When trying to understand where Karl Marx got all the component parts of his philosophy, it’s easy to think about it like this – a mix of:
- Germany philosophy
- French politics
- English economics
Explaining that mix is something else! Let’s start with German philosophy. It’s dominated in Marx’s day by the towering and yet impenetrable figure of Hegel. He was obsessed with the the concept of ‘dialectics’. This was something identified by the ancient Greeks but Hegel felt they hadn’t gone much beyond arguing amongst themselves and doubting the existence of everything.
Dialectics for the Greeks was about putting up one argument and then demolishing it with a counter-argument. Then everybody retired to the theatre to watch a good play. But for Hegel, that just wasn’t good enough. The dialectic was an infinitely more powerful tool than the Greeks realised.
Now, I’m going to describe Hegelian dialectics in more detail in other blog posts so I’ll do a very short summary here – so excuse the superficiality. Here goes then: Humanity is alienated from itself but through a dialectical approach to philosophy, humanity can be reunited with its true spirit – God if you want.
Through the search for truth and reason, human beings would achieve freedom and unity with the human spirit. Hegel’s viewpoint was what is termed “idealist” in philosophy – in that he believed ideas as opposed to things were more important.
A young Karl Marx took Hegel on in two essays written in 1843/44. He agreed with the idea of humanity striving to regain its true, un-alienated self. But this wasn’t about returning to God. Indeed, Marx argued God was a projection of humanity and not its true identity.
That true identity could be found by understanding what moulded human beings – which Marx believed was their social and economic environment – or “conditions” as he put it. In other words, Marx pulled Hegelian dialectics down from the heavens and anchored it to planet Earth.
Hegel and Marx were 19th century shadows of Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed what we see around us are just reflections of perfect ideas that exist in a parallel realm we must strive to reach (crude explanation but I’m sticking to blog length here!). While Aristotle looked to an underlying reality from which we derive ideas and concepts. He stood Plato on his head. And that’s pretty much what Marx did to Hegel.
France had been an incubator of challenging philosophical ideas for over two hundred years before Marx was born. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had begun a process of leading humanity out of a medieval mindset and into the modern age. But it’s the political consequences of all this thinking in France that influenced Marx considerably.
The French monarchy was overthrown in a revolution in 1789 that was as remarkable for its intellectual vibrancy as it was for the more famed violence and liberal use of the guillotine. The fervour subsided with the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte – a contradiction who espoused revolutionary values while ruling with imperial splendour.
As emperor of France, Napoleon set about invading the rest of Europe sending its centuries old monarchies toppling like skittles. Only a decade before Marx was born, his home town of Trier had been part of Napoleon’s empire. His invasion had swept away the thousand year Holy Roman Empire and awakened German nationalism.
Paris would see a series of revolutions and uprisings throughout the nineteenth century – most notably in 1848 and 1871. This ferment gave rise to a number of socialist thinkers who Marx took note of – though sometimes to shoot them down in flames. They might be either too romantic or utopian in outlook for Marx or veered towards anarchism – which as we’ll see was guaranteed to earn Marx’s ire.
What impressed Marx about France compared to Germany was the willingness of its workers and peasants to rise up:
Whenever you see French socialist workers gathered together: the brotherhood of humanity is not a mere phrase with them, but a truth.
During the 1789 French revolution, most of the key figures had been bourgeois and republican in outlook. But one revolutionary, Gracchus Babeuf, went as far as to advocate the abolition of private property and complete equality. He set up a group called the Conspiracy of Equals.
Finding that the republic was insufficiently radical, he conspired against it. And for that, he joined a queue of rounded up monarchists and aristocrats – losing his head on the guillotine.
Finally in this Euro mix that made Marxism is a key element – the influence of English economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. It was in England that the industrial revolution had taken root and created, in its most advanced form, an exploiting bourgeoisie (capitalists if you prefer) and an industrial proletariat (workers).
Adam Smith was born a hundred years before Marx and advocated for a free market capitalist economy, though one that checked the worse excesses of the system – like the tendency for monopolies to form.
Where Smith and Ricardo (1772-1823) contributed to the development of Marxist economics was their belief in the labour theory of value. Ricardo summed it up succinctly:
The value of a commodity, or the quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or less compensation which is paid for that labour.David Ricardo – Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
In other words, the value of something that is sold by a capitalist – a commodity – is determined by the amount of hours of labour that has been expended on it. So, if it takes ten hours of labour time to produce something, that commodity will be worth twice an object that requires five hours of labour time.
Marx then posed a question in relation to the labour theory of value: do capitalists pay workers the real value of the time they spend making a commodity? The answer, needless to say, is no. The reason is that wages must be kept down in order for capital to derive a profit. This means that capitalists are exploiting workers.
It can’t be underestimated how important this building block is to Marxism. In fact, the whole edifice sits on it. But, as we shall see, there have been attempts to overthrow the labour theory of value and that poses a huge challenge to Marxists.
So here then are the three key influences on Marx – German, French and English!