Skip to content

Karl Marx and ‘Marxism’


Karl Marx and ‘Marxism’

Bill Bowring

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on 5 May 1818 at 664 Brückergasse in Trier, a town located in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia’s Province of the Lower Rhine. You can visit the house to this day; it is under the protection of the German SPD. His father was a successful lawyer, descended from a family which produced the rabbis of Trier from 1734, but who converted to Lutheranism before Marx’s birth. Karl’s mother was from a Dutch Jewish family. In 1836, Marx became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, a princess of the Prussian ruling class, and married her in June 1843. From 1836, he became fascinated by Hegel’s philosophy, and was associated with the “Left Hegelians”, in their critique of religion and the ancien régime. He studied law in Bonn and Berlin, but his doctoral thesis was on philosophy. His thesis, “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”, was finished in 1841, and he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jena.

Marx did not follow an academic career. Instead, he became a journalist and political activist. In 1842 he moved to Cologne and began writing for the radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. Due in part to his increasingly revolutionary writing, the paper was closed by the government in 1843, the same year that he wrote On the Jewish Question (of which more below) published in February 1844 in the socialist Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. He was then 25 years old. Having been obliged to move to Paris, Marx met Friedrich Engels, his lifelong friend, colleague and benefactor, in August 1844. Their joint work, the Communist Manifesto was published in the “year of revolutions”, 1848. Marx moved to London in May 1849, and remained there until his death on 14 March 1883 at the age of 64, devoting himself to research and writing, and intense political activity. His field of study and analysis was the critique of political economy. Very few of his works were published in his lifetime. Despite the support of Engels, he lived for the most part in poverty, and of seven children only three daughters survived to adulthood, Eleanor, Jenny and Laura, all revolutionaries. A maximum of 11 people came to his funeral. Somehow, he has not been forgotten.

Marx did not write any work of philosophy, although he may at one time have intended to do so. Unlike Hegel, he did not leave behind a system. Far less did he write systematically on law, ethics, or morality. Instead, his intellectual life was devoted to uncompromising critique, in particular the immanent critique, critique from the inside, of the work of the great Scottish and English political economists, Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Marx was especially excited by Ricardo’s labour theory of value, the corner-stone of Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), published the year before Marx’ birth. Marx radicalised Ricardo’s insight, and the resulting “critique of political economy”, Volume One of which was the only major work published in his lifetime, is rightly named Capital.

For Marx, ‘capital’ and, indeed ‘capitalism’ – are the names of the system driven by capital’s unceasing urge to valorise itself, in which every social relationship, every intellectual creation, and every human appropriation of the material world is reducible to money. Marx’ analysis and critique have lost none of their acuity, and there is unanimous agreement that today we live in the interstices of universal capitalism.

Marx’s writing is full of outrage at the ruthless exploitation and oppression inherent in the capital’s alienation from human beings of the enjoyment of the products of their labour, in the bizarre abstract, dehumanised world of the circulation of commodities and money. But this fury is based not on a moralistic stance or condemnation of evil, but on the denial to human beings of the full realisation of their human potential in society, their species being. There is no transcendence in Marx’s critique, not even redemption.

Marx and Spinoza

That is because Marx was a thorough-going materialist. It should be no surprise that in 1841, as he completed his doctoral thesis, and shortly before he wrote On the Jewish Question, Marx made a close reading of the work of the great Jewish rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), in particular his Theological-Political Treatise, transcribing extensive passages in the original Latin and German translation. Yovel points out (p.79) that “Spinoza is almost always present in Marx’s thought. But, we may add, the actual presence of Spinoza in Marx far surpasses his direct mention by name.” By the way, Yovel makes an heroic but unsuccessful attempt to read religion back into Marx. But in the passage cited he is quite right.

