On this day: Karl Marx dies

March 14 1883: The most revolutionary of thinkers

By Jennifer Lipman, March 9, 2011

Perhaps the most famous thinker of all time, Karl Marx died in 1883 at the age of 64. The father of communism, the man whose theories of work, class struggle and alienation transformed the world in the 20th century and continue to appeal to many today, was buried in his adopted home of Highgate.

Born in 1818 in Trier, a town in what was then Prussia, he was descended from rabbis on both sides of the family. But Marx’s father, vineyard-owner Hirschel, found his religion left him subject to antisemitic discrimination, and he duly renounced his faith to become a Protestant.

For Marx, who spent his adult life variously in Brussels and Paris before settling in England, where he would spend days in the reading room of the British Museum, both faiths were as bad as each other.

He famously wrote in an 1843 work, the Contribution to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right¸that religion was “the opium of the people”, a tool of capitalist systems with which the powerful and the elite could subdue the workers.

Many would agree that Marxist philosophy, contained most famously in the 1848 tract The Communist Manifesto and also in the text co-written with Friedrich Engels, Das Kapital, was consigned to the dustbin of history with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But while now Marxist governance exists in practice only in rare cases today – indeed, some would argue the philosophy has never really been applied - one would be hard-pressed to deny the impressive legacy of Karl Marx.

What the JC said 50 years after Marx's death: Karl Marx, the father of Socialism, passed away, little dreaming of the tremendous forces he had set in motion from his seat in the Reading Room of the British Museum where, year after year, he had evolved his theme. Nor, we may be sure, did his contemporaries in London realise the full intellectual structure of the practical, poverty-stricken dreamer who studied and worked among them and was presently to become the idol of many, the abomination of still more, and the symbol of and inspiration of red revolution over a great tract of human society.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 10:35am, March 14 2011