Marx - Study Notes
MARX by Peter Singer – OUP Very Short Introduction Series 2001
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author of various books, mainly on ethics, although he is probably best known for his book on Animal Liberation. However, before summarizing or reviewing Singer’s book on Marx, I should like to start with a broad overview of its subject-matter.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German revolutionary social theorist, interested mainly in economics, social change and its history. Some critics have suggested that as an account of socio-historical change his writings should more appropriately fall within the purview of the historian rather than the philosopher.
Possibly, but there is much in his writings that requires philosophical comment and appraisal, in particular the ideology of communism. Interestingly his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) wrote more on philosophical questions than Marx did himself.
To summarize Marx’s life, very briefly, he studied law at the University of Berlin where he became involved with the ‘Young Hegelian’ movement (more on Hegel very shortly). He subsequently became editor of the liberal newspaper Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. The paper was suppressed by the authorities in 1843 and Marx moved to Paris where he met Engels who became his close associate. He soon contacted the French socialists and moved to Brussels. He returned to Germany after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and founded the New Rheinische Zeitung.
After the subsequent defeat of the revolution he moved to London with his wife and family, and stayed there for the rest of his life. He spent a lot of time writing in the Reading Room at the British Museum. His personal life was stable, although there were occasional periods of debt and near-poverty. But as the years passed he benefited from various inheritances, and ended up in a comfortable house in Hampstead, north west London. This is still a favoured residential area for left-wing intellectuals – the more well-off ones, at any rate.
His most well-known publications are The Communist Manifesto (1848), written jointly with Engels, and Das Kapital (1867). Other works were not published until long after his death.
The theoretical basis of Marx and Engels’ ideology is called ‘dialectical materialism’. This is a derivative of the philosophy of German philosopher George Hegel (1770-1831) who held that ideas have to be understood in terms of contradiction. Suppose there is an idea, real or abstract - call it the ‘thesis’. This implies its opposite, or contradiction, called the ‘antithesis’. Thesis and antithesis conflict, and the outcome of the conflict is the ‘synthesis’. The synthesis then becomes a new ‘thesis’, which in turn leads to a new ‘antithesis’. Then the whole process – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – repeats itself all over again, and again and again and again.... This was the dialectical process. Hegel believed this was how change and development in the realm of ideas are to be understood and explained.
This is all quite plausible as an account of how we think, reflect on, discuss and debate the pros and cons of different ideas. There is a sort of zig-zag process involved before a conclusion is reached. But Hegel’s account was more a study of the psychology of how we think and reason things through; it was not a study of logic, as he mistakenly thought. He wanted to retain the certainty of logic, but he did not see that this is not to be found in the psychology of our thought processes. I’ll say a little more on logic in just a moment.
Marx and Engels gave a physical, or material interpretation to Hegel’s ‘dialectic’, hence ‘dialectical materialism’ which was concerned not so much with how ideas change and develop but more with how events change and develop.. So in the realm of politics, Marx and Engels viewed capitalism as a ‘thesis’ (so to speak). In terms of the ‘dialectic’ this would lead to its opposite or ‘antithesis’, socialism, and the outcome of the developing process would ultimately lead, step by step, sooner or later, to communism in the end – the ultimate ‘synthesis’. Given the ‘logic’ of the dialectic, this would be inevitable. Communism, in their conception, would be a sort of ‘heaven-on-earth’ where there would no longer be any of the ‘contradictions’ generated by the private ownership of property or resources; money would be a thing of the past; there would be full equality between human beings and all the other ills of the present era would be over.
But there are difficulties with these ideas. The ‘dialectic’ was not explanation or prediction in a strictly scientific sense, and bears only tenuous similarity to the scientific concepts of test and hypothesis. In particular the dialectical notion of ‘contradiction’ is very different from the way this is understood in logic. Here, a contradictory formula such as ‘x = not-x’ is false by definition, a contradiction in terms, and for the same reason ‘x implies not-x’ is simply an invalid, self-contradictory formula. In logic, anything can have an ‘opposite’, but they do not imply each other. Logic is not the same as ‘the association of ideas’, which is a much looser, more tenuous concept, a distinction which Hegel did not seem to make.
