Karl Marx is usually thought of as the man who claimed to have made Socialism scientific, and who did more than anyone else to create the powerful movement which, by attraction and repulsion, has dominated the recent history of Europe. It does not come within the scope of the present work to consider his economics, or his politics except in certain general aspects; it is only as a philosopher, and an influence on the philosophy of others, that I propose to deal with him. In this respect he is difficult to classify. In one aspect, he is an outcome, like Hodgskin, of the Philosophical Radicals, continuing their rationalism and their opposition to the romantics. In another aspect he is a revivifier of materialism, giving it a new interpretation and a new connection with human history. In yet another aspect he is the last of the great system-builders, the successor of Hegel, a believer, like him, in a rational formula summing up the evolution of mankind. Emphasis upon any one of these aspects at the expense of the others gives a false and distorted view of his philosophy.
The events of his life in part account for this complexity. He was born in 1818, at Treves, like St Ambrose. Treves had been profoundly influenced by the French during the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and was much more cosmopolitan in outlook than most parts of Germany. His ancestors had been rabbis, but his parents became Christian when he was a child. He married a gentile aristocrat, to whom he remained devoted throughout his life. At the university he was influenced by the still prevalent Hegelianism, as also by Feuerbach's revolt against Hegel towards materialism. He tried journalism, but the Rheinische Zeitung, which he edited, was suppressed by the authorities for its radicalism. After this, in 1843, he went to France to study Socialism. There he met Engels, who was the manager of a factory in Manchester. Through him he came to know English labour conditions and English economics. He thus acquired, before the revolutions of 1848, an unusually international culture. So far as Western Europe was concerned, he showed no national bias, This cannot be said of Eastern Europe, for he always despised the Slavs.
He took part in both the French and the German revolutions of 1848, but the reaction compelled him to seek refuge in England in 1849. He spent the rest of his life, with a few brief intervals, in London, troubled by poverty, illness, and the deaths of children, but nevertheless indefatigably writing and amassing knowledge. The stimulus to his work was always the hope of the social revolution, if not in his lifetime, then in some not very distant future.
Marx, like Bentham and James Mill, will have nothing to do with romanticism; it is always his intention to be scientific. His economics is an outcome of British classical economics, changing only the motive force. Classical economists, consciously or unconsciously, aimed at the welfare of the capitalist, as opposed both to the landowner and to the wage-earner; Marx, on the contrary, set to work to represent the interest of the wage-earner. He had in youth—as appears in the Communist Manifesto of 1848—the fire and passion appropriate to a new revolutionary movement, as liberalism had had in the time of Milton. But he was always anxious to appeal to evidence, and never relied upon any extra-scientific intuition.
He called himself a materialist, but not of the eighteenth-century sort. His sort, which, under Hegelian influence, he called 'dialectical', differed in an important way from traditional materialism, and was more akin to what is now called instrumentalism. The older materialism, he said, mistakenly regarded sensation as passive, and thus attributed activity primarily to the object. In Marx's view, all sensation or perception is an interaction between subject and object; the bare object, apart from the activity of the percipient, is a mere raw material, which is transformed in the process of becoming known. Knowledge in the old sense of passive contemplation is an unreal abstraction; the process that really takes place is one of handling things. 'The question whether objective truth belongs to human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical question,' he says. 'The truth, i.e. the reality and power, of thought must be demonstrated in practice. The contest as to the reality or non-reality of a thought which is isolated from practice, is a purely scholastic question…. Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the real task is to alter it.'1
I think we may interpret Marx as meaning that the process which philosophers have called the pursuit of knowledge is not, as has been thought, one in which the object is constant while all the adaptation is on the part of
the knower. On the contrary, both subject and object, both the knower and the thing known, are in a continual process of mutual adaptation. He calls the process 'dialectical' because it is never fully completed.
