Monday, September 17, 2007

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

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Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.


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The Communist Manifesto is a proclamation. It's an in-your-face declaration of a new found awareness about human destiny. It invalidates and rejects any idea or argument that opposes it as a product of the evil that it purports to eradicate. It takes no prisoners. It hears no objections. It comes from the clouds - a juggernaut destined to lead enslaved humanity to the promised-land by breaking its chains and steamrolling into a glorious future. The Manifesto is a turn on for power junkies and young minds. It's graffiti - for graffiti's sake. It sits alone, blood red, forever youthful, and strangely - dangerously - beautiful. Russell McNeil, (Nov 28, 2002)


Karl Marx as a youthKarl Marx enrolled in the University of Bonn in 1835 to study Law, but transferred to the University of Berlin the following year. There his interests turned to philosophy and he joined the circle of the "Young Hegelians" led by Bruno Bauer. Some members of this circle drew an analogy between post-Aristotelian philosophy and post-Hegelian philosophy, and Marx defended his doctoral dissertation comparing the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus in 1841.


When his mentor Bauer was dismissed from the philosophy faculty in 1842, Marx abandoned philosophy for journalism and went on to edit the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical German newspaper. After the newspaper was later shut in 1843, in part due to Marx's conflicts with government censors, Marx returned to philosophy, turned to political activism, and worked as a free-lance journalist. Marx first moved to France, where he re-evaluated his relationship withe Bauer and the Young Hegelians, and wrote On the Jewish Question, mostly a critique of current notions of civil-rights and political emancipation. It was in Paris that he met and began working with his life-long collaborator Friedrich Engels, who called Marx's attention to the situation of the working-classes, and guided Marx's interest in economics. After he was forced to leave Paris for his writings, he and Engels moved to Brussels. There they co-wrote The German Ideology, a critique of Hegelian and Young Hegelian philosophy, and then Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy, a critique of French socialist thought. These works lay the foundation for Marx and Engels' most famous work, The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, which was commissioned by the Communist League (formerly, the League of the Just), an organization of German emigrés whom Marx had met in London. That year Europe experienced revolutionary upheaval; a working-class movement seized power from king Louis Philippe in France and invited Marx to return to Paris. When this government collapsed in 1849, Marx moved to London. In 1864 Marx organized the International Workingmen's Association, later called the First International, as a base for continued political activism. This organization collapsed in 1872 in part because of the fall of the Paris Commune, and in part because many members turned to Mikhail Bakunin's anarchism. In London Marx also dedicated himself to historical and theoretical works, the most famous of which is the multivolume Das Kapital, the first volume of which was published in 1867.

Influences on Marx's Philosophy

In general, Marx's thought has been influenced by two often contradictory elements: determinism and activism. On the one hand, Marx believed that he could study history and society scientifically, and derive laws the explain and predict the course of history and the outcome of social conflicts. Consequently, some followers of Marx conclude that a communist revolution is inevitable. On the other hand, Marx famously asserted that "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it," and dedicated himself to trying to change the world. Consequently, some followers of Marx conclude that dedicated revolutionaries must organize social change. Marx's theory, sometimes called "scientific socialism" or "dialectical materialism" or "historical materialism" is based on Hegel's claim that history occurs through a dialectic, or clash, of opposing forces. Hegel was a philosophical idealist who believed that we live in a world of appearances, and true reality is an ideal. Marx accepted this notion of the dialectic, but rejected Hegel's idealism. In this he was influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach argued that God is really a creation of man, and that the qualities people attribute to God are really qualities of humanity. Accordingly, Marx argued that it is the material world that is real, and that our ideas of it are consequences, not causes, of the world. Thus, like Hegel and other philosophers, Marx distinguished between appearances and reality. But he did not believe that the material world hides from us the "real" world of the ideal; on the contrary, he thought that historically and socially specific ideologies prevented people from seeing the material conditions of their lives clearly. The other important contribution to Marx's revision of Hegelianism was Engel's book, The Condition of the English Working Class, which led Marx to conceive of the historical dialectic in terms of class conflict, and to see the modern working class as the most progressive force for revolution.

