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Marx: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Marx: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Karl Marx in just one hour.Karl Marx's philosophical critique of capitalism and his solution of communism directly led to the formation of the communist state in the Soviet Union. Whilst this great venture has now all but completely failed, Marx’s philosophy has proved to be arguably the most influential of the twentieth century; the influence of Marxism can be seen in subjects as diverse as the infamous policies of Joseph Stalin to many of the progressive humanitarian reforms of the twentieth century.Here is a concise, expert account of Marx’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Marx’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Marx in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u1b5a152c-3e8a-5bf4-b7f8-ab36c2fbac5f)

Title Page (#u19fd515c-70eb-51d6-93ef-a1abd0e04ab9)


Marx’s Life and Works


Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Marx’s Writings

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates

Chronology of Marx’s Life and Times

Recommended Reading

About the Author


About the Publisher

Introduction (#u69f5c639-fed0-5a12-b156-e24a3da44c5e)

In 1848, the year that Karl Marx published the first Communist Manifesto, there were revolutionary disturbances throughout Europe, from Sicily to Warsaw. In Paris the uprising led to the fall of the Orléans monarchy; in Vienna the reactionary and repressive chancellor Metternich was forced to flee in disguise, “like a criminal”. France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the two major powers on the continental mainland. It looked as if Europe was on the brink. But the forces of reaction eventually won the day, and their retribution was awesome. The scene in Dresden described by Clara Schumann (wife of the composer) was typical:

“They shot down every insurgent they could find, and our landlady told us later that her brother, who owns the Golden Stag in Scheffelgasse, was made to stand and watch while the soldiers shot one after another twenty-six students they found in a room there. Then it is said they hurled men into the street by the dozen from the third and fourth floors. It is horrible to have to go through these things! This is how men have to fight for their little bit of freedom! When will the time come when all men have equal rights?”

Marx proposed communism as the answer. The twentieth-century experience has taught us in no uncertain terms that it does not work. Yet several of Marx’s most perceptive criticisms of capitalism remain unanswered. The questions of social justice which he raised – pressing and crucial at the time – remain with us. The cheek-by-jowl existence of luxury and pitiless destitution that can be found today in Bombay and São Paulo would be all too recognizable to the Marx who walked the streets of Dickensian London. Even in the heartlands of twenty-first-century affluence created by capitalism, its “contradictions” are still evident in the urban ghettos of New York and Los Angeles, the economic wastelands of northeast England, and the slums of Naples. Capitalism has become the worldwide success story, but at cost. In Marx’s time, this cost was beginning to appear unbearable.

Marx’s Life and Works (#u69f5c639-fed0-5a12-b156-e24a3da44c5e)

Karl Marx was born in the German provincial city of Trier on 5 May, 1818. Trier is just six miles from the Luxembourg border, on the Mosel River, which is renowned for its vineyards. Its proximity to the border and its love of wine make Trier an easy-going cosmopolitan spot, factors which were to have a significant influence on Marx.

Like so many ardent revolutionaries, Marx was brought up amidst comfortable bourgeois surroundings. His father, Hirschel, was a successful local lawyer who also owned a couple of small vineyards; and one of Karl’s uncles went on to found the Dutch industrial giant Philips.

Although descended from a line of rabbis, Hirschel Marx was not religious. Like many German Jews during this period – such as the composer Felix Mendelssohn and the poet Heinrich Heine – he converted to Christianity. This was largely a formality, enabling him to assimilate more easily into German middle-class society. Hirschel (who now became Heinrish) Marx had already enthusiastically embraced European culture. His favourite authors were Kant and Voltaire: a characteristic blend of German profundity and French subversive wit. Germany was in the process of becoming a unified nation state, and in 1815 the Rhineland provinces had been taken over by Prussia. The new Prussian rulers were deemed autocratic and oppressive by the more liberal locals. Karl’s father joined a political club that pressed for the Prussian state to adopt a constitution, which would enshrine the rights of its citizens.

