Karl Marx

The life and Works of Karl Marx -A History of Western Philosophy

Nano Library Political Philosophy

The life and Works of Karl Marx  -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Karl Marx was born in Treves in the Rhineland [Germany]. His family was Jewish but had converted to Lutheranism when he was a child. He later studied law in Bonn and philosophy and history in Berlin. During his undergraduate studies, he identified himself with the left wing of the Hegelians. He was known as a militant atheist forming the credo: “Criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism.” He received his doctorate in Jena in 1841 for his thesis on the materialistic philosophies of the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus. This added support for Darwin’s evolutionary origins of human life as a product of a material world. In Paris, he became friends with Friedrich Engels (1820—1895), social scientist, political theorist, co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Marx, co-father of Marxist Theory. Marx was a German revolutionary socialist and was one of the most influential of all modern atheists adopting the atheism of fellow student, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804—1872).

Though Marx is mostly known for his economic theory studies, philosophy did play a part in his economic synthesis. By virtue of his influence, Marx could be included with other great social thinkers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Hegel.





Marx eventually lived later part of his life in London being supported financially by Engles and is buried there. Marx lived a life of poverty not holding down permanent employment. He had a chronic illness and was saddened by the death of his three children. He spent a great deal of time in the British Museum gathering material for his great work on his analysis of capitalism. He was only able to publish one volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Engles constructed two other volumes from posthumous papers.

Marx’s numerous works include: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which is about French socialism, English economics, and German philosophy. The Communist Manifesto (1848) was co-authored with Friedrich Engels along with Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (ed. 1959) and the Holy Family (1956). He also penned Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (trans. 1956).





Marx was the source of historical materialism but it was Engles who developed the dialectical materialism as a metaphysics or the theory of reality. Marx, like many Germans in his day, remained under the influence of Hegel. However, as time went on, Marx adhered to more to historical and economic knowledge rather than any metaphysical or moral critique associated with capitalism. He sought after the factual and scientific aspects.

The Philosophy of Marx

His View on God

Marx strongly rejected religion concluding that it was harmful, calling it “the opium of the people.” He thought that because men believed in the supernatural afterlife that this provided an excuse for the exploitations found in this life because they did not concern themselves with the cares of this world based upon the better world to come. Marx thought they should be concerned with the affairs of this life. He also thought that economic and material forces dominated this present world.





Marx drew three principles from his atheist friend Ludwig Feuerbach. First, “man is the highest essence for man” (Marx and Engels on Religion, 50). This means there is a categorical imperative to overthrow anything—especially religion—which debases humanity. Secondly, “Man makes religion; religion does not make man” (Marx and Engels on Religion, 41). Religion is the self-consciousness of the human being who feels lost without some identification with a “God.” Third, religion is “the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces” (Marx and Engels on Religion, 147). In short, God is a projection of human imagination.

The Marxist evolutionary concept of the universe is that there is no room for a Creator or a Ruler. Deism’s Supreme Being is according to Marx a contradiction in terms. The only function that God serves is to make atheism a compulsory article of faith and prohibit religion generally (Marx and Engels on Religion, 143). Marx even went so far as to reject agnosticism: “What, indeed, is agnosticism but, to use an expressive Lancashire term, ‘shamefaced’ materialism? The agnostic conception of nature is materialistic throughout” (Marx and Engels on Religion, 295). In the end, religion will die and eventually be replaced by socialism.




His View on Man

Though he supported the materialism of Darwinian thought, Marx did not deny the concept of the mind altogether. However, he believed that even the mind was determined by material conditions. He states that “For us, mind is a mode of energy, a function of brain; all we know is that the material world is governed by immutable laws, and so forth” (Marx, Marx and Engels on Religion, 298). This view fits well with those philosophers who are aligned with call epiphenomenalism; consciousness is nonmaterial but is dependent on material things for its existence.

His View of Society

Marx was more interested in the social being of man. When it came to the obvious physical needs of man, he believed that what was true for man in the present social arena was also true for all men at all times in all places. He held to the concept of the working man but he did not believe in the concept of private property. When men own their own property, they have a tendency to become alienated from the rest of society. To cure man’s leaning and personal desire finding fulfillment in personal ownership, Marx proposed a future communist society where man would work for the good of the whole and thus find his personal fulfillment in this venue. In such a society it would be each according to his need, not each according to his ability.




His View of Ethics

It follows that the Marxist ethic is relativism, utilitarianism, and collectivism. His relativism points to no moral absolutes (following Nietzsche) because there is no external (or inner) set of rules dictated by an ‘eternal realm.’ The notions of good and evil are then determined by the socioeconomic structure—the struggles of the ‘class’ determine ethics. The utilitarian concept in the communist society promotes the ultimate good for the society. Therefore, the utilitarian end justifies the means to getting there. And finally, the collectivism of Marxist thought believed that the perfect life is only possible when the individual is integrated into the whole of society under corporate and universal law.