Also, logic is nothing to do with how things change or develop in human societies, or with conflict between the interests of different individuals or groups of individuals. Interestingly, however, a study of logic teaches us that a sentence or statement does not simply have just one opposite or ‘contradictory’ to it – it can also have an innumerable number of contraries to it. For example a physical object could be black. If this is not the case, it does not follow that it is white – there are plenty of other colours it could be. Logic is not ‘black or white’.
So in Hegelian terms, this means more than one potential ‘antithesis’ to each ‘thesis’. I do not know whether Hegel or Marx considered this problem or not, but it does suggest the ‘thesis/antithesis’ dichotomy was a misconception. Maybe the whole notion of the ‘dialectic’ is more of a metaphor than anything else, leaving Hegel and Marx open to the charge that metaphor should have no place in objective science or in logic, so that really they were writing neither. But Marx believed that what he was writing was ‘scientific’.
There is another difficulty. Suppose the ‘dialectic’, in Marx’s interpretation, does indeed lead to communism. We could ask what would happen then? In terms of the ‘dialectic’, wouldn’t heaven-on-earth, communism, lead to its ‘antithesis’, hell-on-earth? I’m not joking, there is a serious point here. If it’s so easy to derive a reductio ad absurdum from ‘dialectical materialism’, this suggests there must be something seriously wrong with the whole idea. So let us turn for enlightenment to Peter Singer’s book.
Chapter 1, ‘A Life and its Impact’, makes rather an unpromising start.
After correctly relating how Marxism has been directly and indirectly very influential in its impact upon modern history and modern political thinking, Singer says ‘we are all Marxists now’ – ‘in a very loose sense’, as he admits. I think many people in the Western world and elsewhere would say they are ‘Marxist’ in no sense at all. It is as if I argued that because Christianity has had a profound and lasting influence upon Western civilization and its values, which is arguably true, it follows that ‘we are all Christians now’. But this does not follow. However, the remainder of Chapter 1 gives quite a good account of Marx’s life and times, in much more detail than my own very brief summary.
Chapter 2, ‘The Young Hegelian’, gives a very brief outline of Hegel’s philosophy which influenced Marx’s thinking from the 1830’s onwards.
It was set out in The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), an exceedingly long, difficult and very obscure work. In it, ‘Mind’ or ‘Spirit’ is the basis of the universe. This ‘universal Mind’ is the basis of our individual minds. It has no exact definition. From its first appearance within individual minds it develops as ‘a fully self-conscious unity’. History is the ‘dialectical progress’ of Mind along a so-called ‘logically necessary path’.
Its progress is illustrated by analogy with a master and a slave who are separate people but aspects of the one universal Mind. The slave does all the work, becoming self-conscious over time, and the master becomes dependent on the slave. The ultimate outcome is the liberation of the slave and the end of their original conflict. So as it progresses Mind overcomes contradictions or opposition, but is not at first aware of its universal nature. This develops over time. It is only when it is fully aware of its infinite powers that it becomes free when ‘the last stage of history is reached’. Note the non-logical use of the word ‘contradiction’ just then. It is clear that Hegel conflated the meaning of ‘contradiction’ with conflict, just as he seemed to conflate the meanings of ‘logical’ and ‘inevitable’.
As Singer says, many of Hegel’s ideas are ‘preposterous’. But we can make sense of the Phenomenology if we treat ‘Universal Mind’ as ‘a collective term for all human minds’, so that the Phenomenology can in effect be rewritten as ‘the path to human liberation’ or ‘the saga of the human spirit’. And this is what the ‘Young Hegelians’ attempted to do in the years following Hegel’s death in 1831. It is as if they liked what Hegel said about change, development and progress in human affairs, but felt uncomfortable with metaphysical or quasi-mystical talk about a ‘universal mind’. So they re-interpreted Hegel’s views as an account of human self-consciousness which had to free itself from illusion. Marx saw religion as the chief illusion and ‘the chief weapon against this illusion was philosophy’. The goal of history became ‘the liberation of humanity’.
Marx rejected religion because of its conception of God as the repository of all virtue. By implication, this amounted to a denial in Marx’s view that human beings had any virtue of their own. So religion ‘alienated people from their mortal existence and the world in which they actually live’. If this is meant to be an argument for atheism, I think it is tenuous and very debatable. It does not address the more basic question of whether there is a God or not.
