Recently, the memorial in London was again desecrated and sparked a bit of online debate. Truthfully, I don’t have many friends, so it was really only one person who came up huffing and puffing. However, I’ve always known this man to be the controversial character of our time, of even our last century.
Let’s face it. Hitler was pretty generally hated by all so he doesn’t cause much controversy. And the people killing in the name of Jesus and Muhammad is an old story we can always revisit when we get tired of arguing about this guy.
So yes, I said it. Karl Marx is the controversial figure of our modern times.
The economy is always a topic of issue whether at the coffee shop, bar, or election debates. We eat too much junk. We buy too much nonsense. People are dying in our streets. And then we are killing more in other streets. Something needs to be done about it. But what?
Marx divides the room pretty quick to two opposite ends here. Yet, is it possible to take a few of his ideas without taking them all. Are his views on Capitalism that binary?
Well, no doubt, his ideas have caused some really bad plans that lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people, it bankrupted countries, and placed power-hungry dictators in dangerous positions.
In fact, there is a lot that seems quite messed up about some of the things he proposed.
No private property? What do you mean we shouldn’t be allowed to own things? I suppose we can all sympathize in a certain way with the idea, but to enforce it totally is like saying you aren’t allowed to eat fast food or play video games all weekend. You know it really isn’t the right thing to do, but it still feels good and human. To deny this would be to deny human nature and declare war on who you are.
Now, whether you worship the man as a champion for a better world or deride him as the epitome of evil, he was a 19th century thinker that strongly influenced his world thereafter. And yet, when people of his time started to take his ideas and use them for their own agendas - as has happened to many thinkers and revolutionaries who have caused trouble and enlightenment - he couldn’t even identify with what people called Marxist.
Marx's purported remark to Paul Lafargue: ‘Ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste!’
So, if it is possible, let us try to see who this man really was and what he really wanted. Given, knowing what anybody truly thought is just as impossible to prove as whether or not God exist. But here, we will try to look at the man and his ideas (that he did write himself) and how they affect us today.
This article is for you, Karl Marx: the architect of genocide who wasn’t able to keep his own workroom tidy and/or the hero-advocate for the working class who never worked a day in his life.
Marx was born in Trier, Germany in 1818. Fascinating.
That was even boring to type, but it seemed appropriate to start a story. A rather short story, mind you. But somewhat necessary background to paint a better picture of the man.
He came from a not-so-proud line of rabbis who converted to Christianity when he was just a boy to better fit in to German society. His family did well enough financially and sent young Karl to the very upper-class and prestigious University of Bonn.
He wanted to become a professional critic of the arts. But while he was there, he managed to get imprisoned for drunkenness and disturbing the peace, put himself in enormous debt, and even partook in a duel. His dreams of becoming a critic were not coming to fruition as he had hoped. At least not yet. It’s a tough life coming from a good family.
Well, Mommy and Daddy were not too happy with those results, but being the loving parents they were… or desperate, they sent him to the more sobering University of Berlin. Dodged a(nother) bullet there they thought. Nope. He found the Young Hegelians, Junghegelianer, a group of philosophers who were very skeptical of the economy and politics of the time.
This is where we start to see history beginning. From there, Marx joined a small group of intellectuals who wanted to get rid of the class system and the idea of private property. This group was known as the Communist party.
He started writing about these ideas and became politically active, which ultimately led to his fleeing to London. He wrote an immense amount of articles and books, along with his friend and patron Friedrich Engels - to whom he shared very intense poetry and saw that all his work was published. I’ll let you decide if there was something else going on there.
A few of Karl Marx’s more known works include: Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), The Holy Family (1845), Theses on Feuerbach (1845), 1844 Manuscripts, The German Ideology (1845), The Communist Manifesto (1848), Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), and the very long Capital (1867-1894).
It’s understandable why one can be overwhelmed by the challenge of ‘Have you even read his works?’ Having said that, most people that do criticize Marx have probably read nothing of his works and even those that worship him probably haven’t read half. It’s dry and a bit repetitive to add to the weight of carrying his books for a quick read on the metro to work. I should really go digital.
One thing is clear though, he mostly wrote about Capitalism. More specifically, a very intelligent and perceptive critique of Capitalism. He had the right calling in the end to become a critic it seems, art just wasn’t his strength. And perhaps it was easy to criticize since Capitalism was the type of economy that was growing and dominating his times. It’s always easy to pick on the big guy. Nonetheless, he made some observations that we shouldn’t completely dismiss.
Side note: Though I am not Marxist, Socialist, or Communist, I am a philosopher. As such I feel obliged to examine and perhaps see where there is some truth to his cause. If you’re curious to know my political views, be sure to follow me. Of course, I have the answers. I just haven’t taken the time to write them down.
