Thursday, 5 June 2014

Karl Marx: Biography, Philosophy, Theory

The Bourgeois Marx

Karl Marx's own class status works against his own essentialism and reductionism with regards to class and “class consciousness”. His father, Heinrich Marx, was a lawyer and friend of Baron von Westphalen; who was a senior government officer from an aristocratic family. Marx's older sister Sophie was a friend of the Baron's daughter. Indeed that was how Marx himself met his future wife, Jenny (the Baron's daughter).

Marx himself was privately educated and then, in typical (revolutionary) bourgeois style, went on to study law at two universities: Bonn University and the University of Berlin.

As I said, Marx had an essentialist and reductionist view of capitalists or the “bourgeoisie” even though Marx himself and his best friend, Frederic Engels, were members of the bourgeoisie. Indeed Engels, during much of his life, was a capitalist/industrialist.

Much of Engels' money came from his father, who was a rich textile merchant who had a branch in Manchester. Engels' father also provided his son with an entertainment and hospitality allowance. He used some of that money to ride with the Cheshire hunt and to entertain his guests at his large house. At that house and during those dinner parties, he never allowed anyone to see his mistress; whom he had met at his father's mill in Manchester.

Apart from riding with the Cheshire hunt, Engels also said that he favourite hobbies were “wine, beer, women and song”.

Much of Engels' own money was spent financing Marx. In fact Engels reluctantly went back to work at his father's mill (in 1850) solely to help him finance Marx. He worked there for 20 years.

Marx's essentialism and views about the necessary war between capitalists and workers also seems strange because he was once a journalist for the Rheinische Zeitung; which was founded (in 1841) by wealthy manufacturers and industrialists. These capitalists, like Marx, believed in “progress” and “social advance”.

Philosophers Have Only Interpreted the World?

There are many self-aggrandising myths about Marx, some of which Marx himself fostered. For example, Marx famously said:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”

This is outrageously false. That is unless Marx simply, or really, meant that no other philosopher before him had been a revolutionary. Yet even that is not entirely true because many philosophers - prior to Marx - could indeed have been seen as revolutionaries. So Marx simply must have meant that no philosopher before him had been a Marxist revolutionary. True.

The fact is that many of the big names in philosophy were directly involved in “changing the world”; or at least directly involved in politics. Even Marx's direct predecessor, Hegel, was directly involved in politics. He just wasn't wasn't involved in bringing about “class war”.

Just to cite a few other examples.

John Locke's political philosophy had a profound effect on European and American politics. Machiavelli was both directly involved in politics and had a strong influence on politics, as did Voltaire, Rousseau,Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, Aquinas, Aristotle, etc.

Again, the simple crime of these philosophers must have been not to believe in “revolutionary class war”. Yet that didn't automatically mean that these philosophers didn't want to “change the world”: only “interpret it”.

Marx and Marxists, and this is still true today, have also got it into their minds that all philosophers before Marx saw human nature as being unchanging and fixed. Like the idea of all philosophers only interpreting the world, this is clearly false. Some philosophers did believe that. And some philosophers didn't.

However, despite Marx's seemingly anti-essentialist view of human nature, Marx did, after all, believe that there is an unchanging aspect of human nature in all societies and at all times. And this is where he incorporates another of his many essentialisms: according to Marx, “labour is the essence of man”.

So his first argument against unchanging human nature was clearly targeted at the different ideologies upheld by different societies at different times. Marx was also keen to point out that there were different ideologies about human nature itself at different times and in different societies. However, Marx wanted to trump such ideologically suspect essentialisms with his own (new) essentialism: that the true nature of human nature is labour. That, of course, was an acceptable essentialism to Marx because it squared well with the rest of his revolutionary philosophy.

In fact it can be said that Marxism itself “was just one more passing ideology of human nature” and of much else besides. That is, Marx's theories can be applied to Marxism itself in a truly self-referential manner.

The British Museum

Marxists love the anecdote about Marx spending all his time in the British museum writing about society, history and the future communist society. However, it seems that Marx wasn't even original in this respect either.

Louis Blanc (1811-82) was, just like Marx, exiled to Britain. And like Marx again he spent much of his time in the British museum. Not only that: it might well have been there that he coined a phrase which is often attributed to Marx:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

And just as Marx believed that socialism could only be a forerunner to (full or complete) communism, so Louis Blanc believed that communism itself would precede anarchism. Marx, needless to say, didn't believe that. Like Lenin and Trotsky, he had a deep hatred of anarchists and a deep faith in what the communist state could do.

The Scientific Study of Society

Marxists claim that Marx was the first philosopher (a few say “one of the first”) to “study society in a scientific manner”. Again, this is blatantly false.

Non-Marxist commentators have claimed that it was Hobbes (1588-1679), in his well-known book Leviathan, who was the first philosopher to study society and politics in a scientific manner. Indeed he even attempted to find the “laws of society” and history (in a manner akin to Galileo's physics and Gassendi); as Marx did some 200 years later. Indeed it can be argued that Aristotle analysed society and politics generally in a scientific manner. Indeed some neo-Aristotelians may even claim that Aristotle was far more scientific on these subjects than Marx.

However, it will be more fruitful to mention some of the more direct precursors of Marx.

Take Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825); who was an influence on Marx.

