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Lecture Notes: The Development of Underdevelopment and W. Arthur Lewis

Lecture Notes: Marx’s Intellectual Journey

3.4) Marx’s Intellectual Journey: 3.4.1. Student and German Hegel-Style Philosopher: Marx started out as an intellectual, an academic, a student at the university in Berlin, trying to become a Hegel-style German philosopher. In 1841 wrote finished a dissertation, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, analyzing and reanalyzing small differences in how different groups of Greek philosophers in the -4th century understood the foundation of the natural world—an interesting topic, especially considering that next to none of the works of Epicurus survived the decisions of the monks of the middle ages to erase useless documents and reuse the parchment for something else because parchment was then expensive to buy. Demokritos had believed that at bottom nature was “atoms and the void”: individual particles bouncing and clinging to each other in space according to their laws of motion. Epikouros believed that there had to be more: the atoms had to be able to “swerve” to bring, chance, contingency, change, thought, and free will into the universe.

The young German-style philosopher Marx believed that philosophy was the master key to leaving his mark upon the world, because if he could write down the true ideas, they would then teach people how to think correctly about the world, and then people would act correctly and build utopia.

3.4.2. Youth and French-Style Political Activist After finishing his dissertation, Marx concluded that he had been wrong about philosophy being the master key. The world, Marx decided, was controlled not by German-style philosophical thought but by French-style political organization and action. Rather than write abstract treatises about Thought and Being, Marx decided, he needed to write works that would get a wide readership laying out to people the injustices and stupidities of the system, and then organize a mass movement to stage a revolution—like the great French Revolution of 1789-1793—to make a better world, one of equal rights, individual freedom, democracy, the abolition of the feudal system and of slavery.

And so in the early 1840s Marx became a journalist and a political activist. He wrote pro-democracy and pro-liberal articles for the Rhineland News. The Prussian government shut down the Rhineland News at the request of the Czar of Russia. He moved to Paris, and edited and published with his soon to be ex-friend Arnold Ruge a one-issue publication, the French-German Yearbook, the first article of which was Marx’s On the Jewish Question: his first substantial publication. And in Paris Marx met Friedrich Engels, a rich young German whose family owned cotton mills both in Wuppertal, Germany, and Manchester, England.

Marx was certain that he was going to shake the world.

Consider that in 1847 Marx was one of fifteen members of the Communist Correspondence Committee of Brussels, which then decided to merge with the League of the Just—a group with 1000 members, perhaps, half in Paris and half in London. Marx could not afford to travel to London for the joint meeting at which the merger was accomplished. Somehow Friedrich Engels and he managed to wind up with the job of writing down the principles of their movement. And here is how he and Engels then, writing at the end of 1847, introduced their movement of 1015 to the world: here is the opening of the Communist Manifesto:

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies. Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries? Two things result from this fact: I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power. II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself…

Grandiose, much? But as best as we can tell, Marx and Engels did not see themselves as running a grift—not even a grift in the sense of exaggerating their powers so as to gain more readers and attention. As best we can tell, they meant every word.

It was after meeting Friedrich Engels—and probably as a result of that friendship and partnership—that Marx turned his attention that in spite of the victories of the great revolution in France and the advances of liberal politics in Britain the conditions of the mass of the people were getting worse, or at least no better: individual freedom, equality under the law, a more-extended voting franchise, the abolition of the feudal system, and so forth did wonderful things for the commercial and manufacturing rich and for the middle classes, but seemed to have no positive impact on the working classes—the mass of the people. Somehow, the workings of the economic system were turning things that ought to advance human freedom and prosperity into their opposite.

3.4.3) Age & British-Style Economist: And so Marx decided, just as he decided earlier that German-style philosophy was going down the wrong track, that French-style political activism for liberal democracy was going down the wrong track. The right track required figuring out how to fix the economy, and that required becoming a British-style political economist. So that was what Marx spent the rest of his life doing: pouring over works of political economy and Parliamentary reports on the condition of England, trying to make his kind of sense of them. The problem was that he was not very good at it. As Paul Samuelson wrote:

From the viewpoint of pure economic theory, Karl Marx can be regarded as a minor post-Ricardian…. Marx… liked a good problem; but he did not labor over a labor theory of value in order to give us moderns scope to use matrix theory on the "transformation" problem. He wanted to have a theory of exploitation, and a basis for his prediction that capitalism would in some sense impoverish the workers and pave the way for revolution into a new stage of society. As the optimism of the American economist Henry Carey shows, a labor theory of value when combined with technological change is, on all but the most extreme assumptions, going to lead to a great increase in real wages and standards of living. So the element of exploitation had to be worked hard….

Technical economics has little to do with Karl Marx's important role in the history of human thought.… Political economy in our sense of the word was the mere cap of Karl Marx's iceberg. Marx’s bold economic or materialistic theory of history, his political theories of the class struggle, his transmutations of Hegelian philosophy have an importance for the historian of “ideas" that far transcends his facade of economics…. A billion people think his ideas are important; and for the historian of thought that fact makes them important...

Here the full files are—unfinished:

And the course slides:

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