The 1% v. the 99%
The most common argument for any sort of marxist-inspired cause is that the ‘rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’ I don’t believe those were his exact words, but that’s the general ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ cry of the angry proletariat today.
Marx believed that the capitalists purposely shrunk the wages of those working for them as much as possible while taking in a very wide profit margin for themselves. He called this Ursprüngliche Akkumulation or ‘primitive accumulation.’
This worked by keeping the people so busy working they wouldn’t have a chance to protest or change their situation. Everybody would always be in desperate need of employment, while the landlords and employers would work together to raise the price of living as they raised the price of wages. An illusion that you are better off, and the idea you have enough to keep you satisfied, but still well-trapped in the same place you’ve always been. One year not being much different than the next other than the value of the currency, a bit more gray hair, and perhaps a vacation that ended too quickly.
By keeping the people weak with small living spaces, insufficient funds to pay for their well-being, unsafe streets, and other life problems, the worker bees could be exploited until it was time for them to rest for good.
This may all seem a bit like a conspiracy, but no doubt, we’ve all felt the maddening rush of working hard all day, standing in line at the grocery for last-minute shopping behind horrible people that just seem to be in the way, only to get home and relax for just a little before going to bed to wake up and do it all over again. All the while, worried about the rent, taxes, insurance, etc. Constantly feeling stuck, but helpless that there is no other choice.
Marx believed this was done on purpose to leave the majority of people too sick and tired to really do anything other than worry about making the next paycheck. Making ends meet to survive to see the ends are met once again without too much time to desire anything other than a beer and some cheap entertainment. Accepting we are experiencing enough to justify our lives as truly living.
I Feel So Insignificant, So Entfremdung
Marx believed that the modern workplace made people feel alienated and inconsequential. He believed that our work should bring us purpose and meaning. That our work-life should actually give us delight and pride. He was an idealist. For a man with that kind of hope, it destroyed him to see his fellow humans so miserable enduring something that they felt they had to do rather than enjoyed doing.
For us to feel less irrelevant in our work lives, Marx said we should be able to see ourselves in our work. ‘Look at what I’ve created.’ Or ‘Look at that, that was me.’ We may have some excitement in our work from day to day, if we have a glamorous job like modeling or designing iphone ads. Looking back over the years, however, we stop and realize it may have not much of a contribution to society.
Our work lives give us a chance to create something that naturally springs from what is inside of us: our creativity, our logic, our hardships, and our fortune. To create something that may very well last longer than us rather than something that absorbs our intelligence and efforts to result in no true value.
Whether that work is building apartment buildings or painting murals on said buildings, our work becomes, in a sense, a memorial of who we are, the good and the bad. Unfortunately, Marx saw that kind of work becoming less and less of an option. The option to actually see ourselves in our work.
Though there are still desperate attempts at feeling special and unique in the workplace.
Today we have:
Senior Road Warrior Marketing Intern - Which admittedly does sound better than unpaid intern
Chief Marketing guru - Chief and guru are very played out these days. Personally, I run from anyone that claims themselves to be a guru of anything.
Founder, Chief Creative, Inspiration, and Elation Officer - this person should seek the Iron Throne or a hug immediately
All of these titles are real, or at least really claimed, just check out the young-ins on your LinkedIn.
These titles all sound very impressive, but ultimately in today’s world with 22-year old company presidents and over-experienced directors, titles mean very little these days. Marx would no doubt say that this is due to the lack of meaning and creativity in the work itself, so we try to make the worker feel special through title alone. And if he’s not saying it, I will.
Due to Capitalism, production is highly effective and the work is ‘especially’ specialized. These jobs may even take years of training to truly master, which has its advantages clearly, but it unfortunately leaves the employees themselves without much room to put their true nature, to express themselves in their work. It’s just day in and day out of the same mundane process that leaves one feeling empty.
Marx thought we were all a little more rounded than that. He didn’t believe that we were born to do only one thing. Sure we have our free time outside of work for hobbies, but if you subscribe to the full idea of Marxist thoughts, you don’t have much time and energy reserved for that. He believed the Capitalistic economy made us sacrifice ourselves for its own greedy needs.
‘The fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.’
Karl Marx, Estranged Labour
It’s Their Party, and They’ll Cry if They Want To
Marx did have a vendetta with the rich, but he wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to them. After all, he did come from a wealthy Jewish family, married to a rich woman, Jenny von Westphalen, and became best friends with a very wealthy man, Friedrich Engels, who paid him just to be him.
‘Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’
We can’t say for sure whether he thought capitalists, the ‘vampires,’ were evil at heart. Probably not though considering he mentioned them to also be a victim of the ideology of capitalism. Romanticism was popular during his times, but the rich were still a little stuck in the idea that marriage was more of a business proposal than it was about being with the one you loved.
