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Karl Marx (A History of Western Philosophy)

Karl Marx claimed to have made Socialism scientific, and did more to create the powerful movement that has dominated the recent history of Europe.

Russell does not discuss his economic or political work, but only his philosophical work. In one way, he a rationalist, an opponent of the romantics. And he is also a materialist, a term he imbues with a new interpretation. He was the last of the great system builders, the successor of Hegel. Both believed in a rational formula that summed up the evolution of mankind.

Marx’s economics was an outcome of British classical economics. These classical economists, either consciously or unconsciously, aimed at the welfare of the capitalist, as opposed to the landowner and wage-earner. Marx worked for the benefit of the wage-earner.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, which he had written in his youth, he had the fire and passion necessary for a new revolutionary movement, as liberalism did with Milton. But Marx was anxious to appeal to evidence.

He thought of himself as a materialist, but of the dialectical sort (Hegel’s influence).

But a new kind of materialism called instrumentalism. The old kind thought of sensation as passive and gave primary activity to the object. But Marx thought that all sensation or perception is an interaction between subject and object.

Knowledge in the old sense of passive contemplation is an unreal abstraction; the process that really takes place is one of handling things. ‘The question whether objective truth belongs to human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical question,’ he says. ‘The truth, i.e. the reality and power, of thought must be emonstrated in practice. The contest as to the reality or non-reality of a thought which is isolated from practice, is a purely scholastic question…. Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the real task is to alter it.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy


Russell interprets this as meaning that the process by which philosophers have called the pursuit of knowledge is not one in which the object is constant while the knower is required to adapt himself to it. On the contrary, both the knower and the thing known, are in a continual process of mutual adaptation. This is called ‘dialectical’ because it is never complete.

Marx denies sensation as defined by the British empiricists. Sensation would be better called “noticing” which implies activity, so that we notice things as part of the process of acting with reference to them. Anything that leaves out action is a misleading abstraction.

Marx was the first philosopher who recognized truth from this activist perspective. His philosophy of history is a blend of Hegel and British economics, and like Hegel, he thinks the world develops according to a dialectical formula, but he disagrees with Hegel with regards to the motive force of this development. Hegel believed in a mystical ‘Spirit’ which causes human history to develop according to the stages that he developed. But Marx rejects spirit, and puts in its place matter as the driving force. But it is matter in Marx’s sense, not the matter of the atomists.

For Marx, the driving force is man’s relation to matter. And the most important part of this relation is man’s mode of production. Marx’s materialism in this way, becomes economics. Politics, religion, philosophy, and art an outcome of its methods of production, and to some extent, its distribution. He would not say that this applies to all the details of culture, but to the broad outlines.

The doctrine is called the ‘materialist conception of history’.

Philosophers appear to themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of ‘truth’. They may differ with regards to how they define ‘truth’, but they agree that it is objective, and something that everybody should accept. No one would engage in philosophy if they thought that all philosophy is merely an expression of irrational bias. But each philosopher will agree that many other philosophers are biased and have non-rational reasons, usually unconscious, for many of their opinions. Marx believes in the truth of his doctrines, like the other philosophers.  

He does not regard them as nothing but an expression of the feelings natural to a rebellious middle-class German Jew in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

About this conflict between the subjective and objective, Russell says subjectivity has as much to do with politics as economics.  One can argue that love of the eternal is a characteristic of a leisure class that lives on the labor of others, but there is no reason to believe that it is the opposite. That heaven is what the weary toilers wish for.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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