Spinoza radicalised rationalism, determinism, and the principle of sufficient reason, on the basis of a conception of the human being in which “Every man exists by sovereign natural right, and, consequently, by sovereign natural right performs those actions which follow from the necessity of his own nature…” (Ethics, Prop. XXXVII Note II). As does everything in nature. For Spinoza, the most ruthless of all materialists, there is no good or evil in the world (or transcendence or divine intervention): “In the state of nature, therefore, sin is inconceivable; it can only exist in a state, where good and evil are pronounced on by common consent… Sin, then, is nothing but disobedience, which is therefore punished by the right of the State only.” He declares (Prop LXVIII) that “If men were born free, they would, so long as they remained free, form no conception of good and evil”; but (Prop. LXXIII) “The man, who is guided by reason, is more free in a State, where he lives under a general system of law, than in solitude, where he is independent.” This is explained further in the Proof of that Proposition, as follows: “Therefore, the free man, in order to enjoy greater freedom, desires to possess the general rights of citizenship.”

This thought is also to be found in the Theological-Political Treatise which Marx so painstakingly transcribed. In Chapter XVI, entitled “Of the Foundations of a State; Of the Natural and Civil Rights of Individuals; And of the Rights of Sovereign Power”, Spinoza reminds us that

“… the right and ordinance of nature, under which all men are born, and under which they mostly live, only prohibits such things as no one desires and no one can attain: it does not forbid strife, nor hatred, nor deceit, nor, indeed, any of the means suggested by desire.”

This we need not wonder at, for nature is not bounded by the laws of human reason, which aims only at man’s true benefit and preservation; her limits are infinitely wider, and have reference to the eternal order of nature, wherein man is but a speck…”

This is nature which is infinite and eternal, without purpose or teleology save its own deterministic laws which are for the most part necessarily inscrutable to humans, and in which sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of the eternal, humans are less than significant. Humans are nothing whatsoever except to themselves. Thus, with absolutely rigorous logic, Spinoza holds that there is no justice or injustice in nature or in the natural behaviour of humans:

“Wrong is conceivable only in an organised community… It can only arise… between private persons, who are bound by law and right not to injure one another. Justice consists in the habitual rendering to every man his lawful due: injustice consists in depriving a man, under the pretence of legality, of what the laws, rightly interpreted, would allow him. These last are also called equity and inequity, because those who administer the laws are bound to show no respect of persons, but to account all men equal, and to defend every man’s right equally, neither envying the rich or despising the poor.”

That is, nature is indifferent to exploitation, and the natural actions of humans naturally seeking to do everything possible to them cannot be described as good or evil in any sense other than that given in organised society. Capital, and capitalism, are human creations, in no sense necessary parts of the natural order, that is, are quite unlike volcanoes, tsunamis, stellar explosions or super-massive black holes. The injustice of capitalism on a Spinozist account is precisely human activity which has, as with the sorcerer’s apprentice, taken on an inhuman, vampiric character, in the process de-humanising human beings in the process.

Spinoza, like Marx, did not prescribe or describe any kind of Utopia, communist or otherwise. Neither of them have any pretension to utopianism. Their ambition is that human beings should be freed to live productively in society, to be truly human.

In Chapter XX Spinoza writes

“… the ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself and others… in fact, the true aim of government is liberty.”

Indeed, Chapter XX is headed “That in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks”.

In this, Spinoza was not only far ahead of his time; his concept of democracy was radicalised far beyond the limits of liberalism.

On the Jewish Question

It is in this light that On the Jewish Question should be approached.

The first line of this text is: “The German Jews desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation.”

Jay Bernstein has given one of the most nuanced and perceptive readings of this text. Another, from a liberal perspective, is to be found in Jeremy Waldron’s Nonsense Upon Stilts, which also provides the text. In this work the young Marx engaged with the rights set out in the French Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789, and the Constitutions of 1793 and 1795; as well as the revolutionary documents of the American war of independence.

Bernstein correctly points out (p.92) that this work is “… usually read as an attack on the discourse of rights. Such readings are at least partial if not altogether false.” What such readers miss (p.99) “is that its complex dialectical argument deploys two senses of ground or foundation: a sense in which civil society represents the real ground or foundation of society as a whole, and a sense in which the state is the ground or foundation, not the mere ideological front, for civil society.”

