Paris, February 1848. Photo: wikimedia commons Paris, February 1848. Photo: wikimedia commons

On the 140th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death, Katherine Connelly discusses his revolutionary contribution

Friedrich Engels delivered the oration at Karl Marx’s graveside in Highgate Cemetery on 17 March 1883. Reflecting on the life of his great friend, he told the small group of assembled mourners that ‘Marx was before all else a revolutionist.’[1] This phrase is often quoted, but it is worth considering what Engels meant.

Certainly, Marx participated in revolution. In the great wave of revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, Marx and Engels joined the insurgents. Expelled from Brussels as a dangerous radical, Marx travelled via revolutionary France to Prussia where, in his capacity as a journalist and newspaper editor, he became an influential participant in the debates about how the revolution, striving for democratic reforms against the autocratic Prussian state, could best succeed.

As the revolution was beaten back, Marx’s newspaper was shut down and he was put on trial for his writings. He would later help to defend other revolutionaries persecuted by the Prussian state. Engels, who also worked as a journalist on Marx’s newspaper, would participate in the revolutionary armed struggle.

As the revolutions which flowered in 1848 were crushed in counter-revolutionary violence, Marx, like so many other revolutionaries, was forced into exile. For the rest of his life, Marx lived in London – at the heart of the world’s most advanced capitalist country and the centre of the British Empire – enduring a political climate of reactionary dominance. His great book, produced in those years of exile, was not called ‘Revolution’ but ‘Capital’. So what kind of ‘revolutionist’ was Karl Marx?

A revolutionary history of humanity

‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’[2] So began the first chapter of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, co-authored by Marx and Engels just weeks before the outbreak of the 1848 revolutions. This was a revolutionary approach to human history – and it remains so today. 

Consider how we are encouraged to categorise ‘our’ history: the Georgians, the Tudors, the Victorians etc . . . which tells us precisely nothing except for the name of a few, very privileged, individuals for the period when they were the most privileged individual in the country – hardly a common human experience. How can ordinary people not be written out of such a historical narrative? Moreover, it implies that change happens only at the top of society, while maintaining that nothing substantial really changes – “The king is dead, long live the king”. [For all the rest of history that cannot be reduced to the name of a British monarch, the non-British location is generally deemed sufficient to sum up whole civilizations: ‘the Egyptians’.]

Marx’s approach to history is completely different; in place of individuals the Manifesto describes the social structures of different societies, recording histories of ‘Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed’.[3] Marx asked of our history: what did we produce and under what conditions – slavery, serfdom or wage labour? He then examines what tensions resulted from those social relationships and what changes resulted from those conflicts. 

In The Holy Family, published in 1845, Marx very clearly explained that history was nothing but the actions of human beings: ‘History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.’[4] (After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, he would add that although human beings make their own history, they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing.[5]

Historical accounts that obscure the role of human beings in historical change are not neutral or objective, as they often purport to be, rather they effectively contribute to a disempowerment of those who have an interest in changing the present. Marx’s approach, by contrast, insists upon a history of change, all of which has been achieved by human beings. His approach to economics is similarly empowering. He began Capital by stating that ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense accumulation of commodities”’.[6] He then goes on to show that although wealth ‘appears’ to come from commodities it is, in fact, the product of human labour.  Human beings produce their own world and can, therefore, change it. 

Revolutionary capitalism

While Marx argued that human history was shaped by revolutionary change, he maintained that the increasing dominance of the bourgeois, or capitalist, class inaugurated an especially revolutionary historical phase. True to form, Marx would ask what was produced and under what circumstances. He found the circumstances had been transformed by the rise of the bourgeoisie, the complex social relationships of the old feudal order having been subject to a revolutionary assault:

‘It [the bourgeoisie] has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”.’[7]

Marx also discovered that the answer to what was produced was similarly full of revolutionary implication since the productive capacity of capitalism was historically unprecedented:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.”[8]

However, although capitalism allowed for the production of immense wealth, those that produced all the wealth in the society, those who worked the machinery and built the railways and canals, had no control over what they produced and few, if any, opportunities to enjoy what they had produced. 

In manuscripts written in the early 1840s, Marx observed that the very class required to produce the sophisticated capitalist civilization was frequently denied even the basic requirements for human existence, to which the polluted, overcrowded and filthy slums in the nineteenth-century city provided devastating testimony:

“Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker.  [. . .]  A dwelling in the light, which Prometheus in Aeschylus designated as one of the greatest boons, by means of which he made the savage into a human being, ceases to exist for the worker.  Light, air, etc.  – the simplest animal cleanliness – ceases to be a need for man.”[9]

Truly, capitalism was an inhuman system.

Working-class revolution

Having established what was produced and under what circumstances, Marx went on to examine the tensions that resulted from this state of affairs. Marx’s conclusions were drawn from the actions of workers themselves; in Britain, the nation with the most developed form of capitalism, workers had the most developed form of collective organisations. Appreciating that it was only collectively that they could exert their strength, workers formed trade unions, in the face of intense state repression, to demand wage increases, shorter hours and better working conditions.

