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Question Marx

by Grant Bartley

We want Philosophy Now to be well read; but do we want it to be, well, red? Indeed, why be interested in Marx after ‘the end of history’ – as Francis Fukuyama (taking from Hegel – all intellectual property is theft!) styled the triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy? The continued interest in Marx is demonstrated to us by the continual stream of submissions we receive concerning his thinking, the ripe red fruits of which we present here. But that doesn’t explain why people are still interested in looking at his ideas, and why we should be, when most believe that Marx’s ideas have been demonstrated to be false.

There is first the fact that he is historically a very significant philosopher. Some might argue the most significant, having set the course of twentieth century history and onwards through his writings. This significance bears recognition from a philosophy magazine like ours that tries to be as inclusive as possible. Marx had a lot of interesting ideas, too – and some of them are good. I still think ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ is a great social ideal, even if it sometimes seems impractical in our corrupt cosmos. Being a professional journalist, Marx was often a great writer, as Matt Qvortrup points out in his article introducing the man and his thought. I also think that having a theory about how human society and history works is the sort of profound project that should be encouraged in philosophy, even if you don’t agree with the particular ideas that resulted from someone else’s chasing of that ambition. As a deep thinker in central areas of human life where professional philosophers usually fear to tread, including economics, Marx is worth looking at as a stimulus. We can try to figure out where he went wrong and what the truth is in those areas, as well as to ask where he was right, and what to think about that (and as Marx would add, what to do).

It’s also an opportunity to bounce Marx off some of the philosophical luminaries in his orbit, both friends and enemies, and so see them anew too. In this issue we’ll often encounter Hegel alongside Marx. More surprisingly, perhaps, Jack Fox-Williams shows how Marxism overlaps with Nietzsche’s thought in some key areas, whilst Lucian Lupescu contrasts Marx with Kant over freedom. Meanwhile, Patrick Cannon tells us why anarchists frequently take issue with Marx, even though you might think that they share the same goal of the emancipation of The Masses from The Man. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, evidently. (Splitters!)

Talking of the liberation of humanity, a big part of the continuing interest in Marx stems from the imperfections of the workings of capitalism becoming increasingly unignorable. For the sake of mere profit, the free market compels the ever-increasing production of goods, which threatens to collapse the global ecosystem as well as the global economic system. As climate change and environmental degradation increase, we may well become desperate to find an alternative to industrialised consumerism. According to Oxfam nearly half of the world’s wealth is controlled by 1% of its population, and the richest twenty six billionaires have more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population combined, so there’s an apparent social justice issue here too, when so many are in absolute poverty. Under what system of morality could that distribution be just? Maybe Marx can help illuminate the issues, providing clues to a better way. Regardless, with the help of three Marxist ‘brothers’ – not including Groucho – Kevin Brinkmann explains how culture might be changed once we’ve found good new ideas for humanity.

I say all this fully recognising that Marx’s theories have fatal shortcomings, and that to the extent that his philosophy has been applied, it has failed epically. It failed first because his theory is incorrect in major ways: for instance, concerning the inevitability of the communist revolution, and more generally, about major historical changes being predetermined by economics. History is more chaotic (in the mathematical sense) and influenced by unforeseeable ideas. Chris Christensen explains why Karl Popper thought Marx was wrong to believe in inevitable historical development.

Equally importantly, Marx’s thinking was incomplete. Notably, he did not take into account the potential in human nature for self-aggrandisement and pure sociopathy, and from that the totalitarianism that a centralisation of power can, and did, allow. This oversight was disastrously displayed in Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, who between them caused the death of tens of millions of their own people while claiming to apply Marxist theories.

For contrast we also consider a different type of revolution in this issue’s Brief Life. This focuses on Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ whilst looking at scientific revolutions. So here’s a fun question for readers to consider after absorbing Kuhn’s and Marx’s theories of history: is the best model for the explanation of history Marx’s, Kuhn’s, perhaps Hegel’s, or someone else’s? In other words, could the historical changes that Marx describes be better explained in terms of paradigm shifts in economics? Alternatively, is Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts in science better explained in terms of ‘class warfare’ between competing schools of scientists? Personally, I go for Kuhn over Marx every time; across every area of change.

As an escape from even more revolutions – of the wheel of life in this case – in our reviews we look at a book on secular Buddhism. We also feature a pair of articles on perception and reality, another area of great philosophical significance. Indeed, as you can see, there’s a wide range of historically significant ideas in here. So comrades, (wo)man the barricades against the tides of dumbed-down culture armed with the latest issue of Philosophy Now, and join the fight for thought itself!

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