This article was last modified on December 30, 2010.


Did Marx Change the World?

Alright, you read the title of this essay and you may not even click on it: you’re thinking, this is an obvious yes. Whether we like the change or not, it’s really hard to say that Karl Marx didn’t change the world. But despite writing that the point is to change the world, apparently not everyone believes Marx accomplished this. One of these people is well-known anarchist Rudolf Rocker.

The “Theses on Feuerbach” are eleven short philosophical notes written by Karl Marx in 1845 (and published in 1888 after his death). They outline a critique of the ideas of Marx’s fellow Young Hegelian philosopher and materialist Ludwig Feuerbach. But the text is often seen as more ambitious than this, criticizing both the contemplative materialism of the Young Hegelians and all forms of philosophical idealism.

The “Theses” identify political action as the only truth of philosophy, famously concluding with Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.”) Che Guevara, over a century later, spoke out in favor of this idea: “The merit of Marx is that he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understands its dynamic, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it, he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed.”

Rudolf Rocker does not believe that Marx followed his maxim, failing his own command. “He analyzed capitalistic society in his way, and showed a great deal of intellect and enormous learning in doing so, but Proudhon’s creative power was denied him. He was, and remained, the analyst — a brilliant and learned analyst, but nothing else”. [Rocker: 235] Is this right?

I doubt anyone could argue with Rocker about calling Marx an analyst. His work, particularly the multiple volumes of Capital, explore economics in more depth and criticism than anyone up to that point, and probably since. Adam Smith did a fine job, but he become eclipsed. But is this all Marx was good for?

I think this comes down to how we define “change”. How narrowly or how widely do we want to qualify something as a change? It is true that Marx did not take part in any civil wars or revolutions, nor did he do any funding or set up any organizations. So in a hands-on sense, he did not change anything. But we have to give him more credit than simply analyzing, I think.

Many philosophy professors are simply analysts, researching other philosophers, teaching their ideas, looking at old ideas from new angles. But their books are not widely read and after their passing they are forgotten. This does not sound very much to me like Karl Marx. I think a big idea, if a good idea, has an incredible influential impact and that impact constitutes a change. Plato has impacted all of Western history, John Locke was indirectly responsible for the American Revolution and the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers. Are these not big changes?

The problem, then, comes in here: how much credit for a change must we give the originator of an idea? That people are critical of capitalism may be credited to Marx, but Marxists quickly deny that Soviet Russia came from Marx. Can we ascribe good outcomes to him and ignore the bad? If we can give him credit for modern-day economics and Scandinavian socialism, we have to put at least a tiny bit of the blame on him for Stalinism. So, which is it? Give him credit for all this, or none of it? Anti-Marxists want the former, Rocker wants the latter. Marxists may want somewhere in between, but can we do that objectively?

I am going to leave the question open… while saying Marx changed the world seems obvious, accepting it may lead to consequences some would rather ignore.

Sources

Rocker, Rudolf. Nationalism and Culture Michael E. Coughlin, 1985.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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