Rafed English

The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

I. General Overview

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels strove to put into practical effect the humanitarian concept of Feuerbach. In so doing, they founded a new economic movement called Socialism. According to Marx, the supreme end of man is an immanent and material one, and consists in happiness. This material happiness must be obtained through organized collectivism. In fact, according to Marx, reality is governed by economic needs (historical materialism). Economic reality develops according to Hegel's dialectical principles; that is, reality must deny itself in order to reach a higher degree of being.

In application, this principle means that the present organization of society must be destroyed (even through violent revolution, if necessary, because only through such destruction can a better political, economic, and social organization be achieved. To establish this new format of society, working men (the proletariat) must be organized and take up the struggle against the capitalists who defraud them. Thus the actors in this drama are the social classes -- the proletariat is arrayed against capitalism. This struggle, according to Marx and Engels, will end in victory for the proletariat, that is, in the triumph of universal Socialism.

II. Life and Works

Karl Marx (picture) was born on May 5, 1818 and died on March 14, 1883. He was a German economist, philosopher, and revolutionist whose writings form the basis of the body of ideas known as Marxism. With the aid of Friedrich Engels (picture) he produced much of the theory of modern socialism and communism. Marx's father, Heinrich, was a Jewish lawyer who had converted his family to Christianity partly in order to preserve his job in the Prussian state. Karl himself was baptized in the Evangelical church. As a student at the University of Berlin, young Marx was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Georg Hegel and by a radical group called Young Hegelians, who attempted to apply Hegelian ideas to the movement against organized religion and the Prussian autocracy. In 1841, Marx received a doctorate in philosophy.

In 1842, Marx became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, a liberal democratic newspaper for which he wrote increasingly radical editorials on social and economic issues. The newspaper was banned by the Prussian government in 1843, and Marx left for Paris with his bride, Jenny von Westphalen. There he went further in his criticism of society, building on the Young Hegelian criticism of religion. Ludwig Feuerbach had written a book called The Essence of Christianity, arguing that God had been invented by humans as a projection of their own ideals.

Feuerbach wrote that man, however, in creating God in his own image, had "alienated himself from himself." He had created another being in contrast to himself, reducing himself to a lowly, evil creature who needed both church and government to guide and control him. If religion were abolished, Feuerbach claimed, human beings would overcome their alienation.

Marx applied this idea of alienation to private property, which he said caused humans to work only for themselves, not for the good of their species. In his papers of this period, published as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he elaborated on the idea that alienation had an economic base. He called for a communist society to overcome the dehumanizing effect of private property.

In 1845, Marx moved to Brussels, and in 1847 he went to London. He had previously made friends with Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who, like himself, had been a Young Hegelian. They collaborated on a book which was a criticism of some of their Young Hegelian friends for their stress on alienation.

In 1845, Marx jotted down some notes, Theses on Feuerbach, which he and Engels enlarged into a book, The German Ideology, in which they developed their materialistic conception of history. They argued that human thought was determined by social and economic forces, particularly those related to the means of production. They developed a method of analysis they called dialectical materialism, in which the clash of historical forces leads to changes in society.

In 1847 a London organization of workers invited Marx and Engels to prepare a program for them. It appeared in 1848 as The Communist Manifesto. In it they declared that all history was the history of class struggles. Under capitalism, the struggle between the working class and the business class would end in a new society, a communist one.

The outbreak of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe led Marx to return to Cologne, where he began publication of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, but with the failure of the German liberal democratic movement he moved permanently, in 1849, to London. For many years he and his family lived in poverty, aided by small subventions from Engels and by bequests from the relatives of Marx's wife. From 1851 to 1862 he contributed articles and editorials to The New York Tribune, then edited by Horace Greeley. Most of his time, however, was spent in the British Museum, studying economic and social history and developing his theories.

Marx's ideas began to influence a group of workers and German emigres in London, who established the International Workingmen's Association in 1864, later known as the First International. By the time of the brief Commune of Paris in 1871, Marx's name had begun to be well known in European political circles. A struggle developed within the International between Marx and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, whom Marx eventually defeated and expelled, at the cost of destroying the International.

In 1867, Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital. The next two volumes, edited by Engels, were published after Marx's death. The fourth volume was edited by Karl Kautsky. Marx's last years were marked by illness and depression. Marx continued to write treatises on socialism, urging that his followers disdain softhearted bourgeois tendencies. At Marx's funeral in Highgate Cemetery in London, Engels spoke of him as "the best-hated and most-calumniated man of his time." The importance of Marx's thought, however, extends far beyond the revolutionary movements whose prophet he became. His writings on economics and sociology are still influential in academic circles and among many who do not share his political views.

The main philosophical works of Karl Marx that are of interest to most students are the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

III. Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical materialism occupies a place all its own in European philosophy. First of all it had very few exponents in academic circles outside the former Soviet Union and Communist China, where, by contrast, it was (Russia) and is (China) established as the official philosophy and consequently had privileges such as are enjoyed by no other contemporary school of philosophy. Besides, it is unique as the philosophy of a political party -- the Communists; on this account it is closely linked to the economic and political theories as well as to the practical activity of that party, for which it is the "general theory."

In Russia where the Communist party was in control, no one was permitted to teach any other philosophy than dialectical materialism, and even the exposition of its own classical philosophical texts was strictly supervised. This supervision -- in combination, it is true, with the Russian national character -- explains some of the odd features of dialectical-materialist publications; the latter are strikingly different from all others through their complete uniformity. All of their authors say exactly the same thing and make innumerable quotations from the classical authors, who are made to yield arguments for current theses at every turn. Perhaps this supervision is to be blamed also for the mediocrity of the philosophers in this school of philosophy; it is in any case responsible for the extreme dogmatism, chauvinism, and aggressiveness of the followers of Karl Marx and dialectical materialism.

Even more significant, however, than these peculiarities, which could be accidental, is the reactionary character of the philosophy of Marx and its dialectical materialism, for this philosophy leads straight back to the mid-19th century and seeks to restore the intellectual situation of that time without the slightest alteration.

The Russians regarded Karl Marx, with whom Friedrich Engels worked in close cooperation, as the founder of dialectical materialism. Marx belonged to the Hegelian school, which had split into a "left" and a "right" by the time Marx was studying at the University of Berlin. A prominent representative of the "left" was Ludwig Feuerbach who interpreted the Hegelian system in a materialistic sense and treated world history as the unfolding of matter and not of spirit.

Marx firmly supported Feurerbach but simultaneously came under the influence of scientific materialism which was spreading at the time; this explains his enthusiasm for science, his profound and ingenious belief in progress, and his prejudice in favor of Darwinian evolutionism. In founding dialectical materialism, Marx linked the Hegelian dialectic to the materialism of his day.

Marx himself was chiefly a political economist, sociologist, and social philosopher. He is the founder of historical materialism while the general philosophical foundation of the system, which is dialectical materialism, is essentially the work of Engels. Dialectical materialism constitutes a link between the Hegelian dialectic and 19th-century materialism.

IV. Metaphysics

According to metaphysical materialism the only real world is the material world, and the mind is simply the product of a material organ, the brain. The contrast between matter and consciousness has no value except for epistemology; really there is only matter. The dialectical materialists certainly criticize the older materialistic schools, yet this criticism is not aimed against materialism as such, but exclusively at the lack of a dialectical element, and of a "correct" conception of evolution.

The import of dialectical materialism depends, naturally, upon the meaning one gives to the word "matter." In this respect certain difficulties are caused by a definition given by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), the man who subsequently thought out the doctrines of Marx and Engels afresh, then expounded them and prescribed them for the Communist party. According to Lenin, matter is simply a "philosophical category serving to indicate objective reality." In Lenin's epistemology matter is throughout opposed to consciousness by equating "matter" and "objective reality."

Still, we are not left in the dark upon this point, because in other places the dialectical materialists maintain that we can know matter by means of the senses, that matter underlies causal and deterministic laws, and that it is opposite to consciousness; briefly, it is clear that the usage of the word "matter" by the dialectical materialists differs in way from the popular one. Dialectical materialism is classical and radical materialism.

Yet this materialism is not mechanical. According to the accepted teaching, only inorganic matter is subject to mechanical laws and not living matter, although the latter is certainly governed by the laws of causal determinism. Even in physics the dialectical materialists do not defend unconditioned atomism.

Matter is in continuous evolution toward the formulation of ever more complex beings -- atoms, molecules, living cells, plants, men, society. Thus evolution is not regarded as cyclic but as linear. Besides, evolution is regarded optimistically -- the latest stage is always the most complex, which in its turn is equated with the best and the noblest. The dialectical materialists still retain a thoroughly 19th-century belief in progress through evolution.

According to them this evolution consists in a series of revolutions -- small quantitative alterations in the essence of a thing pile up, tension is produced, and a struggle takes place until at a fixed moment the new elements become strong enough to destroy the equilibrium and a new quality emerges from the previous quantitative alterations. This is the thesis-antithesis-synthesis paradigm. Conflict, therefore, exemplifies the driving force of evolution which proceeds by leaps -- this is the so-called "dialectical evolution."

The entire course of evolution is aimless, being achieved as a result of encounters and combats under the impact of purely causal factors. Strictly speaking, the world has neither a meaning or a goal and evolves blindly in accordance with eternal, deterministic laws.

There is nothing permanent; the whole world and all its elements are swept along by the dialectical evolution; in every place and at all times the old dies and the new comes to birth; there are neither permanent substances nor "eternal principles." Only matter and the laws of its change exist externally amid universal movement.

The world must be conceived as a unified whole. In contrast to metaphysics which (say the Marxists) sees the world as a host of disconnected entities, the dialectical materialists are representative of monism in a twofold sense. They see the world as the unique reality (outside of it there is nothing, and, in particular, there is no God), and they see its principle as homogeneous (dualism and and pluralism of any sort are rejected as false).

The laws which govern this world are deterministic in the classical sense of the world. It is true that the dialectical materialists do not, for various reasons, wish to be classified as "determinists," and for this reason teach that a plant's growth, for instance, is not entirely determined by the laws of this plant because an external factor, such as hail, can render them inoperative. But in relation to the whole of things the dialectical materialists firmly rule out accidents -- the world's laws in their totality determine the entire process of the universe without exception.

V. Psychology

Mind, or consciousness, is nothing but an epiphenomenon, a "copy, a reflection, a photograph" of matter. Consciousness cannot exist without the body and is a product of the brain. Matter is the primary datum, and consciousness (or mind) is secondary; consequently consciousness is not the determinant of matter but, vice versa, matter of consciousness. Psychology is thus materialistic and determinist.

Nevertheless, this determinism is subtler than the earlier materialist version. For one thing the dialectical materialists do not wish to be out-and-out determinists. Freedom, to them, consists in the possibility of deriving benefit from the laws of nature; even man, of course, is subject to these laws but he is aware of the fact and his freedom lies in the simple awareness of necessity (as with Hegel). Furthermore, they maintain, matter does not determine consciousness directly but works through the medium of society.

Thus man is essentially social, unable to live without society; only in society can he produce the necessities of life. But the means and the methods for such production first of all determine interpersonal relationships and these in turn determine man's consciousness. This is the theme of historical materialism; everything that a man thinks, wishes, or wills is in the final analysis a consequence of his social needs, just as they in turn result from methods of production and the social relationships created by this production.

These methods and relationships are continually changing and thereby society becomes subject to the law of dialectical evolution which comes to light in the class struggle. The total content of human consciousness is determined by society and changes along with social progress.

VI. Epistemology

Since matter determines consciousness, knowledge must be conceived in a realistic fashion; the subject does not create the object, for the object exists independently of the subject; knowledge results from the fact that copies, reflections, or photographs of matter are present in the mind. The world is not unknowable but is thoroughly knowable. Naturally the true method of knowing consists solely in science combined with technical practice; technical progress shows well enough the degeneracy of all agnosticism. Though knowledge is essentially sense knowledge, rational thought is necessary to organize these experiential data. Positivism is "bourgeois charlatanry" and "idealism," because we do actually grasp the essences of things through phenomena.

So far Marxist epistemology sets itself up as absolute naive realism of the usual empiricist type. The peculiarity of Marxist materialism lies in the fact that it combines this realistic outlook with another one, the pragmatic. From the notion that all contents of our consciousness are determined by our economic needs it follows equally that each social class has its own science and its own philosophy. An independent, nonparty science is impossible; the truth is whatever leads to success, and practice alone constitutes the criterion of truth.

Both these theories of knowledge are found side by side in Marxism without anyone trying very hard to harmonize them. The most they will concede is that our knowledge is a striving for the absolute truth, but that for the moment it is simply relative, answering to our needs. Here the theory seems to fall into contradiction, for if the truth were relative to our needs then knowledge would never be a copy of reality -- not even a partial copy.

VII. Values

According to historical materialism all contents of consciousness are the result of economic needs which, in turn, are continuously changing. This applies particularly to morality, aesthetics, and religion.

In regard to morality, historical materialism recognizes no eternal code whatever and teaches that each social class has its own morality. The highest moral rule for the proletariat -- the most progressive class -- is that only that is morally good which contributes to the destruction of bourgeois society.

In aesthetics things are more complicated. It must readily be admitted that in reality, in things themselves, there exists an objective element which acts as the ground of our aesthetic appreciation and permits us to see things as either beautiful or ugly. But on the other hand this appreciation also depends upon evolution; each class having its own special needs, each has its own scale of values. Consequently, art should not be cut off from life but must portray the heroic efforts of the proletariat in its fight to establish a socialist world (socialist realism).

Finally, a very different temper prevails in its theory about religion. Dialectical materialism treats religion as a conglomeration of false and fantastic statements which science has condemned, and science alone is the way to knowledge. Religion originates in fear; in their powerlessness before nature, and later before their exploiters, men have defied these powers and petitioned them, finding in religion and otherworldly beliefs a consolation which their exploited and slavish existence could not afford them.

However, the exploiters (feudalists, capitalists, etc.) regard religion as a superb means of keeping the masses under their yoke; firstly, it makes them obedient to their exploiters and, secondly, it prevents the proletariat from revolting through promising them a better lot after death. The proletariat exploits no one, and so needs no religion. While morality and aesthetics are only subject to change, religion must vanish completely.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

Share this article

Comments 0

Your comment

Comment description

Latest Post

Most Reviews