Ideas of Karl Marx, by Theme

[German, 1818 - 1883, Born at Trier. Worked in the British Museum Reading Room. Died in London.]

green numbers give full details    |    back to list of philosophers    |     unexpand these ideas    |    
1. Philosophy / D. Nature of Philosophy / 5. Aims of Philosophy / a. Philosophy as worldly
Philosophers have interpreted the world, but the point is to change it
     Full Idea: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
     From: Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach [1846], §XI)
     A reaction: The 'point' of what? Personally I am more with Aristotle - that the aim is to create a society in which we can all aspire to contemplate like gods. As an interim statement of aim, though, one must respect Marx. But was he a philosopher?
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 5. Objectivity
Whether human thinking can be 'true' must be decided in practice, not theory
     Full Idea: The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question; man must prove the truth of his thinking in practice.
     From: Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach [1846], §II)
     A reaction: This would appear to be an assertion of the pragmatic view of truth well before Peirce. The obvious objections arise, such as whether falsehood (Plato's 'noble lie') might not have equal practical success, and whether truth might be disastrous.
16. Persons / E. Rejecting the Self / 2. Self as Social Construct
The authentic self exists at the level of class, rather than the individual
     Full Idea: Instead of focusing on the individual, Marxism suggested that the authentic self was at the social level in the form of class.
     From: report of Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach [1846]) by Ian Dunt - How to be a Liberal 6
     A reaction: [not sure of the best source in Marx] This idea is expressed here by a defender of liberal individualism. Dunt persuasively attacks any concept of the self as part of some group, rather than as being an individual.
22. Metaethics / A. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / e. Human nature
The human essence is not found in individuals but in social relations
     Full Idea: The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual; in its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.
     From: Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach [1846], §VI)
     A reaction: This is a key Marxist doctrine, and the central difference from Aristotle. Personally I am more with Aristotle, but the truth obviously lies somewhere in between. Man must be a 'social being', or there wouldn't be any social relations.
22. Metaethics / A. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / j. Ethics by convention
Armies and businesses create moralities in which their activity can do no wrong
     Full Idea: Marx saw that social groups manufacture moralities for their own use, so their activity is placed outside the reach of evil. Thus the first articles of soldiers and businessmen is to deny that it is possible to do evil while waging war or doing business.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Simone Weil - Fragments: London 1943 p.146
     A reaction: This is especially true of the modern reverence for 'market forces'. It is a key debate in the ethics of warfare - compare Walzer and McMahon. A striking thought, obviously containing a lot of truth.
24. Political Theory / B. Nature of a State / 2. State Legitimacy / d. General will
The real will of the cooperative will replace the 'will of the people'
     Full Idea: Under collective property, the so called will of the people disappears in order to make way for the real will of the cooperative.
     From: Karl Marx (Grundrisse [1876], p.563), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 10
     A reaction: [from an 1874 note on Bakunin's 'Statism and Anarchy'] So how do you settle on the 'real' will of a cooperative? The travesty is when a ruling elite decide that, without consultation. An institution is needed. This is still a social contract.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 4. Changing the State / c. Revolution
The middle class gain freedom through property, but workers can only free all of humanity
     Full Idea: Where the middle class can win freedom for themselves on the basis of rights to property - thus excluding others from their freedom - the working class have nothing but their title as human beings. They only liberate themselves by liberating humanity.
     From: report of Karl Marx (Contrib to Critique of Hegel's Phil of Right [1844]) by Peter Singer - Marx 4
     A reaction: Individual workers might gain freedom via education, marriage, or entrepreneurship, or by opting for total simplicity of life, but in general Marx seems to be right about this. But we must ask what sort of 'freedom' is needed.
Theory is as much a part of a revolution as material force is
     Full Idea: Material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.
     From: Karl Marx (Contrib to Critique of Hegel's Phil of Right [1844], Intro p.69), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 4
     A reaction: A huge problem, I think, is that every theory (even conservatism) has to be simplified in a democracy if it is to grip the imagination of the majority. My current hatred is labels in political philosophy. They give us a cartoon view of the world.
In moving from capitalism to communism a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is needed
     Full Idea: Between the capitalist and communist society lies the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
     From: Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program [1875], IV)
     A reaction: This hugely influential idea was catastrophic for the twentieth century, because the leaders of the proletarian dictatorship adored and abused the power, and wouldn't give it up for some feeble next stage.
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 6. Liberalism / d. Liberal freedom
Liberal freedom is the right to be separate, and ignores the union of man with man
     Full Idea: The liberal right of man to freedom is not based on the union of man with man, but on the separation of man from man; it is the right to this separation.
