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Introduction and Historical Materialism

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ntroduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture 26
Marx - I: Intro & Historical Materialism
Hello and welcome everyone. Today, we are going to start with a new thinker, Karl Marx.
and like many other thinkers in the course, we are going to have three lectures on Marx. In
the lecture today, we will discuss briefly his biography, intellectual and political context. We
will focus on his theory of historical materialism. That is the way to interpret history or
understand major changes and transformations that have taken place in the history of
mankind.
So, historical materialism and Marxist understanding is the way or the method to understand
such historical changes and transformations. Today, we will focus on that in the second
lecture on Marx. We will particularly focus on his theory of class or class struggle or his
theory of the state. We will briefly discuss his theory of alienation or exploitation that
necessitates the class struggle in any society in the second lecture. In the concluding lecture
on Marx, we will start by discussing his theory of politics, and why he regarded politics as a
tool for class exploitation to resolve the class conflict. What would be the rule of politics in
his imagination of communist society that would be a classless society, where there would be
no private property. In the absence of private property, there would not be any conflict.
We will focus his views on politics in the concluding lecture on Marx, before discussing the
critical interpretation leveled against Marx and his political thought. Let us start this lecture
today.
The uniqueness or the specificities of Marxist thinking is not merely to understand society or
politics, but change it. In that sense, unlike other thinkers in the course, which did play a role
in their thought and theorization did play a role in the making of modern state or polity or
understanding of human being, their natural rights.
Historically, speaking, in terms of making historical changes or transformations to a large
scale through a movement or revolution. Marxist philosophy remained oriented towards the
practical side of it. So, in the Marxist famous dictum, the philosophy or role of philosophy is
not merely to help human beings understand their context. But also enable him to change it. The emphasis in Marxist thought and thinking was to not just interpret the world, but also,
how to change it in a manner that would lead to more freedom and real emancipation.
We will see it in the three lectures that we are going to have. There is a kind of a
misconception, I will say about reducing Marx merely to some kind of reductionist or
deterministic theorist, where he was like an enlightenment thinker, humanist or developing
thought and theories to create a condition for the greater emancipation or freedom for the
individual. In doing that, he focused more on the practical part of it, or the practical side of
theory, thought, or philosophy.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:22)
Karl Marx was the most influential thinker of the 19th century, and more importantly, in the
20th century. Many revolutions such as the Russian Revolution or the Chinese revolution
derived inspiration from Marxist writings and philosophy. So, he was the most influential
thinker of the 19th and the whole of the 20th century. No other thinker in the history of
political thought had shaped the historical events or real historical transformative events, or
changes as Marx's writings or philosophy did. And also, no other thinker was as despised or
worshiped.
So, about Marx, there is a rejection of his philosophy and worshipping of him as a cult figure
or an icon, making or symbolism associated with Marx and his writings. On the one hand, he
was despised and his philosophy was rejected as utopian which led to a bloody revolution.
On the other hand, there is a religious view like worshipping of Marx and his writings,
without critically subjecting his thoughts and ideas to rational scrutiny. There is both kind of approaches to study Marx and his writings, where on the one hand, he is despised, on the
other hand, he is worshiped by millions of followers across the world.
Profoundly influenced by Hegelian philosophy, Marx was committed to the creation of a
rational world order that would bring about the emancipation of whole humanity. He shared
with many enlightenment thinkers the whole purpose of reason and rationality, and human
life would create the conditions for freedom in which he or she could fully develop himself or
herself. And the whole enlightenment project was to construct a state to build a society where
a human being would realize that kind of freedom.
So, the classical economist gave one kind of understanding, and other thinkers like Kant,
Hegel, (7:51) argued about other forms of such society. Rousseau was talking about ‘general
will’. In that paradigm, Marx was also looking for creating conditions for human
emancipation or human freedom.
However, unlike many other enlightenment thinkers, it was realized that limited
emancipation or freedom had been achieved through a political revolution. So, real
emancipation or freedom is possible only through social and economic transformation, and
not merely by changing the laws or political revolution. In other words, Marx, like many
other enlightenment thinkers were committed to the ideal of human freedoms.
That is at the center of Marxist philosophy and Marxist thought about how to create a
condition, a rational, or political order in which human being can be true to themselves,
realize their human essence, that is doing something which is the realization or if you recall,
Hegelian idea, the actualization of his self or his will.
Unlike many enlightenment thinkers and scholars who saw political revolutions, such as the
French Revolution or the recognition of individual rights, this was also the period when the
individual was regarded as the rational subject. Therefore, he or she should have certain
inalienable rights and political society, and the state emerged to protect those rights or to
guarantee those rights.
