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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Marx and Socialist Philosophy (Post 1: Karl Marx the Person)

Marx and Socialist Philosophy

Adam Martin
Section 4

Post 1: Karl Marx the Person

During the Victorian Era, "confessions" were questionnaires that people would have their family members fill out as a lighthearted game, similar to the kind many children play nowadays.  A confession from German philosopher Karl Marx while living in England was found in an album kept by his daughter Jenny, written in her sister Laura's handwriting.  Here were some of his answers:

Your chief characteristic:    Singleness of purpose
Your favorite occupation:    Bookworming
Your idea of happiness:      To fight
Your idea of misery:           To submit
Your hero:                         Spartacus, Keppler
Your motto:                       De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt everything)
Your favorite color:             Red
Your favorite names:          Jenny, Laura

It is easy to forget that the philosopher who inspired some of the harshest regimes of the 20th Century was a human being like anyone else.  His name is used by both conservatives and liberals as a venomous comparison for opponents on the Left.  But how much does the average person who calls Marx an enemy know about him?

Karl Marx was born in Trier, Prussia (a part of what is now Germany) to an upper-middle class family.  Living under a monarchy and a state religion, Marx was attracted to Enlightenment era philosophers and joined several radical liberal groups, such as the Young Hegelians.  They took Hegel's idea of historical development and used it to support democratic struggle, believing that society was progressing towards greater democracy.

During the 1840's, Marx experienced a gradual shift to the political Left, and he met his soon to be lifetime companion Friedrich Engels.  Although Marx would sometimes find work as a journalist and author, most of his funding came from Engels.  Together, they began to shift their focus from a democratic struggle against the state - though never truly abandoning that ideal - to an economic struggle against the capitalist mode of production.  I will specify what they had against capitalism in the next post.

As a writer, Marx can be frustrating.  He simultaneously manages to bore the average reader with economic and political analyses, often abstract, and overwhelm this same audience with his stylistic gut-punches.  An example of what can be seen as either a creative or annoying stylistic approach to Marx's critiques is seen in quotes like these from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

"Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy," 

"In monarchy, we have the people of the constitution; in democracy, we have the constitution of the people," 

and "the constitution does not create the people but the people create the constitution."

If you think this is pleasant, keep in mind that these three quotes were written over the span of two pages.  It can be repetitive.  This probably has a great deal to do with why he was not as influential during his lifetime as he wished he could have been.  No revolutions were started in his name, he led no political factions, and even the group he had probably the most influence in, the International Workingmen's Association, commonly referred to as the First International, split in two, with his groups being the smaller.

Having traveled to several countries in Europe to escape hostile governments, Marx settled in London in 1850, where he died in 1883, having his dream of a socialist revolution unfulfilled, save for a brief glimmer of hope with the Paris Commune of 1871, which fell after only three months.  However, his writings and ideas greatly influenced the revolutions of the next century.  At his funeral, Friedrich Engels had this to say:

Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers -- from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America -- and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy.

His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work."

Although the first part can be debated and written off as the kind praises of a friend, the last line has certainly proven, for better or worse, to be true.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never seen Marx's "confessions," that's fascinating!

    Sad for him, if one is inclined to sympathy for someone who's had such a large and not always salutary impact on the world, not to have lived to see his influence spread.