Karl Marx as Moral Philosopher

Karl MarxOn this day in 1818, Karl Marx was born. Historically, he’s a curious fellow since so many authoritarians claimed to base their despotic regimes on his thought. I think he was very much like Adam Smith: essentially a moral philosopher who had some things to say about economics. And also like Smith, when people talk about him, he is little more than a caricature. There’s no doubt that he was one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century, and although I used to find him culpable in the Communism of the 20th century, I know longer do—just as Adam Smith is not to blame for the neo-feudalism we find ourselves living through today.

What is perhaps most interesting, and frankly charming, about Marx was his conception of humans. He saw them as essentially good and productive. And I would really like to believe that! But I’m afraid that we are instead apes with over-sized brains. Fear, above all, is what drives us. In this way, I tend to be in alignment with the capitalists who think that the only way to deal with this is to create the kind of dog-eat-dog environment that capitalism provides. But I find that I’m more inclined toward Marx’s solution. The capitalist system seems to provide a way for harnessing the problems with humans but in no way limiting them. Capitalism is essentially a way of systematizing what comes naturally to humans.

I think it is possible to create a society that encourages the better aspects of human behavior. And we know what kind of society it is, because to some extent, we’ve already created it: a mixed economy with enough capitalism to encourage people to create, and enough socialism to not turn them into animals. This is why I am a strong supporter of a social safety net and have even come to see the necessity of a guaranteed income. But even more, we need what Ayn Rand always wanted: a revolution of thought. Of course, that revolution needs to be exactly the opposite of what she wanted. We need to learn to value the hobbyist who fashions wooden bowls as much as we value the venture capitalist. And I think that’s possible, which I suppose puts me very close to Marx.

Most people claim that Marx was wrong in his political predictions, and this is true. But his central economic prediction, based upon his analysis of the industrial revolution, we are seeing at this very moment. He argued that the capitalist system will naturally evolve into an unacceptably unequal society. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was easy to regard this as nonsense. Inequality was actually being reduced. But Marx himself said that for brief times the capitalist system could work. What’s more, that reduction in inequality was due to the very socialist programs that conservatives hate. The purer the capitalism, the stronger the tendency to go haywire. And we are seeing this today. The solution, of course, is a balance between capitalism and socialism. But for the last four decades, we have erred constantly on the side of capitalism, and now we have a real mess that has so distorted our politics that it is hard to make the changes we most desperately need.

I think it is clear that given the history of the last 150 years, both Adams and Marx would agree with me about what kind of system is ideal. Neither of them were ideologues. They were interested in improving the practical state of human beings. Contrast this with the modern conservative who is mired in ideology. Of course, it just so happens that this ideology also helps their class. There aren’t a lot of impoverished libertarians, for example. So I think it is important to see Marx and Adams as they really were. We tend to make out Adams like he was Milton Friedman crossed with Jesus Christ, which is bad enough. But the negative view of Karl Marx is unacceptable and unwarranted.

Here is a nice short lecture by Terry Eagleton about his book Why Marx Was Right, which I haven’t read:

Happy birthday Karl Marx!

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