His View of History

According to Marx history primarily moved by economic laws that are inexorable as physical laws. At the heart of this movement is the Marxist dialectic which operates when the thesis of capitalism is opposed by the ant-thesis of socialism and eventuates in the synthesis of communism. Thus, his ultimate goal of a Communist Utopia was the end toward which he made his ultimate commitment.




Brief Evaluation of Marx

Critics of Marx, while admiring his social goals, have been strong in insisting his means of attaining it were seriously lacking. Several significant points have been made. First, his atheism are subject to the same criticism as those of his mentor, Ludwig Feuerbach (see). Second, Marx social consciousness was derived, not from his atheism of  materialism but from is Judeo-Christian training and culture. Third, his linear view of history—that it was moving toward and ultimate Goal—was also borrowed from Christianity. Fourth, Marx’s ultimate commitment to this communist utopia is a religious one (as Tillich noted). Indeed, it is an illusory paradise, not supported by the reality of those who have attempted it (e.g., Russia and China). Fifth, his attempt to overcome the gap of the richgetting richer and the poor-becoming-poorer is not the only solution to the problem. In the ancient Jewish economy, this division was checked by the year of Jubilee (one year every half century) when acquisitions were returned to their original owners. Sixth, his deterministic view and anticipations for the future had not worked out as he had planned. His assumption that economic influences would work like physical laws was incorrect. Seventh, his materialistic/evolutionary ideals ignores the spiritual and religious aspects of humans made in the divine image. It also ignores the immaterial aspects of human being and, coupled to his anti-supernaturalism, rules out the possible of an active God. Eighth, his moral relativism is self-destructive.




Some Sources on Karl Marx

There are some select sources that are helpful in understanding and evaluating Marxism. These include: K. Blockmuehl, The Challenge of Marxism; N. L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure? (chap. 5); R. N. C. Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism; D. Lyon, Karl Marx: A Christian Assessment of His Life & Thought; K. Marx, Das Kapital; Marx and Engel on Religion and Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Ronald Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church. Fred Swartz and David Noebel, You Can Still Trust the Communist to be Communists.

The term “positivism” was first introduced by Saint Simon to designate a particular scientific method and its projection into philosophical inquiry. Its roots can be traced back to Francis Bacon, English Empiricists, and the philosophers associated with the Enlightenment. Auguste Comte (see below) adopted the term which eventually became a major philosophical movement. This movement became very powerful in the Western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s. Positivism strived for a universal principles based on scientific knowledge that would penetrate politics, ethics and even ‘positive’ religion.

Generally speaking, positivism’s major thrusts are as follows: valid knowledge is only obtained through science; facts is the only basis of knowledge; philosophical methodology is not any different than scientific inquiry; philosophy’s task is to find general principles associated with all sciences guiding human conduct and forming the basis for all social systems. However, positivism does deny the existence of powers that are beyond facts and laws established by scientific conclusions. It follows then that it is also opposed to metaphysics.





At the beginning of the nineteenth century, French philosophers realized that they could not follow the reckless and brazen men of the Enlightenment who thought that after the bondage to the state and church had been released that mankind would once again be wise, good, just and able to govern themselves rationally. It became clear that those well-meaning philosophers who brought on the Revolution made some serious errors; now future philosophers had to undo these wrongs. Some, such as Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821), thought that Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the leaders associated with the Enlightenment were wrong. The natural sciences were of great value for particular purposes but these sciences could not reveal ultimate truth, and further, they did not have any bearing on religion or sociology. The authority on these two areas lies with the Pope and the directives mandated by the Catholic Church.

Recall that it was Condillac (mentioned above in “The French Enlightenment”) who was a dominant figure during the Revolution. During this time, it was the psychological school that stressed all mental processes resulted from a combination of sensations. One of its members, a physician who attempted to combine physiology and psychology via a philosophical investigation, was Pierre George Cabanis (1757-1808) who claimed that sensibility cannot be explained and that it must lie beyond the powers of investigation.





Just prior to Comte was Maine de Biran (1766-1824) who posited that the formation of knowledge was not external perception but rather was the immediate consciousness of one’s selfactivity where it was a combination of external stimuli and impulses. Later, he was in favor of a “life of the spirit” that supported religious mysticism. A new social reform was proposed by Comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825) who ventured to create a new Encyclopedia. He also stressed that a newChristianity needed to be formed that focused not on the future life but rather with the physical and moral improvement of those classes in society that were of humble means. Simon continued his efforts and influenced many of his students in the Polytechnical school, one who was Auguste Comte (see below). It can be noted that Comte’s idea came from Saint Simon, but in an undeveloped form.

Comte, unlike Nietzsche and Marx who accepted cultural verdicts, was not satisfied to passively watch the world lose its faith in God. He recognized that this resultant vacuum needed to be filled with some other ‘overbearing’ faith. The choice was either to return to a thoroughgoing theistic and supernatural foundation for intellectual and moral life or reformulate a society focused on a positivist faith in humanity. His proposal would end up being an anti-theistic program—a sort of atheistic relativism. He was to replace the Credo in unun Deum with a new slogan: All is relative— here is the only absolute principle. This is the basis of the faith of Positivism. It will be his threestage program that will illustrate Comte’s principle of all is relative.





