Karl Marx & Philosophy

In this post I am returning to Karl Marx, to give Russell’s more philosophically focused account of his beliefs. Marx does not fit neatly into one category, be it philosopher, economist or political scientist. Even as a philosopher he is hard to classify. He is in part a successor to the English rationalist philosophers such as the Utilitarians and Locke, including the scientific bias and a dislike of romanticism. In another sense he is a successor to Hegel and the German Idealists – ‘the last great system builder’, to quote Russell.

Dialectical Materialism

Marx was a materialist, which means he believed that reality consists primarily of matter. Ideas are secondary and the result of material processes (e.g. the result of electrons firing in the brain). This is in opposition to the idealists, who believe that reality is best understood through ideas. Marx developed what he called dialectical materialism, and used it to create an alternative to Hegel’s conception of history. Traditional materialism said that in the act of observing something, the object (observer) is active while the subject is passive. But knowledge should not be considered as a sense of passive contemplation. For Marx, both subject and object are changed in the process of gaining knowledge about a subject. Both subject and object are therefore in a constant state of change, and the process is dialectic because it is never fully completed. Like Hegel, Marx believed that the world develops according to a dialectic formula, but believed that the cause of change is our relationship with matter. The most important part of this relationship is the mode of production. Through this thought, what was an abstract metaphysical idea becomes a practical economic theory.

According to Marx’s materialist conception of history, any period of human history is best understood as an outcome of its methods of production. Russell goes on to consider to what extent this conception can be considered valid. It can certainly be argued that philosophers throughout history have been influenced by the world around them. Hellenistic philosophy generally reflects a world of chaos and suffering, and early Christian philosophy contains the fatalism of a world approaching the end times. Early modern enlightenment philosophy reflects predominantly the interests of the commercial middle class, and Marx’s ideas are relevant to an industrial society. However, the influences on philosophers have been as much political and cultural as they have been economic. In addition, it is hard to argue that all ideas reflect the society of the day, particularly when very different ideas have been conceived at similar time periods through history. Russell concludes that there are questions in philosophy that are scientific or logical, and which are less influenced by society and more likely to produce general consensus. There are also questions which pure reason cannot fully answer, which require extra-rational decisions to be made. It is these questions to which Marx’s conception of history is more applicable.

From Feudalism to Socialism

There is only really one triad (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) that concerns Marx in his materialist dialectic. It could be said that feudalism is the thesis, capitalism the antithesis and socialism the synthesis. Marx did not believe socialism would happen due to ethical considerations, but believed that it is the predetermined destination for human society, as shown by logical dialectic argument. Russell does not go into the merits of socialism over capitalism, believing it to be a more political than philosophical debate. Despite Marx’s desire to appear scientific in approach, the influence of Hegel on Marx is unscientific. The dialectic method assumes that progress is a constant, but there is nothing scientific to prove that there will always be progress. Without this assumption, there is no reason to think that socialism will happen, even if it is rationally better than capitalism. Despite believing in socialism on rational grounds himself, Marx (at least for most of his life) did not believe that socialism would come about as a result of rational debate. Instead he believed that only the working classes could be persuaded to follow socialism, so hung his hopes on class war. According to Russell, there are influences here of the emotion and violence of romanticism, and the power politics of Nietzsche.

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