It is essential to this theory to deny the reality of 'sensation' as conceived by British empiricists. What happens, when it is most nearly what they mean by 'sensation', would be better called 'noticing', which implies activity. In fact—so Marx would contend—we only notice things as part of the process of acting with reference to them, and any theory which leaves out action is a misleading abstraction.
So far as I know, Marx was the first philosopher who criticized the notion of 'truth' from this activist point of view. In him this criticism was not much emphasized, and I shall therefore say no more about it here, leaving the examination of the theory to a later chapter.
Marx's philosophy of history is a blend of Hegel and British economics. Like Hegel, he thinks that the world develops according to a dialectical formula, but he totally disagrees with Hegel as to the motive force of this development. Hegel believed in a mystical entity called 'Spirit', which causes human history to develop according to the stages of the dialectic as set forth in Hegel's Logic. Why Spirit has to go through these stages is not clear. One is tempted to suppose that Spirit is trying to understand Hegel, and at each stage rashly objectifies what it has been reading. Marx's dialectic has none of this quality except a certain inevitableness. For Marx, matter, not spirit, is the driving force. But it is a matter in the peculiar sense that we have been considering, not the wholly dehumanized matter of the atomists. This means that, for Marx, the driving force is really man's relation to matter, of which the most important part is his mode of production. In this way Marx's materialism, in practice, becomes economics.
The politics, religion, philosophy, and art of any epoch in human history are, according to Marx, an outcome of its methods of production, and, to a lesser extent, of distribution. I think he would not maintain that this applies to all the niceties of culture, but only to its broad outlines. The doctrine is called the 'materialist conception of history'. This is a very important thesis; in particular, it concerns the historian of philosophy. I do not myself accept the thesis as it stands, but I think that it contains very important elements of truth, and I am aware that it has influenced my own views of philosophical development as set forth in the present work. Let us, to begin with, consider the history of philosophy in relation to Marx's doctrine.
Subjectively, every philosopher appears to himself to be engaged in the pursuit of something which may be called 'truth'. Philosophers may differ as to the definition of 'truth', but at any rate it is something objective, something which, in some sense, everybody ought to accept. No man would engage in the pursuit of philosophy if he thought that all philosophy is merely an expression of irrational bias. But every philosopher will agree that many other philosophers have been actuated by bias, and have had extra-rational reasons, of which they were usually unconscious, for many of their opinions. Marx, like the rest, believes in the truth of his own doctrines; he does not regard them as nothing but an expression of the feelings natural to a rebellious middle-class German Jew in the middle of the nineteenth century. What can be said about this conflict between the subjective and objective views of a philosophy?
We may say, in a broad way, that Greek philosophy down to Aristotle expresses the mentality appropriate to the City State; that Stoicism is appropriate to a cosmopolitan despotism; that scholastic philosophy is an intellectual expression of the Church as an organization; that philosophy since Descartes, or at any rate since Locke, tends to embody the prejudices of the commercial middle class; and that Marxism and Fascism are philosophies appropriate to the modern industrial State. This, I think, is both true and important. I think, however, that Marx is wrong in two respects. First, the social circumstances of which account must be taken are quite as much political as economic; they have to do with power, of which wealth is only one form. Second, social causation largely ceases to apply as soon as a problem becomes detailed and technical. The first of these objections I have set forth in my book Power, and I shall therefore say no more about it. The second more intimately concerns the history of philosophy, and I will give some examples of its scope.
Take, first, the problem of universals. This problem was first discussed by Plato, then by Aristotle, by the Schoolmen, by the British empiricists, and by the most modern logicians. It would be absurd to deny that bias has influenced the opinions of philosophers on this question. Plato was influenced by Parmenides and Orphism; he wanted an eternal world, and could not believe in the ultimate reality of the temporal flux. Aristotle was more empirical, and had no dislike of the every-day world. Thorough-going empiricists in modern times have a bias which is the opposite of Plato's: they find the thought of a super-sensible world unpleasant, and are willing to go to great lengths to avoid having to believe in it. But these opposing kinds of bias are perennial, and have only a somewhat remote connection with the social system. It is said that love of the eternal is characteristic of a leisure class, which lives on the labour of others. I doubt if this is true. Epictetus and Spinoza were not gentlemen of leisure. It might be urged, on the contrary, that the conception of heaven as a place where nothing is done is that of weary toilers who want nothing but rest. Such argumentation can be carried on indefinitely, and leads nowhere.
