Intransigent, direct, mocking, and politically subversive, Marx ranks as one of the most powerful and distinctive voices Germany has produced. Its eloquence and conviction is the result of an activist approach to critique. Picking up where Kant and Hegel left off, Marx reformulates the theory-praxis problem in a revolutionary way. For him, change is no longer introduced by dogmatic assumptions; rather, it is through the critique of the old that the new becomes possible. Marx therefore calls for “the relentless critique of all that exists” (Rheinische Zeitung, 15 November 1844). This implies understanding oneself, i.e. the necessity of self-reflection (Selbstverstandigung). Critique requires first and foremost a capacity for self-criticism. The unique mission and opportunity of the press call for it to make such critique possible.
Starting as a journalist, Marx combined a theoretical outlook with political engagement. Conceived as critical analyses of the dynamics of social forces, his articles forge the political essay into a tool for class struggle. Subverting in Hegelian fashion the hold of particular interests by exposing their internal contradictions, the essays take on repression, whatever its disguise, and exercise a power that goes beyond the mere fireworks they engender. Instead of merely offering a critique of the opposition, the analytic rigor of his essays destroys the claims of those in power, revealing their falseness as pretense. Identifying the moment of truth in such falseness, Marx’s critique of ideology exposes the darker sides of exploitation.
In the age of Metternich’s political reaction, Marx’s first articles take Prussian censorship and the press laws to task. As he points out, method rather than its result creates the truth which can thereby resist all attempts at extraneous determination. To ignore this means to fall victim to the contradictions to which the denial of the selfdefining constitution of truth would lead. Critique alone—as self-constituting court—is able to restrict itself. The parliament that desires to control freedom of the press indicts itself. Similarly, Marx’s account of the debates on the law against theft of wood returns the blame which some legislators hoped to lay on the oppressed masses to those legislators themselves. In the final analysis, he argues, it is such legislation that threatens to undermine the very idea itself of law and state. Exposing the abuse in parliament’s debates at every stage, Marx turns the tables in ingenious reversal: “The wood-thief has filched wood from the forest-owner, but the forest-owner has used the thief to filch the state itself” (“Debatten über das Holzdiebstahlsgesetz” [1842; “Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood”]). Clearing up the ideological thicket, the literary strategy exposes the hypocritical character that lends exploitative fraud its friendly face.
Perhaps Marx’s most accomplished essay, “Zur Judenfrage” (1844; “On the Jewish Question”), performs a precarious balancing act which displays most strikingly both the strength and limits of high-strung dialectics. A literary pas de deux of materialist and idealist thought, this essay pushes the discourse on emancipation to its brink. Its sheer density renders it at once opaque and translucent, light and heavyhanded, radical and superficial. Charged with the dynamics of dialectics, its sparkle has at the same time a blinding effect. Like Marx’s other essays, it confronts readers with their own conceptual fixations. Argumentative irreducibility is enacted at the cost of the blind spot—Marx’s Jewish self-hatred—around which the essay circles.
In 1848 Marx became editor-in-chief of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish newspaper), Germany’s mouthpiece for the 1848 Revolution. Marx saw his paper’s task of recording and commenting on the course of political change as intricately linked on the local and international scale and as reflecting the stage world history had reached. The paper lasted only until May 1849, when the 1848 Revolution was finally thwarted. More astonishing is the fact that the paper could be published at all. Looking back on this period, Friedrich Engels recalls the editorial practice that created the newspaper’s singular power to electrify the proletarian masses: “…thanks to the eight bayonet rifles and 250 shots of ammunition in the editor’s office, and the typesetters’ red Jacobin hats, our offices were known by the garrison’s officers as a fort, too, that was not easily to be taken by a simple coup de main.” As editor and journalist Marx himself more than once suffered the personal consequences of this struggle. As he described this experience: “… we were blessed at once with the advantages of feudal servitude, bureaucratic police protocol and the modern bourgeois legal brutality” (1849). Two months later, 19 May 1849, the last issue was printed in red ink.
With Engels Marx penned the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto), one of the single most influential texts written in the 19th century. Its manifesto style—clarity, brevity, and precision—carries the political essay to new heights. Its imagery has ever since informed and haunted the literary and political imagination. Designed to serve as the party’s official missive, it demonstrates the unavoidable necessity for revolution. Between the suggestive opening, “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism,” and the concluding call, “Working men of all countries, unite!” (the two single best-known lines in the manifesto), a forceful argument is launched arguing that the party is the only and irresistible agency capable of solving the world-historical mandate: to bring about the universal solution to oppression, the class-free society.
Four years later the 1851 December coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte marked an historical caesura that forced Marx to write his Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis- Bonaparte (1869; The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). To account for the surprising political backlash to the ideas in the wake of 1848, Marx resorts to the categories of tragedy and farce. Politics becomes a play whose farcical repetitions are ultimately free from historical ramifications. Yet where this theatrical staging sees only actors playing out their drama of politics, we find Marx attempting to solve the drama posed by his own theorizing. The model of tragedy/farce arrests history and reduces it to a loop. While Marx concedes the political its own sphere, the schedule of world history remains intact; enriched by breaks and interruptions, these farcical ruptures now corroborate what they seem to have jeopardized—the dignity of history. While Marx offers no argument to resolve this dilemma logically, the exposition of the essay provides the necessary space to act out what seems impossible to address otherwise.
