Karl Marx was born in Prussia in 1818, the son of a lawyer who converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in order to advance his career. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all that's known about Marx's childhood. He was married in 1843 to Jenny von Westphalen. The couple had seven children, but only three survived to adulthood. Perhaps the most interesting part of Marx's life is that his main source of support was from Engels, who drew an ever-increasing income from the family business in England. Marx supplemented this income by writing weekly articles for the New York Daily Tribune for a short time in 1851.
Marx's theories on social evolution were based on several things (from Wikipedia):
- Hegel's dialectical method and historical orientation;
- the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo;
- French socialist and sociological thought, in particular the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier;
- earlier German philosophical materialism, particularly that of Ludwig Feuerbach
- the solidarity with the working class of Friedrich Engels
One of the more interesting things about Marx is that he advocated social revolution of the masses to move toward his ideal society. He recognized capitalism as a necessary historical step, but did not see it as sustainable because it took too many things from too many people while giving too much to too few. Marx envisioned socialism as the first step after capitalism, where the government allocated resources to everyone and then, when the government was no longer needed, it would disband.
Human nature, however, very much gets in the way of this process. People in power tend to like being in power, and thus make many moves that keep them there. For object lessons, take a look at the numerous "Marxist" governments around the world today. Marx himself was disgusted by these variations on his work, and refused to acknowledge them as anything less than pedantic tripe.
In fact, Marx wrote letters in 1883 "to the French labour leader Jules Guesde and to Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law) — both of whom claimed to represent Marxist principles — accusing them of 'revolutionary phrase-mongering' and of denying the value of reformist struggle (Wikipedia)." These letters gave rise to the now-famous declaration that "If that is Marxism, then I am no Marxist."
What does the study of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their theories offer to Steampunk writers? Flavor more than anything, particularly for those writers who play in First-World Steampunk. Seeing as Marx was a prominent thinker during the timeframe, his socialist thoughts would be read by quite a few people. Maybe even some would be attempting implementation of the theories.
Of course, as with any political theory, the more interesting side for writers is how it can go wrong rather than how it can go right.