It’s difficult to classify Karl Marx (1818-1883), according to Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy. To pick out one aspect of Marx’s thinking and focus on it is to distort his philosophy – a philosophy which he intended to be scientific.
A number of philosophers challenge this claim of Marx’s philosophy as scientific. In the chapter, Morals and Politics in her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch says:
“The early moral Marx, more given to philosophical reflection is to be contrasted with the later more scientific Marx, who, less concerned with morals, is struggling to solve the problem of how to create a totally viable and efficient economic system. This problem, it appears, is still with us.”
Marx: An Early Radical
Marx, who was born in Treves in Germany, was of Jewish background although his parents became Christians in his childhood. He studied at Bonn and Berlin, but his militancy and atheism sabotaged any chances of an academic career.
Instead, Marx went into journalism. He edited the Rheinische Zeitung. The authorities suppressed the newspaper for its radicalism, says Bertrand Russell. This was due, adds Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Philosophers, to Marx’s “trenchantly-expressed views.”
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In 1848, Marx returned to the Rhineland and pursued his political activism, but, as a result, Germany expelled him as an undesirable alien and he went to London with his friend, Friedrich Engels. Marx and his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, brought up their family in poverty with assistance from Engels.
Marx fathered a son by the family servant, although Engels helped him out by claiming paternity, which, allegedly, saved the philosopher’s marriage. Clearly, despite the claims that the family was “desperately poor,” they were not so poor that they were unable to maintain a family servant. Everything, it seems, is relative.
Karl Marx and the Importance of Dialectics
Marx took many of his ideas from other philosophers – most particularly, those of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831.) Marx’s philosophy appropriates Hegel’s dialectics.
According to Jeremy Harwood’s 100 Great Philosophers, “Hegelian dialectic starts with a proposition or thesis, which, initially, is taken to be true. Then, an equally logical antithesis is formulated. Faced with two incompatible ideas, a third position becomes apparent. This is the synthesis.” This synthesis then becomes a new thesis, which may possibly be challenged by another antithesis to produce yet another new synthesis – and so the process continues.
While Marx took on board Hegel’s dialectics, he turns the former philosopher’s idea of Absolute Spirit as identical with reality, inside out. Hegel, with his idealist’s idea of world spirit is wrong, claims Marx. It’s the other way around.
“For Marx, it is not the Idea that produces humanity, but humanity that produces the idea,” says Roger Caldwell in his article, “Karl Marx (1818-1883)” in Philosophy Now, May/June, 2014. Caldwell adds that Marx actually described Hegel’s thought as “occult.”
How Philosophy Becomes Economics
Marx’s materialism is a new angle on the old, traditional kind of materialism which was essentially passive, and located action in the object rather than the subject. Passive contemplation, Marx believes, is not real.
Atheist and analytical philosopher, Bertrand Russell, has little time for such concepts as Hegel’s commitment to the idea of an Absolute Spirit (pure thought) or Hegel’s Geist, which was the actual essence of being, and contrasts them with Marx’s ideas:
“Like Hegel, he thinks that the world develops according to a dialectical formula, but he totally disagrees with Hegel as to the motive force of this development. Hegel believed in a mystical entity called “Spirit,” which caused human history to develop according to the stages of the dialectic as set forth in Hegel’s Logic.”
There is a trace of sarcasm in Russell’s words as he continues:
“Why Spirit has to go through these stages is not clear. One is tempted to suppose that spirit is trying to understand Hegel, and at each stage rashly objectifies what it has been reading. Marx’s dialectic has none of this quality, except a certain inevitableness. For Marx, matter not spirit, is the driving force.”
The conclusion Russell reaches is that Marx’s main focus is on man’s relation to matter. The key part of this relationship with matter is that of his mode of production. “In this way, Marx’s materialism, in practice, becomes economics.”
Marx’s Theory of Value and Modern Economics
Roger Caldwell remarks that modern economics have dismissed Marx’s labour theory of value. This is: “…the idea that the value of a commodity is determined by the labour-time required for its production. Supply and demand, not labour-time, is now seen as the prime determinant of value.”
Nevertheless, Caldwell says: “Das Kapital is a multi-faceted work, and philosophers, social historians and political theorists continue to mine it for its wealth of ideas.”
Karl Marx’s Predictions
According to Marx, the pursuit of capitalism would result in the proletariat (the ordinary people) taking over the means of production. This would replace capitalism with a classless society, which would be more fair. Jeremy Harman quotes Marx as saying, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.”
This is how Marx predicted this would happen:
- The progress achieved in industrial technology would cause unemployment, meaning that the ordinary workers would become poorer while the owners and those who controlled production, would become wealthier. This would cause the workers to unite and rise against their oppression.
Marx says “Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Marx’s belief that capitalism would reduce wages until the people were only just able to survive convinced him that they would revolt and the capitalists would be crushed.
According to Jeremy Harwood, Marx also predicted that Germany would experience revolution first, but this did not happen. “He said that the triumph of the workers would lead to a classless society and, eventually, ‘the withering away’ of the state.
It did not.”
Evolution Not Revolution
While acknowledging that capitalism remained untried in Marx’s time and lacked today’s information and technology, it is clear that revolution is not the way forward in an advanced society, although less-developed countries remain at the mercy of revolution, for example, the ubiquitous coups in many African countries.
Dr. Madsen Pirie, in her article, Why Marx Was Wrong About Capitalism, explains that Marx should have looked to Darwin rather than Hegel, because in practice, it is evolution that is the driving force in advanced societies. “Organisms evolve and adapt to new circumstances.” Therefore, new forms emerge to resolve the problem of the former state.
To summarise: small differences dominate over time and this is a theory of change and of evolution – but not of revolution.
Iris Murdoch acknowledges Marx’s difficulty: “Marx is right to emphasise the deep historical working of technological change. Only now we have more powerful technology and more information.”
Karl Marx’s Works and Activism
Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in collaboration with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), whom Marx met in Paris after the shutdown of his paper.
He finished the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Further volumes have been edited from his notes, although these appeared after his death.
Roger Caldwell says, “…amazingly, it passed the Tsarist censorship – it was deemed too academic to be politically dangerous – and a Russian translation appeared as early as 1872, closely followed by French and English ones.”
The Irony of Marxism
This great system-builder and revivifier of materialism, as described by Bertrand Russell, was greatly affected by the suffering of others, in particular, the London poor. Yet, although purporting to be enemies of capitalism, according to Roger Caldwell, both Engels and Marx sustained themselves through profits gained from the cotton mills of Manchester and the exploitation of their workers.
For all his great system-building, Marx has one particular fixed idea, which Roger Caldwell mentions. Marx believed that the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was a Russian spy!
As for Marx’s capitalism, Roger Caldwell cautions us always to remember that capitalism in Marx’s time was very different from our own.
This was “…capitalism in its earliest, most predatory stages, before the progress subsequently achieved by labour organisations.”
We need to read Marx with a thought to the time in which he wrote, rather than in the time in which we are presently living.