“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”—Karl Marx.
One of the most significant thinkers in human history, Karl Marx’s works on history, economics and philosophy have certainly changed the world. But beyond that, he was also an interesting man who lived a full, fascinating, impressive, and sometimes ridiculous life. Here are 42 revolutionary facts about this bearded communist theorist.
Marx participated in a duel while at University. Marx accepted the challenge from a young military cadet and ended up losing badly, suffering a small wound under his left eye. Marx’s father, hearing of Karl’s injury, wrote him a letter where he angrily demanded that Karl “not let this inclination, and if not inclination, this craze, take root. You could, in the end, deprive yourself and your parents of the finest hopes that life offers.” Ah, the old “we’re not mad, we’re just disappointed” bit.
Marx’s future wife Jenny Von Westphalen broke off an engagement prior to getting engaged to Marx. Further adding to the engagement scandal was the fact that Marx was of a decidedly lower class and a different religion than Jenny, who had grown up as a wealthy, well-educated baroness and member of the Prussian ruling class.
While Marx was ancestrally Jewish—one of his grandfathers was actually a Rabbi—Marx’s father converted from Judaism to Lutheranism before young Karl was born. Marx’s father’s conversion to Prussia’s dominant religion was an attempt to avoid Anti-Semitic laws that were a mainstay at the time and which constrained the activity of Jewish people. Marx’s Judaic heritage has been cited as being key to both his moral ethics and materialist philosophy.
While living in London, Marx served as a European correspondent for the working-class American newspaper the New York Daily Tribune. Marx wrote newspaper pieces on a number of significant historical events, including the British rule in India, slavery and the American Civil War, the Crimean War and the ongoing Industrial Revolution in Britain. While Marx’s early pieces were written in German and then subsequently translated into English, Marx quickly picked up his new home’s language and began writing articles in English.
Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, was incidentally first published in Russia. Although the ruling regime in Russia had a policy of censoring works that they deemed to promote communism, the censors permitted Marx’s masterwork to enter the country as they considered it a “strictly scientific work,” that “very few people in Russia will read…and even fewer will understand.” Not exactly the most perceptive take by the censors!
Marx, who died in 1883 at age 74, was buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, in a modest plot in a section reserved for atheists and other secularists. His grave was moved to a tomb on a new site in 1954 and a portrait bust commissioned by the British Communist Party was erected. Marx’s grave currently sees about 200 visitors a day and the graveyard recently instituted a $6 entry fee, which some critics claim would have Marx spinning in his grave.
Marx’s political and economic writing is brimming with evocative Gothic metaphors involving monsters, werewolves, and vampires. Marx was particularly fond of the vampire metaphor, which he variously used to describe the central process of profit-taking within capitalism as capital “constantly sucking in living labour as its soul, vampire-like.”
Marx was voted the “Greatest Thinker of the Millenium” in a 1999 BBC poll, beating out several intellectual titans in the form of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton. At press time, it’s still unclear how he placed in the “Greatest Beards of the Millenium” poll.
While living in London, Marx spent numerous hours writing and researching his manuscripts in the reading room of the British Museum, which then housed the British Library. This reading room has also been used by numerous other famous historical figures including Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Virginia Woolf.
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Marx lived much of his adult life in a state of abject poverty and was frequently being chased down by lenders and landlords to whom he owed money. Four of Marx’s seven children died at a young age as a result of the family’s deep poverty and it is reported that occasionally Marx was unable to leave the house as his wife Jenny had to go pawn his trousers in order to put food on the table!
As a result of Marx’s frequent tussles with landlords and lenders overs funds owed, Marx took to using pseudonyms when he rented an apartment in order to make it harder for the proper authorities to find him and kick him out. While in Paris he used the pseudonym “Monsieur Ramoz” and living in London he went by the moniker of “A. Williams.”
It is reported that approximately only nine to eleven people attended Marx’s funeral in 1885. Besides four members of Marx’s family, mourners included Marx’s lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels, several other communist associates, and a British evolutionary biologist. Engels made a prescient speech at Marx’s grave that, in closing, stated “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!” How right he was!