Few details of Karl’s childhood have come down to us, apart from his so-called habit of forcing his sisters to eat mud pies. This sounds like a legend based upon a single incident: weeping muddy-lipped girls, outraged mother, skulking Karl, etc. Needless to say, commentators have exploited its metaphorical implications to the full – this is what the mature Karl did to us all, and so forth. By the time he went to nearby Bonn University at the age of eighteen, Karl was already an avid imbiber of books and wine, dividing his time equally between the library and the taverns. During some riotous activity in the latter he managed to provoke a local officer cadet into challenging him to a duel, and was lucky to emerge from this episode with nothing more serious than a traditional dueling scar. Karl was never the athletic type and even managed to evade military service on health grounds (aided by a somewhat suspect doctor’s report).

A year later Marx transferred to the University of Berlin, ostensibly to continue his law studies. But by now he had discovered philosophy, and all else paled into insignificance. Berlin was the capital of Prussia, far from the wine-loving Rhineland, and here student life was a much more serious matter. This was where the great Hegel had been professor of philosophy, becoming almost the official philosophical apologist for the Prussian state. But Hegel had died five years earlier, and a wide range of his followers had by now developed his ideas in a wide range of directions. Hegel’s vast idealistic philosophical system had proved open to many contradictory interpretations, several of which were anything but sympathetic to the repressive Prussian state and all it stood for.

Marx dutifully attended the official lectures on Hegel’s philosophy but claimed that he eventually fell ill “from intense vexation at having to make an idol of a view I detested”. Ironically, Hegel proved to be one of the main influences on Marx’s philosophy. But it was the dynamics and scope of this philosophy, rather than its actual content, that appealed to Marx.

Hegel’s philosophy viewed the world and all history in terms of a vast, all-embracing, ever-evolving system. This evolution grew out of the struggle between contradictions, and worked in a dialectical fashion. Each notion implied and generated the notion of its contradiction. For instance, the very notion of “being” implied the notion of “nonbeing,” or nothingness. These two opposites (the thesis and its antithesis) then came together to form their synthesis, which was “becoming”. In Hegel’s all-embracing dialectical system, this synthesis then became a new thesis, which in its turn developed its own antithesis, and so on. This dynamic system moved through all ideas, all history, and all phenomena – up to the highest level of Absolute Spirit reflecting upon itself, which is the totality of all that exists.

More specifically, Hegel’s philosophy of history insisted that the evolution of laws and government institutions in a society reflected the ethos and character of the people who made up that society. This may seem obvious to anyone who is used to living in a more liberal society, but it was far from obvious 150 years ago in the repressive, bureaucratic Prussian state. Hegel insisted that there was a dialectical link between the state and its citizens. This dialectic assumed both a logical and an organic aspect. The evolving structure of the state and the evolving traditions of its people were part and parcel of the same thing.

Hegel’s immensely prolix and complex philosophy appeared at an opportune historical moment. Its idealism, its insistence that all was moving toward the Absolute Spirit, filled the spiritual vacuum left by a growing disillusion with religion. It was Hegel who originally pronounced “God is dead” in 1827, not his firebrand successor Nietzsche, who is usually associated with this saying. Hegel was referring here to the more limited Christian idea of God, which would be superseded by the Absolute Spirit. Even so, his remark was highly blasphemous. Yet it was buried deep in the obfuscation of his all but unreadable work, and passed largely unnoticed. As a result, his philosophy appeared essentially conservative to the Prussian authorities. Its emphasis on a vast hierarchical system seemed like the absolute dream of a bureaucratic state. It was Hegel’s insistence on the spiritual, his religiosity, and the repressive conservatism of his system that made Marx sick.

