Karl Marx’s Early Years and his “Worldview” by Michael Tribe


Karl Marx’s Early Years and his “Worldview”

Eric Rahim. A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview (order here) See our other books on Marxism here

Criterion Quarterly Review by Dr Michael Tribe*

This modestly sized book contains two principal themes. The first is a description of, and discussion about, Karl Marx’s life before he reached London in August 1849 at the age of 31. The second is a detailed outline of the formation of his “Worldview”, which is a systematic framework for the logical analysis of socio-economic development. While this “Worldview” includes all of the elements of ‘modes of production’ it does not include detailed discussion of more ‘microeconomic’ aspects of the theory of value (and of the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ in particular).

The reference to “A Promethean Vision” refers to a Greek myth which was the subject of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the 19th century English poet. The Wikipedia article on “Prometheus Unbound” describes Shelley’s work as being “concerned with the torments of the Greek mythological figure Prometheus, who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment and suffering at the hands of Zeus” (Wikipedia, 2020). Eric Rahim makes the point (Rahim, 2020: 6) that Marx quoted the original “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus in the foreword to his doctoral dissertation (see below) in the context of rejection of “servitude” to “Father Zeus” (the ruler of all the gods in Greek mythology). It is possible, as Eric Rahim suggests, to see a parallel between the Promethean rejection of the gods and the subsequent suffering and radicalism of Marx, together with the discomforts and privation which he often suffered during his life.

This review is by a development economist who, while broadly familiar with the main elements of Karl Marx’s intellectual and political thinking, was not familiar with the details of either his early life or of the details of his intellectual contributions before reading Eric Rahim’s book. Preparing this review has therefore been a ‘voyage of discovery.’

Karl Marx’s Early Life

Marx arrived in London in 1849.   He lived there until his death   in March 1883. He was born in Trier in May 1818, in the Rhineland Palatinate of what is now Germany, to Heinrich, a lawyer, and Henriette, a Dutch woman from a prosperous textile family. Heinrich Marx converted to the Lutheran Protestant faith shortly before Karl’s birth, and his other children and his wife followed the same path within a few years – renouncing their Jewish faith. Trier lies in the part of Germany which adjoins Luxembourg, and which has a strong link with France – Heinrich was “familiar with the ideas of the French socialist Saint- Simon” (Rahim, 2020: 1).

Marx received his principal schooling at the Friedrich-Wilhelm- Gymnasium in Trier, which had evolved from the Trier Jesuit College – dating from 1561 (FWG, 2020). After leaving this school in 1835 his father sent him to Bonn University to study A year later Marx transferred to Berlin University where the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the famous philosopher was still very strong – only leaving the university in March 1841. During his years in Berlin, Marx transferred his intellectual commitment from law to philosophy, having – from his years at school in Trier – developed linguistic skills which encompassed Latin, Greek and French in

In April 1841 Marx submitted his doctoral dissertation to the University of Jena, titled Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. The choice of an alternative university for the submission (and award) of his doctorate was due to a developing hostility towards ‘young Hegelians’ in Berlin and more broadly in Germany, which halted Marx’s potential academic career in early 1842. Marx then started writing for political journals, with one of the first articles being a “sharp attack on the royal order” (Rahim, 2020: 7) intended for publication in the Deutsche Jahrbücher (owned and edited by a friend, Arnold Ruge). Ruge apologised to Marx because the article could not be published due to objections by the Prussian censors. It was published in 1843 by a Swiss journal which was also owned by Ruge. Another article by the young Marx, on “the question of censorship and freedom of the press”, was published in May 1842 in a new newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, which was based in Cologne.

In October 1842 Marx was appointed as editor-in-chief of the Rheinische Zeitung following the dismissal of the previous editor due to pressure from the Prussian government. It is important to note two things here. First, that the issue of press censorship was clearly a major concern for the Prussian government which represented an absolutist monarchy. Second, that the ‘influence’ of the Prussian government extended well beyond the borders of Prussia, even though Germany was still made up of a large number of nominally separate states and statelets. In 1842 Cologne was part of what is now North-Rhine-Westphalia and was predominantly Catholic, in contrast to the Protestant dominance in Prussia.