While Marx continued his journalistic work as a sideline, the newspaper articles, which now solely served the purpose of a source of income, were toned down to the objective tone of technical reports. Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1859; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) and Das Kapital (1867–95; Capital) are no longer essays but bring their project to completion. Informed by the praxis of critique, they retain some of the virtuoso dexterity that is the trademark of Marx’s essays. Pointing beyond logical demonstration, the expository play in the later works is grounded in the evocative appeal to critical imagination.
Karl Heinrich Marx. Born 5 May 1818 in Trier. Studied philosophy and law at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, 1835–41; member of the “Doctorklub,” a group of students interested in philosophy. Editor-in-chief, Die Rheinische Zeitung, Cologne, 1842–43: suppressed by the censor. Married Jenny von Westphalen, 1843: one son (died in youth) and three daughters. Moved to Paris, 1843, where he became lifelong friends with Friedrich Engels; coeditor, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French yearbook), Paris, 1843; expelled for writing anti-Prussian essays, and moved to Brussels, 1845, where he and Engels joined the Communist League. Returned to Cologne, 1848;
editor, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Cologne, 1848–49. Expelled from Germany and lived in London, from 1849; journalist for various newspapers, including Neue OderZeitung (Breslau), 1855, Sheffield and London Free Press, 1855–56, and the People’s Paper and Wiener Presse (Vienna), 1861-62; European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune (many of these articles were actually written by Engels). Head, General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, 1864–76. Died in London, 14 March 1883.
Essays and Related Prose (most works cowritten with Friedrich Engels)
Misère de la philosophie: Réponse à la philosophie de la misère de M.Proudhon, 1847;
facsimile edition edited by Kikuji Tanaka, 1982; as The Poverty of Philosophy, translated by Harry Quelch, 1900
Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, 1848; authorized English translation as Manifesto of the Communist Party, edited by Engels, translated by Samuel Moore, 1888;
subsequent editions as The Communist Manifesto, edited by Dirk J.Struik, 1971, Frederic L. Bender, 1988, and David McLellan, 1988
Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis-Bonaparte, 1869; as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated by Daniel De Leon, 1898, and Eden and Cedar Paul, 1926
Selected Essays, translated by H.J.Stenning, 1926
“Die deutsche Ideologie,” in Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, Werke, Schriften, Briefe, vol. 5, edited by David Rjazanov and Vladimir Viktorovich Adoratskij, 1932;
as The German Ideology, translated by S.Ryazanskaya, 1964
Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, edited by Lewis S.Feuer, 1959
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, translated by Martin Milligan, 1959;
edited by Dirk J.Stuik, 1969
Early Writings, edited and translated by T.B.Bottomore, 1963
Essential Writings, edited by David Caute, 1967
Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1848–49, edited by Bernard Isaacs, translated by S.Ryazanskaya, 1972
The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C.Tucker, 1972; revised, enlarged edition, 1978
Essential Writings, edited by Frederic L.Bender, 1972
Political Writings, edited by David Fernbach, 3 vols., 1973
Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan, 1977
The Essential Marx: The Non-Economic Writings, a Selection, edited and translated by Saul K.Padover, 1979
The Collected Writings in “The New York Daily Tribune”, edited by A.Thomas Ferguson and Stephen J.O’Neil, 1980
The Portable Karl Marx, edited by Eugene Kamenka, 1983
Early Political Writings, edited and translated by Joseph O’Malley and Richard A.Davis, 1994
Later Political Writings, edited and translated by Terrell Carver, 1996
Other writings: Das Kapital (1867–95; Capital), Zur Kritik der politischen Okomonie (1859; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), and many other political works.
Collected works editions: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Werke, 43 vols., 1956–68;
Collected Works, 47 vols., 1973–95 (in progress).
Draper, Hal, The Marx-Engels Register: A Complete Bibliography of Marx and Engels’
Individual Writings, New York: Schocken, 1985
Eubanks, Cecil L., Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Analytical Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1984(original edition, 1977)
Neubauer, Franz, Marx-Engels Bibliographie, Boppard: Boldt, 1979
Balibar, Etienne, The Philosophy of Marx, London and New York: Verso, 1995 (original French edition, 1993)
Bove, Paul, “The Metaphysics of Textuality: Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire and Nietzsche’s Use and Abuse of History,” Dalhousie Review 64 (1984):401–22
Kemple, Thomas M., Reading Marx Writing: Melodrama, the Market, and the “Grundrisse”, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995
McLellan, David, The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction, London: Papermac, 1980 (original edition, 1971)
McLellan, David, Karl Marx: A Biography, London: Papermac, 1995(original edition, 1975)
Mehlman, Jeffrey, Revolution and Repetition: Marx/Hugo/Balzac, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977
Said, Edward, “On Repetition,” in his The World, the Text, and the Critic, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983:111–25
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