When I was young and had an inquiring mind, I dug into many philosophies and ideals, religious and secular, popular and obscure. Eventually I opted for a loose belief in Zen Buddhism, but today I thought I’d write a little about two of the many philosophers I read in the past – Karl Marx and Adam Smith.
I have to admit that though I tried to read his ponderous “Das Kapital” I’ve no head for economics, I don’t read German and the translations have not always been the most faithful and accurate. But basically – I’ve no head for economics. I was more interested in seeing what influenced so many people back in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, I read the more emotional “The Communist Manifesto” (and felt like a nun reading pornography at the time too), “The Selected Writings of Karl Marx” and “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”.
Karl Marx is one of the, if not the, bogey-men of capitalist society – especially American society, presumably because of the cold war and the conflict with the Russians (conflict still pretty hot if I’m not mistaken – only communism has disappeared).
Fact is that very few Americans have ever actually read what Marx had to say. They often quote what they think Marx said – for example about religion being the opiate of the people – there was a context to that quote by the way:
“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world…
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
― Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
“The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence, relations which cannot be better described than by the cry of a Frenchman when it was planned to introduce a tax on dogs: ‘Poor dogs! They want to treat you as human beings!”
― Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
In context there is a certain amount of good sense in what he says. Although many of the believers of religions don’t see their religion in this light, history certainly teaches us that cynical leaders throughout the ages have used religion in precisely this fashion.
Over the years I began to feel a little sorry for Karl Marx. His great revolutionary vision and energy was built upon a belief that humanity – proletariat humanity in any case – was/is capable of making altruistic choices for the good of all mankind. He felt that there would eventually be no class system once the bourgeoisie were eliminated – that the proletariat was the logical culmination of society. His revolutionary theory is probably based on the then recent history of society – including the French revolution (good heavens that certainly was a terrible point to begin with) and with the birth and propagation of the “modern bourgeois society”. He believed that eventually the majority of humanity would overcome the minority. However a lot of his work was couched in hate-speak and rancour (read his works to get the gist of this) which probably had as much to do with its future direction than one may think.
Here are some other quotes:
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”
― Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie; in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.
The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
― Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
The goal set in the mind of Karl Marx was the creation of an egalitarian society – possible only if humanity is essentially altruistic and above all, honest:
“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
In place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
― Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Of course he should have imagined the likes of Stalin and power struggles by people who felt they were the natural leaders of the revolution and its a shame he never could read George Orwell’s Animal Farm … but then I’m sure each philosopher in the comfort (or discomfort) of his den imagines society in its most ideal form. In his last days though this is what Marx wrote in a letter:
“If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.
[In a letter about the peculiar ‘Marxism’ which arose in France 1882 to Eduard Bernstein] not long before his death.”
Here is what Bertrand Russell has to say about Marx:
Of course getting “into” Karl Marx is a little more complicated than a few quotes … but maybe one can try to stimulate a little interest in one of the most influential philosophers who has been used to mold the 20th century.
One wonders how Adam Smith imagined a society based on “self-love” – for our Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith was a “cynic” and not a little pessimistic in his vision of men and mankind. He’s considered the father of economics and of course capitalism and one wonders just how many of his “followers” have actually read what he wrote those many years ago:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”
“The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public … The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order … ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined … with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men … who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public”
― Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature & Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol 1
“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest.
Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
“Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”
“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that….But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.”
― Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
“Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations…His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”
“How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.”
― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
I think that like with Marx few have actually read anything by Adam Smith … so this video might be interesting for those who know nothing about him except how he’s been painted by modern idealists. Here’s the pdf form of Alan Macfarlane’s talk.
One can’t deny that the protestant sentiments of the 1700s proffered by Adam Smith were pretty on the mark, far more than our Prussian offspring of the 1800s Karl Marx. The point though if we look carefully is that they’re both saying something similar. The big difference is that Marx would like to fight against what he sees – Smith explains it and makes moral statements.
Basically though, have a completely different position in the understanding of what philosophy and a philosopher is:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
[These words are inscribed upon Marx’s gravestone along with Workers Of All Lands Unite]”