Even the rich people were still people and were subjected to the human condition. They could still feel the angst of everyday life and the sorrows of a loveless marriage. Especially during his times, money mostly passed between the hands of one man to another, who in turn used it to maintain control of their wives and kids.
This affluent nuclear family of his time would create a constant strain of oppression, which would lead to resentment and the unhealthy glue of staying together not for love, but for financial reasons.
Perhaps from his own upbringing and close look at the upper class, Marx didn’t really believe Capitalists wanted to live this way. It wasn’t so much that the rich chose to be rich of their own intuition. It is more that they live in a world where they are led to believe that our economic interests should be at the heart of our lives. That money was of more value than deep, honest relationships.
He called this Warenfetischismus, or ‘commodity fetishism.’ This made us desire and put virtue into things that have no objective value, and instead strengthens our view of the world in economic terms, extending to even our friends and romantic partners.
Somebody Hold Me
Another issue Marx had with Capitalism was how insecure it was. Capitalism to Marx was a system that made humans expendable. Money was worth more than living creatures. Our business and bank account more important than our fellow humans. Letting people go with no notice if the overhead dictated it to be so or if a new technology simply made more economic sense.
Put simply, there just isn’t much job security for people when focusing on capital. Marx saw and felt the need for financial security with the same depth that many of us feel for security in our relationships.
We don’t want to be just tossed aside. We don’t want to be just let go. The fear of abandonment instills a negativity within us that is hard to ignore. It may not be the best idea to be so emotional in every aspect of our lives in this cruel and unforgiving world, but there is something deeply touching about an economic system that seems to understand our emotional human needs as Marx tried to do. It seems unrealistic and even stupid to submit to such emotions, but there is something warm with a promise that we will always have a place in the world’s heart.
The Roller Coaster Economy
Some of you may be the adrenaline junkie, Taoist abider, and bipolar philosopher that I am, but generally speaking, most people prefer stability. And Capitalism can be a very unstable economy.
The Great Depression and stock market crashes of past came as Marx predicted. For Marx it was easy to see this because capitalists want money, they want the biggest profit they can get out of something. Which makes sense in economic terms. But as anybody knows, the biggest rewards come from the biggest risks. And as my Papa Joe always said, ‘Anything quickly gained can be quickly lost.’
This obviously leads to a volatile sea of competition where our human weaknesses hurt the most. Kudos if you were born a psychopath. Even with psychopaths sitting at the top though, capitalism is very much characterized by waves of crises. It’s normal as we know. We always watch it go up and down with the occasional hurricane.
But Marx didn’t just believe that Capitalism was doomed to constantly crash due to ‘user error.’ He saw it as a force that would steadily overpower itself. With capitalism, there wouldn’t be problems due to shortages but due to abundance. We just have too much stuff and therefore want too much more. Ultimately leading to a very bipolar society of a few wealthy on one end of the pole and a miserable and angry many on the other.
That’s because we don’t celebrate our success of high production by sharing it. We shame the unemployed and see it as a curse and failure rather than an accomplishment. Technology and industrialization has eliminated our need to hire an entire village to farm or build cars.
We don’t allow the profit gained from machine work to provide for us all. We give it to a few and leave the many fighting over what jobs are left. This, of course leads to talks of revolution and desire for change. It leads to a regression of people where we are in a barbaric state of instability and unrest coupled with unhappiness.
In short, Capitalism may have led to our very productive and efficient society, but rather than profit from the fruits of this, we in turn allow it to devour us and profit from us. A sort of pathological masochism.
The River Runs Deep
One of the most philosophical, psychological, and sociological lessons we can take from Marx’s work is the idea that our economic system plays a huge role, sometimes understated, sometimes dangerous, in our daily lives. In fact, an entire economic system can create an ideology that ultimately leads our lives, gives us our values, and puts our faith into something besides religion.
‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.’
Karl Marx, The German Ideology
The above pyramid is a well-known criticism of Capitalism, but the truth is, the values our economic system places on us run much deeper than an obvious pyramid scheme. The pyramid provides a nice visual of how the ideology sits at the top, the rulers decide our values and morals with laws, the religions guilt hard work and submission, the military and police enforce the above, etc.
But what you don’t see is that the idea takes hold of us all, rich and poor.
Here are some of the most accepted ideas, conditionals if you will, that you may share if you’ve been influenced by Capitalism:
If you aren’t employed, you are pretty much worthless to the world.
In fact, if you just work hard enough, you will be a winner and well-off.
Because if you have nice things - car, house, phone - you will be happier.
And lastly, if anything or anyone is of value, it will obviously make money.
I grew up in a Southern Democratic family in the bible belt of America. These values are my roots, despite my growth as a human from traveling and experiencing since. Today, I don’t deny these things as a part of my values, but I do look at them with a cautious eye and question them when I see them guiding me towards unthoughtful opinions about myself or others.
Capitalism is not the most evil idea in the world. The most corrupt people are always at the top of the pyramid or system. This would be true of any human hierarchy as can be equally seen in Socialism. But we’ll go more into that in our article dedicated to Adam Smith and how great Capitalism is.
Well, What Now Then?
Deep down, we are all a bit promiscuous with our desires. We want more than just one thing from life. Maybe we do love doing the books for our boss, but there still might be a strange desire to work for a demolition team for a few months. Or somebody on the demolition team may fantasize about hiding away in a dark room with a bottle of wine and typewriter to write poetry. We truthfully just don’t want to dedicate our entire lives to one occupation.
Marx saw this and thought that specializing may be great for the economy, but it is a sort of betrayal to our human nature. The values of Capitalism make a productive society that give us all a chance to be rich, but is also creates a very scary and hostile world where we are all eaten away inside by anxiety, competitiveness, and conformity. This fear prevents many from wandering off from anything they may know.
Marx wanted to help people find meaning in work. He thought we would have the best chance of doing this by helping someone directly or by providing others with a way to help others. Maybe if you’re a doctor, you can say you feel fulfilled in reducing people’s suffering, but very few other jobs can accomplish this.
How many teachers are tired of teaching those that don’t want to be force-fed things they don’t want to learn or will never use? How many store clerks quit saying they just couldn’t see the point? How many marketing-guru-specialist-chief-officers find real joy in creating an ad for lawn furniture? If our work feels meaningless, we suffer from it, even if the money is good.
Marx didn’t have a specific answer to this. He even said he never wrote recipes for the future. It’s best to think of his writing as descriptions rather than prescriptions. He simply pointed out the flaws in what was thought to be the answer at his time. He may have hinted at a dream utopia, but there is also a sense that he didn’t want to assume the taste of the world of the future. We shouldn’t take his literature as scripture as many have done, but we also shouldn’t completely dismiss the critique he provided us.
Deep down, we all want to feel that we are helping people. We want to feel a connection to others and our contribution to the world. We want to feel we are doing what is needed rather than what is just servicing random desires.
‘... while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’
Karl Marx, The German Ideology
And ideally, everyone would have a little time to become a philosopher.
Marx wasn’t popular or respected in his time and spent most of it hiding from the secret police, including his brother who ran the Prussian secret service. He died in 1883 without property and and less than a dozen people at his funeral.
Today, we can blame him for the mayhem that happened under his name or ideas. Which can be quite confusing since even Marx himself changed and evolved his ideas as he grew. Nonetheless, he had a way of seeing modern problems in a big picture. Perhaps too big for many to truly comprehend.
Marx didn’t disrespect Capitalism, in fact, he saw it as an extremely powerful force. As a philosopher, he wanted to understand why something that could create so much material wealth, could create just as much misery with it. He should’ve studied more eastern philosophies.
In the end, he saw that Capitalism didn’t make us happier, wiser, or kinder. It may have helped evolve our economy and our technology, but not our human nature.
With the current Venezuelan situation and the history of other ‘Marx-inspired’ regimes such as China, Cuba, and Russia, we know better than to try to create the proletarian revolution Marx predicted. But it doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems of Capitalism.
We could maybe start with not assuming Marx as the evil person who has lead to millions of deaths, but think of him as a bit ahead of his time in curing the ills of modern society. He could see the disease, but had no idea how to treat it. Perhaps what he suggested seemed like a good idea 200 years ago, but we know today won’t work.
If we ever do try to find a system that really works, we should take a few of Marx’s observations with us. Ideally, whatever the next system is, I would hope that it helps us build a healthier relationship with money, but also with nature and each other and most importantly, ourselves.
We don’t need a dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx suggested, but we should take a hard look at why we value work and what we are getting out of it. We shouldn’t get rid of private property, but we should create a better understanding and relationship with our wealth and how we use it.
Perhaps, by examining and sitting with our own thoughts, we may be able to come up with something better. Capitalism isn’t an unstoppable force of its own, it only lives day to day and because we make it alive everyday. When we can empty our own minds and think for ourselves beyond what we have been told to believe, then we can wake up one day and have a new world.
Only then can we possibly come up with a system that is not only productive and efficient, but all gives us humans the freedom and fulfillment we truly desire. But hey, I’m only a philosopher, I’ll leave it to you humans of action to decide where you want the world to be tomorrow.
‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’
Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach