The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

8
KARL MARX

Tony Smith

No one would dispute that it is impossible to understand the intellectual and political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without taking Karl Marx (1818–83) into account. Most believe, however, that Marx’s legacy was buried once and for all in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. This consensus is mistaken. It would be foolish to assert that Marx anticipated the correct answer to every significant question facing us today. But it would be no less foolish to deny that Marx’s work presents a powerful challenge to contemporary political philosophy.

In the first section I shall sketch Marx’s early theories of religious and political alienation. The heart of the chapter will then be devoted to Marx’s critique of political economy, concentrating on the role of money in capitalist society, the capital/ wage labor relation, the limits of democracy in a capitalist order, and the systematic tendencies to uneven development and crises in the world market. The chapter ends with brief comments on the shape of a feasible and normatively attractive alternative to capitalism and Marx’s relationship to Hegel.


Marx’s early writings

The critique of religion

After the defeat of Napoleon elites in Continental Europe dismissed the French Revolution as a mere interruption in the “natural” state of things. Calls for greater political liberty and constitutional reforms were met with minimal concessions. Kant and Hegel disagreed. While neither endorsed Robespierre’s Terror, or Napoleon’s empire-building, both insisted that the French Revolution introduced a promise of political emancipation, and that this promise had been merely deferred, not irrevocably defeated. For Kant, political structures and policies that could not be rationally defended were ultimately doomed, given the ineluctable rise of an enlightened public. He also argued that success in geopolitical competition requires economic strength, which favors republics that eliminate the market-distorting privileges of aristocrats and petty despots. Hegel too felt that societies clinging to traditional economic and political arrangements were fated to historical insignificance, given the dynamism of modern market societies and the efficiency of rational state bureaucracies (Losurdo 2004).

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