The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 34 Bringing Religion to Ground: Karl Marx

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Bringing Religion to Ground: Karl Marx

It is 1851 and Karl Marx, the man who wrote The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, is proudly, one might say magnificently, riding a hired donkey for the entertainment of his friends and family. The last three years have been bitter, tragic, and dismally hard. The next fifteen years will be worse. He is going to know poverty and loss and sickness and betrayal on a scale remarkable even in the misery-radiating bog of nineteenth century London, and for just about all of that he’ll have nobody to blame but himself.

KarlMarxBut right now, his family is enjoying a picnic under the sun amidst the flowers of Hampstead Heath, and he is delighting them all with his boisterous claims of having mastered the art of donkey riding. The path to London has been long and littered with creditors, enemies, and bad decisions. Before he was Europe’s foremost conjurer of wrathful specters, the archfiend who whispered the end of comfort in the ear of a soundly slumbering bourgeoisie was a starry-eyed, love-struck amateur poet. He wrote verses effortfully approximating the German Romantic tradition, lines replete with hyper individualism, inner torment, and enough nymphs to populate a Bouguereau painting. As a young college student theoretically studying law, he divided his time between sending packets of poetry to his betrothed, the aristocratic and long-suffering Jenny von Westphalen, and drinking heavily with his chums.

In short, he was treading the path of many an idealistic German student before him and was well on his way to becoming one of those professional Prussians who dispose of their Saturday singing of Linden trees and crushed violets while crying manfully over a picture of The Great Elector. Fortunately, that’s when Hegel happened to him, though Marx undoubtedly, and plausibly, thought of it as when he happened to Hegel.

Hegel’s intellectual dominance of mid-nineteenth century German thought was complete. The question wasn’t, “Are you a Hegelian?” but rather, “What type of Hegelian are you?” His suggestive and impenetrable writings took all of history, its messiness, its violence and false starts, its sense of progress within chaos, and stamped upon it an inner logic, a direction and ultimate meaning. The Enlightenment’s view of history was essentially binary: once everybody educated themselves and threw off the institutions of monarchy and religion, rational self-interest would generate a unilateral (and uniform) brotherhood of men.

Hegel would have none of that. In his system, each culture has its own path to realizing self-mastery. There is no single, humanity-wide road to the ideal civilization. In fact, the whole notion of an ideal civilization is hopelessly naive in Hegel’s account. Each era carries with it the seeds of its own overthrow. It lives in a tenuous semi-state, trying to incorporate its new ideals while unconsciously employing the structures of the regime it toppled, breeding tensions and enemies that will lead to a new revolution in thought which will itself, in time, be revolted against. With each new regime, a culture, led by its philosophical elite, gains something in self-understanding. It begins to understand how its idols, such as its societal norms, its religion, its government, are creations, not givens, and may be dropped the moment they cease to serve their purpose. History is the bloody, hopelessly sloppy, way by which a culture knows and frees itself.

Marx hated Hegel on first contact. His idealism revolted at the idea of men being driven forward deterministically by the logic of history, being ground up and consumed en masse that a few philosophers might think a bit more clearly about what justice means. He resolved to spend three days doing nothing but reading Hegel, to face his great nemesis and defeat him, only to emerge at the end a thorough convert to Hegelianism. He became intoxicated on the rigorous push of Hegel’s conception of the world and renounced law for philosophy.

This left the decision—what sort of Hegelian would he become? The Young Hegelians took their cue from Hegel’s earlier works, and focused on developing dynamic critiques of society’s various institutions, particularly religion, from a historical perspective. The Old Hegelians took The Philosophy of Right as their central text, with its apparent call to support whatever the current state power happens to be as it is the most recent, and therefore most rational, phase in the evolution of the culture.

There was really no contest. All of the exciting work was being done by the Young Hegelians, a group of daring philosophers who trembled before no idol. The strictness of Prussia’s censorship ensured that they couldn’t publish about the state, and so they directed themselves towards dismantling the structure and development of religion. A thorough-going atheism was de rigeur for the group that gathered itself around the Bauer brothers. This group went beyond David Friedrich Strauss’s critical Life of Jesus to argue that, most likely, Jesus didn’t exist at all, and that religion generally was a cultural artifact that encoded the values and fears of a particular historical moment, and which humans had, over time, been compelled to bow to as unalterable truth.

Marx joined with Bauer, sent his doctoral thesis off to a university that had the reputation of being Germany’s PhD mill, and fell into editing a newspaper that represented the bleeding edge of Young Hegelian societal criticism. It was here, compiling the data for an article on, of all things, the right of peasants to make use of fallen trees, that he began developing a new, ground-up conception of Hegelianism that would change world philosophy forever. Combing through the statistics, he became aware of how the brute physical realities of ownership shaped the boundaries of a class’s political and moral experience. Labor and property form the contours of social experience, which in their turn shape the reigning philosophical paradigms. The philosophers don’t make the era, as Hegel had thought, rather the rules of production and consumption produced the philosophers.