     From: Karl Marx (works [1860]), quoted by Will Kymlicka - Contemporary Political Philosophy (1st edn) 7.2.a
     A reaction: [quoted from an anthology] It is interesting that liberal freedom is the right NOT to be involved in politics, and even not to vote in elections. Home counties England (high hedges etc) is the embodiment of the freedom not to be involved in society.
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 6. Liberalism / g. Liberalism critique
Liberals want the right to be separate, rather than for people to be united
     Full Idea: The [liberal] right of man to freedom is not based on the union of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right to this separation.
     From: Karl Marx (works [1860], p.53), quoted by Will Kymlicka - Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd edn) 7
     A reaction: [in collection ed.McLelland p.53] That nicely encapsulates the debate. Modern liberal thinkers regret the loss of community, but people in authoritarian communities yearn for separation. You can have too much 'union'!
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 7. Communitarianism / a. Communitarianism
Early Marx anticipates communitarian objections to liberalism
     Full Idea: The early writings of Marx anticipate the communitarian critique of liberalism.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Johanna Oksala - Political Philosophy: all that matters Ch.8
     A reaction: [Oksala says modern writers seem to prefer this to the hardcore later Marx, which is presumably too 'scientific'. He says 'Capital Vol 1' is Marx's most important work]
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 9. Communism
Man is dominated by money, which is the essence of his alienation
     Full Idea: Money is the alienated essence of man's labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.
     From: Karl Marx (On the Jewish Question [1844], p.60), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 3
     A reaction: Presumably this is inherit in the very nature of money, rather than in the wickedness of capitalists who control it. But money is not inherently alienting for the rich, or for the comfortable bourgeoisie (is it?).
By saying the material dialectic of history aspires to the best, Marx agreed with capitalism
     Full Idea: When Marx inverted Hegel's dialectic of history, by substituting matter for mind as the motive, he attributed to matter the essence of mind, an unceasing aspiration towards the best - which was in keeping with the general current of capitalist thought.
     From: comment on Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Simone Weil - Reflections on Liberty and Social Oppression p.43
     A reaction: [compressed] A rather nice debating point! Marx seems to share the universal nineteenth century belief in unremitting progress. Without that, it is impossible to believe that a revolution will necessarily improve anything.
False consciousness results from concealment by the superstructure
     Full Idea: False consciousness involves failing to see things as they really are. It comes about because a society's superstructure can conceal the real basis of the society.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Peter Singer - Marx 9
     A reaction: That seems a poor label, probably revealing a Hegelian background. It seems a matter of knowledge rather than consciousness. Can a whole mind be in a state of error?
Marx says force is everything, and that the weak will become strong, while remaining the weak
     Full Idea: Marx posits on the one hand that force alone governs social relations to the exclusion of anything else, and on the other hand that one day the weak, while remaining weak, will nevertheless be stronger. He believed in miracles.
     From: comment on Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Simone Weil - Fragments: London 1943 p.149
     A reaction: This is close to the obvious contradiction if the working classes despise the middle classes (the dreaded 'bourgeoisie') while their only aspiration is to be like them. It is hard to custom design a new class to which they could both aspire.
Marx rejected equal rights because they never actually treat people as equals
     Full Idea: Marx rejected the idea of equal rights, not because he was not a friend to the idea of treating people as equals, but precisely because he thought rights failed to live up to that ideal.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Will Kymlicka - Contemporary Political Philosophy (1st edn) 5.1
     A reaction: Presumably because the power to award 'rights' goes to the highest bidder. If equality is to be enshrined in law, it is a bit difficult to see how else to manage it.
Even decently paid workers still have their produce bought with money stolen from them
     Full Idea: Even if the workers are paid a fair wage, the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money has has stolen from them,
     From: Karl Marx (Capital Vol. 1 [1867], p.728), quoted by Johanna Oksala - Political Philosophy: all that matters Ch.8
     A reaction: [Penguin edition cited] The word 'stolen' is obviously dubious here. 'Exploitation' is a much more accurate word. One might talk of 'blackmail' or 'extortion' rather than theft.
Must production determine superstructure, or could it be the other way round?
     Full Idea: Once the 'interaction' between the superstructure and the productive forces is admitted, is it still possible to maintain that production determines the superstructure, rather than the other way round?
     From: comment on Karl Marx (Capital Vol. 1 [1867]) by Peter Singer - Marx 7
     A reaction: It is much harder to defend historical determinism if Singer is right about this. Modern capitalism won't admit of the sort of simple distinctions that mark was looking for.
Freedom only comes when labour is no longer necessary
     Full Idea: The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.
