By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
German philosopher Karl Marx is considered the father of communism. He believed in socialism and wrote theories on communism. Let’s explore the different aspects of a revolutionary’s life—a man whose ideology shaped our times and how he met Friedrich Engels, which was to become one of the strongest partnerships in history.
The Genius of Karl Marx
Karl Marx, was of average height and powerful build, with his fiery eyes with which one could tell at the first glance that, he was a man of genius and energy. His intellectual superiority exercised an irresistible force on his surroundings. Marx was a cynical, disorderly, often idle, but capable of great bursts of sustained work. The outsized personality of Marx would win people over.
The Marx-Engels Partnership
Along with his close comrade, Friedrich Engels, in one of the most famous intellectual partnerships in history, Marx brought different skills to bear on a project, very much grounded in its time and place, the development of the ideas of those men, and how they responded to and synthesized many contemporary concerns, including progress, science, evolution, materialism, and history.
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Elements of Communism
The context, out of which communism arose as a system of ideas, involved three different elements; French political revolution, British industrial revolution, and German philosophical evolution.
The French Revolution
From 1789, the French Revolution ushered in a new age in politics, the era of ideological mass politics. That revolution, its radicalism radiating from Paris, haunted socialist and communist thinkers afterward because they were headed in the right direction and then went wrong. It was a model for how to make a revolution and a cautionary tale. Its legacies were the quest for political utopia and political mass murder, then, turning into a dictatorship.
The French Revolution got steadily more radical after it erupted in Paris in 1789. First, revolutionaries broke with feudal privileges, to enshrine liberty, equality, and fraternity. Then radicals deposed the king, executed him, and suspecting treason against the revolution, they identified so‐called ‘enemies of the people’ and sent them to their deaths, in the Reign of Terror, from 1793–1794.
Learn more about why Marx never envisioned communism taking root in an agrarian society.
Construction of a New Society
A new society was under construction, with Christianity abolished and a new calendar created. Appeals to defend the Fatherland and patriotism showed the growth of nationalism. The revolutionary regime became so radical to arrest revolutionaries as insufficiently devoted. One of them declared, ‘The Revolution is a mother that eats her children’.
This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Ways of Napoleon Bonaparte
The radical leaders were arrested and replaced by a more conservative leadership, which was soon deposed by a young military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1799, Napoleon made himself dictator then emperor and presided over years of constant war in his bid to control Europe.
Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815. Many were still attached to utopian hopes of making a new society, sought peaceful, cooperative, voluntary means of association rather than force.
Turning away from revolutionary violence, such socialists, as they called themselves, hoped that their utopias could be realized without killing, but by demonstrating new forms of association. Those ideas enjoyed popularity and by 1835, the word ‘socialism’ had become current in Britain and France.
Further experiments followed in creating an ‘intentional community.’ Those included the model factories of Robert Owen, the Welsh manufacturer, and his settlement in the United States, New Harmony in Indiana, which only lasted for two years. The followers of the French thinker Henri de Saint‐Simon also dreamed of a cooperative society owning all wealth, tools, and land in common.
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Charles Fourier’s Phalanstery
Another French thinker, Charles Fourier, a clerk in Lyon, spent much time, dreaming up new principles of organizing people, who were essentially motivated by 12 main passions, announcing a plan for a new unit of society called the ‘Phalanstery,’ a blend of the phalanx, a classical Greek military formation, and monastery, to be set in an agricultural setting. The inhabitants would cycle through jobs, romantic partners, and in general, experience work as charming variety. Fourier was convinced that setting up even one of those phalansteries would be world-changing. He also believed that the oceans would turn to lemonade and lions and whales would be tamed and put to work, so as to spare human labor.
In France, some followers of Fourier tried to establish communities along the lines he envisioned, but in the New World, his experiment proliferated. In the 1840s and 1850s, nearly 30 Fourierist colonies were established in the United States. Among those who found Fourier’s ideas attractive was Pierre‐Joseph Proudhon, who denounced central control and organization and instead called for free communes that would be loosely associated, called ‘mutualist anarchism’. He declared that property was theft.
Age of Communal Experiments
An age of many communal experiments, where some preached and practiced, ‘free love’, breaking with traditional structures of marriage and family. Such communities proliferated in the United States, which earlier had religious communities, like the Shakers and Amish. In the 19th century, an estimated 178 socialist communities existed in the United States. Those experiments were usually short‐lived, but many sprang up and continued to do so. One famous hippie commune was ‘The Farm’, founded in 1971 in Summertown, in southern middle Tennessee, still going today with 200 members.
In describing their communism, Marx and Engels, later poured scorn on the ineffectiveness of the earlier socialists, deriding them as merely utopian, definitely not a compliment, although sometimes Marx and Engels were generous and admitted that it was at an early stage of the development of the truly revolutionary ideas.
Common Questions about Communism
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in western Germany. Marx earned his doctorate in 1842, with a dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy. Karl Marx is important because he was a strong supporter of communism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared similar ideas about socialism and communism and theirs was one of the most famous intellectual partnerships in history. Both brought different skills to bear on a project, very much grounded in its time and place, the development of the ideas including progress, science, evolution, materialism, and history.
French thinker, Charles Fourier, is known for dreaming up new principles of organizing people, announcing a plan for a new unit of society called the ‘Phalanstery,’ a blend of the phalanx, a classical Greek military formation, and monastery, to be set in an agricultural setting. He also believed that the oceans would turn to lemonade and lions and whales would be tamed and put to work, so as to spare human labor.
Charles Fourier, a French thinker, is from Lyon, France.