May 5, 2018


Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today: The nineteenth-century philosopher's ideas may help us to understand the economic and political inequality of our time. (Louis Menand, 10/10/16, The New Yorker)

[U]nlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrial capitalism--and there were a lot of them--Marx was a true revolutionary. All of his work was written in the service of the revolution that he predicted in "The Communist Manifesto" and that he was certain would come to pass. After his death, communist revolutions did come to pass--not exactly where or how he imagined they would but, nevertheless, in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed themselves to be, Marxist.

This matters because one of Marx's key principles was that theory must always be united with practice. That's the point of the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Marx was not saying that philosophy is irrelevant; he was saying that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, and they can be solved only by changing those conditions--by remaking the world. And Marx's ideas were used to remake the world, or a big portion of it. Although no one would hold him responsible, in a juridical sense, for the outcome, on Marx's own principle the outcome tells us something about the ideas. [...]

It is sympathy for Marx that leads Sperber and Stedman Jones to insist that we read him in his nineteenth-century context, because they hope to distance him from the interpretation of his work made after his death by people like Karl Kautsky, who was his chief German-language exponent; Georgi Plekhanov, his chief Russian exponent; and, most influentially, Engels. It was thanks mainly to those writers that people started to refer to Marxism as "scientific socialism," a phrase that sums up what was most frightening about twentieth-century Communism: the idea that human beings can be re├źngineered in accordance with a theory that presents itself as a law of history. [...]

The reason that "Capital" looks more like a work of economics than like a work of philosophy--the reason that it is filled with tables and charts rather than with syllogisms--is the reason given in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: the purpose of philosophy is to understand conditions in order to change them. Marx liked to say that when he read Hegel he found philosophy standing on its head, so he turned it over and placed it on its feet. Life is doing, not thinking. It is not enough to be the masters of our armchairs.

What unites all ideologues is their hatred for the actual historical processes that lead to universal capitalism, democracy, and protestantism and their eagerness to impose artificial constraints on them. 

Posted by at May 5, 2018 7:30 AM