Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott


“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

Marx observed the world he found himself in–mid nineteenth century Europe–and he studied various reflective accounts of that world, particularly Hegelian philosophy and the classical economic theories of thinkers like Adam Smith, James Mill, and David Ricardo. Both tended to fall into a way of thinking that might be describing as holding that “it is necessarily so,” or as Margaret Thatcher liked to say, “There Is No Alternative.” For Hegel, the necessity lay in the general course of history, which he interpreted as the gradual realization of human freedom and self-consciousness culminating in the modern nation state and bourgeois society. For the economists it lay in the laws governing economic activity, which they took to be as iron-clad as the laws of nature described by natural science.

Now Marx unquestionably absorbed into his own thinking both notions of necessity; indeed, he brought them together. In Capital he argues that the economic laws describing the way capitalism works and develops will inevitably lead to its eventual demise and replacement by some form of socialism. This deterministic strain in Marx's thinking stems, I think, from a desire for his own work to be accorded full scientific status, on a par with that enjoyed by Darwin's theory of evolution. Yet in some ways Marx's deterministic tendencies are at odds with what is most valuable in his thought—his Big Idea and its implications. Not to keep my patient reader in suspense any longer, I take Karl Marx's Guiding Idea to be this: One of the strangest features of human existence is that we are oppressed by things that we have created; but anything that is created by humans can ultimately be transformed by us, once we see through its apparently alien character and recognize it as a human creation, so as to be liberating rather than oppressive.

Obviously, Marx didn't pluck this thought out of nowhere. In fact, it has a fascinating genealogy. In modern philosophy, at least, its source can be found in the obscure depths of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (published in 1781). According to Kant, what we call “nature,” appears to us as an objective reality existing independently of us, but philosophical reflection reveals that this is not quite right. The fact that the world we experience consists of objects existing in space, persisting through time, and subject to necessary causal laws is due to the way the human mind renders experience intelligible to itself. Roughly, Kant argues that for experience to be intelligible, it must be “had” by a subject of experience, an “I”; for something to be a subject of experience it must be capable of some sort of self-consciousness; for a basic form of self-consciousness to arise, the subject must apprehend something that is not itself—a contrasting “not-I”; hence the mind posits nature as an objective reality. Kant does not then argue that once we understand this (after reading his book) we can alter the laws of nature. The natural features of the world we inhabit are independent of our will. That is partly what is meant by describing this reality as “objective.” But he does argue that their mind-dependence implies that the deterministic world described by science is only the world as it appears to us; and this, he says, legitimates an alternative moral perspective according to which our actions can be governed by reason rather than causal necessity. And this is the perspective we must adopt as we seek to realize our moral goals and move toward a more rational society.

Kant's thought is linked to Marx's through a number of intervening philosophical figures, notably Fichte, Hegel, and Feuerbach. All three develop further the idea of a subject achieving freedom through coming to recognize that what appears alien is in some sense its own creation, or a form of self-expression, or a necessary condition of its self-realization. Hegel historicizes the idea and interprets history as a series of such self-overcomings. Feuerbach applies the idea specifically to Christianity: people live in fear of God and feel bound by His commandments, but they can be freed once they realize that God is nothing but a projection of their own aspirations and ideals.

Marx employs the idea primarily in his critique of orthodox political economy. His fundamental disagreement with Ricardo and co. isn't that their account of how capitalism works is wildly inaccurate. It is that they take capitalism and all its trappings, such as the institution of private property, or the competitive mindset of its participants, as fixed givens rather than as features of a specific historically finite stage in the evolution of society. They describe how the current system operates according to economic laws just as the solar system operates according to the laws of physics. And There Is No Alternative. If the workings of the system mean that large numbers of people will live in poverty, there is nothing really we can do about it, any more than we can do something about the weather. The poor will always be with us.

Of course today that sort of explicit defeatism is politically unacceptable. Yet the tendency to treat features of our social environment as natural or permanent fixtures that can't conceivably be different is certainly, along with the poor, still with us. We're all familiar with trivial examples of this. When we're young we often view the conventions of our own home in this way, and we experience a slight shock when we visit other households where things are done differently. (They pour milk on their cornflakes before the sugar? Weird! They clean their teeth while they're in the shower? Gross!) Later we encounter small examples of the attitude in question when we run up against some jobsworth who refuses to bend a rule the slightest bit, no matter how much inconvenience such inflexibility causes. (“Sorry sir, this pub is licensed for music and singing, not for poetry reading.”) Where it really matters, though, is when it informs and supports an uncritical and unimaginative acceptance of our current institutions and practices, even though they may not be delivering the benefits we want from them.

I believe the most important instance of this is the current acceptance by so many people of “the market” as the only viable­–and in any case, the best­–mechanism for determining all sorts of outcomes. This has long been an article of faith for Thatcherites, Reaganites, disciples of Ayn Rand, and Tea Partiers. But an ongoing consequence of the Reagan-Thatcher era seems to be a general deference–enthusiastic in some quarters, resigned in others–to the idea of letting market forces dictate almost everything, everywhere. And when the results are undesirable we just shrug. There Is No Alternative.

Now, I'm happy to agree that many things are best decided by market forces, that is, by the expressed and acted-on preferences of many individuals. Most ordinary consumer goods and services fall into this category, although even here some regulation is desirable to protect consumers against dangerous products, unqualified practitioners, or false advertising. But there are many cases where what the market produces in the long run goes against the interests of the majority, or is simply not what most people want (even though, paradoxically, it is the result of expressed preferences). Here are a few examples.

· Thanks to the free operation of market forces, property prices in cities like London or Manhattan make it very difficult for ordinary people who work in these cities for average to low wages to find decent accommodation anywhere near their place of work.

· To compete in the higher education marketplace, colleges in the US try to lure customers (a.k.a. students) to their campus rather than to that of some rival, by spending increasing amounts of money on fancy athletic facilities, spiffier dorm rooms, and other extracurricular curricular attractions, often at the expense of academic programs that constitute the college's real raison d'être. Downtown-virginia-closed

· Walmart opens a store just outside a small town and undercuts the prices of the shops on Main Street, with the result that what was once the pleasant center of a bustling community becomes a depressing, hollowed out shell where few people any longer have occasion to go or opportunity to interact.

· As the culture of inflated compensation received by top suits in the business world seeps across the professions, and the offspring of the rich enjoy every advantage from private schools to quality orthodonture to physical and cognitive enhancement through genetic engineering (it's coming!), inequalities are exacerbated further at great cost to the situation of the least fortunate and to the social fabric as a whole.

In these and many other cases, the market steers things away from what many of us would consider the ideal (affordable housing for all; thriving local communities; a more egalitarian society). We feel helpless to resist its power. And there is no shortage of theoreticians, analysts, and commentators whose explanations of how it works double as justifications for the way things are. They perform a function analogous to that of the priests who taught people both what their religion demanded of them and why they must obey its commandments. But the market, like religion, is a human creation. Reminding ourselves of this helps us realize that when and where we find its working oppressive, we always have the option of intervening, modifying, or eliminating whatever is taking us in an undesirable direction. Rents can be controlled, salaries capped, planning permission granted or withheld, the tax system reformed. There is always an alternative.