Marx's Philosophy

The notion of labor is fundamental in Marx's thought. Basically, Marx argued that it is human nature to transform nature, and he calls this process of transformation "labor" and the capacity to transform nature labor power. For Marx, this is a natural capacity for a physical activity, but it is intimately tied to the human mind and human imagination: A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. Beyond his claim about the human capacity to transform nature, Marx makes no other claims about "human nature." Although "labor power" for Marx is human nature, he did not believe that all people worked the same way, or that how one works is entirely personal and individual. Instead, he argued that works is a social activity, and that the conditions and forms under and through which people work are socially determined and change over time. Marx's analysis of history is based on his distinction between the means of production, literally those things, like land and natural resources, labor, and technology, that are necessary for the production of material goods, and the social relations of production, in other words, the social relationships people enter into as they acquire and use the means of production. Together these comprise the mode of production; Marx observed that within any given society the mode of production changes, and that European societies had progressed from a feudal mode of production to a capitalist mode of production. In general, Marx believed that the means of production change more rapidly than the relations of production (for example, we develop a new technology, and only later do we develop laws to regulate that technology). For Marx this lag is a major source of conflict. Marx understood the "social relations of production" to comprise not only relations among individuals, but between or among groups of people, or classes. As a scientist and materialist, Marx did not understand classes purely subjective (in other words, groups of people who consciously identified with one another). He sought to define classes in terms of objective criteria, such as their access to resources.

Marx was especially concerned with how people relate to that most fundamental resource of all, their own labor-power. Marx wrote extensively about this in terms of the problem of alienation. As with the dialectic, Marx began with a Hegelian notion of alienation but developed a more materialist conception. For Marx, the possibility that one may give up ownership of one's own labor -- one's capacity to transform the world -- is tantamount to being alienated from one's own nature; it is a spiritual loss. Marx described this loss in tems of commodity fetishism, in which people come to believe that it is the very things that they produce that are powerful, and the sources of power and creativity, rather than people themselves. He argued that when this happens, people begin to mediate all their relationships among themselves and with others through commodities.

Marx's Critique of Capitalism

Marx argues that this alienation of labor power (and resulting commodity fetishism) is precisely the defining feature of capitalism. Prior to capitalism, markets existed in Europe where producers and merchants bought and sold commodities. According to Marx, a capitalist mode of production developed in Europe when labor itself became a commodity -- when peasants became free to sell their own labor-power, and needed to sell their own labor because they no longer possessed their own land or tools necessary to produce. A person sells their labor-power when they accept compensation in return for whatever work they do in a given period of time (in other words, they are not selling the product of their labor, but their capacity to work). In return for selling their labor power they receive money which allows them to survive. The person who must sell their labor power to live is a "proletarian." The person who buys the labor power, generally someone who does own the land and technology to produce, is a "capitalist" or "bourgeois." (NOTE: Marx considered this an objective description of capitalism, distinct from any one of a variety of ideological claims of or about capitalism). Marx distinguished capitalists from merchants. Merchants buy goods in one place and sell it in another; more precisely, they buy things in one market and sell it in another. Since the laws of supply and demand operate within given markets, there is often a difference between the price of a commodity in one market and another. Merchants hope to capture the difference between these two markets. According to Marx, capitalists, on the other hand, take advantage of the difference between the labor market and the market for whatever commodity is produced by the capitalist. Marx observed that in practically every successful industry the price for labor was lower than the price of the manufactured good. Marx called this difference "surplus value" and argued that this surplus value was in fact the source of a capitalist's profit. The capitalist mode of production is capable of tremendous growth because the capitalist can, and has an incentive to, reinvest profits in new technologies. Marx considered the capitalist class to be the most revolutionary in history, because it constantly revolutionized the means of production. But Marx believed that capitalism was prone to periodic crises. He suggested that over time, capitalists would invest more and more in new technologies, and less and less in labor. Since Marx believed that surplus value appropriated from labor is the source of profits, he concluded that the rate of profit would fall even as the economy grew. When the rate of profit falls below a certain point, the result would be a recesion or depression in which certain sectors of the economy would collapse. Marx understood that during such a crisis the price of labor would also fall, and eventually make possible the investment in new technologies and the growth of new sectors of the economy. Marx believed that this cycle of growth, collapse, and growth would be punctuated by increasingly severe crises. Moreover, he believed that the long-term consequence of this process was necessarily the empowerment of the capitalist class and the impoverishment of the proletariate. Finally, he believed that were the proletariate to seize the means of production, they would encourage social relations that would benefit everyone equally, and a system of production less vulnerable to periodic crises.


