"Karl Marx...was trained as a philosopher. His early works are philosophical. Later, along with Fredrich Engels, his work took a practical turn and advocated the political/economic system of revolutionary communism. This adaptation of his philosophy to a practical account was, at its height, the most dominant ideology in the world (quite an achievement.)" Michael Boylan, Philosophy: An Innovative Introduction, Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts and Responsive Writing.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
THE PHILOSOPHY OF KARL MARX
"Even if the capitalist buys the labor power of his laborer at its full value as a commodity on the market he yet extracts more value from it than he paid for, and in the ultimate analysis this surplus value forms those sums of value from which are heaped up the constantly increasing masses of capital in the hands of the possessing classes." Frederich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "You studied Marxism while in college. Today few people seem to be strong advocates of Marxism (or socialism). Might not a little Marx in our lives explain our economic blues?"
I think it's pretty obvious that if we wish to understand the intellectual world of our time, it is crucial that we understand the major thinkers who shaped our world. In that sense, then, an encounter with Marx is inescapable. In my early twenties I did consider myself to be a Marxist. Why? Well, because almost every major modern black intellectual that I read felt it was necessary to make reference to Marxist thought. So I studied Marx and Engels. I devoted my master's thesis in philosophy to Marx, Freud and Wilhelm Reich. Then I taught the history of Marxist thought in a course called "Radical Thought" at SUNY-Stony Brook when I was a doctoral student. I was the kind of Marxist you would not have liked because, at age 24, I was rude, arrogant, insulting, aggressive, self-righteous, and overbearing. For a brief time I even kept a daily record of capitalist and racist atrocities I felt I experienced every day on a personal level. (It embarrasses me to look at those notes now.)
But a funny thing happened to me along the way to the Worker's Paradise. You cannot study Marx without studying Hegel, for Marx during his time as a student at the University of Berlin was a younger member of the group known as the "Young Hegelians." You discover the indebtedness of Marx's "material dialectic" to the dialectic of ideas or spirit in Hegel. And if you then study Hegel's The Phenomenology of Mind to better understand the origin of Marx's ideas, you find yourself entering the door of a phenomenalistic outlook. Hegel will lead you directly to the philosophy of Kant with its spatiotemporal manifold. And the proper study of Kant will lead you to the man who awoke Kant from his "dogmatic slumbers," i.e., to David Hume. And Hume will, of course, lead you to the person he is reacting against, John Locke, who will in turn direct you to the man he is quarreling with, Descartes (especially on the question of innate ideas).
Marx himself claimed that he only contributed one original idea to philosophy, the idea of "class struggle." While so much of our thought about labor and economics and alienation is intertwined with very influential Marxist ideas, it's important to evaluate Marx, a philosophical system-builder, with the same rigor we would bring to an analysis of any other thinker. His and Engels's theories of social causation and historical determinism can be troubling. In The Communist Manifesto, we read that "man's consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life. What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes in character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." For Marx, ideas (art, religion, even philosophy) are reduced to being epiphenomena or passive by-products of the economic forces that determine our lives. This reductionism is problematic. (It makes Marxist literary criticism one-dimensional and abysmal.) It reduces all previous epistemologies or knowledge (including Marxism itself) to the status of being an incorrect ideology. As philosopher W.T. Jones points out in A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre, "From the pragmatic point of view stated in the Theses on Feuerbach, dialectical materialism is only another form of scientism, a rather naive version of the traditional metaphysics that differs from it only in relying on an allegedly scientific method instead of on perception and reason." (And I would note, that "scientific method" is pre-Einstein.)
Furthermore, Marx's faith in progress and the science of his time places him in the same camp as Jeremy Bentham and the positivists. Clearly, he---like Hegel---is influenced by the idea of the importance of "development" as a means for interpreting history (i.e., evolution, Darwin, etc.) But there is something a bit dreamy and fantastical about Marx's thought when in The German Ideology he describes the future after capitalism this way:
"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, or critic."
"Each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes?" This abolition of the division of labor and specialization is a little hard to imagine in our complex, 21st century societies unless one is an über-Renaissance man or woman capable of working competently as a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider in the morning, as an economist in the afternoon, a classical pianist in the evening, and a Sanskritist after dinner. (Okay, now I'm being playful, but I think you get my point.)
In Marx's correspondence with one of his associates, there is a letter in which he refers to a third person as being a "nigger." (You can imagine how I felt about that.) He knew zip, nada, zero about non-Western philosophical and religious traditions, and probably felt they were pre-scientific, primitive, and unimportant. In 1973, writer John Gardner made the comment to me that he felt Marxism was intellectually "easy." I'm convinced he was right about that.
So, in short and to answer today's question, I think we already have "a little Marx in our lives," whether we like that or not. And like Marx himself when he was at his best, we are obliged to subject that presence to rigorous analysis and critique.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:11 AM