Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society

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Why read yet another biography of Marx or start with this one? Unlike others, Heinrich checks facts meticulously and embeds Marx and his writings in the economic and social circumstances, personal and political relationships, political ideas and polemics of Marx’s life. Conjecture is rare and clearly marked.

Heinrich neither eulogises Marx nor consigns him to the 19th century since he sees Marx’s ideas as having contemporary relevance. Rather, he aims to reveal the dynamic interplay of intellectual and political ideas and events that show Marx to be continuously learning, developing and willing to change his views.

Heinrich is not afraid to challenge “facts” about Marx’s life. Marx’s mother becomes someone who wrote witty letters and cancelled all her son’s IOUs. Gone is the alleged duel with pistols from Marx’s student days; the image of a friendless Marx at school untrue.

The first part of the book takes you to Trier where Marx grew up. The town had been run according to more enlightened Napoleonic law until taken over by the Prussian state. Its changed status led to a loss of markets resulting in widespread poverty.

Marx’s father, Heinrich, converted from Judaism to Protestantism in order to keep his job as a state lawyer, but neither as Jew nor Protestant did he seem particularly religious. He was shaped by the Enlightenment values he imparted to his son, as was his friend and Marx’s mentor and future father in law, Ludwig von Westphalen. Both moved in the enlightened circles of Trier that included the headmaster of Marx. The two households of Marx and Von Westphalen were of similar social status. Marx’s final school exams indicate that he still believed in God.

During Marx’s first university year in Bonn, he studied Greek and Roman mythology and attained a profound knowledge of German and European law, which he put to good effect a decade later. Marx also wrote a great deal of poetry, looking to a literary future rather than one based on law. Most biographers argue Marx abandoned writing poetry because he knew he was bad at it, however Heinrich rejects this, quoting poems written to his future wife, Jenny von Westphalen, to argue that Marx underwent an intellectual crisis occasioned by his reading of Hegel that led Marx to abandon his perspective of effecting social change through literature.

From Bonn, Marx went to Berlin, where he quickly established himself as a both witty and erudite participant in philosophical debates about religion and other questions and where he engaged with the ideas of Hegel. Analysis of the Bible was throwing into question its supposed revelatory nature, dividing followers of Hegel between those who thought the Bible was based on historical fact, those who thought it was partially based on fact and those who believed it was all made up.

Heinrich places Marx’s doctoral thesis on Epicurean philosophy in the context of this debate because Epicurus separated out the existence of human beings from that of the Gods, placing human beings at the centre of the universe.