The body of work of Marx and of Marx and Engels covers a wide range of topics and presents a complex analysis of history and society in terms of class relations. Followers of Marx and Engels have drawn on this work to propose a political and economic philosophy dubbed Marxism (although before he died Marx declared that he was not a "Marxist"). Nevertheless, there have been numerous debates among Marxists over how to interpret Marx's writings and how to apply his concepts to current events and conditions. Essentially, people use the word "Marxist" to describe those who rely on Marx's conceptual language (e.g. mode of production, class, commodity fetishism) to undertand capitalist and other societies, or to describe those who believe that a worker's revolution is the only means to a communist society. Six years after Marx's death, Engels and others founded the "Second International" as a base for continued political activism. This organization collapsed in 1914, in part because some members turned to Edward Bernstein's "evolutionary" socialism, and in part because of divisions precipitated by World War I. World War I also led to the Russian Revolution and the consequent ascendence of Vladimir Lenin's leadership of the communist movement, embodied in the "Third International." Lenin claimed to be both the philosophical and political heir to Marx, and developed a political program, called Leninism or Bolshevism, which called for revolution organized and led by a centrally organized Communist Party. After Lenin's death, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, seized power of the Party and State apparatus. He argued that before a world-wide communist revolution would be possible, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had to dedicate itself to building socialism in their own country.

At this time, Leon Trotsky left the Soviet Union and in 1934 founded the competing "Fourth International." Some followers of Trotsky argued that Stalin had created a bureaucratic state rather than a socialist state. In China Mao Zedong also claimed to be an heir to Marx, but argued that peasants and not just workers could play a leading role in a communist revolution. In the 1920s and '30s, a group of dissident Marxists at the Frankfurt School in Germany, among them Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, espoused critical theory (unrelated to Critical philosophy), which offered a non- Bolshevist critique of contemporary capitalism. Other influential non-Bolshevik Marxists at that time include Walter Benjamin?, Antonio Gramsci, and Rosa Luxemburg. In 1949 Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman founded The Monthly Review, a journal and press, to provide a outlet for Marxist thought in the United States independent of the Communist Party.

Contemporary Criticisms

Marxian theory has been criticized from numerous points of view. Many proponents of capitalism have argued that capitalism in fact is ultimately a more effective means of generating and redistributing wealth than socialism or communism, and that the gulf between rich and poor that concerned Marx and Engels was a temporary phenomenon. Some suggest that greed and the need to acquire material wealth is an inherent component of human behavior, and is not caused by the adoption of capitalism or any other specific economic system (although economic anthropologists have questioned this assertion), and that different economic systems reflect different social responses to this fact. Economists generally reject his use of the "labor theory of value," although such critics generally overlook Marx's distinction between value and price. Marx has also been criticized from the left. Evolutionary Socialists reject his claim that socialism can be accomplished only through class conflict and violent revolution. Others argue that class is not the most fundamental inequality in history, and call attention to patriarchy or race. Some today question the theoretical and historical validity of "class" as an analytic construct or as a political actor. In this line, some question Marx's reliance on 19th century notions that linked science with the idea of "progress" (see social evolution). Many observe that capitalism has changed much since Marx's time, and that class differences and relationships are much more complex -- citing as one example the fact that much corporate stock in the United States is owned by workers through pension funds. (see post-structuralism and post-modernism for discussions of two movements generally aligned with the left that are critical of Marx and Marxism.) Outside of Europe and the United States, communism has generally been superseded by anti-colonialist and nationalist struggles (although they sometimes appeal to Marx for theoretical support). Contemporary supporters of Marx argue most generally that Marx was correct that human behavior reflects determinate historical and social conditions (and is therefore changing and cannot be understood in terms of some universal "human nature"). More specifically, they argue his analysis of commodities is still useful and that alienation is still a problem. Some argue that capitalism does not exist as an independent system in any one country, and that one must analyze it as a global system. They further argue that when examined as a global system, capitalism is still organizing and exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor that first caught Marx's attention when he read Engels' book on England. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Karl Marx.]

The Communist Manifesto
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
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Why Read?

One knee jerk reaction to the manifesto is to reject it. The political system it advocates failed. Communism is as dead as Nietzsche's God. Here is one Utopian vision we can toss to the vultures. Of course we might say the same thing about a Utopian vision much older than this -- one with a no better political track record -- but one we still read -- 2,500 years after it was written: Plato's Republic! I'll not make the case for equivalency. The Communist Manifesto is a proclamation. It's an in-your-face declaration of a new found awareness about human destiny. It invalidates and rejects any idea or argument that opposes it as a product of the evil that it purports to eradicate. It takes no prisoners. It hears no objections. It comes from the clouds -- a juggernaut destined to lead enslaved humanity to the promised-land by breaking its chains and steamrolling into a glorious future. The manifesto is a turn on for power junkies and young minds. It's graffiti -- for graffiti's sake. It sits alone, blood red, forever youthful, and strangely -- dangerously -- beautiful.

We cannot ignore Marx because it's romantic passion demands that we pay attention. Suppose I was a slave who wanted freedom. I would loathe my master. I would reject everything he represents. I would falsify everything that he has ever done. I would crush him. I would dishonour him. I will bury him. What such a master produces, above all, is his own grave--diggers...and as slave I will bury him in the rubble of his own machinery and with his own machinery. We read Marx still because we can read the events of our current crises, of 9--11, or of the threatened war on Iraq through the filter of this manifesto. But Master slave dichotomies can be found (or imposed) everywhere. We can bring the historical elements of Marxist theory to analyse -- or to re--analyse -- any of the ideas we have encountered to date. And we do, and you will, and the 20th century has pretty much been preoccupied with this sort of thing. Marx does not stand alone. He shares the stage with Nietzsche, and Freud, and Socrates, and Christ. Marx lives -- so we read him still.

This is a political tract -- a manifesto that offers? proclaims? imposes! a program for radical (root), revolutionary, and violent social change. The softer parts of the argument, those justifying the necessity for change had its roots in a long history of western thinking from Plato to Rousseau. But the more immediate influences were German -- and specifically the philosopher Hegel. Marx came from a well--off, cultured and nominally Protestant family. His father was a lawyer. Marx himself studied law, history and philosophy at the University of Berlin. He did his doctoral thesis on Epicurus.

Epicurian Influence

One famous idea attributed to Epicurus reads thus: it is not impious to deny the gods of the masses, but it is impious to think of the gods as the masses do; a sound principle, but one which Epicurus wrongly applied, since he got rid of what was true as well as of what was corrupt in the vulgar religion. Bear this thought in mind as you read the Manifesto.

Hegel's Influence

While at Berlin Marx hung around with a group of so--called left Hegelians. Their goals seem to have been to draw revolutionary and atheistic conclusions from Hegel's philosophy. Hegel's influence on Marx may have been Hegel's method of inquiry -- something called his Doctrine of Development. For instance, the truth about this lectern, for Aristotle, is that it is a lectern. For Hegel, the equally important truth is that it was a tree, and it will be ashes. The whole truth, for Hegel, is that the tree became a table and will become ashes. Thus, becoming, not being, is the highest expression of reality. Hegel's notion of development was applied to a whole range of investigations: science, literature, theology, and for us here through Marx to political economy and political science.

A World Picture

Let's paint a contemporary world picture. And think about Marxist response. In the US the richest 20% earn 50% of all income -- that's been increasing for decades. The poorest 20% earn 3.5% of all income -- and that's been dropping for decades. The ratio of wealth in the top 20% to the wealth in the bottom 20% is 14 to 1. During this same period (1973--1996) the average real wage of all Americans fell by 11% while corporate profit rates rose to an all time high. The rich do get richer -- the poor poorer. In other parts of the world, economies have fared much worse. The situation in Russia is most severe where economic chaos has led to an actual decrease in life expectancy for males from 66 to 57 years in just five years. The east asian Tiger economies have declined rapidly over the past few years. Stock market performances -- one measure of total Capital -- have been bleak: The indicies for the major markets in Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand have dropped from 60--90%. What most East Asians gained from those boom years of apparent prosperity were low wage jobs in modern factories or sweat shops. In Indonesia infant mortality has increased by 30% and school enrollment decreased from 78% to 54%. Many of the children dropping out of school are working in the $3.3 Billion dollar Indonesian child prostitution industry. Marx would nod sagely at these data. It is, he might say a continuation of a process he described 150 years ago but extended now to global dimensions. He might even proclaim that the final death throes of capitalism began on September 11 in graves radical terrorists from distant lands.

The Class Struggle

The Class Struggle Marx describes in his mid nineteenth century Manifesto is still alive and well throughout much of the world. The capital hungry capitalist machine Marx described and admired is still alive. It may be in crisis now, but it will rebound as it always has, and as Marx described, by expanding to the last world frontiers under its last guise: globalization. Marx theory as a political description of a set of warring relationships between classes is still meaningful. Here is how Marx says it works: In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes ... The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization ... No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the pawnbroker. As the song goes: You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in depth. St. Peter don't call me cuz I can't go ... I owe my soul to the company store.

Evolution or Unfolding?

Marx's model of class struggle is dynamic, attractive, organic, colorful. It is filled with passionate rhetoric, redemptive promise, and fiery polemic. But there is also a cool compelling logic: man has a story -- and man is becoming. That is Hegel's influence. In social terms all of this is part of a human progression: we progress from forced slavery, to feudal subservience, to bourgeoise oppression. This is evolution but on a social scale. Some try to compare Darwin and Marx. But Natural selection proceeds from adaption to an environment. Marx changes the environment to allow for the emergence of and flourishing of mind: -- a new human consciousness -- a consciousness hitherto stifled by human enslavement to wage labour. In plain nglish ... it's impossible to think good thoughts when you load 16 tons of coal. Our collective minds have been alienated to work -- and useless work it is. Virtually nothing we produce serves real human purpose -- the emergence of new consciousness. Our lives are wasted, our bodies dissipated and and our minds hijacked by the forces of Capital.

The consciousness is nothing spooky. Engels described it in these words: thought and consciousness are products of the human brain which is a product of Nature and which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self--evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of Nature, do not contradict the rest of Nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them ...


The communist revolution for Marx is an historical inevitability. It is to see man in history as a natural and material social being with unbridled potential. It is to see man as becoming or evolving towards his real purpose in life. And it is to see all these things at once as an unfolding story: wood lecturn, ashes. For Marx, everything is seen through the filter of class warfare: a warfare in which the vast majority of humans are oppressed by a small minority. In mimicking the Epicurian doctrine not to think of the gods as the masses do Marx discards the so called eternal truths embodied in our religions, our philosophies, and our institutions were nothing but the creations of an oppressor and designed to preserve the master slave dichotomy! So, Marx removes these insidious ideas from the intellectual landscape. It abolishes private property -- meaning Bourgeois Capital. It abolishes family -- bourgeois family. It abolishes religion -- bourgeois religion -- and all of its trappings: And so we see most of what we value in our long intellectual tradition discarded: our philosophy (perhaps not Hegel), our institutions (legal, educational), and

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class ...

… communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.

You really got to love this guy! Somehow we suspect this as more than fascist book burning with a human face. Marx would keep the books -- but reject the ideas -- because they were developed by or the agents of the bourgouise to serve the interests of that same class. It's illogical. But our rebellious romantic nature is attracted to this.

Practical Benefits

There are two aspects to this set of ideas. In part one Marx address the historical and contemporary social warfare amongst the classes. What strikes me in reading this today is how strongly Marx's analysis seems to ring true. My seminar seemed to be in perfect agreement with everything Marx says. That's strange. Do we not live in a social democracy in which all of us is created equal? Is it not true that the social adjustments of the past century have remedied the worst aspects of the so--called class struggle? If our world is really as exploitative as Marx portrays, why are we not in revolution? Is it not because the descriptions of warfare offered by Marx have been seen as real warnings and that we have today addressed by offering decent wages, pension benefits, comprehensive education, health, and child care benefits? Yet, as the world picture I drew for you earlier shows -- these gains are an illusion.

Perhaps Marx would laugh at us. Your happiness is illusion. Your addictions prove this. You are narcotized by the very productions of your labour: intellectual and material. Your intellectual rationalizations justify your material excesses. Your false needs have dehumanized you: your music, literature, newspapers, internet, reflect your decadence , ... Your bourgeois machine is as cunning, powerful, and dangerous as I foretold ... you are alienated from your real humanity and ripe now for revolution -- one that has already begun at the margins of your exploitative global economy. Look deeply into the eyes of what your bourgeois media call terrorists and you will see your proletariat comrade, the revolutionary hero of today and tomorrow.

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