A Crash Course on Karl Marx

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The following notes are based on an overview by Peter Kreeft. See also his book, Socrates Meets Marx: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of Communism (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).

Who was Karl Marx?

A German philosopher-economist and a revolutionary socialist who founded Communism.

When did he live?

1818–1883.

What is the significance of his philosophy?

Marxism is not the most important, the most imposing, or the most impressive philosophy in history.

But until recently, it has clearly been the most influential. In just two generations, Marxism inundated one-third of the world—a feat accomplished only twice in human history (by early Christianity and by early Islam).

Communist-manifestoWhat is Marx’s most famous work?

The Communist Manifesto (1848), co-authored with Friedrich Engels.

What is the genre of The Communist Manifesto?

It is essentially a philosophy of history, past and future.

What was Marx’s view of the past?

Marx held a cynical view, reducing all of it to class struggle between:

  • oppressor and oppressed
  • master and slave

This includes all sorts of relationships, like:

  • king vs. people
  • priest vs. parishioner
  • guild-master vs. apprentice
  • husband vs. wife
  • parent vs. child

What was Marx’s view of the present?

There are only two classes:

  1. the bourgeoisie (the “haves”) — the owners of the means of production.
  2. the proletariat (the “have-nots”) — the non-owners of the means of production.

What was Marx’s view of future history?

Marx held a naïve vision:

  1. The proletariat (the have-nots) must sell themselves and their labor to the bourgeoisie (the owners) until the communist revolution.
  2. The communist revolution will eliminate (i.e., murder) the bourgeoisie
  3. As a result, classes and class conflict will thus be abolished, ushering in a millennium of peace and equality

How was Marxism structurally and emotionally like a religion?

Marx took over the forms and the spirit of his Jewish religious heritage, but not the content. He retained all the major structural and emotional factors of biblical religion in a secularized form.

  • Marx, like Moses, is the prophet who leads the new Chosen People, the proletariat, out of the slavery of capitalism into the Promised Land of communism across the Red Sea of bloody worldwide revolution and through the wilderness of temporary, dedicated suffering for the party, the new priesthood.
  • The revolution is the new “Day of Yahweh,” the Day of Judgment
  • Party spokesmen are the new prophets
  • Political purges within the party to maintain ideological purity are the new divine judgments on the waywardness of the Chosen and their leaders.

Where did Marx’s idea’s come from?

  1. Hegelian philosophy
  2. Enlightenment rationalism
  3. Economic reductionism
  4. Utopian socialist thinkers

What was Marx’s relationship to Hegelian philosophy?

Marx said that he turned German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) on his head. He transformed Hegel’s philosophy of “dialectical idealism” into “dialectical materialism.”

What radical ideas did Marx inherit from Hegel?

  1. Monism. Everything is one; the distinction between matter and spirit is illusory. For Hegel, matter was only a form of spirit; for Marx, spirit was only a form of matter.
  2. Pantheism. The distinction between Creator and creature is false. For Hegel, the world is made into an aspect of God (pantheism); for Marx, God is reduced to the world (atheism).
  3. Historicism: Everything (even truth) changes; there is nothing above history to judge it; therefore, what is true in one era becomes false in another, or vice versa. Time = God.
  4. Dialectic. History moves only by conflicts between opposing forces, a “thesis” vs. an “antithesis” evolving a “higher synthesis.” This applies to classes, nations, institutions and ideas. The dialectic continues until the kingdom of God finally comes. Hegel virtually identified this kingdom with the Prussian state. Marx internationalized it to the worldwide communist state.
  5. Necessitarianism, or fatalism. The dialectic and its outcome are inevitable and necessary, not free.
  6. Statism. There is no eternal, trans-historical truth or law, therefore the state is supreme and uncriticizable. Marx again internationalized Hegel’s nationalism.
  7. Militarism. There is no universal natural or eternal law above states to judge and resolve differences between them, therefore war is inevitable and necessary as long as there are states.

What was Marx’s economic reductionism?

The traditional view of the relationship of man and society is:

  1. Mind rules body.
  2. Man rules his societies.
  3. Society rules its economics.

Marx stood each of these on its head:

  1. Within man, thought is totally determined by matter.
  2. Man is totally determined by society.
  3. Society is totally determined by economics.

What is communism?

Marx wrote: “The theory of communism may be summed up in the single phrase: abolition of private property.”

How does Marx deal with the objection that Communism abolishes many good things?

Marx does not deny that Communism does away with:

  • privacy
  • private property
  • individuality
  • freedom
  • motivation to work
  • education
  • marriage
  • family
  • culture
  • nations
  • religion
  • philosophy

However, Marx says that capitalism has already abolished them. For example, he argues that “the bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production.”

How does Marx respond to the objection that Marxist materialism contradicts itself?

The objection: If ideas are nothing but products of material and economic forces, then communist ideas are only that too. To attack the grounds of thought is to attack one’s own attack.

Marx sees this and admits it. But the functions of words, in his view, is not to prove what is true but to encourage the revolution. Marx is essentially a pragmatist.

What are some further objections to Marxism?

  1. Marx’s appeal for “Working men of all countries, unite!” even if pragmatic, is still self-defeating. Marx believes in fate, not free will, and the revolution is inevitable. Therefore, he can’t appeal to free will while denying it.
  2. The predictions simply have not worked. The revolution did not happen when and where Marxism predicted. Capitalism did not disappear—nor did the state, the family, or religion.
  3. Communism has not produced contentment and equality anywhere it has gained power.

Kreeft:

All Marx has been able to do is to play Moses and lead fools backward into the slavery of Egypt (worldliness). The real Liberator is waiting in the wings for the jester who now “struts and frets his hour upon the stage” to lead his fellow “fools to dusty death” the one topic Marxist philosophers refuse to face.

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