In April 1843 the Prussian government suppressed the Rheinische Zeitung, but Marx had already decided to resign as editor by that time due to the effect of Prussian censorship. It had been decided that, based on Ruge’s funding, a new monthly journal – the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher – would be established in Paris. In June 1843 Marx was married to Jenny von Westphalen (daughter of an ennobled senior civil servant who was based in Trier from 1816) and in October of the same year the couple arrived in Paris, with Marx taking up the co-editorship of the new journal. However, Marx had to give up his editorial role due to a break-up of the friendship with Ruge because of growing political differences, with Marx leaning further towards association with the growing Communist groupings. The couple’s survival was assured by a sizable donation from the shareholders of the Rheinische Zeitung (now based in Switzerland).

It was in Paris in the summer of 1844 that Marx first started his collaboration with Frederick Engels, the son of a prosperous Rhineland industrialist. Their first joint work was a critique of the “Worldview” (Weltanschauung) of Bruno Bauer (another former student of Hegel) and the ‘young Hegelians’. Engels’ contribution originally consisted of 16 pages of handwritten text, while Marx laboured over several months to produce 300 pages. The book, The Holy Family, was published in Frankfurt in February 1845. At the time when this book was planned Engels was about to travel to Manchester to take up a managerial post in a textile factory which was part-owned by his father.

Towards the end of 1844 Marx signed a contract with a German publisher for a book with the title, Critique of Politics and Political Economy. In the summer of 1845 he made a six-week visit to Manchester to visit his friend Engels, devoting much of this time  to the study of political economy for the new book. However, by late 1846 the German publisher lost patience at continuous delays; explained by Marx in a series of letters as being due to the extended length and scope of the work in response to evolving thought and to new publications on the subject which “must be fully considered” (Rahim, 2020: 30).

Marx, Jenny and their first daughter were expelled from Paris    and France in January 1845 following influence from the Prussian government on the French authorities. They moved to Brussels, where he was permitted to stay after giving an undertaking not to write on current political affairs. Marx contributed to the Deutsche Brussler Zeitung while in Brussels, but the most notable series of events during this period relates to his involvement in the formation of the Communist League following meetings in London in June 1847 and Brussels in November of the same year. At the second meeting Marx and Engels were asked to draft what became the Communist Manifesto – which was published in late-February 1848. Almost immediately after the Manifesto became more widely circulated the Belgian police expelled Marx from the country.

After leaving Belgium, Marx spent some months in Cologne. There he tried to establish a new newspaper, called the Neuer Rheinische Zeitung using some of his own money (which included part of his ‘family heritage’ received as an advance from his mother) as well as funds secured from liberal businessmen. He applied successfully to  the authorities in Cologne for citizenship, but because German ‘power relations’ meant that the decision also had to be accepted by the Prussian government, the rejection of his application in Berlin meant that he remained essentially ‘stateless’. In May 1849 Marx was ordered to leave Cologne, and after spending some time in other German states (in Bingen, Hesse, Frankfurt and Baden) he went to Paris at the beginning of June. However, in mid-July he was again expelled from Paris, being given permission to live in Brittany. Life in a provincial French region did not appeal to Marx and in August 1849 he travelled to England, with the intention of settling in London.

This long summary of the course of events through which Marx passed before reaching London is intended to illustrate two things. One is the thoroughness of Eric Rahim’s account of Marx’s early life in the book. The other is to demonstrate the extent to which Marx, as a radical thinker and activist, was ‘hounded’ by the authorities in several parts of the yet-to-be-united Germany (which was largely under Prussian hegemony), in France (and Paris in particular) and in Belgium. However, even in times of comparatively rudimentary transport networks it was relatively easy to move around these parts of western Europe.

The Formation of Karl Marx’s “Worldview”

 It is in Chapter 3 of Eric Rahim’s book that we find a clear definition of Marx’s ‘materialist method’. This essentially means that “the character of the state and politics, at any time, reflects the economic and social conditions prevailing at the time, and therefore politics is constrained by these economic conditions” (Rahim, 2020: 46). The main elements of the ‘materialist method’ were published in a Paris newspaper in August 1844. The German Ideology, a collection of papers jointly written by Marx and Engels, contains their developed thoughts on the materialist method and was completed in 1846. However, this collection was not published until 1932, and so remained largely unknown for almost ninety years. This ‘non-publication’ of significant intellectual developments is another of the important issues which are clear in Eric Rahim’s book, and which are drawn together at the end of this review. One of the most difficult tasks faced by Eric Rahim in writing this book was created   by the need to combine the development of Marx’s thought with the sequence of works which he published, works which he wrote but did not publish, and works which were planned but never materialised in the form originally intended.

