German political philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) is perhaps best known today for his Manifesto of the Communist Party, which he co-wrote with Frederick Engels and published in 1848. His writings laid the groundwork for the series of worker's rebellions that took place throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1919. Later communist and socialist movements took their charge from his writings, though they arguably deviated in many ways from his original thought.
Marx was probably the most lucid and nuanced and thus the most influential of many 19th and early 20th century socialist writers including Proudhon and Bakunin and later Kropotkin and the communist/feminist writer Rosa Luxemburg. Marx's writing provides a clearly defined vision of humanity and a socialist future. He combines a socialist theory with an economic vision and political means for realizing human equality. Marx viewed the world through a modernist and scientific lens. He argues that modern society consists of definite and discernible social/political/economic elements and that these elements interact in set relation with each other. He saw humanity as being rational and ultimately perfectible. Humans, according to Marx, have inherent and identifiable qualities: sociability, productivity, desire for freedom and a sense of wholeness. Simultaneously, Marx did not accept the notion of an unchanging human nature. Humans, Marx argued, can live and function only within the historical and social context of their existence. Marx's ideas were influenced by Enlightenment era ideas of Reason and rationality that became powerful in ideological discourse when the clergy and aristocracy were deposed as the economic and ideological dominants. The ideas of structured society, divided into social classes with a clear delineation between base and superstructure (even if not always exactly phrased on those terms), as well as a linear and progressive history with a definitive outcome, provable by scientific reasoning are common to the major modernist social theorists and greatly inform Marx's writing.
In particular, Marx's conception of human history was influenced to a large degree by the philosophy of Hegel. According to Hegel, history is coherent and directional, and is driven by consciousness (ideas). This view is known as historical idealism. Marx also saw history as coherent and directional, but vehemently rejected the notion that the events of the real, material world are driven by the realm of consciousness. He believed the direction of influence is just the reverse, i.e., that ideas are contingent on historical circumstances, which in turn are determined by material factors. This view is known as historical materialism.
Marx's break from the Hegelian perspective was predicated on a fairly simple set of assumptions. He saw the fundamental distinction between humans and animals as our ability to produce the means of our subsistence. Thus 'what we are' lies to a great extent in how we produce. The actual life-processes of individuals is what brings about social and political change. He felt that history clearly showed that fundamental changes in ways of producing led to changes in the division of labor, which in turn led to changes in property relations, which in turn led to changes in human relations, which influence the very ideas people have. 'It is not consciousness that determines life,' he said, 'but life that determines consciousness.' (German Ideology, 42)
He charted this movement and distinguished between three stages in the evolution of property relations: Tribal Property, Ancient Communal and State Property, and Feudal Property. The movement to each stage correponds with an increasing division of labor, and increasingly divided class relations.
The appeal of Marx's original ideas attracted a number of scholars to pursue his line of thought even after his death, and from their extrapolations and re-readings of Marx came an intellectual school called Marxism, with political, economic, and cultural dimensions. Marxist scholars have done much to advance or amend Marx's initial concepts and to apply them to the world today.
He married his wife Jenny at the age of 17. She bore him six children. They loved each other till death. He kept, we are told, a very messy office.