How Young Karl Marx Got Radicalized

Karl Marx started out in a liberal milieu where the primary concern was abolishing religious authoritarianism. In time, he came to believe that abolishing capitalism was necessary for true freedom — and that only the working class could do it.

A young demonstrator in Hong Kong holds up a photo of Karl Marx on August 4, 2019. (Billy H.C. Kwok / Getty Images)

No one is born a Marxist — not even Karl Marx.

Before he formulated his famous ideas about the centrality of class struggle to social change, young Marx surrounded himself with liberals who sought to abolish the religious authoritarianism of the old regime and bring about a new state that guaranteed greater liberty. His political evolution occurred in two stages: the first took him beyond liberalism to social democracy, and the second gave him faith in the self-emancipation of the working class.

Today, many young people are marching leftward in his footsteps, from a passion for freedom to a critique of capitalism. But unlike Marx, they have the whole tradition of Marxism to guide them.

After writing some mediocre poetry in his teenage years and then delving into philosophy (along with drinking and dueling) as a university student, twenty-four-year-old Marx found himself employed as an editor at the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper. The paper was a joint project of wealthy liberals and the Young Hegelians, the energetic philosophical current that included Marx and many of his friends. It was here that Marx was thrust out of the realm of abstract philosophy and into the work of practical journalism, which would open his eyes to the reality of class conflict.

Marx started his journalistic career by taking up the cause most dear to the hearts of generations of liberals: freedom from censorship. His first articles for Rheinische Zeitung were about press freedom, arguing that censorship threatened the entire ensemble of social relations. He wrote:

The absence of freedom of the press makes all other freedoms illusory. One form of freedom governs another just as one limb of the body does another. Whenever a particular freedom is put in question, freedom in general is put in question.

Press freedom mattered a great deal to Marx. The Rheinische Zeitung was censored and ceased publication after a year, and later Marx would write things that caused him to be arrested, his press shut down, and he and his family expelled — first in Paris in 1845, then in Cologne in 1848–49. Marx believed that the free press was an integral part of humanity’s drive toward emancipation, writing, “No man combats freedom; at most he combats the freedom of others.”

At the same time, Marx was beginning to realize the political liberalism of bourgeois democracy could only go so far in securing true freedom. Marx didn’t simply reject liberal ideals, but he did begin to recognize that they only offered a limited form of freedom — one that should be fulfilled while also transcended. He had his eyes set on a grander vision of human emancipation.

Marx had begun to see press freedom as a matter of who owns the press. The ideal of independence was not merely constrained by state censorship, he realized, but through private ownership and market forces. For instance, Marx noted that although there was less censorship in France, the press was still “not free enough” because it was subject to a “material censorship” derived from the competitive environment of “large-scale commercial speculation.” Consequently, he asserted that “the first freedom of the press is not to be a business.”

Journalism also confronted Marx with relations of property and class, as seen in his pivotal 1842 articles about laws against the “theft” of wood by the German peasantry. He reported on how violent state repression was marshaled to administer a privatization of the commons — a process later called primitive accumulation. Marx seethed at how the property claims of forest owners were upheld in the courts and enforced by the police, superseding peasants’ customary rights to collect wood. For many years afterward, Marx would point to these articles as transitional works which began focusing his attention on economic issues.

The Prussian state had shown itself to be non-neutral, a servant of propertied interests. These events helped push Marx’s ideas beyond those of the influential philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who had imagined the ideal state as an embodiment of reason representing the universal interests of all. In his 1843 critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx began to turn the idealist philosopher right side up: it is not the state that shapes social relations, but social relations that shape the state. Far from any sort of universal body, the state was exposed as an instrument of particular class forces.