This was the germ of historical materialism, the method that would turn Marx from one Young Hegelian among many into the world’s leading theoretician of cultural and economic change. Kicked out of Prussia in 1843, he landed in France, where the relative intellectual freedom granted by Louis Philippe had attracted socialists of a hundred different persuasions. Here Proudhonist tumbled against Saint-Simonist, each preaching a new conception about how the coming struggle between the industrial workers and the thriving bourgeoisie should and would ultimately play out. Marx devoured everything this new world had to offer and used it to refine his own system of how history progresses. He wrote thick pamphlets lambasting everybody who didn’t think exactly as he did, which earned him no friends, and took over the editorship of another paper which got him, inevitably, exiled from France.

And so, to Brussels, where he wrote The Communist Manifesto, a pamphlet summarizing with unusual brevity and force everything that Marx had learned about the progress of cultural stages and the cunning tools that the bourgeoisie wielded in staving off further progress. He showed how people had been tricked into embracing a dual alienation: into believing that religion and the state represented their best interests and into valuing themselves in terms of the money that their capitalist owners reluctantly allowed them. All social relations are monetized under capitalism, and work, rather than being its own end, is merely a means by which money, and therefore self-worth, may be accumulated. In this world, credit and debt define you, both in terms of how society interprets your fundamental merit and in how you value yourself. Meanwhile, Christianity keeps people content with this grinding lot, preaching submission and eventual paradise for the meek, while the state presents its oppressive institutions as inviolable and eternal.

Marx saw the twisting cycle of capitalist accumulation in its entirety, the need to accumulate capital driving savage overproduction and consistent underpayment for labor in a drive that could only end in total revolution. The era of communism was near, and just a few months after the publication of the Manifesto, Europe exploded in the national revolutions of 1848. This was supposed to be Marx’s culminating moment and then, just as suddenly as it began, it was all over. France gave itself slavishly over to the nostalgic comfort of a new empire under Napoleon’s nephew. Germany, after pretending to reform for a while, turned over on its back and submitted to decades of Bismarckian rule. Russia employed military might to stamp down any corners of Europe that contemplated rebellion. The socialists had risen, and nothing had happened.

Having tried and failed to enact lasting change in Prussia, Marx was exiled yet again, landing ultimately in London, where he would spend the remaining three decades of his life. Finances had always been tight in the Marx household, but in London he would know a constant penury and despair not helped at all by his total inability to handle money responsibly. His wife, Jenny, was supportive beyond all reason as Marx’s poor sense of income and expenditure forced her to take the family’s few possessions to the pawn shop to have enough money to buy food. The works that Marx published were sprawling polemics against other socialists that precisely nobody cared about, and the masterpiece he devoted all his waking hours to researching, Capital, took years to produce and fell on largely deaf ears.

Two of his children died. He impregnated the family maid. His efforts to steer the First International, an association of communist-leaning worker’s groups throughout Europe, after some initial successes, ultimately fell apart under the strain of internal doctrinal squabbling. Every year, his body broke out in a mass of boils that made sitting down to read absolute agony. The only way he kept out of debtor’s prison was by constantly borrowing from his friend and intellectual soulmate Friedrich Engels, who was also called upon to write, under Marx’s name, a series of articles for an American newspaper to bring in more income. When his children grew old enough to have children, those children also routinely died young.

They were not the best of times. And yet, from within all that misery, Marx chipped away at learning everything there was to know about the economic history of Europe, filling thousands of pages with notes and statistics to trace how the development of new economic relations brought with them new ideas about government, religion, and philosophy, all directed towards the end of keeping the new economic regime in power and all doomed to be overthrown by the next hungry and oppressed class yearning to be free. The result of all that study, Capital, is a master course of analysis that taught a continent how to draw connections between the brute stuff of communal exchange and the highest ideals of that community. Even if you don’t find all of its conclusions compelling, its method was decisive in opening a new way for humanity to think about itself. Our thoughts are the product of our class’s defensive mantras, mantras that are based on the substitution of high-sounding ideals for brute economic realities. Only once you start investigating the historical-economic roots of your assumptions can you slip the chains of prefabricated class-thought and begin to truly think for yourself, an insight that is central to nearly every sociological breakthrough of the late nineteenth and entire twentieth century.

What was once a revolutionary idea, the impact of socioeconomic factors on speech, thought, religion, and morality, is now commonplace, the ground assumption of all of our thinking about the development of a society. Nobody wants to be labeled a Marxist, but everybody is one. Someday we’ll be comfortable admitting that.

Further Reading

The two classic books about Marx are Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1936) and David McLellan’s Karl Marx: A Biography (1973). And that’s the order you should read them in. Berlin’s book is primarily an intellectual history of Hegelianism and Marxism and takes care to introduce you to all the philosophical variations afloat in the mid nineteenth century. Armed with that, you can tackle McLellan, who assumes that, of course, we all know instinctively the differences between a Proudhonist and a Lassallean. McLellan dives into all the messy life details that Berlin doesn’t touch, including an exhaustive account of all Marx’s dealings with the First International. Between the two of them, you have a pretty complete account of the man. If you want to read just one book, I read Francis Wheen’s 2001 Karl Marx: A Life (there seems to be something of a competition amongst Marx scholars to craft the least interesting possible biographical title—I look forward to the future release of Karl Marx: A Book) a while back and recall liking it as an objective account that combines the best of multiple approaches.