By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels promised to bring a correct understanding of the Industrial Revolution and its implications for an age of dynamic transformation. What was it that they would work on, to describe the human society in a static way?
Marx’s Understanding of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution first roared to life in Great Britain. The world was being visibly and dramatically changed by science and technology, and this made Marx and Engels eager for a theory which would not just describe the human society in a static way, but instead would describe it as it changed, and predict where the future was headed. In a way, to understand the history that was not random and contingent, but rather had a larger meaning and a logic of its own.
Consequences of the Industrial Revolution
From the 18th through the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had consequences as profound as political revolutions. The process involved not only the growing industry and technology but also new ways of organizing work and disciplines, useful to the new factory environment. Its effects were uneven, beginning first in northwestern Europe, i.e., Britain, Belgium, France, then spreading through the European continent and to the United States, and then on to the rest of the world. As the so‐called workshop of the world, Britain was the first to take off industrially.
Industrialization had important consequences for society and politics, remaking physical landscapes in Europe and other parts of the globe, and disrupting traditional ways of life. Engineers were the new heroes of the age, and their triumphs were seen everywhere; the Crystal Palace in London, the Suez Canal, the American Transcontinental Railroad.
Learn more about the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Changed Social Order
Industrialization also changed the social order. The aristocracy and peasants were still around but less important. The new middle class, the bourgeoisie, arose in the cities and towns and also an industrial working class. At the extreme edge of survival, lived a class of miserable poor and unemployed, denounced as dangerous or criminal classes. The first stages of industrialization were wrenching, with intense exploitation of workers being forced into the new disciplines of factory work and its relentless pace of productivity.
In search of markets and resources, Europe’s powers engaged in overseas imperialism, which brought industrialization to other lands, wiping out Indian textiles, and forcing China to accept the trade-in opium so that Britain could buy tea. That was the second element of the Industrial Revolution.
German Philosophical Revolution
The third element was a German philosophical revolution. While France revolted and Britain industrialized, Germany was already famed for its profound scholarship, thought, and Romantic literature. Especially, the impact of the philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel was huge who proposed history with a direction and transcendent meaning. Hegel constructed a philosophy of idealism, saw ideas as primary causes in history, struggling to come into existence, with the ultimate aim of realizing human freedom.
Learn more about the revolutionary messages in the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
Hegel’s Dialectical Process
In Hegel’s scheme, a dialectical process as a dynamic series of clashes moved history forward. An existing social state called the thesis encountered opposing forces, the antithesis. The result of their collision was a new state, synthesis, a higher resolution of this earlier conflict. In that age of growing nationalism, Hegel tended to identify the Prussian state and Prussian bureaucracy with the realization of the ultimate principle of freedom. But some of his followers set off in other directions, which were radical rather than conservative. Other disciples of Hegel, called the Young Hegelians or Left Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, moved on to demolish Christianity with this argument of historical change.
Revolutionary Ideas of Marx and Engels
The ideas of two thinkers addressed elements of political revolution, industrialization, and philosophical transformation. The revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels rocked society and affected the lives of millions. Their intellectual partnership had been one of the most important relationships ever. In their partnership, Marx was the dominant personality.
There was a psychological key to understanding what Marx was about, who saw himself as a heroic martyr. Above all, Marx was a member of a new group that had appeared in society as intellectuals, proclaiming their devotion to ideas and humanity.
This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Knowing Karl Marx
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in western Germany in a Jewish family in Trier, a part of the kingdom of Prussia. His father was a successful lawyer and had converted to Christianity to escape the discrimination against Jews.
Marx fell in love with Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a baron, and was engaged. First attending the University of Bonn, on the Rhine River, he did a lot of drinking there, had some brawls, and even fought a duel. Then, pulling himself together, he transferred to Berlin University, where he breathed in deeply the great impact of Hegel’s philosophy.
Marx earned his doctorate in 1842, with a dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy, married Jenny von Westphalen, and was to become a professor. But because of his radicalism and atheism, Marx was unable to get a job. Also playing a role was his careless personal appearance, his sloppy writing, his inability to meet deadlines, his love of quarrels, and his personality that focused on dominating others around him. Marx turned to journalism, and by 1842 was editor of the radical Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Only months later, the paper was shut down at the insistence of the conservative Prussian government. In 1843, Marx and his family moved to Paris, the refuge of exiles and expatriates.
Learn more about the violent upheaval of the Paris Commune in 1871.
Who was Friedrich Engels?
Marx’s future partner, Friedrich Engels, was a total contrast. Born in 1820 in Barmen in the Rhineland, he came from a wealthy German commercial family of factory owners. He was an odd candidate to be a socialist, as his father was a fundamentalist, Christian.
But as he deepened his socialist beliefs, his father supported him. Engels was handsome, a people person, generous, productive, and lucid in his writing. He had a personality that drew others to him, very different from Marx’s abrasive qualities. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor said Engels had talent where Marx had genius.
Engels’ First Encounter With Marx
Like Marx, Engels attended the University of Berlin, and there converted to socialism. When Engels first came to see Marx while passing through Cologne in 1842, he met with a chilly reception. Engels moved to England, where he worked at the family factory in Manchester, observing the condition of the workers. In 1845, he published his book, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England.’ Engels did not marry but had a secret long‐term relationship with a working‐class Irishwoman, Mary Burns. When Engels met Marx for the second time in 1844 in Paris, they really hit it off and the two wrote out their ideas in ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ which they had finished drafting by 1847.
Common Questions about Communism
Marx-Engel’s theory, based on human society which is static, describes it as it changes, and predicts where the future was headed. The two wrote out their ideas in ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ which they had finished drafting by 1847.
Friedrich Engels was a close associate of Karl Marx, both their partnerships were one of the strongest in history.
In Hegel’s scheme, a dialectical process as a dynamic series of clashes moved history forward. A given existing social state called the thesis encountered opposing forces, the antithesis. The result of their collision was a new state, synthesis, a higher resolution of this earlier conflict. In that age of growing nationalism, Hegel tended to identify the Prussian state and Prussian bureaucracy with the realization of the ultimate principle of freedom.
The ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels addressed all the elements of political revolution, industrialization, and philosophical transformation. The revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels rocked society and affected the lives of millions. Their intellectual partnership had been one of the most important relationships ever.