Another major influence on Marx’s intellectual development at this juncture was the German humanist philosopher and moralist Ludwig Feuerbach, who was born in 1801 and had originally studied theology. In his early twenties Feuerbach had abandoned theology in favour of studying under Hegel in Berlin. But by the time Feuerbach published his major works, he had progressed far beyond the orthodox theology and orthodox Hegelianism of his earlier years. According to Feuerbach, Christianity had nothing to do with humanity’s relation to God. This religion, like all religions, covertly involved the relation between humanity and its own essential nature. The attributes of God were nothing more or less than the projected attributes of humanity. Our so-called knowledge of God was in fact no more than knowledge about ourselves and our own nature. For Hegel, the pinnacle of his system had been God – in the form of Absolute Spirit reflecting upon itself. Feuerbach accepted this structure, and even its dynamic, but interpreted it from a humanistic viewpoint. Absolute Spirit reflecting upon itself was nothing more or less than humanity’s own self-consciousness – man’s consciousness of his own essential nature, his understanding of his substantive self. What for Hegel had been idealistic and spiritual, became for Feuerbach humanistic and materialistic. There was no “spirit” involved. As we shall see, these ideas had a profound effect on Marx, though he did not swallow them whole. Ironically (and tellingly), Marx accepted the materialism of Feuerbach’s ideas but criticized their lack of Hegelianism. Feuerbach’s ideas were fine as they stood, but they lacked all dialectical and historical perspective. History, society, humanity itself (or its consciousness of itself in the form of God) were not changeless. They all evolved. They developed dialectically: the original idea generated its own self-contradiction, which was then resolved in a synthesis of these contradictions.

The overwhelming influence of Hegel, together with the vague ambiguities of his idealism, enabled his followers to develop his thought in all directions. The original thesis of Prussian conservatism soon generated its antithesis in the form of those who called themselves the Left Hegelians. Prominent among these was the Bavarian thinker Max Stirner, who had also attended Hegel’s lectures in Berlin. Stirner’s ideas were so extreme that they would later provide a philosophical backing for the anarchist movement. There was no denying the revolutionary implications of his extreme egoism. For Stirner, consciousness created reality: the individual ego was responsible for his world. Such things as social class, the masses, the state, and even humanity itself had no objective reality. Once again, Marx would grasp the subtlety of these ideas and then reverse them. He was impressed by Stirner’s insight into the profound relationship between consciousness and socio-historical reality. But for Marx it would be consciousness itself that was in fact created by these external material circumstances, not the other way around.

Marx now began developing his own philosophy, which attempted to combine these seminal ideas into a thoroughgoing materialism driven by dialectical forces. His aim was to “stand Hegel on his head”. But Marx’s youthful passion translated such ideas into heroic form. His doctoral thesis extolled Prometheus, the ancient Greek hero who stole fire from the gods and brought it down to humanity. For his punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where an eagle returned each day to peck out his ever-renewing liver. Marx would continue to identify with Prometheus throughout his life; this ancient Greek hero provides an uncanny metaphor for the fate of Marx and his ideas. The Greek translation of Prometheus means “he who sees, or thinks, the future”.

When Marx left the University of Berlin he had high hopes of taking up a post at a minor German university. Unfortunately, Friedrich Wilhelm IV had now become kaiser of Prussia, and his reign ushered in a new reactionary era. Left Hegelians, and all those associated with this development of Hegel’s thought, were dismissed from the state-controlled universities.

After searching somewhat haphazardly for a job, Marx found a position as a journalist, working for the newly founded Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland Times), a liberal newspaper based in Cologne. Despite the appallingly prolix style he had picked up from Hegel, Marx turned out to be an excellent journalist. Theory may have inspired him to jargon, but practice inspired him to coin ringing phrases that would remain typical of his writing throughout his life.