Now, in contrast to such faith and trust in individual rights or political revolution, Marx
argued that real freedom was possible only in the state of communism. This state of
communism, he defined it with the absence of private property. There was no private
property in that state. But if you recall other thinkers, that we have done in this course like
Locke or even Hegel, the private property is necessary and individual agree to live in the state by contracting with others who are equal and free members to protect their life, liberty, and
property.
So, the property is the necessary condition, and it must be protected by the state. Whereas
Marx, imagined a collective life where there would be no private property, and if there was
no private property, there would be no conflict. The real freedom or emancipation was
possible to realize or achieve only in communism with the absence of private property and
there would be no politics or class conflicts. In such a society, he thought the state would
wither away and there would be a self-regulating mechanism among the individuals. This
theory, we will discuss when we will be discussing his views on communism later on in this
lecture.
Karl Marx's philosophy, many scholars argued was based on a faulty premise of economic
determinism. That is to say, for Marx, material conditions of men determine their social and
political existence, including their self-consciousness. Marx considered himself as the
materialist thinker and many left-leaning young Hegelians were critical of Hegel's
philosophy, precisely, because of his focus on ideas at the center of dialectics that moved
history from one stage to the next.
Marx, as a materialist thinker, believed that the matter was at the center of the dialectics and
human history moved according to the changes in the material conditions of man. So, it was
the material social-economic condition that determined the consciousness of the individual,
not the other way around, as Hegel argued. However, this deterministic or reductionist
argument leads many scholars to criticize much of Marx's thoughts and ideas.
There is also the criticism of his theory of revolution which he thought was inevitable. We
will discuss how he argued that because of the class and inner conflict prevalent in
capitalism, it would inevitably lead to the next stage that he called communism through
revolution. He wanted it to happen in the advanced countries. But it never happened in the
advanced industrial economies and in mostly agrarian economies, where such revolution
happened such as in Russia or China, it often paved the way for authoritarianism.
In other words, if you look at historically these revolutions had proved to be a failure to
create that condition of life which Marx argued. It would be possible to live in the life of
communism. So, often these revolutions turned into a kind of authoritarian regime, not
necessarily creating the conditions of life which Marx argued in communism.However, over the decades and centuries, there developed many schools within Marxism,
that developed his philosophy often by challenging it or by including newer dynamics to it.
Also, by focusing more on the other aspect rather than the economic determinism or what it is
called the scientific law in Marx.
So, over the decades and century, there developed many schools within Marxism that
interpreted in varieties of ways, not necessarily reducing it to the economic determinism and
the reductionist understanding of Marx. This we will come back to discuss when we will start
discussing criticisms against Karl Marx’s political thought.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:44)
Now, let us look at the political and intellectual context of Marx. We have to begin with the
influence or intellectual influence on his writings. So, if we look at the philosophy of Marx,
that we find is profoundly shaped by ‘German Idealism’ as we have discussed and
particularly, by Hegelian philosophy.
So, German idealism was a school of thought that said to be started or funded by Immanuel
Kant, with his writings on three critiques and enlightenment, and ‘categorical imperative’. All
those were parts of such a school or tradition of thought which later developed as the
‘German Idealism’, where there was a kind of primacy of idea, will, human freedom. Marx's
political philosophy was profoundly shaped by ‘German Idealism’, particularly, Hegelian
philosophy, which is a kind of culmination of ‘German Idealism’.
In Hegelian philosophy, we have also discussed how Hegel in a sense, combined this divide
between idealism and materialism. So, any ideas or abstract will, according to Hegel, must manifest itself in the real concrete historical circumstances, and it is through such
manifestation that an idea is realized. In that sense, the real ideas are immaterial merely in the
realm of abstract thought and imagination. It must manifest socially and historically.
So, there are then possibilities of such material explanation or interpretation. But again,
according to young Hegelians, or left Hegelians, Hegel gave primacy to the ideas. Marx's
philosophy was deeply influenced by ‘German Idealism’, particularly, Hegel's philosophy.
And if we particularly look at his early writings, where he developed his ideas like alienation,
objectification of labor, human emancipation, or communism, were developed through his
engagement with Hegel's, Phenomenology of Spirit.
For the rest of our life, Marx went on to further develop these thoughts, particularly, his ideas
of communism that he first articulated in Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, 1844. So,
he went on to give it a more scientific, historical, or material explanation, and moved away
from Hegel, eventually. But these ideas were shaped as a result of his engagement with the
Hegelian philosophy.