Positivism is the movement in modern philosophy that stresses that all true knowledge is derived from science. Positivism banishes metaphysics and considers it useless when it seeks to determine causes and essences. It is scientific thinking and the betterment of humankind that is at the heart of positivist philosophy. Hence, it is sometimes called scientism. The positivists are heirs of the Empiricists like John Locke, Bishop Berkeley, and especially David Hume (see above) who stressed that all knowledge comes through the senses. After Kant’s agnosticism, the empiricists became positivist since no knowledge of the real world was thought to be possible. Auguste Comte began this positivist movement, followed by John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer whom Charles Darwin called “our great philosopher.”

Forms of Positivism

Although it is widely known as a scientific view, there are various kinds of positivism. Writers in other fields applied it to their discipline. Auguste Comte himself applied it to society and coined the term “sociology.”

Social Positivism

Saint-Simon and other socialistic writers introduced social positivism into France. SaintSimon’s influenced also stretched to those in Italy (Cattaneo and Ferrari) as well as in Germany (Laas, Jodl, and Duhring). Unitarians Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill, see below) introduced it in England. It sought to promote a more just social organization emphasizing scientific progress while deemphasizing theological and metaphysical doctrines eliminating the foundations built during the Middle Ages. The new spiritual powers were the scientists and the industrialists.




Evolutionary Positivism

Evolutionary positivism is based on nature as it relates to physics and biology. It predecessor was Charles Lyell and his doctrine of biological evolution as found in his work titled Principles of Geology (1833). Charles Darwin (see below) took this a step further in his On the Origin of Species providing adequate proofs for biological evolution. Both posited natural and necessary progress with origins starting at the cosmic nebula and developing uninterrupted to the human history of the world. Herbert Spencer defended the progress of “evolution” from the simple to the complex in the chemical and biological developments. He viewed religion as the interpreter of the mystery of the world (First Principles, London, 1862). However, all religions fail in providing the explanation reminding man of the mystery of the world’s origin.

Others associated with evolutionary positivism were Ernst Haeckel and his monism, Cesare Lombroso and his determinism, and Wilhelm Wundt and his psychophysical parallelism. There were others who were influenced in this vein as well, such as William James, John Dewey, and A. N. Whitehead, and others.

Critical Positivism

In the later part of the nineteenth century, critical positivism took on another name in Germany and Austria: empirio-criticism. This was done through the work of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. They promoted the idea of stable groups of sensations that were dependent on and connected to one another. They posited that science was an economic endeavor as compared to it only being contemplative or theoretical. Its “economy” sought for the principle of the least action required for a ‘thing’ in the progress of adaptation to its environment.




Logical Positivism

Logical positivism (see also Verification Principle and A. J. Ayer below) was [Edwards] a general approach to problems of language and meaning [Routledge] and was given its name in 1931 by A. E. Blumberg and Herbert Feigl. It is also known as “consistent empiricism,” “logical empiricism,” “scientific empiricism,” and “logical neo positivism.” Generally speaking, positivists rejected transcendental metaphysics because they thought its assertions were meaningless—there was no method of validation. This reiterates Hume’s conclusion that metaphysics was “sophistry and illusion.” Therefore, Mach attempted to remove all metaphysics from science. The positivist also argued that statements concerning the external world were meaningless when it discussed the Absolute or things-in-themselves because there was no possible method to verify that “it” existed (or did not exist) independent of man’s experience. These positivists even went so far as to state that the epistemological theses of realism and idealism were meaningless as well. Philosophy too was considered as “cognitively meaningless.”

Critique of Positivism

Positivism eventually led to Logical Positivism of A. J. Ayer (see below) and the Vienna Circle who eliminated all meaningful statements about metaphysical reality by way of the Principle of Empirical Verifiability which demanded that the only meaningful kinds of statement are those of the mere relation of ideas or else those of matters of fact which can be knowing only through one of more of one’s five senses.





The main thrust behind positivism is its reliance upon the verifiability principle. However, the condition of the principle was unclear because “the meaning of the principle is the method of its verification.” The table turned. The positivists set out to destroy metaphysics but now the metaphysician could now refuse their recommendations. This difficulty in the positivists circles led Carnap to posit that the verifiability principle was an “explication” of concepts associated with metaphysics, science, and meaning. The logical positivists feared that their verifiability principle
threatened to destroy metaphysics and now it was possibly going to destroy science as well by ruling out as meaningless all scientific laws.

Additionally, it was questioned as to what would be considered as “verifiers” or “confirmers.” There was also the question as to the verification of content versus structure—is the content of one man’s experience the same as another man experiencing the same experience. This verification was uncertain. However, science is only interested in what is experienced and what is agreed upon. It seems as though the ultimate content of science lies beyond public observation. But, there is dissatisfaction to the idea that ultimate scientific truth is private. As a result, logical positivism disintegrated and died even though it had left behind a legacy.

The life and Works of Marx  -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

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