A brief history of philosophy, part 12: socialism, utopianism and anarchism

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Posted Aug 2 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
marx Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is possibly the most studied philosopher in history. He said that the point of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change it – and change it he did, with an idea, although he never saw the effects of his idea after its interpretation and implementation by others after his death.

Before Marx, economics was dominated by the thoughts of David Ricardo (1772-1823). Ricardo’s most famous principles were the Iron Law of Wages and the Labour Theory of Value. Simply explained, the Iron Law dictated that wages had to be kept at the absolute minimum – just enough to allow workers to survive. If they were any higher, workers would breed prolifically, there would be too many mouths to feed and not enough jobs for them when they grew up, and many would starve. So it’s best to keep wages at survival level, for stability. The Labour Theory of Value states that the price of goods reflects the labour that has gone into them. When it was shown that his theory left no place for profit in the economy, he simply stated that profit consists of the money that wasn’t paid to workers for the previous work they did in building up fixed capital – factories, machines, ships etc.


David Ricardo

So Ricardo – no friend of the workers – accepted that all value in an economy was created by workers, and that profit was, in effect, stolen from working people. Of course he was only speaking to fellow members of the wealthy, educated classes. There was no fear that illiterate, uneducated workers would ever have access to, or indeed would ever understand the Iron Law of Wages or the Labour Theory of Value.

Then along came Karl Marx and explained it to them. He said that the dominant philosophy in society was affected – controlled even – by the wealthiest and most powerful, who always trick people into believing that the poverty of the workers and the wealth of the powerful are inevitable. Ancient Greece and Rome and early America were run by slave owners, and so the dominant philosophical schools didn’t leave room for criticism of slavery. In Medieval Christian cultures, and in some Islamic states today, speaking out against the power of religious leaders, or their way of thinking, could get you into serious trouble. Feudalism and the Hindu caste system enforced a belief that God ordained the lowly position of serfs and dalits and the exalted position of lords and Brahmins; and 19th century economists explained that profit, progress and empire required workers to live in brutal poverty.


Robert Owen

Marx was having none of this. He explained that ordinary people are separated from the means of production (land, factories, machines, tools), and are therefore forced to sell their labour, from which capitalists extract their profits. From this, capitalists are able to accumulate wealth, and make more money just by having money. The rest of us then have to make money from our work. But our work is the source of all wealth, so why should some people make money from money? It’s a good point – but what to do about it? Marx’s answer was to wait – history was on the workers’ side.


Charles Fourier

Marx was influenced by Hegel – his vision of history as a flow, with direction, and his ‘dialectical method’. For Marx, the synthesis that was generated from the conflict between industrial capitalists on the one hand and the proletariat on the other was socialism. He disagreed with Hegel’s position that ‘spirit’ was moving society forward – for Marx it was very much material and financial power, and world socialism would arrive not through any moral force, but because it was an historical inevitability, and socialism would take over from capitalism in the same way that the power of the Church and aristocracy was eclipsed by capitalists.


Henri de Saint-Simon

The thrust of Hegel’s ‘dialectical idealism’ was that developments in human thinking change social and economic conditions, but with Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, developments in social and economic conditions change human thinking. It was almost the reverse of Hegel, for whom the ultimate goal was the liberation of ‘Mind’; for Marx it was the liberation of real humans in the material world. But they shared an ‘historicism’ that has been criticised many times since, notably by Karl Popper.


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Marx’s ideas were implementable through the mobilisation of ordinary people – the working class. He labelled previous thinkers’ ideas for designing a better society ‘utopian’, because they failed to locate the engine for change in the working class. Robert Owen (1771-1858) wrote New Moral World, but then instead of appealing to ordinary people, he wrote a letter to King William IV to bring it about; Charles Fourier (1772-1837) announced that he would be at home at a certain time each day to receive any philanthropist who would give him a million francs to set up his utopian colony; the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) believed that the impetus for change would come from the upper classes. Marx ridiculed their little experiments as doomed to fail, which of course they did, because their ideas – regardless of how good they were – could only be implemented if they gained the support of the very people who stood to lose most from their implementation.


Mikhail Bakunin

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) agreed with Marx’s critique of capitalism, but disagreed about violent revolution and the seizing of state power. His anarchistic ideas involved workers’ co-operatives and the abolition of interest. The advantage that Marx’s ideas had over Proudhon’s was a very important one – implementability – and implemented they were. Another anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) predicted that if centralised power was seized, it would never be given up. History seems to have borne him out.

Next: continental vs analytic philosophy.