Marx was so successful as a journalist that by the end of his first year in the job he had been promoted to editor. The idealistic, hard-drinking, hard-working boss was highly popular with his idealistic, hard-drinking, hard-working young staff, who nicknamed him the “Moor” because of his swarthy bearded features. The Rheinische Zeitung quickly became a thorn in the side of the Prussian authorities and its circulation trebled, making it the highest-circulation paper in Prussia. Marx’s social and political relationships now took a dialectical course, one that remained characteristic throughout his life. Having attacked the authorities, he proceeded to lambast the liberal opposition for its ineffectiveness. Next he launched into his left-wing staff, theoretical revolutionaries to a man, dismissing the whole idea of revolution as an impractical pipe dream which simply hadn’t been thought through properly. Despite such sentiments, in 1843 the Rheinische Zeitung was closed down by the authorities.

In his growing dialectical fashion, Marx now took two contradictory actions in quick succession. First he decided to settle down and marry. Then he decided to abandon his homeland and move into exile. The woman he married was his childhood sweetheart. Jenny von Westphalen was widely reckoned to be “the most beautiful girl in Trier”, the scion of a local aristocratic family with powerful political connections. (Her father held a senior post in the government administration, and her older brother would become an extremely repressive minister of the interior in the Prussian government.) What on earth did the enchanting Jenny see in this scruffy young Jewish hell-raiser, who was even four years her junior? The fact is, Jenny was bored to death with life as a provincial social princess. She was highly intelligent, well read, and longed for a life away from the stifling upper-class circuit in Trier. Marrying the penniless Karl certainly brought her this, though perhaps not in the manner she had foreseen. But this was a love match on both sides. Through all their vicissitudes, Jenny and Karl remained profoundly attached to each other.

After marrying his aristocratic sweetheart, Marx carried her off to Paris. Now regarded as the revolutionary center of Europe, Paris had already staged revolutions in 1789 (the French Revolution) and 1830 (the revolution that overthrew the restored monarchy). The city contained all kinds of left-wing political groups. Marx’s ideas had evidently undergone still another dialectical transformation since his last days on the Rheinische Zeitung. He now believed that revolution was the answer, and soon became a member of the fledgling Communists. But how could the revolution come about? First, a thoroughgoing intellectual program would have to be worked out. And if politics was to change, then so would economics. Marx began an intensive study of the founding father of economics, the Scotsman Adam Smith, and his successor, the Englishman David Ricardo. At the same time he began forging a philosophical basis for his thinking, in the form of his own epistemology. What are the grounds for our knowledge of the world? How do we know what we know, and how do we know if it is true?

Marx’s epistemology is one of the weaker and less original aspects of his thought, but it is important for two reasons. It is the strictly philosophical basis of the great ideas to come, and its dynamic character echoes through all of Marx’s systematic thought. As we have seen, he had transformed his influences to the point where they could blend to become an exclusively materialist philosophy. In line with this, he wished to base all knowledge on strictly scientific premises.

For Marx, our knowledge began in our experience – our sensations and perceptions – of the material world. But Marx’s materialism differed significantly from that of his predecessors. Earlier materialists tended to view sensation and perception in passive terms. Light strikes our eyes, we feel heat, we hear a sound. Our perception of such sights and sounds in no way changes them: they are things that affect us. For Marx, on the other hand, such perception was an interaction between us, the subject, and the material object. This object (the world around us) becomes transformed in the process of being known. Our perception does not discover the truth of the world, just its appearance. Thus our knowledge too cannot be the truth. Instead, our knowledge consists of practical methods by which we can manipulate and gain control over the natural world. Our knowledge of the world is not passive, it is purposive. It is a two-way process – active and reactive – in line with the dialectic.

The synthesis of scientific knowledge we thus gain enables us to impose patterns of order and to manipulate or anticipate the workings of nature. This process does not arrive at the truth, as it is usually conceived. “The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thought has nothing to do with theory, it is a purely practical question. The truth is the reality and power of thought, which can only be demonstrated in practice.” This leads Marx to his famous conclusion: “Philosophers have previously only interpreted the world, but the real task is to change
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