Karl Marx was first a philosopher and then an economist.
While accepting Georg Hegel’s view that history proceeded dialectically in a three-fold manner—thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—he stood Hegel on his head by asserting the primacy of material factors.
Thus, ancient slavery provokes its antithesis and produces feudalism as a synthesis; feudalism provokes its antithesis, producing bourgeois capitalism as a synthesis; capitalism provokes its own antithesis, the proletarian revolution, which results in a new synthesis of the classless, communist state. This was Marx’s grand outline of history.
The engine that drove these transformations was economics. Economics is foundational, while ideas, culture, and religion are mere “superstructure.” In this regard, Marx rejected Hegel, who was a philosophical idealist; Marx was a materialist, as are many today who pride themselves on being “realists.”
Materialism and Morality
However, philosophical materialism has many problems that it can’t solve. First of all, matter can’t be self-creating because, in order to create itself it would have to precede itself, which is impossible. Second, materialism is rigidly deterministic, implicitly denying human free will. If human beings are totally material entities—systems of electrons, atoms, and molecules whirling around in a predetermined fashion—there can be no objective morality.
Morality implies agency, accountability, the power to choose and to change one’s decisions. How can there be morality if we are material, predetermined beings? This, of course, results in moral relativism: Whatever morality we espouse is entirely a reflection of our material circumstances, such as our social class.
But then, how do we account for the fact that we feel that we are free human beings, with agency, and with the power to choose between right and wrong, and to be held accountable for our choices? Here it’s worth reflecting on how the materialist-relativist reacts when someone steals his wallet. He feels indignant, and if the culprit can be identified, he very much wants him brought to justice. This of course assumes that the thief is a free agent who should be held responsible for his action. No moral relativism here!
The next problem is the phenomenon of thought. The mind isn’t the same as the brain. It’s the mind, using the brain, that ponders problems and chooses between different possible courses of actions—in other words, exercises agency. A purely physical entity can’t exercise agency.
Then there’s the problem of consciousness. We are alive; we are conscious beings—indeed, we are self-conscious beings. We can reflect upon and think about ourselves. A purely material entity cannot reflect upon, or think about, anything.
Other problems: What is a thought? Is it a material entity? What about an emotion? Is that something that can be identified as a material object? What is the materialist explanation for music and the powerful emotions it evokes?
As far as I can tell, materialism doesn’t provide satisfactory answers to these questions, and because it fundamentally denies the existence of objective morality, it has disastrous results when it’s taken seriously, as it is in Marxism.
Marx dismissed conventional morality as mere bourgeois self-interest. I suggest that this dismissal of morality accounts for the terrible corruption and disrespect for human life that has plagued every communist regime that we have so far witnessed—Russia, its Eastern European satellite countries, Cuba, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Venezuela.
And yet, in its beginnings, Marxism was very idealistic. In the “Communist Manifesto” and other writings, Marx and Engels called upon the downtrodden workers of Europe to rise up, throw off their chains, and establish a workers’ state, where freedom and equality would prevail, wealth would be shared, and people would give according to their ability and receive according to their need.
This clarion call to action attracted many by its vision of a paradise on earth, but, of course, it implicitly rejected materialistic determinism. For how can workers decide to “rise up” if all their actions are predetermined by forces outside themselves? This is only one of several contradictions at the heart of Marxism. The moral outrage against capitalists is another.
Marx was a self-proclaimed revolutionary who unabashedly embraced violence as the indispensable tool for social change. After all, the ruling class never gives up power willingly; it has to be forced with violence to surrender its dominant position.
As a historian, I have been studying revolutions for 50 years and more. The one I know most about is the English Revolution (1640–1660), but I’m also quite familiar with the French (1789–1815), the Russian (1917–1921), and the Chinese (c. 1930–1949).
For each revolution, the pattern has been similar. A small, determined, passionately idealistic group organizes to overthrow the oppressive and/or corrupt ruling class of its time, to wipe the slate clean and start afresh with a noncorrupt regime that will establish perfect justice for all. They attract much support in the beginning, but they also provoke strong resistance. A prolonged, violent struggle is necessary to overcome this “reactionary” resistance.
In the English revolution, the human cost was measured in the hundreds of thousands of lives; in the French, if we include the tyranny of Napoleon, which was the direct result of the revolution, the cost was measured in the millions; in the Russian and Chinese, if we count the totalitarian aftermaths, it was measured in the tens of millions.
Before long, the majority of the people are appalled at what they have unleashed, turn against the revolution, and work to bring back the old regime in one form or another. In England, we witness the restoration of monarchy in 1660; in France, they bring back the king in 1815; in Russia, the regime by 1989 is so morally discredited, and so devoid of economic accomplishment, that it collapses of its own accord with not a shot being fired. The Chinese regime is still in power, having abandoned many of the key tenets of Marxism, but it’s still hugely oppressive, with hundreds of thousands (if not more) still in jail, and by all accounts a very discontented population. It’s not certain how much longer it will last.
It’s my observation that genuine improvement in the human condition has occurred in those societies that have adopted a gradualist approach, preserving what is best from the past, and building on these achievements. This is what Britain did after 1660, France did after overthrowing Napoleon, and Russia is haltingly trying to do now.
The merits of the gradualist approach are also exemplified in countries that have rejected Marxism: Scandinavia, Finland, and most of Europe, Jordan, Morocco, Canada, Japan, India, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and (yes) the United States, as well as most of Africa and Latin America.
Finally, any defender of Marxism (which includes all too many university professors, I’m afraid) has to confront the reality that Marxism has caused more human suffering by far than any other system of political ideas. The following books, among many others, document the fact that between 1917 and now, Marxism has been directly responsible for well over 100 million deaths:
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago” (one of the great works of 20th-century historical literature); Stéphane Courtois et al. “The Black Book of Communism” (1997); Robert Conquest, “The Great Terror” (1968); and Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, “Mao: the Unknown Story” (2005).
To put it in a nutshell, Marxism is a dead end, and, unfortunately, not the first into which humankind has been seduced.
Ian James Gentles, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of York University in Toronto and currently distinguished professor of history and global studies at Tyndale University, Toronto.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.