Happy Birthday Karl Marx

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | May 5, 2018 0

Happy 200th Birthday to Karl Marx who was born #OTD in Trier (Trevorum Augustorum) in the Prussian Rhineland and lived in London from 1849 until the end of his life.

In 1848 along with Friedrich Engels he published The Communist Manifesto which had its public launch in English to an audience of largely Irish Trade Unionists at a workingman’s club at the corner of Endell Street and Long Acre in Covent Garden, London. Unlike Marx, who struggled to manage his finances for most of his life, Friedrich Engels was the son of a wealthy industrialist and a successful businessman. In his early 20s, his family sent him to Manchester to help manage their textile mill. It was here that Engels formed a relationship with the sisters Mary and Lizzie Burns, two working-class Irishwomen who are credited with helping to open his eyes to the lives of poor slum-dwellers, inspiring him to become a communist, and fuelling a lifelong love of Irish Stew. Engels partner for over 20 years, Mary Burns, was the gateway for Engels to working class Manchester and collaborated with him on his 1845 seminal work “The Condition of the Working Class in England” which provided the basis for much of Marx’s theoretical works. They visited Ireland together and both guided Marx around Manchester’s working class districts. After Mary died suddenly from a heart condition Engels struck up a relationship with her sister Lizzie with whom he lived openly in Primrose Hill and who he married shortly before her death.

Indeed one of the delicious footnotes to the foundation of Communism is a letter from Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalia (the Von lets you know her family were aristocratic) to a friend that she found Engels living with an Irish factory girl somewhat common! Marx married Jenny von Westphalia in 1843 and she accompanied him into exile. Karl Marx lived at 28 Dean Street between 1851 and 1856. It was a time of great sadness, hardship and poverty. Marx and his family survived only on an allowance paid by Engels. Three of his six children died during their stay in this house.

Then in 1855 Jenny inherited some money enabling the family to move to a small house in No.1 Maitland Park Road, Belsize Park. Both Marx and Engels lived in London until the end of their days Marx in 1875 and Engels in 1895. The only “successful” revolution in their lifetime was the Paris Commune in 1871, which with hindsight was not a great success for the Communards who were massacred if they didn’t escape. Engels finally moved to London with Lizzie in 1870 and established a home at 122 Regent’s Park Road in Primrose Hill. With the Marx family now installed just up the road, there followed a golden period of socialist thought, punctuated by frequent picnics on Hampstead Heath. Engels was a polyglot and was able to write and speak in languages including Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Irish Gaelic, Spanish, Polish, French, English and Milanese dialect.


Karl Marx’s political and philosophical thought had enormous influence on subsequent intellectual, economic and political history and his name has been used as an adjective, a noun and a school of social theory. He, sadly, gets blamed for much which has nothing to do with him and his writings. Marx’s theories about society, economics and politics—collectively understood as Marxism—hold that human societies develop through class struggle. In capitalism, this manifests itself in the conflict between the ruling classes (known as the bourgeoisie) that control the means of production and the working classes (known as the proletariat) that enable these means by selling their labour power in return for wages.  Employing a critical approach known as historical materialism, Marx predicted that, like previous socio-economic systems, capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction and replacement by a new system: socialism. He never set out in any detail what type of society and economic system would replace capitalism and that, as historians say is another story.

When Marx died in 1883 he was interred in the beautiful Highgate Cemetery, not far from his home.  Following the death of his wife Jenny in December 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last 15 months of his life. It eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy that killed him in London on 14 March 1883 (age 64), dying a stateless person. Family and friends in London buried his body in Highgate Cemetery (East), London, on 17 March 1883 in an area reserved for agnostics and atheists (George Eliot’s grave is nearby). There were between nine and eleven mourners at his funeral. Several of his closest friends spoke at his funeral, including Wilhelm Liebknecht and Friedrich Engels. Engels’ speech included the passage:

“On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.”

Originally his grave was located in a discreet side plot, but in 1956 the Marx Memorial Fund erected a monument to him featuring an imposing bust by Laurence Bradshaw. Today it’s become a site of pilgrimage for socialists the world over.

After his death, Engels continued working for the communist cause, editing the remaining volumes of his friend’s seminal work, Capital. Engels died in 1895 and his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head in East Sussex.

Karl Marx:  5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883 – German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist.

Friedrich Engels: 28 November 1820 – 5 August 1895 – German philosopher, social scientist, journalist and businessman.

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