Marx was a genius . . . the rest of us were talented at best.
Karl Marx (1818--1883)
The ideas of Karl Marx had a larger impact on the twentieth century than those of virtually any other social philosopher, indelibly marking several academic disciplines including philosophy, psychology, history, and economics. Nevertheless, his major work, Das Kapital, must be seen for what he meant it to be, a critique of capitalism. Although Marx's was clearly the dominant contribution, virtually all his work was done in collaboration with his friend, Friedrich Engels. Curiously, Engels lived comfortably on his income from owning and managing a factory.
Scholars disagree on the extent to which events in Marx's life colored his thoughts on society, but two characteristics of his personality and experience are prominent. One is that adversity often came his way. For example, although Marx earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Jena, no university would hire him. His inflammatory rhetoric and alliances with radicals deprived him of a stable income and led to his expulsion from Germany. Exile was to play an important role in his life. Later, Marx was also expelled by the governments of Belgium and France.
His family finally settled in England, which was far too tolerant of individual freedom to expel him. Marx sporadically eked out a living as a journalist, serving a short stint as a foreign correspondent to the New York Herald-Tribune. (Would the course of history have been altered if the newspaper had ever given him a raise?) Had it not been for occasional doles from Engels, the entire Marx household might have starved. As it was, they were destitute.
Another aspect of Marx's personality was ambivalence, which may have originated with his parents' conversion to Christianity from Judaism, more for social convenience than from conviction. During adulthood, his dual commitments to political action and scholarly understanding were often in conflict. Marx's scholarly passions frequently interfered with his political activism, while his political zeal crept into his writing. Consequently, partisan outbursts and scathing condemnations of class interests permeated all his scholarly works.
Despite his internal turmoil, or perhaps because of it, Marx left a lasting mark on the world. His ambitious attempt to synthesize all social knowledge since Aristotle was intended to extend understanding of the conditions of human development so that the movement to higher stages of development might be accelerated. His vision of this ultimate society, dimly sketched, was that of a communist system based on rational planning, cooperative production, and equality of distribution. Above all, it was to be a society freed from all political and bureaucratic hierarchies.
Those societies we now call Marxist score very poorly on this last point, but for Marx the "withering away of the state" was critical. Perhaps the tendency of his followers to compromise on this matter was what may have led Marx to allegedly declare on his deathbed, "I am not a Marxist."