'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Karl Marx, yesterday and today - by Louis Menand
On or about February
24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern
industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its
accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past—the Egyptian pyramids,
the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. Its innovations—the railroad, the
steamship, the telegraph—had unleashed fantastic productive forces. In the name
of free trade, it had knocked down national boundaries, lowered prices, made
the planet interdependent and cosmopolitan. Goods and ideas now circulated
Just as important, it
swept away all the old hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer
believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Everyone
was the same as everyone else. For the first time in history, men and women
could see, without illusions, where they stood in their relations with others.
The new modes of
production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth.
But there was a problem. The wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent
of the population possessed virtually all of the property; the other ninety per
cent owned nothing. As cities and towns industrialized, as wealth became more
concentrated, and as the rich got richer, the middle class began sinking to the
level of the working class.
Soon, in fact, there
would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property
and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which
had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers
everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and
overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx,
and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto.” He is not wrong yet.
Considering his rather
glaring relevance to contemporary politics, it’s striking that two important
recent books about Marx are committed to returning him to his own century.
“Marx was not our contemporary,” Jonathan Sperber insists, in “Karl Marx: A
Nineteenth-Century Life” (Liveright), which came out in 2013; he is “more a
figure of the past than a prophet of the present.” And Gareth Stedman Jones
explains that the aim of his new book, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion”
(Harvard), is “to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings.”
The mission is worthy.
Historicizing—correcting for the tendency to presentize the past—is what
scholars do. Sperber, who teaches at the University of Missouri, and Stedman
Jones, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London and co-directs the Centre
for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge, both bring
exceptional learning to the business of rooting Marx in the intellectual and
political life of nineteenth-century Europe.
Marx was one of the
great infighters of all time, and a lot of his writing was topical and ad
hominem—no-holds-barred disputes with thinkers now obscure and intricate
interpretations of events largely forgotten. Sperber and Stedman Jones both
show that if you read Marx in that context, as a man engaged in endless internecine
political and philosophical warfare, then the import of some familiar passages
in his writings can shrink a little. The stakes seem more parochial. In the
end, their Marx isn’t radically different from the received Marx, but he is
more Victorian. Interestingly, given the similarity of their approaches, there
is not much overlap.
Still, Marx was also
what Michel Foucault called the founder of a discourse. An enormous body of
thought is named after him. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx is said to have said,
and it’s appropriate to distinguish what he intended from the uses other people
made of his writings. But a lot of the significance of the work lies in its
downstream effects. However he managed it, and despite the fact that, as
Sperber and Stedman Jones demonstrate, he can look, on some level, like just
one more nineteenth-century system-builder who was convinced he knew how it was
all going to turn out, Marx produced works that retained their intellectual
firepower over time. Even today, “The Communist Manifesto” is like a bomb about
to go off in your hands.
And, unlike 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.
short, you can put Marx back into the nineteenth century, but you can’t keep
him there. He wasted a ridiculous amount of his time feuding with rivals and
putting out sectarian brush fires, and he did not even come close to completing
the work he intended as his magnum opus, “Capital.” But, for better or for
worse, it just is not the case that his thought is obsolete. He saw that modern
free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities,
and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to
Socrates—turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted
inside out—into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our
own lives... read more