In his university days, Marx dedicated time to writing fiction, plays, and poetry. Marx, in fact, published two poems during his lifetime, and over half of the poems Marx composed were adoring love poems dedicated to his wife Jenny. Marx largely abandoned this artistic work in his early twenties for the political and economic themes that would absorb him right up until his death.
Friends of Marx would sometimes playfully refer to him as “the Moor” because of Marx’s dark beard and swarthy complexion. Marx would also sometimes sign letters to friends as “Old Nick,” which was a term often used for the devil.
Marx’s most famous work, the Communist Manifesto, was published in 1848 with Friedrich Engels credited as a co-author. The Manifesto, which was originally published as a 23-page pamphlet, describes and analyzes capitalism as a political and economic system and ultimately predicts its overthrow by an organized working class. The Manifesto famously ends with the declaration that “working men of all countries, unite!”
After Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 on the promise of banishing slavery, he was sent a long letter congratulating him on his achievements. The author of that letter? None other than Karl Marx. The letter began by stating “if resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.” Marx later described Lincoln in glowing terms as a “a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity nor intoxicated by success.”
While in his twenties, Marx seriously considered moving to Texas. He even went so far as applying to the Minister of Trier, his birthplace, for an immigration permit that would allow him to move. Obviously, he didn’t move to the Alamo state—but imagine how different the world may have been if he did!
Marx’s son-in-law wrote a polemic against contemporary political and religious ideas of work that was playfully titled The Right to be Lazy. Cuban-born French revolutionary Paul Lafargue, who married Marx’s second daughter Laura, published the tract in 1880. The essay argues, somewhat in jest, that human laziness when combined with creativity is the key to human progress. Marx, for his part, was not a fan of his young son-in-law and accused Lafargue of mere “revolutionary phrase-mongering.”
Marx has been about 20 times in film. Two of those times include appearances on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In one of those episodes, Marx appears in the modern era on a trivia quiz show where he is ridiculed for not knowing the answers to a series of obscure questions about British soccer players.
Tattoos of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and other communist revolutionaries were quite common in the former Soviet Union. But it’s probably not why you think. Prisoners would get tattoos of Marx or other important founding Soviet figures tattooed over their chest or other vital organs because firing squads were prohibited from firing at images of the founding members of the Soviet Union.
Despite having a bad reputation with liberal economists, Marx was actually in favor of free trade. His reasoning though was a little different. Namely, Marx believed that free trade was destructive of national bonds and identities and would thus create the conditions for international working class solidarity, hence leading to socialist revolution.
An American Civil War Union General once plotted to kill Karl Marx for being too conservative. Yeah, you read that one right! August Willich was a Prussian-born revolutionary communist who was a co-leader of the anti-Marx group of the League of Communists during the 1840s. Out of political animosity, Willich publically insulted Marx as a means to goading him into a duel where Willich planned to kill young Karl. Marx declined to duel and it never happened. Willich later emigrated to the United States and joined the Union Army where he fought in the Civil War as a General.
General Sherman Tree located in Sequoia National Park in California is, by volume, the largest-known living single stem tree in the world. The tree used to go by the name of the Karl Marx tree. It was named after the German Giant because of its location within an American utopian socialist community founded in the park in 1886.
A 6,723 meter (22, 057 foot) mountain in Southwestern Tajikistan is named Karl Marx Peak.
In 1862, Marx applied for a job as a railway clerk. Living in poverty and struggling to make enough money to provide for his family, Marx applied for the clerical position out of desperation (he was also in too poor health to take a job doing physical labor). The railway office rejected Marx. And not for his revolutionary ideas—but because his handwriting was so bad!
The Phillips brothers, Anton and Gerard, co-founded American multinational electronics giant Phillips. Little known is that their father, Benjamin Phillips, was a first cousin of none other than Karl Marx.
