Friday, November 7, 2014

Reflections on the life of Marx

I recently finished the superb biography "Marx. A ninteenth century life" by Jonathan Sperber (may be a tad light in the history of ideas department, but the author is an historian, not a philosopher, and he deserves extra points for trying to grapple with Hegel's influence and present his "system" in a comprehensive, albeit neccessarily schematic way), and that got me thinking about the man and his influence.

It confirmed one intuition I have had after rereading the 1st volume of Das Kapital: The man was first and foremost a journalist. Maybe more scholarly than most (more steeped in the tradition of Wissenschaft, so he naturally tended to see the world and articulate his own ideas in reponse to it in the fashion of an eighteenth century German university professor, needing to seek a number of previous  opinions -between a quite limited set of authors- to refute or advance and framing his arguments in terms that wouldn't seem out of line in the Berlinische Monatschriff) but his mindset was first and foremost that of a reporter at large, dwelling on a certain issue (like the condition of the working class, to which he never belonged, from which he never had any friend and with which he never shared interests, goals or outlook; or the history of Political Economy, as formulated half a century before he came of age) from the outside, so he could better inform about it, with all the shades and the nuances sacrificed in the name of a more shocking perspective, one that could better grab the attention of his readers.

That explain a lot of the apparent contradiction between his life and his preachings: he advocated for a violent revolution to overthrow the government and put in its place members of a class (the proletariat) he did not belong to; he scathingly criticised the moral values of the class he indeed did belong to (the bourgeoisie), and whose values he not just shared, but to a certain extent epitomized (even in his darker days of abject poverty he could not do without his domestic service, preferring to pawn the scarcer and scarcer family possessions and not to pay his daily providers than to dismiss his maid; he sent his daughters to a middel-upper class school so they could be properly groomed to enter the "right" social milieu...) he denounced the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, but reached a more or less implicit agreement with his friend Engels to live precisely from his wages as a factory owner, obtained according to his own economic analysis by unfairly appropriating the surplus value created by those very same workers in whose name he calimed to speak (this last contradictin was not lost neither on Engels nor on himself)...

I can symapthize with some aspects of his character, a passionate man very much in love with a woman (Jenny von Westphalen, although that love didn't prevent him fathering a child with his maid Lenchen Demuth) but who, apart from hers and probably Engels, was much more comfortable with the company of abstract ideas than with other human beings'

Which leads us to the impac this ideas have had. When some half baked, willingly obscure when it comes to concrete means and precise steps to get to a very vaguely defined utopian state is so ardently embraced by so many people we have to turn to the socioeconomic conditions that make such embrace not only possible, but almost unavoidable. I do not think analysing Marx ideas (again, seen with enough detachment they are neither very convincingly formulated nor very appealing) is particularly interesting. As I've stated in other places, (like in this recent post: Of value and wages), his whole theory of value, taken almost verbatim from Ricardo (who in turn took it almost verbatim from Smith, and which was wrong and unsubstantiated back then, and is still more wrong and less substantiated now) is almost laughable from Today's perspective; his dialectical view of History (strongly influenced by Hegel's logic) as "explained" by the class struggle is revealed as smoke and mirrors the moment you realize there is no such a thing as "class" formed by a homogeneous group of people with the same interests and the same relationships to the "means of production" (which in turn are as varied as the realtionships people have to them);  His determinism, which seemed scientific and hardheaded (ditto his atheism) has been as disproved by science as a metaphysical prejudice can be (beyond the necessary limits to knowledge we can gain in teh hard sciences imposed by our quantum understanding of reality and the non-linearity of most important physical phenomena, specially int eh realm of biology, which makes prediction impossible, we have the contradiction in the knowledge gained by the social sciences identified by Popper in his Poverty of Historicism -a very Marxian title indeed)...

What we have in the end is a powerful denunciation of the evils of capitalism in his era, many of which have been corrected in the first world (not so much, as factory disasters in Bangla Desh or any other cheap labor country remind us periodically), which can still serve us as cautionary warnings, and as a yardstick of the progress we have made and which we should not renounce.

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