In order to understand Marxism’s origins properly, we need to go back to the lecture I gave on the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The many changes that I discussed in the means of production did not go unnoticed at the time. Almost immediately people began to criticize the social and economic changes that were underway. The earliest attacks were linked to Romanticism. Especially in England Romantic poets and writers criticized a system of production that devalued both the human being and nature. Shelley and Wordsworth, for example, rebelled against the dehumanization that they saw. Their opposition was, however, largely aesthetic and they offered no social theories. Other conservative Romantic critics also attacked industrial change, but they were simply opposed to any modernization. Again, no real theories emerged.
Another line of critique appeared, however, that would lead to sophisticated social theories, or what we call early socialism. Early socialists attacked the industrial revolution from many different angles. Some opposed industrialization entirely; others wanted to see it controlled. The most important attacks came from those who wanted to control industrialization by reorganizing it. In this approach, theorists attacked capitalism for its exploitation, but they embraced the new means of production. The idea was to make industrialization more humane. Here we must take note of the three great Utopian Socialists, Robert Owen (1771-1858), Charles Fourier (1772-1837), and Henri Duc de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). These men had very little in common other than their opposition to industrialist exploitation. Karl Marx called these people Utopians, because they had no theory of history. We’ll talk more about Marx later. But, first, let’s take a look at each of these thinkers.
Robert Owen was a rich mill owner. He disliked the methods that his mill used to exploit workers, and thought that the exploitation was destroying workers’ moral qualities. In his view, neither capitalists nor the church were doing enough to help the problem. Thus, Owen wanted to create the ideal factory that would allow workers to develop their full personal potential within a work environment. He set up this ideal in a community called New Lanarck. Here work hours were limited, working conditions improved, and worker-owned stores founded. Children attended corporate schools, rather than working in the factories. Owen’s theory was that happy workers would be more productive. And he was right; productivity in New Lanarck was well above that in traditional industrial communities. Unfortunately, the costs involved were so high that New Lanarck could not be reproduced, nor did it provide sufficient profits for investors. Owen also tried to bring his reforms to the United States. In 1825, he bought 30,000 acres of land from a religious community in Indiana and named it New Harmony. The community seems to have functioned well, but it also cost Owen 80% of his fortune. This brand of reform had no financial future.
Charles Fourier proposed a much different way of reorganizing work. He was convinced that the best way to alleviate poverty was to organize people in small agricultural communities, which he called phalanges. These communities would be perfectly balanced to provide support and harmony for all. A phalange would have no more than 1620 people. Apparently, this was the maximum number of people who could live together amicably in a community. Each person in the community would work a job that suited his or her basic nature. For example, Charles Fourier thought that little boys should be put in charge of garbage management. The most productive people in the community would, then, receive the most pay. A few communities were founded along these lines, though without Fourier’s involvement. One community in Massachusetts, Brook Farm lasted from 1841-1846. Another community in Red Bank, New Jersey was also a failure. Social theorists would have to look elsewhere.
The Duc de Saint-Simon is the last of our early socialist theorists. Saint-Simon might be called the founder of modern economic planning. He thought that industrial communities would work better, if they were planned better. Thus, the political elite would determine how resources were best used and everyone else would work at a particular job. Saint-Simon also had a very strong faith in technological progress. In his view, work would get better as technologies became more advanced. These two ideas were to have a significant long-term impact, as the belief in scientific management and technological progress extend through capitalism into later Marxism. Those among you who study economic history will recognize that this became a central issue that separated Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the twentieth century.
Now we need put these developments into perspective. The Owenites were managers, more interested in making factories more efficient than in changing the system at its foundations. Fourier and Saint-Simon were just as interested in working out the implications for the French Revolution as they were dealing with industrialization. Indeed, the two things went together for them. Although all three men made proposals for change, what was missing from them was a thorough-going philosophical and historical rigor. It is in this context that we need to understand Marx, for he represents both a resolution of this particular philosophical problem and a coming together of important national traditions. (In the interest of saving time, I am going to leave out Friedrich Engels.) In Marx we see British economics, French Revolutionary theory, and, finally, German philosophy coming together to create a new vision of the industrialized world.