It is extremely important to bear in mind a crucial distinction which Eric Rahim makes very clearly between the “social philosophy” and “theoretical and scientific” aspects of Karl Marx’s writings (Rahim, 2020: 52). Much of Marx’s theorising had a basis within the close study which he made of the writings of the classical political economists of the 18th and early 19th century. However, these writings also have a distinction between their “social philosophy” and their “theoretical and scientific” elements. While, for example, Smith espoused individualism in his social philosophy, this was rejected by Marx. However, a considerable amount of classical political economy was adopted and adapted by Marx in his own “Worldview”.

It is from these political economists that Marx drew his labour theory of value, and also his basic theory of expanded reproduction. The former provides a basis for values within the circulation of commodities and services in economic exchange systems. The latter provides a basic theory of the working of the economy and of economic growth, and will be expounded in more detail below. However, there is one potential area of confusion in terminology which exists in ‘classical political economy’ as compared with contemporary terminology in the 21st century. This relates to the definition of “wealth”. In these 18th and 19th century writings “wealth” meant income – or the produce arising from economic activity. In present day economic discourse the word “wealth” almost universally means “accumulated wealth” – or the “stock of capital”. It is this which Marx describes as “capital” – consisting of accumulated assets which provide one of the basic elements of productive systems. For Marx, as well as the classical political economists more broadly, “capital” consisted of “accumulated labour”.

Eric Rahim outlines four distinct stages of socio-economic “organisational form” as described by Adam Smith: 1) hunting and food gathering, 2) a society of shepherds (where private property first appears), 3) feudal society, and 4) contemporary (18th century) commercial society (Rahim, 2020: 61). Compare this with Marx’s four distinct “modes of production”: 1) tribal society, 2) slavery based (Greece and Rome), 3) feudalism (middle ages), and 4) modern bourgeois society (Rahim, 2020: 90). However, while these two ‘classifications’ of stages of development are similar, Marx’s intellectual innovation was to provide a dynamic element which provides a basis for understanding the movement from one stage (or “mode of production”) to another – and this is made clear in Eric Rahim’s book (Rahim, 2020: 93).

To achieve understanding of the dynamics of movement from one mode of production to another it is necessary to outline other aspects of Marx’s “Worldview”. The “material conditions” of production consist of the mass of productive forces (i.e. the physical capital stock) and the methods of production (i.e. the technology). The methods of production consist of productive equipment, tools, and the capacities and skills    to use the equipment – in other words the technology is embodied in the capital stock and in the labour force. Each generation starts with inherited material conditions, uses them, improves on them, and passes them on to the next generation. Improvements may be quantitative (i.e. adding to the mass of productive forces) or qualitative (i.e. developing the technology as well as the capacities and skills to use the equipment). If a generation simply passes on to the next unimproved material conditions this amounts to “simple reproduction”. If a generation passes on improved material conditions to the next this amounts to “expanded reproduction”.

The fact that Marx’s theoretical construct relating to the development of modes of production refers to “generations” is, in fact, an unnecessary simplification of reality. In the real-world socio-economic development does not take place in a series of discrete “generations”. It is instead    a continuous process. The analysis of economies through more recent conceptualisations (some, such as the Harrod-Domar model and input- output analysis, being logical developments of Marx’s thinking) are based principally on data from national accounts systems which measure economic flows within a series of annual periods. This means that rather than using a socio-economic concept of generations, recent economic analysis is based on an analysis of economic flows broken into annual ‘time-bites’ as a matter of intellectual convenience.

Returning to Marx’s “Worldview”, there is a complementarity between the conditions of production and the social structure and social relations. A fundamental part of this is the relation between the owners of the means of production and those who work for them. In addition, there is a relationship between the  sphere  of  material  production  and its corresponding social structure (the “base”) and the “realm of consciousness” which consists of general culture, belief systems, politics  – and institutional relationships including laws (the “superstructure”). There comes a time when “The process of development that creates imbalances between the forces of production and the relations of production also produces a class whose interest is tied up with the expansion of the new forces of production. It is this class, whose interests are aligned with the new forces of production, that fights for appropriate changes in institutions that facilitate economic expansion” (Rahim, 2020: 93).

