Karl Marx was one of the most influential social thinkers of the 19th century. His works inspired revolutions and stirred a debate over the nature of the economic system. He was born to a German Jewish family in 1818. His father converted to Christianity to escape anti-Semitism. He studied law but was influenced by the ideas of philosophers like Hegel and Feuerbach.
He met his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels when he moved to Paris. Engels was son of a businessman and he provided Marx with a first hand experience of the evils of the capitalist system. They worked together for a long time, and co authored famous and influential works like Communist Manifesto.
German enlightenment was different from that of France. The famous German Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Gottfried Leibniz were idealist who sought to give a metaphysical explanation of the material world. Marx drew his ideas of human nature, ideology and religion from this background of his.
Marx study was heavily influenced by ideas and works of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Adam Smith.
Hegel was an idealist but he criticized Kant for his idea of static understanding of mind to experience the physical world. According to Kant, humans have built in categories in mind to understand the physical world, so they can never experience the ‘reality in itself’.
Hegel talked about historical evolution of mind in three stages :
- First, the sense certainty, which is the experience in its pure form. There are no built in categories or language to define that experience.
- From sense certainty mind evolves the consciousness, which is the awareness of an experience. It is important because sense certainty is meaningless as it can not be communicated. Consciousness allows us to seek meaning in our experiences.
- Consciousness evolves into self-consciousness, which is the absolute reality. It is the stage when one experiences no separation between ultimate reality or the God and the individual consciousness.
Here, it is important to talk about two concepts which Marx used in his work viz., Reification and Dialectic.
Reification means considering something real which is not real. It happens after humans start categorizing and explaining material world using their consciousness. In the course of this process, they forget that they were the creators of the material reality, and the material reality is not the reality in itself. This causes the alienation among them and their creation.
Dialectic means discourse or discussion. The process leads to resolution of a conflict through discourse. For Hegel, sense certainty caused conflict in human mind as their experiences were meaningless in the absence of any language or categorization, this tension led to the next stage which is consciousness. Since consciousness in itself is not the pure form of experience as we saw the problem of reification above, the mind evolves the self consciousness, which is a stage when human mind sees no separation between experience and the material reality.
Marx contradicted Hegel’s idealistic dialectic and quoted, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determine their consciousness.”
Thus, Marx turned Hegel on its head by turning his idealistic dialectic into a materialistic one. It is the material circumstances of an individual that shapes his experience, not the other way round, as Hegel had proposed.
Feuerbach was one of the young Hegelian, who modified Hegel’s ideas. He criticized Hegel for his explanation of evolution of consciousness, which talks about ultimate reality or God and makes the dialectic spiritual. According to Feuerbach, the God itself is a material reality or category defined by human mind, humans forget that they have created the God and religion, and it is here the true alienation lies. He proposed the contemplative materialism which states that reality is material, and our consciousness is based on contemplation of the objective world.
Marx agreed with Feuerbach regarding role of religion in alienation but criticized his contemplative materialism for not recognizing that human do not experience the objective world in isolation, and, the true nature of human experience could only be understood in relation to their social and economic relationships. That is why Marx places the economy at the infrastructure and everything else at the superstructure of society. Marx also criticized him for falling into the trap of philosophy as he only talked about the reality, not the source of reality and the process to change it.
Marx famously quoted, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.“
Adam Smith is considered as the father of classical economics. He defended free market capitalism in his famous work, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of the Nations. For Smith, capitalism as an economic system gives everyone an opportunity to realize their potential and become successful. The social positions, in this system, are based on merit, not ascription by birth. As per Smith, human by their very nature are profit oriented, and in a capitalist system, this profit making not only helps the profit maker but indirectly helps everyone through creation of jobs and goods and services.
Marx argued against Smith, and stated that human are not individualistic as Smith argued, in fact, humans are social animals. Smith also supported the idea of division of labour in order to increase the productivity. But Marx criticized Smith, and proposed that in a mad rush to increase the profit, division of labour led to an alienation between the producer and his product. This alienation he explained in his idea of the Species Being.
The Species Being :
Marx proposed this idea of species being to explain the true nature of humans. As per Marx, humans are social and altruistic in their natural state. They create products for survival keeping the larger interest in mind. His idea of a communist economy is, thus, in consonance with the natural state of the humans.
Marx criticized capitalists for taking away from humans this feeling of collectivism in creation to pursue their own profit making interests. Human consciousness and ideas are best expressed through their creation, capitalism makes people create things for others, it alienates people from their creation and their true nature.