Before we turn to Marx directly, however, we must take detour into German intellectual history, since Marx drew so many key ideas from this context. Among the most important consequences of the French Revolution was the new conception of history that appeared in Germany. People had been studying history as a field for a long time. During the Renaissance, history was studied for its moral implications; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a new interest in collecting facts appeared. There was, however, no systematic way of analyzing the disparate themes and events in history from a single perspective. Religion no longer held the allure it once had. Moreover, you could look at morality and facts all you wanted, but what did human activity across time really mean? The new German conception of history emerged out of the French revolutionary period as a way of processing and explaining the great historical changes that were underway. This conception of history was a mixture of philosophical idealism, Romanticism, and the western metaphysical tradition.
As you know, Romanticism was the most significant intellectual reaction against the Enlightenment, as European thinkers broke with the Enlightenment’s rigid rationalism. What this meant practically, is that people broke with the idea of a rigid mechanical universe. For Romantics nature was filled with forces and spirits. The key thinker in this transition was Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775-1854), an idealist philosopher and close friend of Hegel’s, Schelling combined Immanuel Kant’s philosophical Idealism with Romanticism. He was especially eager to expand on Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s conception of Spirit, agreeing with Fichte that Spirit was present in the world. But he wanted to include nature within Fichte’s philosophical concept. He saw nature as the unconscious expression of Spirit, while Man was its conscious expression.
We come to history through Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s thought emanated from the German idealist tradition. But rather than concentrate on nature and art, Hegel looked for Spirit in history and explored the relationship between Spirit and History. He was driven to pursue this agenda by both the French Revolution and Napoleon. The Revolution as event and Napoleon as a trans-historical figure required explanation. In order to give some sense to the destruction that ensued after 1789, Hegel drew on Romanticism and Idealism. Romanticism put an emphasis on process in Hegel’s thought. The great Revolutionary cataclysm was, thus, a sign of growth and power, rather than degeneration. Idealism provided Hegel with a way to put reason in this great historical process. To explain the meaning of great historical events was itself evidence that reason was somehow driving them. This combination allowed Hegel to take a universal perspective on the great events of his day, which he encapsulated in his version of the dialectic. Put most simply, history produced an idea or thesis, which provoked an antithesis. In the end, a synthesis was created from the two that superceded both. Marx borrowed this dialectical process, but as we will see, he put his own unique spin on it.
In 1848, two obscure German radicals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published one of the nineteenth-century’s central political documents, The Communist Manifesto. This little text was the culmination of a long meditation on the lessons of the French Revolution and it represented the application of the revolutionary élan to the Industrial Revolution’s social and political effects. The Manifesto had an enormous impact on the way people thought. It was short, direct, and offered a coherent way of thinking about modern society. Looking back on the previous fifty years, we can say that it encapsulated much Europe’s thought between the French Revolution and the Revolution of 1848.
Let us begin by understanding Marx in his historical context. Marx was born in 1818 in the German city of Trier, a small city that sits on the Moselle River. He came from a family of secularized Jews. His father, Heinrich Marx, was a successful local lawyer and man of the Enlightenment, dedicated to Kant and Voltaire. Heinrich Marx had converted to Protestantism the year before Karl’s birth, and young Karl was baptized at six. After going to school in Trier, Marx studied at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin. It was particularly in Berlin that he confronted both the new Hegelian philosophy and an emerging academic atheism, which saw man’s enslavement in religion rather than his liberation. In the early 1840s, this combination of philosophy and religious criticism became the staple of a group known as the Left-Hegelians. This group, which included Marx, accepted Hegel’s notion that history is a grand unfolding of a rational process, but they rejected the notion that the present world was rationality’s final expression. In the Left-Hegelian view, Hegel had misinterpreted history by seeing it in terms of Spirit. They said spirit existed in human activity alone. History does change, but it is human beings—not abstract forces—that bring change about.
The Left-Hegelian shift away from Spirit is clearest in the work of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Feuerbach was a Left-Hegelian who had actually studied under Hegel, though he applied Hegel’s ideas to theological issues. In 1841, he published his most famous book Essence of Christianity. This text was extremely influential, as it helped to shape Karl Marx’s thought, but also had a profound impact on another important anti-Christian writer David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). In the text, Feuerbach analyzed religion in terms of psychology and anthropology, arguing that religion was merely a projection of human consciousness onto the world. Humans created and idealized the concept of God. The history of religion is, therefore, really a history of the human species writing its ideas about God onto the world.