He further, explained or developed it through his engagement with the words of classical
economists like Adam Smith and others, and the French Revolution. So, in Marxist
philosophy or political thought, you have the combination of three traditions or intellectual
traditions, German idealism, on the one hand, a classical economist on the other, and French
socialism on the third.
These combinations of three traditions or intellectual traditions shaped much of Marx's
political philosophy and the contribution of Marx particularly his understanding of the pitfalls
or many internal conflicts that existed in capitalism. And why it was necessary to achieve the
next stages of human progress, human development. That is possible in communism.
So, intellectually, there is a kind of shift in Marx's writings or Marx philosophy, where it is
divided into two kinds of writings or philosophy. There was a young humanist Marx, who
focused on human alienation, how to achieve human emancipation, and what should be the
solution to the exploitation? And a matured Marx, or who is called the scientific Marx, where
he moved away from the Hegelian influence to a more political and economic explanation of
the society, polity, and the world order.
Thus, the intellectual and political upheavals in the 18th and 19th century Europe, with their
promises of freedom and equality had become the central theme of the enlightenment tradition. How to achieve equality among men? Because they are all rational created by the
same God. Therefore, we have the same natural rights. So, freedom and equality become the
kind of central theme or promise of enlightenment tradition, and this coincided with the
industrial society and the growth of capitalism.
And the growth of capitalism created economic inequalities and divided society into classes.
So, if you remember, when there was the enlightenment tradition or faith in human reason,
and rationality, there were the romantics who argued about going back to nature or the preindustrial life of harmony or mutual dependence.
There was a kind of churning at the level of ideas, at the intellectual level as to how to
respond to the economic disparities or sub-human conditions and that most of the workers in
the industrial society lives. Marx tried to address these economic inequalities and disparities,
which led to class conflicts in many societies. And if you look at the period between 1832
whole of the 19th century, but certainly till 1848, even the Glorious Revolution in the UK, in
1888, there was constant movement and churning at the level of political and social
mobilization as well. It was also a period of expensing the right to vote, universal vote, and
also the recognition of individual rights.
And this movement, politically, and in the realm of social as well continued throughout the
19th and 20th centuries. Many progressive laws, for the protection of laborers for equal
wages, for minimum wage were achieved through those struggles and the inspiration for such
struggles came from Marxist writings or political philosophy as well. So, these economic
inequalities divided society into classes that led to class conflict. Marx was devoted to
examining the source of such inequalities, means, and modes of overcoming them.
So unlike romantics or idealists, Marx believed in the reality of matter, and on that basis, he
wanted to develop a scientific theory in a kind of theory of history, which would help the
society or community to achieve more freedom or greater emancipation. The purpose of
Marx was to understand or examine the source of inequalities in the capitalist industrial
society, and how it could overcome. In that sense, contrary to his popular image of a
revolutionary thinker, Marx was a humanist, committed to human emancipation and the full
realization of freedom for everyone.
In the capitalist industrial society, the freedom or political right that was available or the
equality that was recognized was in the real practical sense exercised only by those who had
the property. The nature of capitalism was such that it would lead to monopolization. So, the few would earn more control more wealth, and the majority of them would be dependent on
their scope for working in the factory or live in a sub-human existence. They would not get
the work they wanted to do, they would not get employment. That is how capitalism survives
or thrives.
Marx was trying to follow from the Hegelian idea of movement in history, as seen as the kind
of movement of progress from a limited to more progress or freedom for the human being.
He realized that capitalism was not the final stage. It must be transcended to the next stage of
human emancipation and freedom which he called communism.
So, contrary to the popular perception of Marx as a revolutionary thinker, he wanted a bloody
revolution at all costs to achieve communism. He was looking for the condition of life which
would be emancipatory and free for everyone in the society and not just the few who owned
the property. He was concerned about how to avoid class conflicts, economic disparities that
would make political and legal equality real for everyone in the society? So that they could
develop their self, according to their talent without exploitation and control by others.
Karl Marx, while acknowledging the contribution of the French Revolution, argued that
freedom and equality that it achieved was only partially successful. It achieved them only in
the realm of politics and law. So, many of the political developments in the 19th century and
the whole of the 20th century were such a realization across the world about equality and
freedom. So, in the real sense, it is still not achieved.
There is the hierarchy that exists even today, at the level of ideas and imagination, the whole
of the 19th and 20th centuries, the struggle for equality, that is in principle, everyone realized
that men and women across the race and class should be treated equally or fairly. And this
would have certain rights given to them. Because of their being human, not because they own
property, or they have certain other qualifications.