On the other hand, when we come to the detail of the controversy about universals, we find that each side can invent arguments which the other side will admit to be valid. Some of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato on this question have been almost universally accepted. In quite recent times, although no decision has been reached, a new technique has been developed, and many incidental problems have been solved. It is not irrational to hope that, before very long, a definite agreement may be reached by logicians on this question.
Take, as a second example, the ontological argument. This, as we have seen, was invented by Anselm, rejected by Thomas Aquinas, accepted by Descartes, refuted by Kant, and reinstated by Hegel. I think it may be said quite decisively that, as a result of analysis of the concept 'existence', modern logic has proved this argument invalid. This is not a matter of temperament or of the social system; it is a purely technical matter. The refutation of the argument affords, of course, no ground for supposing its conclusion, namely the existence of God, to be untrue; if it did, we cannot suppose that Thomas Aquinas would have rejected the argument.
Or take the question of materialism. This is a word which is capable of many meanings; we have seen that Marx radically altered its significance. The heated controversies as to its truth or falsehood have largely depended, for their continued vitality, upon avoidance of definition. When the term is defined, it will be found that, according to some possible definitions, materialism is demonstrably false; according to certain others, it may be true, though there is no positive reason to think so; while according to yet other definitions there are some reasons in its favour, though these reasons are not conclusive. All this, again, depends upon technical considerations, and has nothing to do with the social system.
The truth of the matter is really fairly simple. What is conventionally called 'philosophy' consists of two very different elements. On the one hand, there are questions which are scientific or logical; these are amenable to methods as to which there is general agreement. On the other hand, there are questions of passionate interest to large numbers of people, as to which there is no solid evidence either way. Among the latter are practical questions as to which it is impossible to remain aloof. When there is a war, I must support my own country or come into painful conflict both with friends and with the authorities. At many times there has been no middle course between supporting and opposing the official religion. For one reason or another, we all find it impossible to maintain an attitude of sceptical detachment on many issues as to which pure reason is silent. A 'philosophy', in a very usual sense of the word, is an organic whole of such extra-rational decisions. It is in regard to 'philosophy' in this sense that Marx's contention is largely true. But even in this sense a philosophy is determined by other social causes as well as by those that are economic. War, especially, has its share in historical causation; and victory in war does not always go to the side with the greatest economic resources.
Marx fitted his philosophy of history into a mould suggested by Hegelian dialectic, but in fact there was only one triad that concerned him: feudalism, represented by the landowner; capitalism, represented by the industrial employer; and Socialism, represented by the wage-earner. Hegel thought of nations as the vehicles of dialectic movement; Marx substituted classes. He disclaimed always all ethical or humanitarian reasons for preferring Socialism or taking the side of the wage-earner; he maintained, not that this side was ethically better, but that it was the side taken by the dialectic in its wholly deterministic movement. He might have said that he did not advocate Socialism, but only prophesied it. This, however, would not have been wholly true. He undoubtedly believed every dialectical movement to be, in some impersonal sense, a progress, and he certainly held that Socialism, once established, would minister to human happiness more than either feudalism or capitalism have done. These beliefs, though they must have controlled his life, remained largely in the background so far as his writings are concerned. Occasionally, however, he abandons calm prophecy for vigorous exhortation to rebellion, and the emotional basis of his ostensibly scientific prognostications is implicit in all he wrote.
Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to Man. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not the cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific.
There goes with this limitation to terrestrial affairs a readiness to believe in progress as a universal law. This readiness characterized the nineteenth century, and existed in Marx as much as in his contemporaries. It is only because of the belief in the inevitability of progress that Marx thought it possible to dispense with ethical considerations. If Socialism was coming, it must be an improvement. He would have readily admitted that it would not seem to be an improvement to landowners or capitalists, but that only showed that they were out of harmony with the dialectic movement of the time. Marx professed himself an atheist, but retained a cosmic optimism which only theism could justify.
Broadly speaking, all the elements in Marx's philosophy which are derived from Hegel are unscientific, in the sense that there is no reason whatever to suppose them true.
Perhaps the philosophic dress that Marx gave to his Socialism had really not much to do with the basis of his opinions. It is easy to restate the most important part of what he had to say without any reference to the dialectic. He was impressed by the appalling cruelty of the industrial system as it existed in England a hundred years ago, which he came to know thoroughly through Engels and the reports of Royal Commissions. He saw that the system was likely to develop from free competition towards monopoly, and that its injustice must produce a movement of revolt in the proletariat. He held that, in a thoroughly industrialized community, the only alternative to private capitalism is State ownership of land and capital. None of these propositions are matters for philosophy, and I shall therefore not consider their truth or falsehood. The point is that, if true, they suffice to establish what is practically important in his system. The Hegelian trappings might therefore be dropped with advantage.
This history of Marx's reputation has been peculiar. In his own country his doctrines inspired the programme of the Social Democratic Party, which grew steadily until, in the general election of 1912, it secured one third of all the votes cast. Immediately after the first world war, the Social Democratic Party was for a time in power, and Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic, was a member of it; but by this time the Party had ceased to adhere to Marxist orthodoxy. Meanwhile, in Russia, fanatical believers in Marx had acquired the government. In the West, no large working-class movement has been quite Marxist; the British Labour Party, at times, has seemed to move in that direction, but has nevertheless adhered to an empirical type of Socialism. Large numbers of intellectuals, however, have been profoundly influenced by him, both in England and in America. In Germany all advocacy of his doctrines has been forcibly suppressed, but may be expected to revive when the Nazis are overthrown.2
Modern Europe and America have thus been divided, politically and ideologically, into three camps. There are Liberals, who still, as far as may be, follow Locke or Bentham, but with varying degrees of adaptation to the needs of industrial organization. There are Marxists, who control the Government in Russia, and are likely to become increasingly influential in various other countries. These two sections of opinion are philosophically not very widely separated, both are rationalistic, and both, in intention, are scientific and empirical. But from the point of view of practical politics the division is sharp. It appears already in the letter of James Mill quoted in the preceding chapter, saying 'their notions of property look ugly'.
It must, however, be admitted that there are certain respects in which the rationalism of Marx is subject to limitations. Although he holds that his interpretation of the trend of development is true, and will be borne out by events, he believes that the argument will only appeal (apart from rare exceptions) to those whose class interest is in agreement with it. He hopes little from persuasion, everything from the class war. He is thus committed in practice to power politics, and to the doctrine of a master class, though not of
va master race. It is true that, as a result of the social revolution, the division of classes is expected ultimately to disappear, giving place to complete political and economic harmony. But this is a distant ideal, like the Second Coming; in the meantime, there is war and dictatorship, and insistence upon ideological orthodoxy.
The third section of modern opinion, represented politically by Nazis and Fascists, differs philosophically from the other two far more profoundly than they differ from each other. It is anti-rational and anti-scientific. Its philosophical progenitors are Rousseau, Fichte, and Nietzsche. It emphasizes will, especially will to power; this it believes to be mainly concentrated in certain races and individuals, who therefore have a right to rule.
Until Rousseau, the philosophical world had a certain unity. This has disappeared for the time being, but perhaps not for long. It can be recovered by a rationalistic reconquest of men's minds, but not in any other way, since claims to mastery can only breed strife.