In order to understand Marx, you must understand Hegel. But no one can understand Hegel. Ergo…
Okay, so perhaps we don’t have to completely understand Hegel but merely get a rough grasp of what he was saying.
Hegel was born in 1770, taught philosophy at the University of Jena until it was closed down in 1806 after Napoleon overcame the Prussian army, and taught at the University of Heidelberg from 1816 until his death from cholera in 1831.
Hegel’s greatest contribution to philosophy is his view of history. Hegel thought that the flow of history has its own internal logic. The logical process of history is like the maturing of a spirit. Just as we human beings become who we are over time, Hegel thought that history could be seen in the same way, as a kind of world spirit. And just as human beings are supposed to become their better selves over time, Hegel supposed that the process of dialectic in world history would eventually produce a state in which a sort of cosmic harmony would be achieved.
How was this logic supposed to go? Hegel called the process a dialectic. Essentially, his dialectic involves moving from a clash between two conflicting ideas, a thesis and an anti-thesis resulting in a new idea, a synthesis. Hegel thought that by observing history we could see how dialectics work. He also thought that we could see how concepts of thought flow logically from one concept to another.
Many thinkers used this form of analysis to gain knowledge of history and to explain the present. For example, one might apply it to biology. Species of organisms are like a thesis facing a conflict with their environment, the anti-thesis. The result is the adaptation of species forming new better suited species, a kind of synthesis. Others, like process theologians, apply the idea to God, suggesting that God himself is always becoming through a series of changes.
Karl Marx was very influenced by Hegel and, though he rejected much of Hegel’s thought, he accepted the fundamental idea that history determines the future through a series of changes of the kind Hegel describes.
Marx was born in 1816. He studied at Berlin University with the ‘Young Hegelians’ and obtained Ph.D from Jena University in 1842. In Paris, he met Friedrich Engels, and they began working on an economic theory in which no one would own any private property. In 1848, Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto.
Uprisings commenced across Europe and Marx traveled back to Germany to aid the effort. The uprisings failed, and Marx was banished from all Prussian territories. He moved to London where he lived in poverty. He published Das Capital in 1867 and died in 1883.
Marx liked some of what Hegel had to say, but didn’t like all the references to ideas and spirits. Marx was a materialist. Thus, Marx proposed his own ‘dialectical materialism’ as opposed to Hegel’s ‘dialectical idealism.’
Marx thought Hegel was fundamentally correct about the dialectical process. One could look at history to see the logical process of change and from this observation, one could say what was going to come next. When Marxists say, “Marx was right” what they mean is that Marx made the correct prediction, usually involving some cataclysmic end to capitalism.
Another significant influence on Marx was Ludwig Feuerbach who taught that religion was a form of false consciousness eventually to be superseded by naturalism. Again, this was another prediction. Religion would fade as history unfolded. Many have made similar claims. They tell versions of history in which certain kinds of religions have replaced others over time eventually culminating in forms of monotheism. Given their view that history tells us how to predict the future according to its logic, they often go on to claim that the next phase of world history will be fundamentally religionless. They often suggest that the world will eventually ‘grow out of religion all together.’
Marx also saw that conflicts were symptoms of alienation, a state of being outside something of which one ought to be a part. Hegel had taught that people could feel this sense of estrangement from the spirit of the age. For Marx, people who find themselves in this state are materially alienated from themselves, their labor, and the economic systems in which they worked. Marx claimed that money alienated workers from their labor and private property alienated people from themselves.
Crucially for Marx, Alienation could not be removed unless the people removed it by force. There is no good in sitting around and awaiting the change, the people must act: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (Marx, TF, 11)
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and his friend, Engels, claim that a new era of history must be brought about in which a conflict is resolved. He makes his claim based on a view of history according to which history is to be seen as a series of class struggles one after another yielding new states of political and economic arrangements. What comes next, brought about through forceful action, is Socialism, which is the means to the final end, Communism. As Engel’s famously expresses it in the introduction to the Manifesto:
“The whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, the stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway off the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from whole exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.” (Engels, CM, 48)
According to Marx and Engels, two forces determine the course of history. First, the forces of production including materials and labor, and, second, the economic arrangements of those forces. Marx and Engels argued that whenever arrangements of production become bad for the forces of production, then revolution takes place and a new arrangement emerges.
For example, prior to the industrial revolution, land might have been worked by a servant while it was owned by the lord. Technology advanced so that the arrangement of production were forced to change. In its place, the industrial revolution brought about a means of mass production owned by capitalists.
Marx and Engels suggest six phases of the history and future of the relations of production. In the past, there was a sort of proto-communistic system in which no one owned anything and every one got along. Then, a hierarchy emerged. Patriarchy, slavery, private property, and social classes were introduced. At this point, conflict occurred between classes. This form of hierarchialism culminated in the feudal system, but was overturned by the industrial revolution and the rise of merchants in a capitalist economy.
Marx and Engels thought another crisis had been reached that would usher in a new arrangement. The main crisis was a conflict between the worker and the merchant class or capitalists:
“the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of a feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones…Our époque, the époque of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other; bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Manifesto, 3).
Based on this, Marx called on the worker to rise up to bring in a new Communist era.
However, to get to Communism, one must go via Socialism. In the Communist Manifesto, Socialism is conceived as a dictatorship of the proletariat whose task it is to abolish private property and obtain state control of the means of production. At the end of this process a new form of life emerges. Supposedly, Communism would be a coinciding of personal and communal interests providing freedom for everyone.
Marx and Engels argue that to reach the ideal Communist state, many changes will have to occur. The new socialist elite will have to abolish private property, institute a progressive income tax, abolish inheritance, confiscate of property from rebels and anyone who attempts to flee, centralize all financial services, nationalize transportation and communication, take control of the means of production, force all adults to work, abolish the rural/urban division, include all children in a public state-managed education system, and abolish child labor.
So, how should we evaluate the Manifesto? The most simple way to respond is to point to those countries in which Marx’s ideas have been applied. Some countries have tried to institute socialism with disastrous effects. Quite apart from its flawed economic assumptions, socialists have to assume that human nature is capable of evolving so as to fit its new socialist environment. Humans have not fared well at this. No matter how forceful a state has been, people don’t do well under such conditions. Multiple attempts have been made to ‘re-educate’ those who can’t keep up, and in some cases many people are killed in an effort to weed out those who don’t seem to be able to change into true communists. People simply don’t thrive in socialist countries.
Second, one reads Marx with a a certain discord. He is quite opposed to capitalism and to capitalists. But he thinks that capitalists can become communists if only they could experience the new system he has in mind. In an enlightening section responding to various objections, Marx and Engels blame capitalism for causing people’s values to be at odds with his. For example, someone might say that removing profit removes the incentive to work. Marx replies by saying that thinking this way is merely a result of the objector’s capitalist environment! The same is true of the Communist objective of abolishing the traditional family. Marx tells the objector that when Communism is ushered in, no one will want a traditional family. We will be one single political family instead.
Somehow, Marx’s objectors have to realize that their reaction is caused by their present environment. If they were to experience a true Communist society, they would be truly happy. But this seems plainly false. As history tells us, experiencing anything like what Marx had in mind is very unhappy experience!
One might suggest that the reason it doesn’t work is that people don’t change like that. We might have altered societal structures over time, but we haven’t become different kinds of things. We are still human. But, supposes Marx, human nature is not static. It will evolve along with human values, beliefs, and preferences. Thus, for Marx, there is no essential human nature. Human life has changed before (from feudalism to capitalism) and it will change again (from capitalism to socialism and finally to communism).
Another way to object to Marx’s view is to argue that Hegel’s method is flawed. One might suggest that Hegel’s view of history commits him to a kind of prejudice. He is an epochist. As Bill Vallicella argues, Hegel’s view is that the more recent something is, the better. This leads him to make disparaging comments about past worldviews. On philosophy, Hegel writes, “the latest, most modern and newest philosophy is the most developed, richest and deepest” (LHP, I.41) On the medieval epoch, he writes, “…this Scholasticism on the whole is a barbarous philosophy of the finite understanding, without real content, which awakens no true interest in us, and to which we cannot return.” “Barren,” and “rubbishy” are other terms with which he describes it. (LHP, III. 94-95).
As I read some of my more left-leaning friends talk about politics on facebook, I am often struck with how the past is spurned in an unreasoned way. Beliefs are seldom refuted, they are more often just rejected because they are old. There is a kind of snobbery involved in Hegelian historicism. Marxists sometimes sneer at people because they are ‘stuck’ or because they are ‘clinging’ to some idea of the past. Traditional ethics are sometimes despised merely because they are traditional.
Another objection to Marx’s Manifesto can be found upon reflecting on the nature of predictions. Who’s to say there will be such a crisis as Marx predicts? And why must the next stage involve Socialism? Why not something else? In The Poverty of Historicism (1957), Karl Popper argued that the view that one can predict what is going to happen in history by uncovering the patterns or laws of the past is false. Popper argues that whatever happens in the future depends on the progress of human knowledge. If so, then if we are going to acurately predict the future of human society, we must be able to predict the future of human knowledge. However, we cannot predict human knowledge. Much human knowledge is a result of discovery, and one never quite knows what we will discover next. Consequently, we can’t predict the future from observations of the past.
A final response to Marx relates to how Marx thinks about truth. For example, when Marx responds to his objectors that they only object to his view because of the environment in which they live. If they had a different more Communist environment, the objector would quickly change his mind. However, telling the objector how he might have come to believe in traditional family values or private property rights doesn’t tell us whether or not they are true. Perhaps the objector is right. The point is that Marx doesn’t bother to say what makes Communism the right view and Capitalism the wrong view.
In Marx’s objections to religious beliefs, he essentially claims the same thing. The capitalist environment encourages religious beliefs, but we will soon forget about them once Communism is ushered in. The problem is: what Marx says doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of religious beliefs. If so, then he offers us no good reason to give them up.
I recommend that Christians read The Communist Manifesto. It is short and easy to understand. I found that I objected to nearly everything in it! However, Marxist ideology can sound more attractive when combined with all sorts of honorable sounding things like justice and equality. Reading the Manifesto has helped me know what Marxists mean by these words and it turns out that they don’t mean what I mean.
I was also greatly helped in understanding the book by some summaries in Anthony Kenny A New History of Western Philosophy.
In recent months, Christians have begun to speak out against Socialism. Southern Baptists have been persistently opposed. Bruce Ashford has an excellent set of pieces engaging with Socialist ideology and policy (see here). Just recently, Russell Moore produced a video on the subject in which he says, “I hate Socialism.” I also read an article published by the Intersect Project by someone with firsthand experience of living under a Socialist regime.
There are many of these kinds of stories. They should put us off, but Marxist ideology is profoundly attractive to many people. But Marxist ideology in practice is terrible. It is also largely false.
Hi Ben – haven’t been in touch for a few years but wanted to see what you’ve written recently and was interested to see this. I’ve been reading a lot of Marx and related literature lately: I’d say there’s much that rings true in his critique of capital, and the church needs to take that into account, but I don’t place any hope in his solutions (which he wrote in very little detail about). The anarcho-communism he hoped for in the long run (melting away of the State; ‘from everyone according to ability, to everyone according to need) is indeed the ideal society, but I only see happening in the new earth and ideally in the church now.
What I’ve found is that the much deeper analysis of capital is located, unsurprisingly, in Das Kapital. There were huge concepts I’d never realised were integral to Marxist theory by just reading the Manifesto some years ago. The nature of value (distinct from price) in particular is crucial as that’s where he starts that work, with the analysis of the commodity rather than analysis of classes. I’ve written a couple of blog posts recently that discuss the Wertkritik school of thought who do some interesting things with that.
A couple of other notes: i) part of the reason Marx believed capitalism would inevitably collapse was that the advance of automation, while saving money in the short term by throwing labourers out of work, would overproduce cheaper goods in the long run, leading to a falling rate of profit that would ultimately undermine any increased mass of profit. Without going into detail, I think this is behind the recessions of late and will probably lead to the collapse of capitalism as we know it, although fascism rather than attempted communism is the likely result. ii) Marx did believe in an essential, unchanging human nature (see Norman Geras’s book on the topic) but one affected and shaped by a number of social/cultural factors, which I think is true enough.
Ben! Wonderful to hear from you. Apologies for my late reply. In my attempt to finish my dissertation, I have refrained from blogging for a couple of months. Here are some rough replies to your comments: First, in my post, I did not comment on Das Kapital. It has its own interesting ideas the most important of which is a theory of value according to which (roughly) the price of commodities ought to be determined by the work that went into them. This is false. A builder could work hard to produce a house no one wants and not so hard to produce a house everyone wants. He will sell the latter at a higher price than the former. Why? Because price is determined by what people want not how much work went into it. Do the Wertkritik school you mention have a different interpretation? I read your post about abstract labor. I suppose this is something like the measuring of a countries economy. Is that right? I don’t know how this changes Marx’s basic error.
Second, I am unconvinced that technological advance is responsible for recessions and the end of capitalism. Why would robots ‘overproduce’ anything? It sounds like you mean that they would produce things cheaper and quicker thus lowering the price. But I can’t see how this leads to the end of free markets. Isn’t it just what free markets do? Perhaps you mean that at some point, we will run out of new products. This would be a problem. We would merely automate everything until there is nothing left for us to do (this still doesn’t sound practically possible but let’s grant it). But this has not happened yet and there is nothing to suggest that it will happen in the future. People have often thought that we have all we need, so there is nothing left to create but this always turns out false. Apparently, a member of the US government thought the patent office should be closed in DC for this reason. This was just before someone invented the telephone!
Finally, I wonder what features of human nature Marx thought were essential and unchanging. You say he believes there are some. Perhaps we remain a distinctive species somehow. The point Marx makes in the Manifesto is that many of our propensities (desire to acquire property, raise children in traditional families etc.) would have to disappear in order to accomplish his vision. He thinks that these apparently natural propensities will disappear once we are in a better (socialist) environment. If some of the population fail to move with the times, those people will be dealt with (this is part of what makes adopting his view lead to terrible consequences). Overall, he seems to think we will evolve to become a better species but we must forcefully change the sociopolitical environment to do so. But what if human nature is not so plastic? Perhaps we can let Marx off the hook. How would he know? But we know. The hypothesis has been tested and found false. Of course, as Christians, we have other grounds to reject Marx’s view. I looked at your blog and you suggest this.
Again, good to hear from you. I very much appreciate the interaction.
Thanks, Ben. No worries about the delay – I wasn’t necessarily expecting a reply. Some further thoughts off the back of your response. Forgive the length – I’ve become a bit of a Marx nerd/bore…
1) The ‘transformation problem’ of how Marx saw the relation of value into profit is a bit of a minefield in Marx scholarship. He stated that in volumes 1 and 2 of Capital he is assuming – for the purposes of analysis – that value and price are the same. But in volume 3 he sought to show how prices are formed through supply, demand, and the relative amount of investment that chops up and reallocates the total socially produced value according to those forces. So he didn’t see value and price as the same thing – value is more like the gravitational force behind the visible object of price which is inferred from price’s movements. Many have said he contradicts himself here. But I think the Wertkritik school are correct in saying that he intended this to seem contradictory: that he was in fact identifying a central contradiction of capitalism, that prices *don’t* correspond to value and in fact ultimately diverge wildly as capitalism implodes, resulting in various crises. The prescience of this can be seen in the loss of the gold standard in 1971: i.e. that money no longer represents the socially necessary labour time required to obtain gold, but is given some kind of value by a fiat declaration by the State. And of course fictitious capital that refers to imaginary future profits that can ultimately fail to materialise.
2) The issue with automation is that, by producing cheaper goods, a capitalist can undercut competition in the short term, but loses that advantage when everyone adopts that technology. The mass of profits might still be greater, but the rate of profit (how profitable each item actually is) will be smaller. Very early on the twentieth century already saw industrialised agriculture become completely unprofitable due to overproduction (i.e. too many products to be able to sell at profitable prices) and that industry relies on enormous government subsidies to keep going (as well as vast mass destruction of produce). It’s not hard to see a similar thing happen in other industries as chances for profitable investment dry up and the financial bubbles burst. Interestingly, Marx predicted/theorised this in the notebooks known as the Grundrisse: https://fetaat.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/notes-on-the-fragment-on-machines/
3) I was being a bit pedantic, really… just meaning that Marx did believe in some kind of unchanging human nature (rather than none at all) in terms of needs, sociability, need for diversity in work and life, etc, but of course he was more optimistic about its capacity for voluntary benevolence under socialism and communism. This is what interests me about the Werkritik stuff, in that they’d say the ‘actually existing’ socialist regimes were still shaped and ordered by the abstract labour value of capitalism, and just made it more oppressive than ever. Wertkritik types want to get straight to anaracho-communism, but they have few ideas about how to get there and are pessimistic about the possibility of it at all.
My views of church and politics are Ante-Nicene/Waldensian/Anabaptist in nature so I’m not seeking communism as ‘the answer’ or to be striven for… but all too often these days the evangelical church accepts capitalism as a neutral or good system and I think the radical left are helpful in at least critiquing that mindset. At best, their thought is apocalyptic in the right ways, just with very mistaken understandings of what brings the eschaton and when it happens, so to speak.
p.s. Sorry, a comment on the Wertkritik use of ‘abstract labour’: they’re more interested in analysing the quality of abstract labour time rather than its quantity and theft of its surpus-value (as traditional Marxists would be focused on). So they’re asking what happens to work (and broader life) when work it is disembedded from general life and nature-patterns and is instead measured by Newtonian clock-time in the detached space of the office or factory, a detached space-time which has no purpose in and of itself under capitalism other than the valorisation of value. What does that do to our perception of life more broadly? What new forms of social domination does that permit? That’s why they see 20th c communism as the other side of the capitalist coin, as it functioned under the same basic paradigm.