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Question Marx

Karl Marx: Man & Mind

Matt Qvortrup argues that Marx still inspires those longing for a better world.

In the beginning was the word, and Marx had a way with them like no other. Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) was a supreme stylist with a turn of phrase that few could match. Whatever one thinks of the political ideologies associated with his name – Communism, Socialism and Marxism – he was poetic, pithy, and, at the same time, able to write in clear, succinct, and powerful German. Consider “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852); or, in his Theses on Feuerbach from 1845, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” By contrast, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), who inspired him, wrote mostly in convoluted prose and with an overreliance on jargon and forbidding terms. Marx simplified the works of the master and exchanged Hegel’s lofty idealism with a solid dose of earthy materialism, taken from French radicals and British political economists.

Born to modestly prosperous parents of Jewish descent (both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were rabbis), the family converted to Christianity so that his father Heinrich could practice law. Young Karl was a hothead with strong views and a short temper. He joined the radical fraternity the Trier Tavern Club, and in 1836 even fought a duel (no one was hurt). But his passion was for books, poetry, philosophy, and for his fiancée Jenny von Westphalen, whom he later married. He studied law at the insistence of his father, but Karl’s love for jurisprudence was at best non-existent and his talent was in philosophy. “Without philosophy, nothing can be accomplished”, he wrote in the late 1830s (see Karl Marx: A Biography, D. McLellan, 2006, p.21). Heinrich Marx was not impressed by his son’s behaviour, and he wrote to him, “Alas, your conduct has consisted merely in disorder, meandering in all the fields of knowledge… by sombre lamplight… with a beer glass” (Ibid, p. 26). It was only when his father died in 1838 that Marx shifted from the Berlin Law School to study philosophy at the more liberal Jena University. He edited Hegel’s writings on the philosophy of religion, penned a novel (Scorpion and Felix), wrote a short play Oulanem, and eventually obtained a doctorate in 1841. The title of his thesis was The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature.

Marx’s interest in these two Greeks was a sign of things to come. Both were materialists who believed that everything could ultimately be reduced to atoms. Marx too was a materialist, but he was no reductionist. While also inspired by contemporary materialists, such as Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) and Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723-1789), his major philosophical schooling was Hegelian. Like Hegel, Marx too believed that history was a ping-pong of opposing extremes that fuse together into a new situation, which goes on to generate its own opposing extremes, and so on and on. (More formally, this process is known as a dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, where the synthesis becomes the new thesis…) But Marx differed from Hegel in two important respects. For starters, he did not agree with Hegel that Prussian society was the end (that is, culmination) of the development of history; and he also gradually came to believe that material factors – especially the economic relations between workers and capitalists – were more important than ideas.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx by Ron Schepper 2019

Marx the Man

Marx was a remarkable man, full of charisma. He also had an exceptionally high opinion of himself. He always maintained that his writings were not mere essays, but rather that his predictions were ‘scientific’ (Wissenschaftlich), in the way that Newtonian physics was. Indeed, he believed that he had discovered the ‘law of motion of modern society’ (Capital, 1867, p.10). It seems hardly credible that Marx said in a meeting with French radicals, ‘ Je ne suis pas Marxiste’ – “I am not a Marxist” – as Engels reported in a letter to Eduard Bernstein.

One gets a sense of his personality in a pen portrait written by Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, a Russian exile with whom Marx corresponded. It deserves to be quoted verbatim:

“Marx was a type of man formed all of energy, force of will and unshakable conviction, a type highly remarkable in outward appearance as well. In spite of his thick, black mane of hair, his hairy hands, and his coat buttoned up all awry, he had the appearance of a man who has the right and the power to demand respect, although his looks and his manners might appear peculiar sometimes. His movements were angular, but bold and confident, his manners were contrary to all social practice. But they were proud, with a touch of disdain, and his sharp voice, which rang like metal, sounded remarkably in accordance with the radical judgments on men and things which he let fall. He spoke only in the imperative, brooking no contradiction, and this was intensified by the tone, which to me was almost painfully jarring, in which he spoke. This tone expressed the firm conviction of his mission to reign over men’s minds and dictate their laws. Before my eyes stood the personification of a democratic dictator such as might appear before one in moments of fantasy.”
(Quoted in Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, Boris Nicolaievsky, trans. Otto Mänchen-Helfen, 1936, p.118).

As Annenkov’s sketch suggests, Marx rarely dished out complements. Yet he made an exception when it came to Hegel, and “openly avowed” himself to be “a pupil of that mighty thinker” (Capital, p.10). The first break with Hegel came in the early 1840s, when Marx read Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) – a book that was later translated into English by none other than George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), the author of The Mill on the Floss. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach claimed that man had created God, and then subsequently obeyed the commands of this man-made deity; or, in Feuerbach’s own pithy Latin shorthand, Homo homini Deus est – ‘man is God for man’.

Marx transposed this idea onto society. People had become enslaved by a system they had themselves created – just like religious believers who, in Marx’s view, following Feuerbach, were subjugated by religious commands of their own making. The workers created and sustained capitalist society by their actions, but they did not enjoy the fruit of their endeavors. Marx called this result ‘ Entfremdung’, or alienation.

Then he was off. From that moment onward, he was a social philosopher. His interests and focus turned from the philosophy of religion to political economy, and eventually, to practical politics. Marx’s radical politics did not endear him to the authorities, however. He had to flee Germany, and was later kicked out of France and Belgium, before he settled in London in 1849. There he earned a meagre living as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune, while continually relying on handouts from his lifelong collaborator Engels.