In 1842 the working-class Chartist movement galvanised the first general strike in Britain in the fight for democracy. Marx perceived that as the capitalist class collected workers in ever greater numbers in an unquenchable desire for more profit, workers themselves were learning that they could collectively organise to resist their exploitation. Moreover, workers were placed in a special condition under capitalism since they had no private stake within the existing system: they had no great reserves of wealth or private property; they owned no industries in which another social group could be exploited.

With no stake in the perpetuation of capitalism, workers’ interests were bound up in its revolutionary overthrow, and without any privileged status to maintain, a successful working-class revolution would realise a general emancipation for all that would be incompatible with only the partial emancipation of one social segment. The bourgeois capitalist class, entirely reliant upon workers for the source of its profits, had thus also created in this working class ‘its own grave-diggers’.[10]

Marx’s analysis of the systemic challenge posed by working-class revolution was starkly revealed by the course of the 1848 revolutions, particularly in France. After the revolution of February 1848, which deposed the king and established a Republic, workers in France demanded that their class should share in the gains of the new society. They forced the government to grudgingly accept the principle of the ‘right to work’: that unemployment and destitution should not be treated as natural disasters that habitually fell upon working people, that instead ensuring a living for working people was a social responsibility.

In the early months of the Republic, the government therefore established national workshops to provide work for the unemployed. These were hardly utopian ventures, they were organised along military lines and the work, often pointless and tedious, was poorly planned. However, when in June 1848 the government revealed its plan to close the national workshops, and renege on even this limited concession, they provoked a working-class uprising in Paris. 

Marx was one of very few prominent radical figures to support the June insurgents, support that he extended unconditionally and wholeheartedly from the very moment he heard about the uprising.[11] The uprising was savagely crushed, the French military bombarded not only the barricades but working-class homes, thousands were killed, and thousands more were imprisoned and deported.

Writing in the bloody aftermath, Marx’s language appears rather surprising: the uprising he had so ardently supported he described as ‘the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution’, contrasted with the February revolution which ‘was the nice revolution’.[12] However, Marx goes on to show that the June uprising was ‘ugly’ because it challenged more than one part of the old society, (for example the monarchy, as the February revolution had done) instead, it had challenged the exploitative relationship at the heart of modern society.

In Marx’s newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Engels variously compared the crushing of the June insurrection to ‘the Roman slave war’, the 1834 workers’ uprising in Lyons, and French colonialism in Algeria (in this latter case, many of the same commanders were involved in suppressing Algerian resistance and the Parisian workers of June 1848).[13] Marx, meanwhile, compared the crushing of the June insurgents to the Russian empire’s suppression of Warsaw in 1831.[14]

All these examples underlined the extent to which Marx and Engels viewed the workers’ revolution as incompatible with the structures of contemporary society: just as a revolt against slavery or empire represented an existential threat to the existing social order. Indeed, as Marx pointed out, it was under the slogan of ‘order’ that the June insurrection had been crushed, precisely because it was the social order, shaped by exploitative economic relationships, that the June insurgents had dared to challenge.[15]

The government evidently appreciated this point: by 1850 although one might get away with shouting “Vive la République!”, shouting “Vive la République démocratique et sociale!” (“Long live the democratic and social Republic!”) was a criminal offence.[16] In the aftermath of the June insurrection, the bourgeoisie demonstrated that it was more afraid of working-class revolution than it was attached to democracy and, under the mantra of maintaining ‘order’, it abandoned its own revolution. 


In the shadow of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx began his most intensive study of capitalist society in the most capitalist of nations. It was an attempt to interpret the world in order to change it, and he dedicated the rest of his life to the rebuilding and extending of working-class organisation across national borders, most spectacularly, from 1864 onwards, in his leadership role within the International Workingmen’s Association. He leant his vociferous support and analytical skills to every great emancipatory struggle: from the American civil war, to revolts against British imperialism, to the Paris Commune. 

Marx was not a revolutionary because he told people what a future revolution would or should look like. Marx was a revolutionary because his analysis of capitalism, in the present, in all its ugliness, revolutionised capitalism’s ideology, in which working people count for nothing. Demonstrating that wealth under capitalist society is not created by the rich but by the working-class, he argued that these very same workers, if organised together, could revolutionise that society in order that we may live in circumstances of our own choosing.






[6] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol.1 (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p.125





[11] See Marx’s first response:


[13] See Fredrich Engels ‘The 23rd of June’, Karl Marx Fredrich Engels Collected Works, Vol.7, p.130; Engels, ‘The 24th of June’, Karl Marx Fredrich Engels Collected Works, Vol.7, p.134.



[16] See, for example, John M. Merriman, ‘Radicalisation and Repression: A Study of the Demobilisation of the ‘Democ-Socs’ During the Second French Republic’, in Roger Price (ed.), Revolution and Reaction: 1848 and the Second French Republic (London: Croom Helm, 1975), pp.219-20

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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