Saint-Simon, like Marx, believed that both history and society should be studied in a systematic and scientific manner. Indeed, again like Marx, he recognised the importance that “class struggle” had throughout history. In addition, as a good proto-Marxist, Saint-Simon also recognised the class division of society and saw it as being divided between the industriels (workers) and the oisifs (capitalists or rich “parasites”).

And, again, just like Marx, Saint-Simon both raged against capitalism at the same time as welcoming its technological developments. In other words, Saint-Simon believed that the advances made by capitalism - in such things as productivity and technological development - could be harnessed for socialist ends.

Marxist Morality

Another self-aggrandising myth about Marx, specifically in relation to the “scientific” nature of Marx's theories, is that Marx “never made any overt moral judgements in his work”. This is an incredible thing to state and believe primarily because almost everything he wrote is full of overt moral judgments. Indeed Marx's entire enterprise must have been inspired by his moral position on capitalism and on so much else.

Marxists must claim this because Marx himself claimed it (as is the case when Marxists restate, more or less, what Marx said about “Utopian socialism”, “the scientific study of society” and whatnot).

In addition to that, part of Marx's philosophy is that morality itself is “bourgeois” in nature. (Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and Chairman Mao's Red Guard were inspired by Marx's words on this subject.) Therefore if morality itself is bourgeois, how could Marx himself moralise about the evils of capitalism? This is clearly a quandary of some kind. And consequently here again we find that Marx and Marxism are riven with contradictions. (Yes, not unlike those “contradictions” which Marx and the Marxists talked and still talk about.)

Apart from the fact that Marx's (late) works weren't strictly speaking scientific at all (they were academic, which is not the same thing), his whole enterprise must have been initiated by his moral (or emotional) position on capitalism. Indeed, what else could it have been founded upon?

It has even been said that emotion, feelings and even morality (or religion) itself has motivated much of the great work that has been done in physics and mathematics (which is not to say that physics and mathematics are themselves about emotions or morality). And if that's true about many physicists and mathematicians, think how much truer it must be about a political philosopher/theorist who dealt with such things as “exploitation”, “class war” and the rest.

Indeed even in Marx's “most scientific work”, Das Kapital, he refereed to capitalists as “werewolves” and “vampires”. Elsewhere, Marx referred to the family as a “sentimental veil”; to the “sheer idleness” of the bourgeois; to Free trade as being an “unconscionable freedom”; that the “bourgeoisie” had brought about “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”; and, finally, that “the bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production”.

And yet - and here's another contradiction - Marx also believed (as did Louis Althusser much later) that capitalists are just as much cogs in the capitalist machine as any worker. In the language of Althusser, both workers and capitalists are not true “subjects” within a capitalist system. As I said, capitalists, as well as workers (though, of course not Marxists) are “appendages to the machine” (Marx's own words), or “one-dimensional men” (Herbert Marcuse), or, as Marxists/Leftists smugly put it nowadays, “sheeple”.

Yet if all that's true about these millions of cogs in the machine, whence the Leftist anger, aggression and outrage? You cannot morally or even politically disapprove of cogs. In fact you can hardly have a moral position on a machine (i.e., capitalism). All you can do is destroy that machine. But here again: if morality is bourgeois, why does the Marxist care about the wrongs of capitalism? What is the root of that care if it isn't morality: indeed, if it isn't “bourgeois morality”?


Marx was certainly not the first philosopher who felt the need to delve into the “dismal science” that is economics. Indeed his direct predecessor, Hegel, did exactly the same thing. Not only that: Hegel studied many of the same economists, such as Adam Smith, that Marx did. (Hegel, again like Marx, focused on free trade and the nature of labour.) Clearly this fact would have had at least some influence on Marx.

Not surprisingly, that inclusion of economics into the pot of philosophy also shows another parallel with Hegel. What I mean by that is because Hegel notoriously attempted to create a huge and complete system of philosophy (as he did in his The Science of Logic of 812-), it was obvious that economics, being part of that everything, would need to be included in his system. And the same is true (though even more so in the case of economics) of Marx's equally “totalist” system of philosophy.

Did Marx Invent the Study of Classes?

Marxists claim that Marx discovered the reality of classes or, at the least, that he was the first to realise their importance. Yet even Marx himself rejected that thesis:

"... no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes... nor yet the struggle between them."

Marx was right: both David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Adam Smith (1723-90) had recognised the importance of classes before him. More specifically, Adam Smith saw that capitalists formed a class in its own right. And as for Ricardo, he also recognised the reality of class struggle; though, of course, not in strictly Marxist terms. (To Ricardo, class struggle arose as a result of of the - unfair - division of society’s profits.)

False Consciousness & Alienation

Marx even borrowed the notion of “false consciousness” (though I don't think he used those two words) from Hegel. Yes, of course, Hegel and Marx's notions of false consciousness aren't identical (no two philosophers' views are ever identical).

According to Hegel, false consciousness (a phrase he didn't use either) arose because people believed that they were separate from the “divine”. That perceived separation brought about another state which is similarly related to Marx's work: alienation. Again, just like Marx, that false consciousness, and the resultant alienation, meant that people felt estranged from both the natural world and the world as it truly is. Marx, on the other hand, believed that capitalism created both false consciousness and alienation. And that, similarly, resulted in people becoming estranged from both the natural world and the world as it truly is.

Before Hegel, and therefore well before Marx, Charles Fourier (another influence on Marx) had also discussed the notion of alienation in his work. And, like Marx later, saw his own system of communism (which obviously predated Marx's) as a solution to that alienation.

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