Berlin professor G.W.F. Hegel and joined the Young Hegelians, a group that held radical views on religion and society. At the time Marx was still rough and wild (while at school he was imprisoned for drunkenness and fought a duel with another student) but his association with the group helped to radicalize him and affected the trajectory of his life. Because of his extreme views on religion and politics and his association with the Young Hegelian, the government denied him an academic career and he had to settle for working as a journalist.
2. He was literally a man without a country.
Throughout the 1840s, Marx found himself a man without a country. He was run out of Prussia in 1842, expelled from France in 1845, rejected from Belgium in 1848, and was forced to leave Prussia—once again—in 1848. He then moved to England in 1849, but Britain denied him citizenship and Prussia refused to re-naturalize him. Marx even considered moving to the Republic of Texas in 1843, and applied to the mayor of Trier, his birthplace, for an immigration permit.
3. His wife once pawned his pants to buy food.
From the time he moved to England in early 1849 until the time of his death, Marx and his family lived in abject poverty. Within a year of arriving in London, he was kicked of his two-room apartment for failing to pay rent. For decades after he was forced to use a fake name to hide from creditors. On some days, Marx could not even leave his house because his wife Jenny had to pawn his pants to buy food. His friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, frequently sent Marx money (between 1865 and 1869 alone Engels gave Marx the equivalent of $36,000). In a letter written on his fiftieth birthday to Engels, Marx recalled his mother’s words: “if only Karl made capital instead of just writing about it.”
4. A fellow communist once plotted to kill him for being insufficiently radical
Soon after moving to London, Marx organized a British branch of the Communist League, the first Marxist political party. One especially vocal and radical member of the group was August Willich, a former Prussian military commander who had been court-martialed for being a Communist. Willich believed Marx was insufficiently revolutionary and reportedly plotted to kill him. At a League meeting Willich challenged Marx to a duel. Marx refused, but it led to the end of the League in England. (Willich later moved to the U.S. and became a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.)
5. He died broke and just 11 people attended his funeral.
In 1862, Marx wrote a letter to Engels saying, “A lousy life like this is not worth living.” He would, however, go on to live for another two decades. When he died he was broke and his influence was waning—only 11 people attended his funeral on March 17, 1883 (telegrams were also received from the French Workers’ Party (Paris Branch) and the Spanish Workers’ Party (Madrid Branch)). Marx’s work might have faded into obscurity had it not influenced a young Russian revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin. After reading Das Kapital, Lenin declared himself a Marxist seven years after Marx’s death. Lenin would go on to become founder of the Russian Communist Party, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, and architect and first head of the Soviet state.
This Acton Institute article was republished with permission.