Communism Manifesting

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was the largely self-taught son of a wealthy German owner of a textile factory in Lancashire. Despite his pedigree as a ‘rich kid’, Engels was appalled by the conditions of the working classes in England. He wrote an eloquent piece in the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, which Marx read with enthusiasm. The two began to correspond, and soon developed a deep and lasting friendship. In 1846 the two co-wrote the German Ideology, a tome of 800 pages of mostly Marx’s handiwork which critiqued various now-forgotten German philosophers. This book (which was published posthumously) contained the first sketches of Marx’s vision of the communist society and his ideas on the evolution of history. It was in this book that Marx mused,

“In communist society… 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, criticise after dinner” (p.54).

More importantly, it was when writing this book that Marx believed he had discovered the engine of history.

Hegel had believed that the ideas and spirit of world culture (Weltgeist) was the driving force of history. Marx, being a materialist, believed otherwise. Hegel’s general framework was correct, but it had to be tweaked. As Marx later summed it up, the master’s dialectic was “standing on its head”, and “must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” (Capital, p.10).

Chairman Mao
Chairman Mao
© Stephen Lahey 2019

This rational kernel, thought Marx, was class warfare. Although he elaborated on his theory in more complicated (if not longwinded) studies, such as Grundrisse (1858) and above all Capital, the basic outline of his argument was contained in The Communist Manifesto, which he (with moderate input from Engels) hastily penned in 1848 as revolution began to erupt in several European countries. It was here that he famously proposed that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (p.79). So for Marx, what drove history forward was not rival philosophical ideas, but the antagonistic positions between classes.

Throughout history, classes in society reflected what Marx called ‘the mode of production’ – the systems of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services – and these relations, in turn, determine everything else in society. In the phraseology of his short book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the economy was ‘the base’ and everything else was ‘superstructure’ (p.6). Hence, the state was not a neutral institution but a product of the economic relations between, say, workers and capitalists, with the latter having the upper hand. In short, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Communist Manifesto, p.82).

But this situation would not last, Marx predicted. Once the proletariat gained political power, they would take over the state and turn it into a vehicle for pursuing their own interests, and gradually they would establish the communist society, which to Marx was the real end of history.

Marx believed that social revolutions occur when there’s a discrepancy between the underlying structures of society and the political superstructure. As Marx considered it, in capitalist society, as the way we consume, produce, and interact in the marketplace develops, “The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure… at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production” (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p.6). In other words, the way we produce and consume will eventually lead to social conflict irresolvable in terms of the current social arrangements, and there will be revolution.

Some – most notably Vladimir Lenin and other Twentieth Century Soviet Communists – believed this revolution would of necessity be a violent uprising. Yet The Communist Manifesto itself was clear that the first step in the revolution was “to win the battle of democracy” (p.104). Also, towards the end of his life, Karl Marx wrote a short manifesto for the French Workers’ Party, in which he stated that, “universal suffrage would be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation” – voting would become a means to freedom rather than a way of upholding the status quo. Admittedly, in some countries, democracy was “a snare, an instrument of government trickery”, especially in countries where the franchise was limited to the property-owning classes (see Engels’ Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1895, p.518). In those countries where there was not the electoral avenue to socialism, the need for extra-parliamentary means would be warranted, and violence would be “lessening the birth-pangs” of communist society (Capital, p.10 ). But Marx would not have shared Lenin’s belief in so-called ‘democratic centralism’, or his view that only “the vanguard of the proletariat” was “capable of assuming power and of leading the whole people to socialism” (State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, 1917, p.24).

Karl Marx: Present & Future

The revolution never came in the way Marx prophesied. His prediction that capitalist society would collapse from the inside as the profit rate fell simply didn’t materialise – not necessarily because Marx was wrong that that would result if things had kept developing in the same way, but because capitalism was saved from itself through anti-trust legislation which prevented companies from becoming monopolies. Nor was Marx right that “society is more and more splitting into two great and hostile camps” (Communist Manifesto, p.80).

But does it matter? The Hungarian Marxist literary critic György Lukács famously wrote that even if “research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses”, one could still maintain the “conviction that dialectical materialism [class warfare through history, Ed] is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders” (History and Class Consciousness, 1923, p.1).

Perhaps so. Or perhaps Marx is worth reading for other reasons. As an observer of political developments, Marx was sharp and perceptive. His insights could even be used to explain the relationship between the present US President and the House of Representatives, in terms similar to those Marx used when Napoleon III clashed with the French National Assembly and appealed to the people. About this Marx wrote: “While the votes of France are split up among the seven hundred and fifty members of the National Assembly, they are here, on the contrary, concentrated on a single individual… The elected National Assembly stands in a metaphysical relation, but the elected President in a personal relation, to the nation” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p.31).

Another reason for studying the man from Trier is that he inspires hope and a belief in a better future. The German philosopher Ernst Bloch believed that the essence of Marx’s philosophy was that it awoke utopian yearnings and an almost religious hope: “No dreaming may stand still, for this bodes no good. But if it becomes a dreaming ahead, then its cause appears quite differently and excitingly alive… and then yearning can show what it really is able to accomplish” (On Karl Marx, 1968, p.31).

Paradoxically for a man who wrote dismissively about ‘utopian socialists’, Marx’s legacy is to be exactly that – a man with a vague and attractive idea. It is expressed movingly and yet pithily in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875:

“After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour… has vanished… only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed… and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

© Dr Matt Qvortrup 2019

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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