Economic Theory

Marx’s Flight from Reality (Part 1)


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Though it may seem strange, Karl Marx was not always a communist. As late as 1842, when Marx was in his mid-20s, he actually said he opposed any attempt to establish a communist system. In October 1842, he became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung [the Rhineland Times], and wrote in an editorial:

“The Rheinische Zeitung … does not admit that communist ideas in their present form possess even theoretical reality, and therefore can still less desire their practical realisation, or even consider it possible.”

In 1843, Marx was forced to resign his editorship because of political pressure from the Prussian government and ended up moving to Paris. It was in Paris that he met his future lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels (who already was a socialist), and began his deeper study of socialism and communism, leading to his full “conversion” to the collectivist ideal.

Feuerbach and the Worship of Man Perfected

From his student days in Berlin, two German philosophers left their imprint upon Marx: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). From Hegel, Marx learned the theory of “dialectics” and the idea of historical progress to universal improvement. From Feuerbach, Marx accepted the idea of man “perfected.” Feuerbach had argued that rather than worshiping a non-existing supernatural being – God – man should worship himself.

The “true” religion of the future should, therefore, be the Worship of Mankind, and that man “perfected” would be changed from a being focused on and guided by his own self-interest to one who was totally altruistic, that is, concerned only with the betterment of and service to Mankind as a whole, rather than only himself.

Marx took Feuerbach’s notion of man “perfected” and developed what he considered to be the essential characteristics of such a developed human nature. There were three elements to such a perfected human being, Marx argued:

First, the Potential for “Autonomous Action.” This is action undertaken by a man only out of desire or enjoyment, not out of necessity. If a man works at a blacksmith’s forge out of a desire to creatively exercise his faculties in moulding metal into some artistic form, this is free or “autonomous action.” If a man works at the forge because he will starve unless he makes a plough to plant a crop, he is acting under a “compulsion” or a “constraint.”

Second, the Potential for “Societal Orientation.” Only man, Marx argued, can reflect on and direct his conscious actions to the improvement the “community” of which he is a part, and which nourishes his own capacity for personal development. When man associates with others only out of self-interest, he denies his true “social” self. Thus, egoism is “unworthy” of a developed human being.

And, third, the Potential for “Aesthetic Appreciation.” This is when man values things only for themselves; for example, “nature for nature’s sake,” or “art for art’s sake.” To view things, Marx claimed, only from the perspective of how something might be used to improve an individual’s personal circumstance is a debasement of the “truly” aesthetic value in things.

Capitalism Keeps Man from Perfection

Feuerbach believed man was “alienated” from himself when he was not “other-oriented.” To change from self-interest to altruism was mostly a state of mind that man could change within himself, Feuerbach argued. Marx insisted that the problem of “alienation” was not due to a person’s “state of mind,” but was conditioned by the “objective” institutional circumstances under which men lived. That is, the political, social, and economic institutions made man what he is. Change the social order, and man would be changed. “Capitalism,” Marx declared, was the source of man’s alienation from his “true” self and his human potential.

How did this “alienation” manifest itself?

First, there is the Stifling of Autonomous Action. In the marketplace, forces “outside” the control of the individual determine what is produced and how it is produced. The individual “reacts” to the market, he does not control it. Thus, market forces are external constraints on man. He responds to the market out of “necessity,” not out of free desire.

Furthermore, to enhance production and productivity, man is “forced” to participate in a division of labour to earn a living that makes him an “appendage” to a machine, a “slave” to the machines owned by the “capitalists” for whom he is “compelled” to work.

Second, there is Diminished Other-Orientedness. In the market, the individual sees others only as a means to his material ends; he trades with others to get what he wants from others, merely in pursuit of his own self-interest. Work is not considered a communal “cooperative” process, but an antagonistic relationship between what the individual wants and what is wanted by the one with whom he trades.

Third, there is Limited Aesthetic Appreciation. In the market, people see nature, resources, and the creations of man not as things to be intrinsically valued in themselves, but as marketable objects – as means – to personal ends. Acquisition of things – possessiveness – becomes the primary goal of economic activity for making a living.

Communism’s Liberation of Constrained Man

Communism, through collective planning, would make work an “autonomous” act, rather than “constrained action.” When democratically regulated by the workers as a whole, Marx asserted, collective planning would emerge from the desires of all the members of society as their communal choice and consent. It would be consciously planned and directed through the participation of all the members of society, thus generating an “other-oriented” sense of a “common good” for which all worked.

No one would be forced and constrained to do what another made them do in the division of labour anymore. Indeed, communism would free men from the “tyranny” of specialization. In Marx’s words, from The German Ideology (1845),

“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.”

In this new communist world, no one will have to work at anything he did not like or want to do. In addition, under communal planning, production would rise to such a height of productivity that the work day would be shortened to the point that each person’s time would be free to do only the things he enjoyed doing.

Selfishness would be eliminated as a human trait, and altruism would become the dominant trait.

Communism would also enhance social consciousness and other-orientedness. All that was communally produced would be distributed on the basis of “need” or “want.” No longer would scarcity impose constraints on man’s desires. As a result, the urge for “possessiveness” and acquisition of “things” would diminish and finally disappear. Selfishness would be eliminated as a human trait.

Others would no longer be viewed as “competitors” for scarce things, but as social collaborators for attaining “higher” ends of social importance. Altruism would become the dominant trait in man.

In addition, communism would result in the flowering of aesthetic appreciation.

Man would not create so he could earn a living, but for the pleasure of the activity itself. Work would not be a source of “alienation” but an activity reflecting the free – the “autonomous” – desires of man for the “beautiful.”

Communism would liberate man in all ways and all things, said Marx:

“With a communist organisation of society, there disappears the subordination … of the individual to some definite art, making him exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc. … In a communist society, there are no longer painters, but only people who engage in painting among other activities.”

With the end of capitalism and the arrival of communism, there would come a heaven on earth. There would be enough of everything for all. Man would be freed from working for survival, he would be unchained from the division of labour, he would be liberated to follow whatever gave his heart pleasure. With Communism, man becomes like God – free and powerful to do whatever he wants.

 

To be continued…

This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).


1 thought on “Marx’s Flight from Reality (Part 1)”

  1. Posted 26/04/2017 at 12:32 | Permalink

    An interesting summary – to which the instant response must be that constraint and coercion are facts of life, not “capitalism”. As if “democratic decisions” could transform the quality of an act! What about the minority? What about the uncertain? What about the fact that work remains work whether resolved upon or no? And if free decisions are key to alleviating the burden of duty, individual reckonings with circumstance – one’s own limits, one’s own poverty, the claims of others – are surely better than enforced conformity to the view of some random mass. In short, it is clear from this account that in order to realise a fantasy of unconstrained power, Marx took a number of rhetorical leaps disguised as elements in an argument. Indeed, it is the fantasy element in Marxism which grows ever more obvious as the unforgiving years roll over it – and a very peevish, preening, narcissistic fantasy it is.

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