Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Influence of Karl Marx - Part 6

“Just as Darwin has discovered the law of organic development, so Marx has discovered the law of human development in history, that is to say the simple fact, hitherto masked by the rubbish of ideologies, that before he is able to concern himself with politics, science, art, and religion, man must first eat, drink, house, and clothe himself.”

- Unnamed Scholar - Karl Marx, a Symposium

“Premium vivere Diende philosophari” (first eat, then philosophize)

- Ancient Latin Maxim

Marx fancied himself the ‘Darwin of Sociology,’ and this moniker was used by Engels when he spoke at Marx’s graveside. There is some merit to the comparison. Just as Darwin saw an evolutionary process through a succession of increasing biological and geological complexity, Marx saw history progressing in stages toward a world of greater tolerance and balance. Before them, the world was widely viewed as something stationary. Once upon a time, the Earth was without form and void, but a Creator made it and everything upon it, and created the world precisely as people saw it. But after Darwin and Marx, the world was no longer a stationary place; it was constantly moving. Not only did the Earth itself move around the Sun, but everything which dwelt upon the earth moved and changed. But even if the world was moving, Darwin and Marx both presented immutable, static laws, which would never change even as these laws changed the world unrecognizably over time, and the laws of both were monolithically unconcerned with mere morality. Both presented history as a seething cauldron which forms its processes through horrifically violent struggle - Darwin through fitness by means of reproduction, Marx through value through the expenditure of labor. Indeed, there is an enormous corrolation between Darwin’s conception of ‘fitness’ and Marx’s conception of ‘value.’ 

Neither were truly original thinkers, but they were brilliant readers who synthesized an enormous trove of thought from previous thinkers into a workable system, and neither was particularly willing to acknowledge the enormity of their debt to those pioneers. The Great Jacques Barzun, one of the twentieth century’s most profound historians - even when he was spectacularly wrong, and without whose book “Darwin, Marx, and Wagner” these posts are particularly impossible, went so far as to call them ‘intellectual imperialists’ who pilfered the work of others into their own possession, much like I have with his book and others in this modest series. Perhaps his interpretation goes much too far, but even if neither’s thought was particularly original, they both had great genius for synthesizing, and therein lies the reason they saw further than those who came before.

Marx was born in 1818, and therefore a little too young to experience the Romantic notions of the Lord Byron generation. Metternich’s Concert of Europe in 1815, which maintained the peace after the Napoleonic Wars, made for an stable but cold truce on European soil, the terms of which all of Europe bristled against. By the time of the 1848 revolution, Marx was thirty years old, and all chances of a new, less conservative age were eliminated completely. Notions of a truly free society were snuffed out, and the world was searching for facts rather than ideals. At the same time that Marx wrote, the intellectual world carried out full-throated debates on atheism and evolution. Intellectual property laws were extremely lax compared to todays, so few writers had much difficulty finding wide dissemination. Marx, with his resentful temperament and frustrating youthful experience of a divided, dysfunctional Germany post-Napoleon, was the man for his time - synthesizing the work of Hegel, Feuerbach, Adam Smith, Malthus, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and hundreds of less well known thinkers into a violent, anti-humanist theory of class struggle as no one else could. The result was more than a philosophical theory or tome, it was a worldwide religion.

The longer the cold European peace lasted, the less the European powers trusted each other, and the more susceptible they were to theories of force. By the 1890’s, one hundred years after the mostly peaceful proscriptions of the philosophes and encyclopediaires held Europe in thrall, the world became enthralled by Marx and Nietzsche, one of whom died only a few years before reaching worldwide fame, the other of whom went insane on the cusp of it. Their assumption of eminence at that historical moment is no coincidence. The 1890’s were perhaps the very climax and zenith of all European intellectual life since the Renaissance, when every artform was thriving maximally - new talent exposed, old masters rediscovered. Every ‘ism’ of a philosophical, cultural, and political bent had a niche following, and never in human history had so many people been so fervently interested in so many ideas - ideas which these posts will hopefully one day cover. But as TS Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” Just as the seeds of rebirth are in every destruction, the seeds of destruction are in every birth. The intellectual energy generated in the quarter-century before World War I was so intense that people who resented so much diversity had to latch onto philosophies which preached destruction and uniformity to make their voices heard.  

Whether or not Marx and Nietzsche bear ultimate responsibility for what was done in their names, what cannot be denied is that which was done in their names. From the philosophy of Marx, lesser thinkers created the doctrines of the Soviet Union, from the philosophy of Nietzsche, lesser thinkers created the doctrines of Central European fascism. Neither thinker should be in any way held responsible for the crimes other people committed with the half-understood thoughts of Marx and Nietzsche in their murderous brains, but it’s also difficult to imagine that either would have looked on with much disapproval. Whether Marx and Nietzsche provided intellectual exhortations to violence or were simply describing the unavoidability of violence is open to debate, and has been debated heatedly for more than a century. But it is an incontrovertible fact that both assured humanity of mankind’s violent nature, the inevitability that men will eventually succumb to it, and that men would do better to embrace their inner violence than to repress it.

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