     From: Karl Marx (Capital Vol. 3 [1873], p.496), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 8
     A reaction: This is a bit discouraging fo idealistic dreamers. Modern political thought needs an ecological dimension to this problem. If society always needs a fair degree of labour, there must be a way to maximise freedom in that context.
Freedom is making the state subordinate to its society
     Full Idea: Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed on society into one completely subordinate to it.
     From: Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program [1875], IV)
     A reaction: The intermediate stage is dictatorship of the proletariat (presumably exercised by the communist leadership). No twentieth century marxist state ever got near the freedom which Marx was seeking. A liberal society might achieve it!
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need
     Full Idea: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
     From: Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program [1875]), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 9
     A reaction: Singer says this was not original to Marx, and he placed little emphasis on it. The obvious capitalist response is to ask how you will motivate someone who has huge abilities but few needs. It implies huge inequalities of altruism.
People who only have their labour power are the slaves of those permitting them to work
     Full Idea: The man who possesses no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can only work with their permission.
     From: Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program [1875], I)
     A reaction: In a world of vast multinationals, the person giving the permission to work is nearly always dependent on some higher level permission. In any sort of society people can only work with the consensus of other people.
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 11. Capitalism
The handmill gives feudalism, the steam mill capitalism
     Full Idea: The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist.
     From: Karl Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy [1847], p.202), quoted by Peter Singer - Marx 7
     A reaction: If technology dictates social structure, then feudalism is still with us, in low-tech industries. What if the steam mill had been invented in 1300?
Capitalism changes the world, by socialising the idea of a commodity
     Full Idea: In Marx's view the essential factor in capitalism is that the encroachment of the commodity form into society fundamentally changes the world.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Andrew Bowie - Introduction to German Philosophy 6 'Historical'
     A reaction: The main point is that people and their labour become commodities. Haven't animals always been treated as commodities? Clearly slave were commodities, long before capitalism. Capitalism universalises it?
The essence of capitalism is the subordination of people to things
     Full Idea: Marx discovered a formula impossible to surpass when he said that the essence of capitalism lies in the subordination of subject to object, of man to thing.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Simone Weil - Fragments: London 1943 p,155
     A reaction: I find this rather too vague to be a penetrating observation. I would suggest the obliteration of cooperation and community, in favour of competition. Winners and losers.
Marx thought capitalism was partly liberating, and could make labour and ownership more humane
     Full Idea: Marx did not disapprove per se of capitalism. New divisions of labour and forms of ownership could transform individuals in modern societies, creating a more humane world with the means capitalism had liberated from feudalism.
     From: report of Karl Marx (works [1860]) by Andrew Bowie - Introduction to German Philosophy 11 'Metaphysics'
     A reaction: I'm guessing this might be early Marx, which has less to say about the 'scientific' inevitably of deep change, and the necessity for revolution. Nowadays we tinker with humane changes at the poorer end, while the rich run rampant.
25. Social Practice / A. Freedoms / 2. Freedom of belief
Bourgeois 'freedom of conscience' just tolerates all sorts of religious intolerance
     Full Idea: Bourgeois 'freedom of conscience' is just the toleration of all possible kinds of religious unfreedom of conscience, and the workers' party should endeavour to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion.
     From: Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Program [1875], IV)
     A reaction: We see this in modern 'faith' schools in the UK, which do not seem to be required to live up to the standards of freedom of belief expected in the rest of a liberal society.
25. Social Practice / C. Rights / 1. Basis of Rights
Marxists say liberal rights are confrontational, and liberal equality is a sham
     Full Idea: For Marx liberal rights are egoistic rights of separation: they encourage each individual to view others as limitations to his or her freedom. ....Liberals set up a sham community of 'equal' citizens.
     From: report of Karl Marx (On the Jewish Question [1844]) by Jonathan Wolff - An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Rev) 4 'Marxist'
     A reaction: The point is that equality in law does not ensure equal treatment in daily life. I suppose a liberal right can be seen as an opt-out clause for some aspect of society.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 1. Religious Commitment / a. Religious Belief
Religion is the opium of the people, and real happiness requires its abolition
     Full Idea: Religion is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.
     From: Karl Marx (Contrib to Critique of Hegel's Phil of Right [1844], Intro)
     A reaction: Not being religious myself, I have some sympathy with this ringing clarion-call. However, while opium satisfies an artificial and superficial need, religion certainly seems to speak to something deeper and more central in people.
Religious feeling is social in origin
     Full Idea: The "religious sentiment" (discussed by Feuerbach) is itself a social product.
     From: Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach [1846], §VII)
     A reaction: Recent brain research has identified a part of the brain which is only active during religious thought and experience. It is easy to produce cynical political accounts of religion, but in its time it was also quite a good scientific account of nature.