Marx has a strong conception of the “species being” of the human, of the life of the human being in community with others. In this sense, Marx is a communitarian. Marx wrote, in answer to the question posed at the start:

“The perfected political state is by its nature the species-life of man in opposition to his material life. All the presuppositions of this egoistic life [ie material life – BB] continue to exist outside the sphere of the state in civil society, but as qualities of civil society… He lives in the political community where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, regards other men as means, debases himself to a means and becomes a plaything of alien powers…”


“The rights of man are partly political rights, rights which are only exercised in community with others. What constitutes their content in participation in community, in the political community or state. They come under the category of political freedom, of civil rights…”

It is on this basis that Marx noted the fact “that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil society – i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.” And Marx focuses quite correctly on the least political right, the right to private property:

“But, the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property. What constitutes man’s right to private property? The right of man to private property is… the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it.”

That is, the opposite of the purpose of communal living in the state as conceived by Spinoza and by Marx. Marx concludes:

“None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-like itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.”

Marx returned to the question of rights much later in his life, in 1875, in a polemical critique of the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany, known as the Gotha programme. It was published in 1890, after Marx’s death. The draft declared that once the instruments of labour had been converted into common property, there would be a “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour” on the basis that “the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”. Marx pours scorn on such a notion of “equality”. Humans are not equal.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour… one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal. ”

Marx then attempted one of his very few descriptions of what communist society would be like, ending with a famous slogan:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

But this is not exactly an analysis of human rights. But it could be described as Utopian.

Marx and ‘generations of rights’

The rights of man to which Marx refers in On the Jewish Question were the “first generation” of human rights, the civil and political rights, which together with the right to private property, have temporal and geographical origins: they sprang directly from the French Revolution in 1789, and the American Revolution of the same period. Marx’ critique of these “first generation” rights, properly understood, was and remains incisive, indeed definitive.

What Marx could not anticipate was the increasing importance, as a direct result of political events and struggles, of the “second” and “third” generations, namely social and economic rights, and peoples’ rights.

The temporality of the recognition in international law of the “second generation” of human rights, social and economic rights, as human rights can also be located very accurately. These rights achieved the status of legal rights, and, most important, became available as instruments of legitimation and struggle, as a direct consequences of the events of 1917, more specifically in the creation of the International Labour Organisation in 1919. The ILO remains the most important source and mechanism for protection of social and economic rights. These rights have recently become much more concrete, in the context of the collapse of the USSR, by way of the Council of Europe’s 1996 Revised Social Charter, which came into force in 1999, with its mechanism for collective complaints, by Trade Unions and NGOs, to the European Committee of Social Rights.

The “third generation” – the peoples’ rights to self-determination, to development, to a clean environment, to peace – were recognised as rights in international law following the colonial struggles of the 1960s, specifically with the coming into force of the two great UN Covenants on Human Rights in 1976. They have lost none of their relevance in the context of continuing cruel injustice of the global economy.

Marx and self-determination

Self-determination and anti-colonial struggle were also central to Marx’s project from the 1850s onwards, and in this regard he would have found himself in tune with contemporary notions of human rights.

First of all, Marx, having opposed Irish independence, became a firm supporter. In his letter to Engels on 2 November 1867 Marx wrote:

“The Fenian trial in Manchester was exactly as was to be expected. You will have seen what a scandal ‘our people’ have caused in the Reform League. I sought by every means at my disposal to incite the English workers to demonstrate in favour of Fenianism…. I once believed the separation of Ireland from England to be impossible. I now regard it as inevitable, although Federation may follow upon separation.”

The trial in question was that of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ – William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien – who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The men were executed after having been found guilty of the murder of a police officer during an escape that took place close to Manchester city centre in1867. That is, Marx was, in the words of the contemporary UK Terrorism Act 2006, ‘glorifying terrorism’, and terrorism committed by bourgeois nationalists at that. He would now face a stiff sentence.

Marx himself used the term ‘self-determination’ on at least two occasions, in a political rather than a philosophical context. In his letter of 20 November 1865 to Hermann Jung, Marx referred, under the heading ‘International Politics’, to ‘The need to eliminate Muscovite influence in Europe by applying the right of self-determination of nations, and the re-establishment of Poland upon a democratic and social basis.’ Furthermore, in a speech on Poland delivered on 24 March 1875, he declared:

What are the reasons for this special interest of the workers’ party in the fate of Poland? First of all, of course, sympathy for a subjugated people which, with its incessant and heroic struggle against its oppressors, has proven its historic right to national autonomy and self-determination. It is not in the least a contradiction that the international workers’ party strives for the creation of the Polish nation.

August Nimtz shows how Marx and Engels gave support to religious-led Arab resistance to French imperialism in Algeria in 1857; expressed strong sympathy for the Sepoy Mutiny against Britain in India in 1857-9; and by 1861 wrote, as the US Civil War loomed, that US expansion into Texas and what is now Arizona and New Mexico, brought with it slavery and the rule of the slaveholders. At the same time, they were quite clear that the ‘booty of British imperialism’ had begun to corrupt and compromise the English proletariat. Pranav Jani focuses on Marx’s response to the 1857 revolt in British India. He explains that Marx was transformed from a ‘mere observer’ of the anti-colonial struggle to an active participant in the ideological struggle over the meaning of the Revolt. This enabled him also to refute racist representations of Indian violence in the British press ‘by drawing a sharp division between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressor and dialectically linking the two.’ Jani concludes that if Eurocentrism makes Western Europe the centre of the globe, then the Marx he presents is not Eurocentric. (p.82-3)


Karl Marx On the Jewish Question, pp.146-174 at


Karl Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme at

There are two excellent biographies:

Francis Wheen Karl Marx Fourth Estate, 2010

David McLellan Karl Marx  Palgrave McMillan, 4th ed 2006

And the best short introduction to Marx’s thought:

Etienne Balibar The Philosophy of Marx Verso, 2007

For a contemporary set of assessments of Marx’ philosophy:

Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor (eds) The Philosophy of Karl Marx Palgrave MacMillan, 2009



Kenneth Baynes “Rights as Critique and the Critique of Rights: Karl Marx, Wendy Brown, and the Social Function of Rights” Political Theory  Vol. 28, No. 4 2000, pp. 451-468

Jay Bernstein  “Right, revolution and community: Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’’, in Peter Osborne (ed.), Socialism and the Limits of Liberalism, London: Verso, 1991.

Bill Bowring “Misunderstanding MacIntyre on Human Rights” in Kelvin Knight and Paul Blackledge (eds) Revolutionary Aristotelianism: Ethics, Resistance and Utopia, special issue of Analyse & Kritik, (2008), v.30 n.1, pp.205-214

Hugh Collins Marxism and Law Oxford, 1982

Bob Fine Democracy and the Rule of Law Blackburn Press, 2002, ch.2 ‘Marx’s critique of classical jurisprudence’ pp. 66‐85 and ch.4 ‘Law, state and capital’ pp. 95‐121

Prinav Jani “Karl Marx, Eurocentrism, and the 1857 Revolt in British India” in Bartolovich, Crystal and Neil Lazarus Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.81-100

Philip J. Kain Marx and Ethics Oxford:Clarendon Press 1991

August Nimtz, ‘The Eurocentric Marx and Engels and other related myths’ in Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.65-80

Jeremy Waldron Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man Routledge, 1987

Yirmiyahu Yovel Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence Princeton, 1992; especially Chapter 4 “Spinoza and Marx: Man-in-Nature and the Science of Redemption”, pp.78-103



From → My posts

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Кампанія Солідарності з Україною

The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign seeks to organise solidarity and provide information in support of the Ukrainian labour movement

Splits and Fusions

An archive of Trotskyist, Left-Communist, Communist and related publications

Rights in Russia

Providing information about human rights in Russia since 2010

Joan Twelves

Joan's occasional rants and musings

Michael Roberts Blog

blogging from a marxist economist

Adrian Berry

Barrister, Migration and Citizenship Consultant


Migration, Citizenship, and Free Movement

Lamp and Owl

The digital home of the Birkbeck Student Magazine

Your Death, Your Choice

We believe that your life is your own. With this comes the right to choose when, and how, to die. Join us in changing the law.

Legal Form

A Forum for Marxist Analysis and Critique


Information on The Bolivarian Alliance


International Law and International Legal Thought

Henry Brooke

Musings, Memories and Miscellanea

%d bloggers like this: