If Marx was declared dead in 1990-91, he seemed to be resurrected in 2008. As Communist governments fell or were transformed, awkwardly, into pseudo-capitalist ones (as Russia did, and China had previously), capitalism appeared to have taken the day – Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” had arrived. But in the inventing years, Marx retained his currency in academia because of his theoretical contributions to the critique of capitalism, and because the academic left was not as jubilant for the end of history as was the right. Then Marx was rehabilitated when capitalism’s structural flaws became apparent with the financial crisis.
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
All this is to situate Marx in the real world – I came to know his work during his brief afterlife in the 1990s. I remember first reading The Communist Manifesto at a campsite in Flagstaff Arizona and feeling somewhat subversive in that conservative state. Thus it is with some relish that I dust off (literally) my old copy of The Marx-Engles Reader. Marx was born at Trier, Prussia (later Germany) in 1818, studied at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, and wrote his best-known work (though not his magnum opus), The Communist Manifesto in 1848 [Hawaiian connection]. He married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a Baron, had several children, and lived in such dire poverty that some of the children died, though spies told of his caring, loving demeanor as a father. He lived in England and collaborated with Friedrich Engles, author of Condition of the Working Class in England.
MARX CONTRA HEGEL
Marx was one of the “Young Hegelians” who followed in the wake of that philosopher to whom Foucault said “all philosophy is a footnote.” Specifically, he was a “left Hegelian” using Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to show how advanced societies would move, in evolutionary fashion, toward socialism. The dialectic was, like a dialog, a conversation in which each element responds to the last and development occurs this way. This is as opposed to a “teleological,” or internally-driven form of development. According to Kedourie in Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures (1995), he saw himself as another Hegel, who, standing on his head, was set right by Marx. While Hegel invoked spirit with his weltgeist (world spirit) and zeitgeist (spirit of the times), Marx was, at root, a materialist; he viewed the material conditions of humanity as the basis of historical development itself – Marx’s “historical materialism.”
ON PRIVATE PROPERTY
In his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx addressed the topic of private property. Specifically, he examined its relation to voting rights in the US. He applauded the state constitutions that had abolished private property as a voting requirement [Hawaiian connection], but questioned whether doing so actually sublimated the role of private property so that the privilege it afforded became invisible.
“A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of communism” (Marx, 1848). This quote and the final line from Marx’s Manifesto, “Workingmen of the world unite!” are seared into the minds of the (at one point) billions of people living under communist regimes. The sheer impact of Marxʻs work, both philosophically and in the real world explains the relevance of his thought and why many still visit his tomb in London.
Along with the posts on Rousseau, Plato, Bacon, Machiavelli, Said and Locke, this post, and many to follow, are part of an upcoming project (it’s not all philosophy!) – stay tuned.