Therefore, there is an internal or endogenous dynamic which drives change – with some classes (interest groups) which fight for change and other classes which fight against change. There will be some groups in society which will fight for changes different to those sought by other groups, so more complex dynamics would involve multiple conflicts rather than a straightforward dual conflict. However, the fundamental simplification to two principal opposing classes makes the analysis more straightforward. This process can generate a shift from one mode of production (or one of Smith’s stages) to another, but because of    the tensions between the classes this shift, or transition, is not likely   to be quick and smooth. There are likely to be time-lags involved. There will be times when relations of production fail to adapt to technical and economic changes. An example is given which consists of the situation when the feudal relationship of serfdom became an obstacle (or “fetter”) to change in the development of capitalism due  to the need for mobility of labour between occupations and locations (Rahim, 2020: 92). Nevertheless, the more powerful classes, likely to be the owners of the means of production, will prevail. For Marx the relations of production adapt to changes in the economy – the economy drives historical development, so his theory can be described as being ‘economistic’.

Other important aspects of Marx’s “Worldview” are that the “process of development is organic and evolutionary” (Rahim, 2020: 94) with human interactions including an element  of  chance,  and  that the progression through the ‘stages’ of the modes of production cannot ‘skip’ a stage (for example from feudalism to socialism). The infeasibility of ‘skipping’ a stage in the logical sequence established by Marx (say, skipping from ‘feudalism’ to ‘communism’) is due to the nature of the characteristics of the ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ at each stage. Eric Rahim suggests, however, that although Marx’s “Worldview” has a strong logical structure it also includes an element of flexibility rather than being rigidly ‘automatic’, including both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ factors.

The discussion in A Promethean Vision includes attention to the international dimensions of the evolution of socio-economic systems: “It is with the development of capitalism, from, say, 1500, that (as the Communist Manifesto put it) the ‘natural exclusiveness of nations’  was destroyed and development in different parts of the world made ‘interdependent’.” (Rahim, 2020: 95). A later remark in the book is particularly important in this respect: “…….we have to recognise the fact that the human agency is not monolithic; it consists of different individuals, groups – ‘theoreticians’ – with different assessments of the prevailing situation and different views on the most effective course of action to be taken.” (Rahim, 2020: 100). If this diversity is true within a particular country, then how much more true is it in the international context?

Marx’s “Worldview” contributed, then, not only to a logical intellectual framework which permitted the analysis of the staged development of social-economic structures, but also an approach which included the dynamics of movement from one stage to another. In the form compared above with the similar conceptualisation of Adam Smith the final, fourth, stage consisted of “modern bourgeois society” (Rahim, 2020: 90). In the more political elements of the theory developed by Marx and Engels a fifth stage, that of the Communist socio-economic mode of production, was added. In Chapter 7 Eric Rahim discusses The March into Communism – which is related to two conditions. The first of these is that “Communism [the fifth stage] cannot be established    in a poor country.” (Rahim, 2020: 106). The second condition is that “Capitalism as a mode of production must have exhausted all its potential for further development.” (Rahim, 2020: 107). It is also evident that “the international dimension complicates the analysis considerably so the overthrow of capitalism would be a ‘prolonged and complex process.’” (Rahim, 2020: 109-110).

The implication of this is essentially that in the version of Marx’s “Worldview” of the 1860s the establishment of the type of Communism which had been conceptualised by Marx and Engels needed to be through a process of successive evolution through the stages of “modes of production”. The establishment of ‘Communist states’ through violent revolution was not part of this evolutionary or developmental process. The addition of an international dimension, which involves the interaction between different nation states, each with its own socio-economic structures including class interests, means that the development of a Communist mode of production in any one country could be perceived as being against the class interests of the dominant group in other powerful countries. In this way the evolution of socio-economic systems becomes dependent not only on a national dynamic, but also on an international dynamic, making outcomes essentially indeterminate. This reflects the inherent flexibility of the Marxian “Worldview”, without detracting from the intellectual power of Marx’s conceptualisation of the stages of socio-economic development and of the dynamics of movement from one stage to another. However,  because Marx’s  “Worldview” was in  a constant state of evolution, by the later years of his life the precise nature of the potential emergence of capitalism into communism was never fully settled.