So, to make that fully accessible for everyone, Marx was thinking about a condition of life,
that would transcend capitalism based on private property, controlled by few and left many to
live the condition of servitude or sub-human life. He realized that the French Revolution or
the political realization of individual rights or recognition of individual rights achieved the
freedom to a certain extent. It is limited in the realm of politics and law.
The real possibilities or actualization of freedom is possible when human beings are socially
and economically free as well. So, in the absence of social and economic freedom, Marx argued, political and legal freedom, and equality is meaningless. And, politically, if you look
at the history of Europe, 1848 saw many revolutions across Europe, and this revolution also
represented the struggle between two classes. The earlier feudal lords or monarchs with the
mercantile capitalist classes were emerging and asserting their superiority over the feudal
lords and nobility. Because of their technological innovation and new modes of production
that was also happening.
So, the year 1848, saw many revolutions in Europe, and Marx believed them as the epochal
moments, although it never materialized. Marx and his philosophy became the symbol of
workers’ emancipation across Europe and beyond. This was also the period when there was
the growing assertion, not just among the mercantile class or the feudal lords or the
monarchy, which was by then somewhat established. That is the Industrial Revolution and
the emerging class of mercantile capital, the capitalist had asserted their superiority.
However, the working class or the peasantry, were largely subjugated and they began to
develop consciousness or began to struggle for their rights, and that led to many upheavals
across Europe in 1848, as we have discussed while discussing Hobbes in the case of England,
or Locke, in the case of England. Similarly, in France or other countries in Europe, such
development was taking place.
Marx saw in them as a kind of movement towards the next stage of history which never
materialized the way Marx thought during his lifetime and also after his death. But certainly,
in Eastern Europe or many other non-European countries, the revolution had taken place. But
these societies remained not as Marx thought the advanced industrial society, they were
largely agrarian society or partially industrial society. Nonetheless, the significance of Marx
was that his writings were for the workers and their struggle for emancipation or greater
rights. Marx remained a symbol of inspiration and motivation.
(Refer Slide Time: 30:09)Now, if you look at Karl Marx’s brief biology sketch, Karl Marx was born in Trier, Germany
in 1818 in a middle-class Jew family, and at that time, anti-Semitism was rife, and to escape
the humiliation and discrimination, his family converted to the Protestant branch of
Christianity. His father was a successful lawyer, and Marx initially tutored by his father, and
had his early education in Trier. His father wanted him to study law. So, he was sent to the
University of Bonn.
However, finding him inattentive towards his studies, his father sent him to the University of
Berlin, where he was expected to study law. But he changed or switch to philosophy in which
he completed his doctorate, and Marx could not find a job after completing his Ph.D. and
began to write in a newspaper ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ in Cologne in 1842. It was at the
University of Berlin, that Marx came in close contact with Hegelian philosophy and radical
leaning left Hegelians, and his thought was profoundly shaped by them.
However, soon he developed criticism against the young Hegelians who were focusing
exclusively on religion and religious orthodoxy. Whereas, Marx wanted the radical and
emancipatory potential of Hegelian philosophy, to be applied to understand and transform the
then prevailing exploitative socio-economic and political order in Europe.
There was a kind of inspiration from the Hegelian philosophy or the young Hegelians. But he
also developed criticisms against them. Because of their focus on religion and religious
orthodoxy alone, whereas, Marx wanted Hegelian philosophy to be applied in the realm of
society and polity as well, to make it more emancipatory or free for most of its inhabitants,
not just the few who own the property.(Refer Slide Time: 32:22)
As a reporter of ‘Rheinische Zeitung’, he was very critical of the Prussian government that
led to the closure of this newspaper, and to avoid persecution, Marx left for Paris, where he
came in close contact with French socialist thinkers. He also made his friend and a lifelong
collaborator, Fredrick Engels, who was himself the son of an industrialist who had a factory
in Manchester. Because of his influence, like Marx of young Hegelians, and radical left, he
was very critical of the industrial society or capitalism, and he became a lifelong collaborator
of Marx.
Marx wrote, Economic and Philosophical Manuscript in Paris, which is also known as Paris
manuscript. In this text, Marx appeared to be much more humanitarian, in comparison to his
later works. However, this text was only published in the middle of the 20th century. So, to
avoid persecution, Marx had to leave Paris in 1845, and for the next three years, he spent in
Brussels. In 1847, the Communist League was formed in London and Marx was made the
founder member of the League. He wrote its Manifesto which is famously known as
Communist Manifesto or the manifesto of the Communist Party.