Marx’s critique of bourgeois liberalism reached its fullest expression in 1844, when he took aim at his former mentor Bruno Bauer, a leading figure among the Young Hegelians who yearned for a secular state and the abolition of religion; Marx argued that such a victory for liberal rights, while critical, was insufficient. Marx then presented his most comprehensive analysis of bourgeois civil society to date, lamenting how “egoistic man” had been unleashed to pursue “the right of selfishness” under circumstances of “separation of man from man.” Under these conditions, the promise of individual freedom tragically acquires a new set of chains, failing to meet our “rights for equality and security.” Looking beyond these liberal rights of man exalted by the French Revolution, Marx concluded:

Only when man has recognized and organized his ‘own powers’ as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.

Social Democracy and Beyond

Thus Marx had advanced beyond liberal notions of freedom to the “social question” encompassing a deeper layer of economic relationships. But there would be a second step, taking him further into a commitment to class struggle. Like many of his generation, Marx looked toward socialism and communism for solutions to the social question. In this second step, he made a unique move that identified the proletariat as the revolutionary agent of human emancipation. It is this idea that we most associate with Marxism.

Marx was certainly not the first to encounter the limits of liberalism and explore more cooperative alternatives to bourgeois society. His predecessors — thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and other proponents of “utopian socialism” — created planned communities as remedies for industrialization and individualism. Some of Marx’s contemporaries, like Étienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling, had begun promoting communism based on the abolition of private property. Nevertheless, these socialist and communist models of social organization were to be implemented from above by intellectuals and scientific experts. Their founders conceived of them as apolitical collective experiments that would be realized by escaping rather than confronting class antagonisms.

Marx initially came to communism by way of philosophy, as an answer to the problem of alienation. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he asserted that overcoming private property was the condition for “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being.” Communism would enable the free and full development of individuals in their relationships with people and nature; Marx maintained that it was “the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”

Early that same year, Marx made his first reference to the proletariat’s revolutionary role in making communist ideals a reality. He had begun moving beyond the utopian socialists by identifying the working class as a collective subject of emancipation, a class whose “radical chains” allowed it to act as a universal force. The proletariat was the class whose struggles would abolish class once and for all. Marx had concluded his search for social forces that could lead humanity’s overcoming of alienation: “The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat.”

However, as Michael Löwy has shown, Marx’s distinction between the head and heart of revolution still preserved a privileged position for philosophy. He attributed the leading role to theory and a supporting part for the working class, as evident in his assertion that “theory will become a material force as soon as it seizes the masses.” Marx saw the proletariat as an instrument of theoretical ideas, not yet as an active agent of self-emancipation.

A mass rebellion of the weavers in Silesia during the summer of 1844 shifted Marx’s thinking. He had already observed the rising militance of French workers after arriving in Paris, but the Silesian uprising was the first great revolt of the Prussian proletariat. These weavers were rural domestic workers who were fast becoming deskilled and dispossessed. On June 4, 1844, thousands of them marched to the mansion owned by their contractors; some broke in and tore it apart, breaking windows and smashing furniture. The military was called in and promptly fired into the crowd, killing eleven of the insurgents.

In response, Marx’s coeditor of the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, Arnold Ruge, dismissed the weavers’ revolt as an immature “social revolution without a political soul.” Marx quickly composed a furious reply that finalized his break with Ruge and, for the first time, affirmed the revolutionary agency of the working class. He conceived of socialism as a matter of praxis, not just theory, insisting that “only in the proletariat can it discover the active agent of its emancipation.” Reversing Ruge’s words, Marx called for a political revolution with a social soul. Whereas a liberal revolution “conceals a narrow spirit” despite its claims to universality, he wrote, the Silesian weavers’ revolt contains the universal soul of “a human protest against a dehumanized life.”

Marx would go on to take several more intellectual leaps to develop a method of historical materialism and his critique of political economy. Yet by late 1844 his revolutionary dialectic of theory and praxis was firmly in place, to be concisely formulated in his Theses on Feuerbach the following year. Starting with a love of freedom and confronting the limits of liberalism in a class-divided society, Marx’s life course is a model of how young people become radicalized, one which many continue to follow today.