My personal sketches on Karl Marx and his thought
People have been talking, discussing, disgusting, idolizing, criticizing and a lot of other “-ings” about Karl Marx since 19th century. Since a whole lifetime might be not enough to “scientifically” understand this terrific figure, and I have only a lifetime, I choose to approach him by my personal viewpoint-which is of course biased and might provide some incorrect interpretations of his ideas due to my intellectual limits. This is to say I am very grateful if receiving valuable comments concerning the article’s content.
My curiosity about Karl Marx roots in several reasons. First, I am from a communist state vowing to follow Marxist doctrine, which gives me a generous Marxist-influenced education from primary school to the highest degree possible. I myself had a vague image of Marx, Engels, and Lenin since I was four or five, seeing their pictures regularly in the Communist school’s meeting hall near my playground.
It was funny to look at them by the way, since they have nothing similar to any Vietnamese I had seen: high noses, bald, strange eyes, and of course very tense moustache. There is a conspiracy that their faces were made alien to us so they could look like some gods: in fact, you must be something different to be worshipped in Asia.
The second reason, but perhaps more important, is that although I received quite a lot of teachings on Marxism, most of these teachings were confusing, biased, and I doubt that the teachers understood the topic very well.
This really depressed me: I was told Marxism is the best and still didn’t know why it should be. The so-called ideological depression grew more and more as I came to know other prominent ideas, which are very convincing as well.
It is an urgent neccesity for me to clear up a little bit cloud on my mind.
Material conditions as the base for human development
Marxist philosophy, as anyone might know, is historical materialism with much of dialectic frame drawing largely from his Master Hegel. This is the prism through which he views the world and its history, and which I see quite logical.
As concern history, he thinks that the nature of individuals depends on the material condition, which then determines their productions and division of labour. The State is made by this material condition, not material condition is made by the State. Therefore, each stage of human development, there is a specific form of state to organize the society.
States are representatives of the ruling classes, who are economically predominant in the society, consequently states will preserve favourable social and economic conditions for them.
States are thus political, and used to oppress other classes. However, when the material conditions are ripe, for i.e. when the oppressed classes are dominant in economic sphere, then the states of the currently dominated class will be replaced by that of the class opposite to them. That the way history goes-struggle of classes for political power-until there is no class at all: specifically when the proletariats win over the capitalists and build a communist society.
The important concept in his view of class struggle is the means of production. Dominant class possesses the means of production, therefore possess all the wealth of the society, which then gives them the position to redistribute it unfairly according to their will. It is “unfair,” as in the case of the capitalists (bourgeois) as the dominant class, because the proletariats are not compensated enough for their work. He explained this by introducing the concept of “surplus value,” which claims that labour power of workers transferred into products create more value than the wages the capitalists pay to the workers. The capitalists do that by extracting the time or intensifying the production process.
This view has two implications: materials cannot transfer into something more valuable than themselves, only labour power can. In other words, theoretically only labour power can create profit for the capitalists. Then question would arise: Why should proletariats create profit for the capitalists?
It is because they possess no means of production, so they must work for the capitalists for their own existence. In this work process for existence, they’re alienated, or become something alien from the very human nature, because they are just like a robot while working: have no soul and feel nothing, deeply attached to the production system.
But what is exactly “human nature”? Marx defines it as man being his “own creator,” being independent self-conscious being, appearing as his “true” personality of passion, rather than being objectified through “mediation,” which are “alienated forces” such as states or religion.
So, in short, when you have to sell your labour power for money, you have to work to live, you’re alienated. Yet if you don’t, how do you survive?
Marx’s answer is the new society, which with abundance of materials and machines will free human from working for existence, allow them to have more free time to get back to his nature. There will be no division of labour as well, and so there’s no painters, economists, or whatever. There will be only people painting, or researching economics. In his own words, one might not be Raphael, but one with the ability to be Raphael will become Raphael in communist society. Human will only do jobs by his free will, not bonded by the need of existence. Everyone works like an artist: do what you like at your convenience.
What he did not explain is how a new system, without an effective division of labour as the human race has reinforced since the very primitive society, can generate abundant wealth for the whole human being. He must have assumed that at the very ripe stage of communism, everyone should be extremely self-conscious of themselves: they know what they can do best, and want to do that. They must feel labour is a prime want not a must in order to exist.
What a beautiful view of human nature, and certainly how contradictory it is in compared to other “liberal” thinkers, such as Adam Smith or Sigmund Freud, those who think human nature is inherently selfish or even bad, and can never be changed.
It is from this “human nature” view of Marx that differentiates him from other liberal thinkers: he has stronger belief in the ability to change human nature. It’s not from an utopian dream: he believes human can get to that point if abundant wealth can be generated, since his characteristics are set up upon the material condition. Classical economists always refuse this idea: there would never be a world where unlimited demand can be supplied by unlimited sources. That of course sounds impossible.
Nevertheless, what Marx means might not be unlimited demand: perhaps he meant that when human reach a more developed stage, greed would be replaced by reasonable demand: you just want to have what you need, and just need what you deserve. That sounds more feasible, but still hard to believe. Yet if you think about how great the human being has been throughout the long history, how they have evolved from living in caves to skyscrapers, it is not merely insane for Marx to believe in such change.
Part 2 Marx and the proletarian question