Marx said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” In this respect Marx saw himself in contradistinction to other philosophers, and his works as the end of philosophy. He saw himself as the last philosopher with a revolutionary message, of an impending and inevitable transformation, that was putting an end to philosophy and exploitation. His prophetic finality sets Marx's tone of blazing polemics. His tone by itself makes reading of Marx's works very difficult.
Marx indirectly insinuated that his predecessors did not change the world or at least did not intend to. This is more or less a self promotion and can place him in the category of other great prophets but as all prophecies go his is not accurate either.
It is very hard to know about a philosopher’s intentions but we know about the impact of their interpretations. We know about the immense impact of Greek philosophers in Europe, once their works were found and translated, during the Middle Ages. Marx might not have been aware of the influence of European philosophers on the thought formations that led to the creation of the American Constitution but we know that Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Charles de Montesquieu were among the most influential’s. The fact of the matter is that once a new interpretation of our existence enters our thought process it will change our world; maybe not as dramatically as Marx thought of his contributions. And his certainly proved to be extremely dramatic. Endurance of Marx’s statement was limited but it turned into an icon for the suppression of thought by Stalin, Mao and their little disciples "Dear Leaders" of North Korea and Castro's of Cuba and it will endure as long as the prophet finds new disciples. For them there was no more any need for interpretation. Those were hobbies of petty bourgeoisie which must be replaced with the proletarian revolutionary zeal.
Lets leave his disciples for the moment and return to Marx. If one succeeds to see through the fog of his revolutionary fervor the more lasting part of Marx’s legacy is his attempt toward developing a consistent and broad historical perspective. This was only an attempt, quickly disarrayed, to look at our past as an integrated whole relying on the recorded and unearthed history.
The explosion of scientific, technological and engineering developments of his time provided some rudimentary basis for Marx's perspective. His approach known as the historical materialist view of human development took its inspiration from the accumulated knowledge of the history and it seems that his certitude stemmed from some great expectations. The expectations that developments in science has had afforded humanity the power to know everything.
With his brilliant sweep of vision Marx uses the dialectics of Hegel as a tool of analyzing history and human development. But his constructs are as rudimentary as the scientific knowledge of his time, and as science progressed his ideas stood in opposition to it. In Marx’s hand dialectics became a tool of oversimplification. Among them are his treatise of labor and capital.
Marx perceived capitalism primarily in the two categories of labor and capital. By tracing the growth of the latter in trade and marketplace he described the opposition of these categories as sometimes hidden and sometimes out in the open. Its manifestation being the "class struggle". He saw the growth of capital only at the expense of laborer and based on his logic this could not continue indefinitely. For Marx capital cannot exist without labor, it requires labor. In his construct of capitalism while labor is subordinate to capital Marx envisioned that it is labor that is the essence of society and labor can do away with capital. For Marx the logical conclusion is that labor has to overcome the capital and this will require a social revolution. This revolution is a new synthesis, a socialist order. In this new order both capital and the labor will disappear. Along with this revolutionary progress, the instrument of maintaining the capitalist system, the state will also vanish.
Marx believed that state is the instrument of coercion by a particular class. In his view of the capitalist society, state is at the service of capitalist class to maintain the order that coerces workers to dispense of their surplus value. For Marx it was the state and control of the capitalists over this state that allowed the capitalists to add this surplus value to the capital as their private property.
Marx envisioned that once the revolution succeeds to oust the capitalist’s control, workers will take the helm of the state in their own hands. Being in control workers will expropriate the capital, and because of that the institutions and the vestiges of the accumulation of capital will begin to disappear and so will the state. If anything his thesis is a strict application of Marxian triad categories of thesis, antithesis and synthesis – labor, capital, socialist transformation – to a narrowly constructed socio-economic categories of labor and capital. Does Marx's thesis have any validity?
Marx was aware of the evolutionary processes of the nature. The science of biology and chemistry of his time had supported his outlook to some degree. But in most part the evolutionary processes have a peculiar characteristic. If we crudely reduce the real processes into these triad categories, then synthesis is not the total annihilation of either thesis or antithesis, but it is mostly a reconfiguration of the earlier categories. Combination of electron and proton into hydrogen atom does not eliminate either particles and both could be traced in the hydrogen atom and they could be retrieved at some expense. Similarly the human body carries within it the traces of the earlier species that we evolved from. This is mostly evident in the growth of a fetus in the womb that goes through the shape of our predecessors, fish like, frog like and … before it morphs into a human form. This is generally the case with the evolution. But in Marx’s thesis his essential categories of capitalism completely disappear in socialism or more accurately if we follow his logic it will begin to disappear during the socialist stage and they are done with at a later stage of communism. They get annihilated. He had to make capital and labor and the medium of transfer of value, money, disappear in his socialist construct. The disappearing act of his categories has a problem, either his historical tracking has a problem or his categories are fictitious. I believe Marx has problems on both grounds.
At the level of historical tracking Marx had a particular perception, he believed at the existence of a “primitive or early communism”. This early communism was so natural to him and the later development of capitalism so synthetic and now so utterly unnecessary that it forced this peculiar disappearing logic on him. I will return to this later.
There is another problem with Marx’s analysis. Recognition of a contradiction, existence of a thesis and antithesis does not guarantee a particular synthesis. Hydrogen atoms are plentiful in our universe and their existence might seem very certain and predictable but physics tell us that even such a basic combination depends on the initial condition present at the big bang. Also the combination of electrons and protons does not always produce hydrogen atoms.
At a more complicated level, as much as we take our existence for granted, the branching of hominoids from the early primates was not predetermined and linear. Existence of chimpanzees and gorillas from the same branch that we evolved from tell us that how much evolution is unpredictable. Similarly prediction of a particular social evolutionary outcome, "socialism", is absurd. The only way that I can comprehend Marx’s mechanical prediction is exactly that, it is mechanical. Partly it must have been the influence of his time, the time of great surge in mechanics and engineering. The other, the more crucial one, is that he lacked the understanding of the evolutionary processes. Granted it was a new field at his time, but our job is not to sympathize with Marx or any of our progenitors for that matter.
His was the time of great expectations. Findings of the celestial mechanics through Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity and earlier Galileo’s discovery of the laws of motion; also discoveries in the mechanics of chemistry, how things combine and produce other things; great advances in building and engineering; discovery of the mechanics of our body – in general, all of these findings imparted a sense that understanding of cause and effect will enable us in a predictive way to engineer our ways. This sense was prevalent at Marx’s time. Marx was the great social engineer who impacted our thinking and our experiments throughout the last two centuries.
We now know that contradiction between workers and capitalists while real its evolutionary outcome was unpredictable. And while this contradiction has taken some new specific forms yet again the evolutionary outcome will remain unpredictable. Meanwhile our past trials have created a certain sense of caution about our ways of social experimentation. We have found out that the “inevitability of socialism” is hollow. At the same time we have learned that our experimentation with our social existence is as inevitable and as real as the mutations in our cells, mutations which are fundamental to the genetic changes. Our varied experimentations are the social mutations that will propel us forward and at times hurl us back.
The above piece is part of a book that I am developing. If you would like to follow, please read the blogs titled "Perspective..." and then read all the blogs which the title name ends with " -- Book". As you might have guessed, you have to read from the earlier posts moving to the present.