Soon he was expelled from Brussels and after staying briefly, in Cologne, Marx settled for
good in England. He studied classical economists like Adam Smith, and many others at the
British Museum and worked on his monumental Capital, published now in three volumes.
However, the first volume alone was published during his lifetime in 1867. The other two
volumes were later edited and published by Engels.
He was also associated with the International Working-Class Movement, which splintered
after the death of Marx and Engels. Marx died in England in 1883. So, he had a kind of veryvagabond life if you like. He constantly moved from one country to another, and yet
committed to the ideal of communism, or creating the conditions for the emancipation or
freedom of the working class.
Major works of Marx were Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, Theses on Feuerbach,
The German Ideology, The Poetry of Philosophy, The Manifesto of the Communist Party,
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Capital in three Volume and The Critique
of the Gotha Programme. Some of the texts he wrote in collaboration with Engels.
(Refer Slide Time: 35:21)
Now, we move on to his idea of historical materialism that is necessary to understand Marx's
thought and philosophy. It is said to be based on what is called the scientific theory of
history. That is to say, there is a kind of certainty determining influence on the movement of
history.
So, this historical materialism is also regarded as the scientific theory in Marx, inspired by
Hegelian dialectics. And it explains how society works and how it changes from one stage to
the next overtime. Through historical materialism, Marx explained different stages of history.
Thus, how a particular stage of history functioned and operated within its epoch and what
gradually led to its change over time.
In contrast to Hegel, however, if you remember Hegelian dialectics, there were simultaneous
contradictions at any given moment. And that reality at that moment was constituted of the
conciliation of those contradictions. And next, that conciliation would lead to further
contradiction which would lead to further synthesis. That is how human history moved. However, in contrast to Hegel, for whom the center of such dialectics is the idea or the
human thought, Marx argued at the center of any progressive moment in history is matter. In
that sense, Marx established himself as a materialist thinker. In contrast to the Hegelian
philosophy or Hegel, as the idealist thinker or idealist philosopher, Marx saw himself as the
matter. The matter is the true guide of any science or theory of society and politics, not the
ideal or idealism or the world of abstract thoughts and ideas.
For Marx, the center of such dialectics that moves history from one stage to the next is not
the idea as Hegel argued. But the matter and that is his biggest criticism to Hegel, whom he
regarded as the idealist, who led to logical mysticism in the realm of ideas, consciousness, or
mysterious doctrines. Whereas, Marx believed in the primacy or absoluteness of the matter.
He considered that as at the center of the dialectics that in most history the focus was on the
matter. Its primacy could be best exemplified in his Critique of Political Economy, where he
wrote that it was not the consciousness of men that determines their existence. But on the
contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.
In Hegelian thought, the will or abstract will must be free or a source of right. But that will
must manifest itself in the real concrete historical will. Nonetheless, the abstractness of the
will is supreme, an abstract which is in the realm of ideas. It is in the realm of thought that
gradually and progressively manifests itself in different realms of life in the families, civil
society, and the state.
Whereas for Marx, it is not the consciousness that determines the social existence of the men,
but it is the social existence that determines their consciousness. So, it is like the other way
around of Hegelian dialectics or imagination of self or self-consciousness vis a vis the social
existence or historical existence of men.
According to Marx, the most basic fact to understand about any society is the nature of its
economic organization. So, if you understand a society and its economic organization, the
way it operates and determines the social relations in society. Then you can understand the
larger dynamics shaping the social, political, economic organization in the society. And the
exploitations that are taking place. How then to overcome those exploitations and create the
condition for greater freedom and emancipation?
So, for Marx, the most basic fact about any society is the nature of its economic organization.
And this economic organization is also referred to as the modes of production. This is fundamental to understand the working or functioning of any society. Now, these are some of
the technical terms which one should be aware of getting engaged with Marx's writings and
thought.
The modes of production are the combination of two things, means of production and the
relations of productions, and means of production is raw materials, land machines, capital,
and other tools, and labor, that helps in the production. The modes of production are means of
production and the relations of production that determines who owns what, and who does
which job. In that sense, it determines the relationship between men and men.
So, who in the society are privileged or the ruling class and who in the society do all kinds of
job and yet live, exploited life, the life of servitude, without owning any property, and yet are
doing work all the time? The relations of productions are based on whether a person owns
that property or not, or the ownership of means of production that determines the class
positions of the individuals in society.
The modes of pro