Why should socialists read Marx? 

Marx remains a vital conversational partner, writes Tom Whyman

April 6, 2022 · 7 min read
Cover detail, new edition of Marx & Engels, The German Ideology by Tom Whyman (Repeater Books)

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Why should socialists read Marx? Perhaps this sounds like a strange question, given Marx’s foundational role for socialist thought. But socialism, as Marx himself knew, was about the future – the demand for a better, fairer, freer society is identical to the demand for a society which is ruled by those now living, keeping in mind the interests of those yet to be born: not, as in the capitalist world, one determined by the dead weight of the past.

Marx today

Marx was writing a long time ago. The world he described was somewhat like our own, but it hardly followed the same iron laws. Indeed, his most important predictions – that periodic crises would destabilise capitalism (as opposed to cementing its rule), and that as capitalism developed, class distinctions would rapidly simplify – have in fact been falsified by history (although ‘never say never’, I suppose).

Moreover, Marx is far from a straightforward writer: a thinker whose best work was undertaken as part of a sprawling opus he never finished (Capital and its predecessor, the Grundrisse), or else lies in mostly-abandoned fragments from the 1840s (the Paris Manuscripts, The German Ideology). Understanding Marx’s logic requires, in part, a grounding in the German Idealist philosophy that he was tutored in, which he transcended but nonetheless in part preserved – not just the work of the great titan of German Idealism, Hegel, but also that of Marx’s mentor Ludwig Feuerbach, from whom many of Marx’s central philosophical notions ultimately derive.

So it might seem fair enough if someone were to say that, actually, they couldn’t really be bothered – and chose to focus their intellectual energies on more contemporary authors instead.

Well – I’ve just edited a new abridgement of The German Ideology, the devastating overcoming of Idealist thought that Marx co-wrote with Engels in 1846 – so I have a very obvious vested interest in persuading you to read Marx. Marx himself quite rightly insisted that much of what passes for philosophy is anyway just motivated reasoning – metaphysics and so forth grounded in our much more basic addiction to shelter and food. I’m addicted to food and shelter, therefore I want you to read Marx – so feel free to take any of this with a pinch of salt.

Philosophical therapy

Firstly, Marx is a great writer in the way that few philosophers are. Reliant for much of his life on income from journalistic work, at its best Marx’s writing has the truest sort of literary flair: reading him, we envisage capitalism as a vampire, sucking the life out of everything that serves it; the bourgeoisie as a sorcerer’s apprentice, desperately losing control of the powers they have themselves unleashed; we see Communism as a ghost, haunting the bad present with the promise of a better world to come. The German Ideology itself is a withering polemic, dripping with sarcastic invective against the “critical critics” who believe it is possible to stage a revolution in “the realm of pure thought.”

Marx is also the sort of writer who makes us wiser by reading him. The German Ideology outlines the basics of his and Engels’ ‘materialist’ approach to history. In this story, we come to see both human individuals and human society as things that have emerged over time, for particular concrete reasons, most obviously related to the ongoing and vertiginous accumulation of new needs: as society gradually gets more and more complex, as people work on, with and against nature to obtain the things they need in order to survive.

Seeing this can help us do a whole bunch of things. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels are partly interested in demystifying the pretensions of the Idealist philosophers who came before them. Historical materialism can thus function as a sort of ‘philosophical therapy’, allowing us to dissolve certain philosophical problems by relating them to more concrete political and economic ones. In The German Ideology, the Hegelian ‘world-spirit’ is placed firmly on its stomach.

Historical animals

But Marx and Engels are also offering us a substantial story about what we are – about what sort of creature the human being is. The human being, for Marx and Engels, is an essentially historical animal – one with a particularly queasy, conflicted relationship to its own environment, which drives it to do all sorts of bad and destructive things. But seeing this allows us to realise not only how we should live – what a ‘really human’ life might consist in – but also how we might get there. 

In particular, Marx and Engels offer – in the long, neglected chapter on the nihilist philosopher Max Stirner, which I’m proud of being able to include in my abridgement in something like a polished, accessible version for the first time – a powerful theory of political action, in which a better world is possible not for the moralistic reason that it ought to be brought about, but for the much clearer and simpler reason that it can. At some point, Marx reasons, the various individuals who comprise the proletariat will realise that the expression of their selfish interests is identical with their collective ability to overthrow the society which has oppressed them ever since it brought them, as a class, into being.

From that movement will result a world that Marx and Engels describe in The German Ideology as being both equal and free, with everyone finally liberated from their basic needs to the extent that they are finally able to pursue the dream of determining their own conception of the good life for themselves: the dream, that is, which liberalism affords us access to in theory, but refuses most of us in practice. The riddle of history now solved, our relationship both with the non-human environment, and with others, will no longer be the stuff of permanent crisis, but instead subject to “conscious mastery” – our world finally rational and secure.

None of this, of course, must be thought of as set in stone. There might be all sorts of modifications to Marx’s story we might now want to make; all sorts of points in his dialectic at which we might want to get off. If we read Marx at all, it must be as a conversational partner – not as someone imparting to us any implacable dogma. But then this is why you should read Marx: Marx is the sort of conversational partner it is incredibly good and useful to have.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the north east of England. The German Ideology: A New Abridgment is available for pre-order now from Repeater Books.

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