Chapter 3, ‘From God to Money’, relates how the early Marx was influenced by Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach who held very similar views on religion, saying that religious belief is a sort of projection or externalization of our own human virtues. But Feuerbach went on to criticize Hegel’s concept of the universal ‘Mind’, insisting that philosophy must begin with the finite, material world. So man, or humanity, was at the centre of his philosophy. Marx moved, therefore, from abstract philosophical questions to practical issues in politics and current affairs. His views at this stage (early 1840’s) were liberal rather than socialist, with a basic belief in freedom.
As did a number of other thinkers, he went on to perceive money and economic life generally as the chief form of human alienation. This gives an indication, therefore, of his later thought, and he turned to a study of economics. He had come a long way from Hegel’s abstractions – he had not abandoned them, of course, and they still formed the framework for his own ideas (and mistakes, we might add).
Chapter 4 is entitled ‘Enter the Proletariat’.
In 1844 Marx started on a critique of Hegel’s political philosophy (which emphasized the primacy of the state). To the contrary, Marx believed that having ‘unmasked human self-alienation in its holy form’ (i.e. religion), philosophy now had to unmask it in its secular form, i.e. law and politics. But he suggested that ‘criticism by itself is not enough’ and ‘material force must be overthrown by material force’. Philosophical criticism of the established order had to be augmented by action.
So the proletariat, led by the new radical philosophy, would through revolution ‘complete the dialectical process in which humans have emerged’. This is ‘Marxism’ in essentials. In 1843 Marx had moved to Paris where socialist ideas were more advanced than in Germany, and he met the socialist leaders and fully agreed with their revolutionary ideas.
Chapter 5 is ‘The First Marxism’, relating Marx’s 1844 study of economics which was ultimately to be published as the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867 with later volumes appearing after his death. He explains that in classical economics the worker is in effect a commodity, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Wages fall if the supply of workers exceeds the demand for labour, so wages tend towards the lowest possible level. In this way capitalists become wealthy; increased capital is used to build more factories, so that self-employed workers are put out of business. They must then join the proletariat and sell their labour on the market too; this intensifies competition among workers trying to get work and lowers wages even more – it becomes a vicious cycle.
The workers labour, then, purely to earn a wage; they are not working to produce items for their own consumption. In this way they are ‘alienated’ from what they do. The classical economists took all this for granted, but Marx saw it as ‘a necessary but temporary stage in the evolution of mankind’. So he did not so much disagree with the classical economists, he wanted to break out altogether from the vicious cycle of greed, competition, private property and worker alienation.
The obvious question is, what should be done about all this? Marx rejected the idea of higher wages across the board; this would only be, as he put it, ‘a better slave-salary’ (a major oversight, in my opinion). His solution was ‘the abolition of wages, alienated labour and private property in one blow’. This would be communism. The next question, obviously, is what would communism be like?
But as Singer relates, ‘nowhere in his writings does Marx give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject’. The problem with platitudes about ‘freedom from alienation’ etc. is that they are non-specific. But we want to know how exactly in Marx’s view would a communist state be run? ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat’ is just as non-specific – it could mean anything. What guarantee is there that the proletariat wouldn’t become ‘alienated’ from its own dictatorship? Singer adds some critical comment too – ‘the first Marxism is not a scientific enterprise... its theories are not derived from detailed factual studies, or subjected to controlled tests or observations.’ ‘It is a speculative philosophy of history rather than a scientific study’. Presumably this means the thesis-antithesis-synthesis ‘dialectic’.
Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Alienation as a Theory of History’.
Marx argued that the propertied class and the propertyless proletariat were both ‘alienated’ but in different ways. The propertied class feels comfortable in its alienation from the rest of society, but the proletariat feels ‘ruined’ and ‘impotent’. So we have a Hegelian ‘contradiction’, or an anomaly, which ‘could not have been otherwise’ for to maintain its own existence private property must depend on the proletariat who are needed to run the factories. By contrast the proletariat can only end its miserable conditions by the abolition of private property.
This is, Singer relates, ‘an early version of the materialist theory of history’. He goes on, ‘Marx thought that practical activity was needed to solve theoretical problems’, which I find deeply puzzling. Alienation is not a ‘theoretical’ problem at all, it is a practical one. So what did Marx mean? The answer is that he perceived the problem as outlined as a ‘contradiction’ – which as we noted earlier is a very ambiguous word. In logic, language and in abstract thought a contradiction is simply where a definition, a formula or a sentence is false by definition. This sort of contradiction is often evident through semantic analysis. But Marx used the word much more loosely to denote any sort of anomaly, real or perceived, such as ‘Jones is paid more than Smith for no good reason’. This sort of anomaly is resolved by practical action of some sort. It is not a theoretical or a logical problem at all; it is a practical problem for which there are practical answers (such as job evaluation).
So when Marx said we must solve philosophical problems through changing the world, his thinking was merely muddled, as if he were regarding any sort of problem as ‘philosophical’ which (happily) is not the case. We can entirely agree that 19th century industrial society produced all sorts of perfectly serious problems including ‘alienation’ – but they were not ‘philosophical’ or ‘theoretical’ problems at all. I seriously wonder if Marx was getting ‘hypnotized’ by his own abstractions.
Chapter 7 is ‘The Goal of History’.
Here Singer outlines Marx’s ‘theory of history’ which Engels claimed to be a ‘scientific discovery’ comparable to Darwin’s discovery of how evolutionary processes took place. Marx’s theory was, in essentials, that the method of production of goods determines the economic structure of society. This is plausible. But he went on to argue that the economic structure of society is the foundation on which rise the legal and political superstructures with their corresponding forms of social consciousness. This is rather more contentious as a generality. But it is rather more cogent when he argued that as the forms of production change, e.g. from agrarian to industrial, there is social revolution and the social superstructure is transformed. As a piece of historical analysis, this is not unreasonable. The transformation includes the legal, political, religious and ideological forms in which people become conscious of conflict and seek to resolve it.
Marx went on to argue that with this distinction between the ‘economic base’ and the ‘superstructure’ of a society, the base ‘governs’ the superstructure, although this does begin to sound rather metaphorical. The major contrast is between the political and legal structures of feudal times, and those of modern, industrial times. So we have a capitalist legal and political superstructure which has evolved its own values - freedom of conscience, freedom of contract, the right to disposable property etc..
Marx did seem, however, to be slipping into a misinterpretation of a highly complex scenario. In maintaining that ‘productive forces determine everything else’, the two conceptual errors he seemed to be making were reductionism and determinism, although Singer does not employ those words himself. It is not plausible to characterize economic changes as if they are quasi-mechanistic ‘forces’ which pull social and political structures in their wake with no possibility of intervention or of influence by freely acting individuals or groups. It is simplistic to reduce everything to purely economic factors and to characterize them as inevitable (and where moral criticism of them is pointless). Two excellent critiques of Marxism are ‘The Poverty of Historicism’ (1944) and ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ (1945) by Professor Sir Karl Popper, an eminent philosopher of science.
Singer’s own criticisms are consistent with Popper’s. At p54 he says ‘the conception of society as an interconnected totality is about as precise an instrument of historical analysis as a bowl of porridge. Anything at all can be deduced from it. No observation could ever refute it.’ The point here, of course, is that if a theory is not amenable to precise test, it is unscientific and little more than conjecture. Interestingly Singer also suggests that Marx’s beliefs had their origins in Hegelian philosophy – the ‘dialectic’ with its various fallacies.
Chapter 8 is ‘Economics’.
Obviously it is impossible to give in just a few paragraphs a detailed appraisal of Marxist economics; the most I can do here and now is to give a very brief summary of Singer’s summary.
Central to it is Marx’s theory of ‘surplus value’. This means that as labour turns raw materials into manufactured items, the cost can be analysed as the cost of the raw materials, the cost of the machinery and other overheads and the cost of the labour (that is, wages). In manufacturing the use of machinery means that one worker can produce more in the same time as many workers without machinery. ‘Economies of scale’ through the use of machinery has a dramatic effect upon cost-effectiveness. In order to sell at a profit, the capitalist has every incentive to keep all these costs as low as possible. The selling price of a manufactured product is its ‘exchange value’ and this is affected by what customers are prepared to pay for it and the amount of labour it takes to produce it. So, where does the capitalist get his profits from? Obviously this is the selling price minus the production cost – which includes the wage paid to the worker. This is the meaning of ‘surplus value’ – which is based upon exploitation of workers through the pressure to keep wages as low as possible.
As Singer observes at p74, ‘since capitalists only make profit by extracting surplus-value from living labour, this means that the rate of profit must fall in the long run. All this was part of Marx’s attempt to show that capitalism cannot be a permanent state of society’.
Communism would end all this, as well as the ‘boom and slump’ cycle which was a regular feature of 19th century industrial economies. All this is based, of course, on Marx’s perception of industry in the mid 19th century. Singer has a number of criticisms. Firstly, Marx asserted that all profit arises from the extraction of surplus value from living labour – but it also arises from better, more efficient machinery, improving all the time. Marx could not have anticipated 20th century high wage economies where workers are more productive through semi-automated mass production lines, bonuses and other incentives and legalized trade unions negotiating with management. His account seemed to be based on a fixed conception of mid-19th century industry as something incapable of development, evolution and change of its own accord, without revolution.
Chapter 9 is ‘Communism’, the question being ‘what kind of society did Marx hope would take the place of capitalism?’.
The answer is ‘a communist society’, but Marx was reticent as to the details. He believed his theories described the existing realities of capitalism, but he did not think theory ‘could reach ahead of its time’ and forecast the future in any detail. In fact he derided ‘Utopian’ socialists who sought to produce blueprints for a future communist society. Interestingly he ‘condemned conspiratorial revolutionaries who wished to capture power and introduce socialism before the economic base of society had developed to the point at which the working class as a whole is ready to participate in the revolution’.
Instead he preferred to restrict himself to generalities such as saying ‘the split between the particular interests of the individual and the common interest of society would disappear under communism’. It would follow that ‘under communism the state would be superseded’. But difficult questions remain. Who would actually run things – who would plan, or co-ordinate? Should we hope for a new species of devoted, altruistic bureaucrats not in the slightest bit interested in power or advancement? The problem is that even in a society without private property, people would still pursue their own personal interests one way or another. Marx’s hope was that ‘greed, egoism and envy would disappear in a society in which private property were replaced with communal property’, but what about people’s more intangible wishes and interests such as ambition, power, position and status? As Singer puts it, ‘a radical transformation of human nature’ would be needed.
Marx seemed to express hopes for what a communist society would be like rather than to make detailed predictions. Whilst it may be unreasonable to expect too much detail from him, we should at least be able to ask some specific questions such as what rights would the individual have in a society where overall control would necessarily be centralized?
Chapter 10 is ‘An Assessment’.
Singer itemizes a number of Marx’s predictions which turned out to be false.
(1) The income gap between capitalists and workers would increase. This has not happened, ditto for...
(2) the expectation that more independent producers would be forced into the proletariat.
(3) Workers’ wages would remain at subsistence level – with few exceptions, the opposite has happened.
(4) The rate of profit would fall – on the contrary it has gone up.
(5) Capitalism would collapse – it has not done so yet.
(6) Revolutions would occur in the most industrially advanced countries. On the contrary they occurred in primarily agrarian economies, the most notable being Russia and China.
In science, if a theory produces false predictions it is abandoned. Singer finds six false predictions in Marxism, but he still hopes to find philosophical merit in it. I find this somewhat surprising, in view of the evidence we have noted in Marxism of fallacious reasoning and conceptual errors - in many cases inherited from Hegel, admittedly.
But Singer sees merit in Marx’s views on freedom. The ‘classical’ conception of freedom is that I should be at liberty to do as I wish, subject to one cardinal proviso. I should not be free to hurt or harm others (save in the most exceptional circumstances), or to interfere with the freedom of other people. But there is another angle where Marx took a different line – individual freedom should also be constrained with respect to communal interests and concerns. Obvious examples include health care and public transport which must be financed publicly, through taxation, and where the ‘consumer’ must wait their turn for services to be provided. Singer observes that if everyone drove to work and never used public transport, the roads into the larger towns and cities would be gridlocked so that nobody could get to work.
But there is a difficulty which Singer, quite rightly, faces up to. If the interests of ‘the community’ must always take precedence over the freedoms and interests of the individual, what if this became general policy? Wouldn’t this amount to freedom for nobody? This is not just a theoretical quibble; it turned out to be a major problem in societies which tried to put communism into practice such as the Soviet Union and China where regimentation was ‘the order of the day’. Singer also remarks that Marx ‘would have been appalled at the authority Lenin and Stalin wielded in his name’. Marx thought that under communism the state would cease to exist as a political entity. Admittedly this was supposed to be in the far future, but what if, as the saying goes, the future never comes? Just for the record, I read elsewhere that serious belief in Marxism as a theory died out sometime in the 1980’s.
RHS April 2015