Overall Remarks

 Eric Rahim’s book achieves both of its principal objectives, namely, to trace the intellectual development of the young Marx (before he arrived in London in 1849) and to explain the nature and development of Marx’s “Worldview”. During the period before he moved to England he was systematically ‘unsettled’ by the authorities – particularly by the Prussian government. Politically he moved from being a radical Hegelian during his years in the University of Berlin to being a committed Communist at the end of his years in Paris. His intellectual development can now be traced through a large number of his publications, many of which (including some of the most important) did not see the light of day during his lifetime.

Although Marx suffered from censorship during the years covered by Eric Rahim’s book, the fact that many of his works were not published during his lifetime was not due to any form of censorship imposed by the authorities. Rather, Marx himself appears to have developed his thoughts systematically, perhaps relatively slowly,  at considerable length, and also perhaps as a ‘perfectionist’, so that he hesitated to venture into a published form for some of his writings. The fact that many of his theoretical constructs had been written down meant that he could refer to them himself, and that he could share them with friends and intellectual collaborators. In this sense his “Worldview” had a ‘life’ even if it was not shared with a wider readership.

An interesting comparison can be drawn between Marx and the English philosopher Tom Paine, who fell foul of the authorities in England, France and the United States. His support for American Independence made him a target for the English ruling class, while despite his espousal of the French Revolution he fell foul of factionalism within French post-Revolution politics. Paine was found guilty in absentia of seditious libel in England, and spent time in prison in Paris. He eventually died in Greenwich Village, New York State in 1809 (Wikipedia, 2020b). While Paine courted ‘trouble’ with his support for seriously anti-regime causes, Marx lived for many years in London without being significantly victimised by the authorities. In Marx’s case there was no direct threat to the policies of British governments, even though his intellectual position challenged the ruling class. He was also, de facto, protected from the attentions of the Prussian authorities.

Remember that the intellectual evolution of Marx’s theory of development – based on modes of production and movements from one mode to another – does not have any directly ideological content. In this sense it is interesting to compare Marx’s theory with those of Schumpeter (The Theory of Development – 1934), of Rostow (The Stages of Economic Development – 1991), and of Deane (The First Industrial Revolution – 1979). Rostow, of course, added an “anti-communist” rider to the title of his book, making his contribution explicitly ideological. However, through these three extremely notable contributions to the 20th century economic literature there are clear echoes of Marx’s “Worldview”.

Eric Rahim’s small book provides an excellent account of Marx’s early years and of the evolution of his approach to the structural analysis of socio-economic development, virtually all of this fitting within Marx’s first 31 years, before he settled in London. It can be highly recommended to those wishing to read an accessible and authoritative study of this fascinating subject.


* Michael Tribe is a development economist. He has held academic posts in the Economics field in Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, in the University of Cape Coast, Ghana and in the Universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde and Bradford in the UK. Most recently he has been teaching Masters courses in Aid and Development, in Development Policy and in Financial Institutions and Markets in Developing Countries as well as supervising Masters dissertations for the Adam Smith Business School in the University of Glasgow.

He has a substantial publications record including, most recently: M. Huq and M. Tribe. 2018. The Economy of Ghana: 50 years of Economic Development. London: Palgrave Macmillan and M. Tribe (ed.). forthcoming 2020. Economic Neoliberalism and International Development. Abingdon: Routledge. He has a personal website at:



Deane, P. 1979. The First Industrial Revolution (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

FWG.     2020.    Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium   –     accessed    from    www. 6th July 2020.

Rahim, E. 2020. A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview.

London: Praxis Press jointly with the Marx Memorial Library.

Rostow, W. W. 1991. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto

3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schumpeter, J. A. 1934. The Theory of Economic Development. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia. 2020a. Prometheus Unbound (Shelley) – accessed from https:// 7th July 2020

Wikipedia. 2020b. Thomas Paine – accessed from Thomas_Paine 21st July 2020

Dr Michael Tribe is an Honorary Lecturer in the Department of Economics, University of Strathclyde and a Specialist Professional in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow

Recent and forthcoming publications:

M. Huq and M. Tribe. 2018. The Economy of Ghana: 50 years of Economic Development. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

M. Tribe (ed.). forthcoming 2020. Economic Neoliberalism and International Development. Abingdon: Routledge.

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