Karl Marx dedicated his most significant work, Das Capital, to natural scientist and founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. Marx and Engels were both early fans of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, calling him “absolutely splendid” and saying that On the Origin of Species was “the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.”
Even while staying pretty busy in his work as an economist, historian and political philosopher, Marx managed to eke out some time to write several manuscripts on differential calculus. One historian of mathematics who studied the manuscripts credits Marx with some independent discoveries as well as anticipating certain 20th century developments in mathematics.
In UNESCO’s list of most translated authors, Marx is beaten out by his revolutionary progeny, Vladimir Lenin—whom of course was the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and an author himself of many influential communist works. Lenin sits at 7th whereas Marx is all the way back at 31st.
In the last year of his life, Karl Marx had a barber shave off his beard. To protect his legacy and prevent future generations from viewing him as a completely bald-faced revolutionary, Marx had himself photographed in full regal bearded-ness before the ceremonious shave. This image of a deathly serious and hirsute Marx is, of course, the image which is conjured up today when we think of him.
One of Marx’s favorite bon-mots was to quote his mother, who once said: “I wish you could make some capital rather than just writing about it.” Seems like a pretty universal wish for mothers across the globe.
One of Marx’s most famous phrases is that “religion […] is the opium of the people.” This much-quoted statement, paraphrased from the introduction of Marx’s 1844 work Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, forms part of a larger critique of capitalist society. Marx’s basic argument is that religion had a social function much like opium, insofar as it eases the pain of suffering people, while reducing people’s ability to actually confront the oppressive nature of the institutions within which they found themselves.
Marx is considered one of the three major founding figures of the social sciences, along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin also considers Marx to be the founder of modern sociology.
Another one of Marx’s most famous quotes is that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” This quote appears in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and refers to the tragic fate of Napoleon I of France and the succession of his farcical nephew, Napoleon III.
In 1842, Engels’ parents sent him to work in management at a mill in Manchester in order to correct some of his “liberal opinions.” On his way to Manchester, Engels happened to visit the offices of the radical newspaper Rhienische Zeitung, then edited by a young Karl Marx, whom he met with briefly. Moving onto Manchester, Engels observed the working conditions at the mill that he had been sent to and began writing articles on the topic that he would send to Marx for publication. Soon thereafter these articles were gathered together and published as The Conditions of the Working Class in England.
Despite becoming great friends and scholarly partners for the rest of their lives, Engels and Marx were not particularly impressed with each other upon first meeting. Marx mistakenly thought Engels was a member of a Berlin political group called the Young Hegelians that he had just recently broken away from.
While at University, Marx was no stranger to alcohol. At one point he served as the Co-President of the Trier Tavern Club drinking society. The drinking society’s get-togethers could occasionally get out of hand, with reports of fights between the Tavern Club and local military cadets. Young Karl even got imprisoned for a day for “disturbing the peace with drunken noise.”
Marx suffered from numerous health issues during his lifetime, including numerous painful boils on his skin. The boils were sometimes so bad that Marx couldn’t work while sitting down. One historian attributes the eruption of boils to Marx’s lifestyle which famously included significant “alcohol, tobacco,” as well as a generally “poor diet and lack of sleep.” Sounds like the lifestyle of most college students!
By the end of Marx’s life his works in political philosophy and economics had created a dedicated following. This following had even broken into several competing branches, each of whom claimed to follow the real teachings of Marx but who often had quite different views. At one point, this situation prompted a frustrated Marx to say: “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist!”
While it may have the reputation as seriously radical document, the Communist Manifesto at its conclusion lists 10 demands of the working class, many of which have been put into practice in Western capitalist societies. For instance: the creation of a national bank; centralization of transport in the hands of the state; free education for all children in public schools; and abolition of child factory labor.
Marx was friends with the historian Bruno Bauer during his university days. Once, he and Bauer scandalized their schoolmates by getting drunk and riding through town on donkeys!
Marx’s last words were shouted at his housekeeper. In keeping with his gruff reputation, he is reported to have said “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”
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