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Copleston on Marx
My friends Phil Magness and Michael Makovi have finally published their “The Mainstreaming of Marx” in the ultra-prestigious Journal of Political Economy. Their thesis: The main reason today’s academics even care about Marx is that his fanatical followers managed to seize control of a major country. How do we know? Outside of his devoted followers, few saw much intellectual merit to Marxism until 1917 - the very year the cult politically triumphed:
In this study, we ask what elevated Marx from his turn-of-the-century position of only modest scholarly influence to a major figure in the philosophical canon only a few decades later. The answer appears to be intimately connected to a single event: the Bolshevik revolution and successful seizure of control of the Russian state by a Marxist movement in 1917.
All this reminds me of Frederick Copleston’s magisterial A History of Philosophy, Volume VII: Modern Philosophy: From the Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.* After giving three chapters to Schelling, three chapters to Fichte, and three chapters to Hegel, Copleston gives Marx and Engels but one chapter. The opening paragraphs explain why - intellectually speaking - that’s all Marx and Engels deserve:
Confronted with the thought of Marx and Engels the historian of philosophy finds himself in a rather difficult situation. On the one hand the contemporary influence and importance of their philosophy is so obvious that the not uncommon practice of according it little more than a passing mention in connection with the development of left-wing Hegelianism scarcely seems to be justified. Indeed, it might seem more appropriate to treat it as one of the great modem visions of human life and history. On the other hand it would be a mistake to allow oneself to be so hypnotized by the indubitable importance of Communism in the modem world as to tear its basic ideology from its historical setting in nineteenth-century thought! Marxism is indeed a living philosophy in the sense that it inspired and gave impetus and coherence to a force which, for good or ill, exercises a vast influence in the modern world. It is accepted, doubtless with varying degrees of conviction, by a great many people today. At the same time it is arguable that its continued life as a more or less unified system is primarily due to its association with an extra-philosophical factor, a powerful social-political movement, the contemporary importance of which nobody would deny. It is true, of course, that the connection is not accidental. That is to say, Communism did not adopt a system of ideas which lay outside the process of its own birth and development. But the point is that it is the Communist Party which has saved Marxism from undergoing the fate of other nineteenth-century philosophies by turning it into a faith. And the historian of nineteenth-century philosophy is justified in dwelling primarily on the thought of Marx and Engels in its historical setting and in prescinding from its contemporary importance as the basic creed of a Party, however powerful this Party may be.
The present writer has therefore decided to confine his attention to some aspects of the thought of Marx and Engels themselves and to neglect, except for some brief references, the subsequent development of their philosophy as well as its impact on the modern world through the medium of the Communist Party. When it is a question of an inevitably somewhat overcrowded account of philosophy in Germany during the nineteenth century, this restriction does not really stand in need of any defence. But as the importance of Communism in our day may lead the reader to think that a more extended treatment would have been desirable and even that this volume should have culminated in the philosophy of Marx, it may be as well to point out that to depict Marxism as the apex and point of confluence of nineteenth-century German philosophical thought would be to give a false historical picture under the determining influence of the political situation in the world today.
To speak plainly, academics after 1917 tacitly applied a “might makes right” or at least a “might makes credible” heuristic. When Marx’s followers were an inbred cult, academics treated them like an inbred cult. Once they took over a major country, however, academia “reassessed.” Predictably, they found that the only philosopher whose adherents ruled a country was actually worth reading on his merits.
Sus, to say the least.
P.S. All this reminds me of my final pre-Covid debate with Brian Leiter on “Capitalism versus Socialism.” (Just uploaded to my Youtube channel).
In the debate, Leiter took great umbrage at my claim that Marx was an authoritarian. Honestly, it would be fair to go further and characterize Marx as a totalitarian, though not as forthright a totalitarian as Lenin. As I explained after the debate:
Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”? To the best of my knowledge, no. Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned. What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like, “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)? It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.” If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution? I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.
* Just noticed that Magness and Makovi’s paper already cites and briefly quotes Copleston. I’d forgotten, but Magness tells me that I put Copleston on their radar in this long-forgotten post.