Karl Marx at 200: What did he get right?

Unthinkable: ‘Freedom was Marx’s central concern,’ says philosopher Peter Singer

A Karl Marx figure with a “zero euro” bank note which has been produced in his home city of Trier, Germany, as part of bicentenary celebrations. Photograph: Harald Tittel/AFP/Getty Images

Karl Marx is probably the most divisive thinker in modern history. Born 200 years ago this week, his name remains both a rallying cry and an insult.

As the Australian philosopher Peter Singer writes in Marx: A Very Short Introduction (reissued as a second edition ahead of his birthday on May 5th): "Marx's influence can be compared to that of major religious figures like Jesus or Muhammad. For much of the second half of the 20th century, nearly four out of every 10 people on earth lived under governments that considered themselves Marxist and claimed to follow his ideas . . ."

But how well understood is Marx, and has any government ever really honoured his ideas properly.

Singer, best known for his work on animal welfare and his charitable initiative The Life You Can Save, says Marx can be seen engaging in "a speculative philosophy of history rather than a scientific study". In this, he was following in the footsteps of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – a giant of German philosophy whose conception of history as a kind of march of progress has since fallen out of fashion.


Singer points out that Marx’s predictions about the future of capitalism were almost entirely wrong. In industrialised countries, workers’ real wages have risen, and capitalism has not collapsed. But focusing on this alone overlooks Marx’s contribution to analysing freedom in Western society.

Singer says: “Freedom was Marx’s central concern – paradoxical as this may seem when we look at the regimes that have professed to follow his ideas.”

These regimes include China which today proclaims to be Marxist despite becoming the world's largest trading nation, and crushing individual freedoms on a scale that would surely have troubled Marx. Without irony, the Chinese president and communist party leader Xi Jinping last year declared: "If we deviate from or abandon Marxism, our party would lose its soul and direction."

As this week’s Unthinkable guest, Singer seeks to correct a few misunderstandings surrounding the bearded revolutionary, arguing: “If Marx has any claim to a place alongside Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel as a major political philosopher, it rests on his critique of the liberal conception of freedom.”

Can one understand Marx without understanding Hegel first?

“To understand Marx, you need to know something about Hegel’s view of history. Hegel saw history as the story of the progress of mind towards freedom. Today, that sounds odd, but it becomes less mysterious once we realise that by mind, Hegel meant not just the separate minds of individuals, but the sum total of that consciousness.

“Think, for example, of statements like ‘Today, we know that our planet is not the centre of the universe.’ That doesn’t mean that every individual knows this, but that this is knowledge available to all of us, and so it is something humans, as a whole, know.

“Hegel thought that mind, in this sense, progresses towards freedom by encountering, and then overcoming, contradictions that are a barrier towards its self-understanding and hence its freedom. Each stage of development generates a contradiction that has to be overcome, until the final stage, when mind understands itself, has overcome all barriers, and therefore is free.

“Marx took over Hegel’s view of history, but transformed it into the story of our material development, taking place in the world of material beings who must eat before they can philosophise. Only if we understand this can we understand how Marx could be so confident that capitalism had inherent contradictions that would lead to its collapse, and that it would be replaced by communism, which saw as a condition in which the constraints of material want are overcome and all humans can live freely as they choose.”

What did Marx get right and what did he get wrong?

“Marx saw that industrialised capitalism is an economic system that is our creation, although we did not chose to create it, and it dominates us. It puts a price on everything, it reduces skilled workers to appendages to machines, and it destroys communities.

“Marx’s materialist conception of history also contains important valid insights: he recognised that the way we produce what we need, and organise our economy, affects many aspects of our lives, including our religion, our politics, and our morality. But he took this idea too far, and that led to his most serious mistake.

“He denied that there is such a thing as human nature, independently of the economic mode of production. So he thought that if we abolish private ownership of the means of production, and everything is owned in common, the workers who run these commonly owned industries will act in the interests of all.

“The Soviet Union proved how tragically mistaken that assumption was.”

Marx said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” How has this been misinterpreted?

“Many people read that remark as saying that there is no point in doing philosophy, it’s time to start the revolution. But we need to understand it in the context of Marx’s involvement in the group of Young Hegelians who were working within the framework of Hegel’s philosophy, but seeking to transform it into something more politically radical.

“Hegel thought freedom would be achieved when mind understands itself as a unity, and philosophy, if it correctly interpreted the world, would lead to this understanding.

“Marx accepted Hegel’s view that human history consists of progress towards the goal of human freedom, but he rejected the idea that philosophical interpretation alone would enable us to reach that goal. Instead, he thought, in order to bring about the realisation of Hegel’s philosophy, that is, the overcoming of all contradictions and the achievement of freedom for all humans, we need to change the material conditions of the world.”

You say Marx would have been appalled at what Lenin and Stalin did in his name. But how else did he imagine communism could be introduced except through bloodshed and coercion?

“The revolution itself might be bloody, Marx thought, but he saw communism as a state of freedom in which the coercive functions of the state would gradually wither away.

“In order to believe in this possibility, he had to deny that there is a biological basis to human nature, and instead believe that the abolition of capitalism and the common ownership of the means of production would lead to a new kind of unselfish human being who would not need to be coerced to work for the common good.”

Marx’s influence in still evident today among left-wing campaigners who favour revolution over incremental change. How do you respond to those activists who say we should focus, not on charity or working to alleviate poverty within the free market system but, on overthrowing the global capitalist economic order?

“I respond by inviting them to tell me, first, what realistic plan they have for overthrowing the global capitalist economic order, and second, what demonstrably superior economic system they will institute in place of capitalism. I’ve yet to receive a convincing answer to either question.”

* Maynooth University is holding an international conference on May 4th and 5th exploring Marx's relevance in fields ranging from economics to women's rights. Speakers include Antonio Negri and Jodi Dean. https://hauntingthefuture.wordpress.com/