Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 29, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/marx-karl-1818-83/v-1
Karl Marx was the most important of all theorists of socialism. He was not a professional philosopher, although he completed a doctorate in philosophy. His life was devoted to radical political activity, journalism and theoretical studies in history and political economy.
Marx was drawn towards politics by Romantic literature, and his earliest writings embody a conception of reality as subject to turbulent change and of human beings as realizing themselves in the struggle for freedom. His identification with these elements in Hegel’s thought (and his contempt for what he regarded as Hegel’s apologetic attitude towards the Prussian state) brought Marx to associate himself with the Young Hegelians.
The Young Hegelians had come to believe that the implicit message of Hegel’s philosophy was a radical one: that Reason could and should exist within the world, in contrast to Hegel’s explicit claim that embodied Reason already did exist. Moreover, they also rejected Hegel’s idea that religion and philosophy go hand in hand: that religion represents the truths of philosophy in immediate form. On the contrary, the Young Hegelians saw the central task of philosophy as the critique of religion – the struggle (as Marx himself was to put it in his doctoral dissertation) ‘against the gods of heaven and of earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity’.
Marx came to be dissatisfied with the assumption that the critique of religion alone would be sufficient to produce human emancipation. He worked out the consequences of this change of view in the years 1843 to 1845, the most intellectually fertile period of his entire career. Hegel’s philosophy, Marx now argued, embodied two main kinds of mistake. It incorporated, first, the illusion that reality as a whole is an expression of the Idea, the absolute rational order governing reality. Against this, Marx’s position (and on this point he still agreed with the Young Hegelians) was that it is Man, not the Idea, who is the true subject. Second, he charged, Hegel believed that the political state – the organs of law and government – had priority in determining the character of a society as a whole. In fact, according to Marx, this is the reverse of the truth: political life and the ideas associated with it are themselves determined by the character of economic life.
Marx claimed that the ‘species-being’ of Man consists in labour, and that Man is ‘alienated’ to the extent that labour is performed according to a division of labour that is dictated by the market. It is only when labour recovers its collective character that men will recognize themselves as what they are – the true creators of history. At this point, the need to represent the essence of human beings in terms of their relation to an alien being – be it the Christian God or Hegelian Geist – will no longer exist.
In the mature writings that followed his break with the Young Hegelians, Marx presented a would-be scientific theory of history as a progress through stages. At each stage, the form taken by a society is conditioned by the society’s attained level of productivity and the requirements for its increase. In pre-socialist societies this entails the division of society into antagonistic classes. Classes are differentiated by what makes them able (or unable) to appropriate for themselves the surplus produced by social labour. In general, to the extent that a class can appropriate surplus without paying for it, it is said to be an ‘exploiting’ class; conversely, a class that produces more than it receives is said to be ‘exploited’.
Although the exploiting classes have special access to the means of violence, exploitation is not generally a matter of the use of force. In capitalism, for example, exploitation flows from the way in which the means of production are owned privately and labour is bought and sold just like any other commodity. That such arrangements are accepted without the need for coercion reflects the fact that the ruling class exercises a special influence over ideas in society. It controls the ideology accepted by the members of society in general.
In Das Kapital (Capital), the work to which he devoted the latter part of his life, Marx set out to identify the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. The capitalist system is presented there as a self-reproducing whole, governed by an underlying law, the ‘law of value’. But this law and its consequences are not only not immediately apparent to the agents who participate in capitalism, indeed they are actually concealed from them. Thus capitalism is a ‘deceptive object’, one in which there is a discrepancy between its ‘essence’ and its ‘appearance’.
In Marx’s view, it is inevitable that capitalism should give way to socialism. As capitalism develops, he believed, the increasingly ‘socialized’ character of the productive process will conflict more and more with the private ownership of the means of production. Thus the transition to collective ownership will be natural and inevitable. But Marx nowhere explained how this collective ownership and social control was to be exercised. Indeed, he had remarkably little to say about the nature of this society to the struggle to which he devoted his life.
The Critique of the Gotha Programme envisaged two phases of communist society. In the first, production will be carried out on a non-exploitative basis: all who contribute to production will receive back the value of what they have contributed. But this, Marx recognized, is a form of ‘equal right’ that leaves the natural inequalities of human beings unchecked. It is a transitional phase, although inevitable. Beyond it there lies a society in which individuals are no longer ‘slaves’ to the division of labour, one in which labour has become ‘not only a means of life but life’s prime want’. Only then, Marx thought, ‘can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’ This is the final vision of communism.
Rosen, Michael. Marx, Karl (1818–83), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC051-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/marx-karl-1818-83/v-1.
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