Karl Marx was extremely impressed with Feuerbach’s inversion of Hegel, and it became the foundation of his philosophical approach. The Germany of the 1840s was not, however, a hospitable place for a left-leaning critic. So in 1843, Marx left Germany for Paris, taking his radical philosophical ideas with him. In Paris Marx studied a completely different intellectual tradition, reading French history and early social theory. Later, he went to London, where he encountered British economic thought. The result was a new approach to the two great revolutions of the modern era, the French and Industrial. But Marx came at his studies from a particularly German perspective, one that included an extensive and complicated theory of history.
Early hints of Marx’s basic approach appear by 1845. In 1844, Marx wrote The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In 1845, he wrote The Holy Family. Marx’s basic critique in these works of both French political and British economic thought was that each approach lacked a sense of history. For example, in Marx’s view, although the French Revolution claimed to support the universal rights of men, it merely represented the interests of one group, property holders. Thus, French universalism was grounded in ignorance of their own historical specificity, which meant that early French theorists, such as Fourier and Saint-Simon, created their socialist approaches without any connection to historical forces. Marx’s assessment was, therefore, that although the French understood politics, they did not understand history. A theory of politics without a theory of history was a theory of politics without a place for change.
Marx saw many of the same problems British economic thought. He claimed, for example, that the English economist David Ricardo erred in assuming that the economic conditions for capitalism were natural and universal. Ricardo had formulated something called the Iron Law of Wages, which held that wages would always remain near the subsistence level. Marx responded, however, that the current prevalence of subsistence wages was merely a specific moment in capitalist development. You see, Marx read Ricardo and Adam Smith, among others, in the same way that Feuerbach had read theological texts. Where religion describes the alienation of God from man, economists describe the alienation of the economy from man. For Marx, this position is ahistorical, as it results from a created system. The system can, therefore, be changed. Marx did not completely dismiss British economic thought entirely. Even if the Brits were, ultimately, wrong, their basic instinct had proved correct: economic relations determine the structures of social life. Armed with Hegel, Marx held that the British economists had not understood the historical dimensions of their thought. This was economics without history.
Now, we turn to the German aspects of Marx’s thought. Marx turned the tables on Hegel and his philosophical allies, arguing that the German philosophical history lacked any connection to political or economic arrangements that French and British thinkers had described. Hegelians understood history, but their thought was upside down. Hegel’s dialectic had shot up into the world of ideas, when it ought to have been applied to the material conditions of life. History was not a story of unfolding Spirit; it was a process of social relations that were determined by economic relations. In the end, economic conditions—not ideas—drove history. This meant two things for Marx. First, the Hegelian dialectic had lost touch with the material world. Second, the material world can only be understood with the dialectic. For Marx, economic and political systems move through necessary historical stages, which Marx described as the progression from feudalism to capitalism to communism.
This leads us to Marx’s mature concept of Dialectical Materialism. Bringing together all the strands of thought that we have discussed, Marx announced that socialism would inevitably supersede capitalism, because it was a more rational way of doing things. Writing from exile in Paris and then London, Marx tried to develop a materialist response to German Idealism that, nonetheless, made extensive use of Idealism’s approach to history. Marx held that true alienation is man’s separation from what he produces. If there is anything essential in humanity, it is that people’s productive activities take place within social structures. Thus, in capitalism, workers lose contact with the things they produce. Yet Marx also added that this alienation is not permanent, because the economic system can be changed. This change will happen as a matter of logic and history. Since change is historical and inevitable, however, it is also supra-national. Socialism can and will be spread across political borders, since the German system of economic production ran according to the same laws and the French, and the British, and so on.
Marx represents, thus, one of the most important cultural syntheses of the nineteenth century. He offered a coherent account of history, politics, and economics in one grand system. This was important on two levels. First, Marx’s theory of history was fundamentally optimistic. In this sense it filled void left by the Enlightenment critique of religion. Whereas, Christians could once have been certain that their judgment would come in the next world, Marxists could be certain that the proletarian revolution would come. Second, Marx’s ideas met the perceived needs of an emerging intellectual community that sought connections without reference to national origin. Thus, one could be a Marxist in Paris, London, Berlin, or Rome. Through its comprehensiveness and optimism Marxism very rapidly became Europe’s most dynamic and far-reaching ideology. Workers of the world and their intellectual counterparts could now unite in search of another totality.