فصل 27

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 27

فصل 27

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chapter 27

Workers of the World Unite

Karl Marx

In the nineteenth century there were thousands of cotton mills in the north of England. Dark smoke poured from their tall chimneys, polluting the streets and covering everything in soot. Inside men, women and children worked very long hours – often 14-hour days – to keep the spinning machines going. They weren’t quite slaves, but their wages were very low, and the conditions were tough and often dangerous. If they lost concentration they could get caught up in the machinery and lose limbs or even be killed. Medical treatment in these circumstances was basic. They had little choice, though: if they didn’t work they would starve. If they walked away, they might not find another job. People who worked in these conditions didn’t live long, and there were very few moments in their lives they could call their own.

Meanwhile the owners of the mills grew rich. Their main concern was making a profit. They owned capital (money they could put to use to make more money); they owned the buildings and the machinery; and they more or less owned the workers. The workers had next to nothing. All they could do was sell their ability to work and help the mill owners grow rich. By their labour they added value to the raw materials that the mill owners bought. When the cotton came into the factory it was worth much less than it was when it left. But that added value mostly went to the owners when they sold the product. As for the workers, the factory owners paid them as little as possible – often just what would keep them alive. The workers had no job security. If demand for whatever they were making declined, they were sacked and left to die if they couldn’t find more work. When the German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83) began writing in the 1830s these were the grim conditions that the Industrial Revolution had produced not just in England, but all over Europe. It made him angry.

Marx was an egalitarian: he thought human beings should be treated equally. But in the capitalist system those who had money – often from inherited wealth – got richer and richer. Meanwhile those who had nothing but their labour to sell lived wretched lives and were exploited. For Marx, the whole of human history could be explained as a class struggle: the struggle between the rich capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class or proletariat. This relationship stopped human beings achieving their potential and turned work into something painful rather than a fulfilling kind of activity.

Marx, a man of immense energy and with a reputation for causing trouble, spent most of his life in poverty, moving from Germany to Paris, then Brussels to avoid persecution. Eventually he made his home in London. There he lived with his seven children, his wife Jenny, and a housekeeper Helene Demuth with whom he had an illegitimate child. His friend Friedrich Engels helped him find work writing for newspapers and even adopted Marx’s illegitimate son to help him save face. But the Marx family rarely had enough money. They were often sick, hungry and cold. Tragically, three of his children died before reaching adulthood.

In later life, most days Marx would walk to the Reading Room at the British Museum in London and study and write, or else stay at home in his crowded Soho flat and dictate to his wife because his own handwriting was so bad that sometimes even he couldn’t read it. In these difficult conditions he produced a huge number of books and articles – they fill more than fifty thick volumes. His ideas have changed the lives of millions of people, some for the better, and many, undoubtedly, for the worse. At the time, though, he must have seemed an eccentric figure, perhaps a little crazy. Few people could have foreseen how influential he would be.

Marx identified with the workers. The whole structure of society ground them down. They couldn’t live fully as human beings. Factory owners very soon realized that they could make more goods if they broke the production process down into small tasks. Each worker could then specialize in a particular job on the production line. But this made the workers’ lives even more tedious as they were forced to perform boring, repetitive actions over and over again. They didn’t see the whole process of production and they barely earned enough to feed themselves. Instead of being creative, they were worn down and turned into cogs in a huge piece of machinery that was there just to make the factory owners richer. It was as if they weren’t really human beings at all – just stomachs that needed to be fed to keep the production line going and the capitalists extracting more profit: what Marx called the surplus value created by the workers’ labour.

The effect on the workers of all this was what Marx labelled alienation. He meant several things by this word. The workers were alienated or distanced from what they truly were as human beings. The things they made alienated them too. The harder the workers worked and the more they produced, the more profit they made for the capitalists. The objects themselves seemed to take revenge on the workers.

But there was some hope for these people even though their lives were miserable and completely mapped out by economic circumstances. Marx believed that capitalism would in the end destroy itself. The proletariat was destined to take over in a violent revolution. Eventually from all this bloodshed a better world would emerge, one in which people were no longer exploited, but could be creative and co-operate with each other. Each person would contribute whatever they could to society, and society in turn would provide for them: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ was Marx’s vision. By taking control of factories, the workers would make sure that there was enough for everyone to have what they needed. No one need go hungry or without suitable clothing or shelter. This future was communism, a world based on sharing the benefits of co-operation.

Marx believed that his study of the way society develops revealed that this future was inevitable. It was built into the structure of history. But it could be helped along a bit, and in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, which he wrote with Engels, he called upon workers of the world to unite and overthrow capitalism. Echoing the opening lines of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (see Chapter 18), they declared that the workers had nothing to lose but their chains.

Marx’s ideas about history were influenced by Hegel (the subject of Chapter 22). Hegel, as we have seen, declared that there is an underlying structure to everything, and that we are gradually progressing to a world that will somehow be conscious of itself. Marx took from Hegel the sense that progress is inevitable, and that history has a pattern and is not just one thing after another. But in Marx’s version, progress occurs because of the underlying economic forces.

In place of the class struggle Marx and Engels promised a world in which no one would own land, where there was no inheritance, where education was free, and where public factories provided for everyone. There would be no need for religion or morality either. Religion, he famously declared, was ‘the opium of the people’: it was like a drug keeping them in a sleepy state so they didn’t realize their true oppressed condition. In the new world after the revolution human beings would achieve their humanity. Their work would be meaningful and they would co-operate in ways that benefited everyone. Revolution was the way to achieve all this – and this meant violence, since the rich were unlikely to give up their wealth without a struggle.

Marx felt that philosophers of the past had only described the world, whereas he wanted to change it. This was a little unfair to earlier philosophers, many of whom had brought about moral and political reform. But his ideas had more effect than most. They were contagious, inspiring real revolutions in Russia in 1917 and elsewhere. Unfortunately the Soviet Union – the huge state that emerged, embracing Russia and some of its neighbours – together with most other communist states created in the twentieth century on Marxist lines, proved oppressive, inefficient and corrupt. Organizing the processes of production on a national scale was far harder than might be imagined. Marxists claim that this doesn’t damage Marxist ideas themselves – some still believe that Marx was basically right about society, it’s just that those who ran the communist states didn’t run them on truly communist lines. Others point out that human nature makes us more competitive and greedy for ourselves than he allowed: there is no possibility in their view of human beings co-operating fully in a communist state – we’re just not like that.

When he died of tuberculosis in 1883, few people could have foreseen Marx’s impact on later history. It looked as if his ideas would be buried with him in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Engels’ declaration at the graveside that ‘His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!’ seemed like wishful thinking.

Marx’s main interest was in economic relationships since in his view they shape everything that we are and can become. William James, a pragmatist philosopher, meant something quite different when he wrote about the ‘cash value’ of an idea – for him, that was simply what action the idea led to, what difference it made in the world.

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