Friday, June 4, 2010

Karl Marx and His Theories

Hal Draper (1914-1990), who was a leading Karl Marx scholar in the U.S., once remarked that "there are few thinkers in modern history whose thought has been so badly misrepresented, by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike." Draper's magnum opus, in fact, was a complete and total re-evaluation of Marxist theory based on extensive study of the writings of both Marx and Friedrich Engels. He eventually postulated the theory of "socialism from below" -- from the working class -- as perhaps the purest form of Marxism.

Karl Marx was born in Prussia in 1818, the son of a lawyer who converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in order to advance his career. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all that's known about Marx's childhood. He was married in 1843 to Jenny von Westphalen. The couple had seven children, but only three survived to adulthood. Perhaps the most interesting part of Marx's life is that his main source of support was from Engels, who drew an ever-increasing income from the family business in England. Marx supplemented this income by writing weekly articles for the New York Daily Tribune for a short time in 1851.

Marx's theories on social evolution were based on several things (from Wikipedia):

Marx eventually composed what became known as a "materialist conception of history." This idea is based on the thought that humanity enters into a series of certain productive relations throughout different eras. These relations involve hunting and gathering, master and serf, capitalist and laborer, etc, which then give rise to a certain form of social consciousness. "He maintained that: 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. . . .' (

One of the more interesting things about Marx is that he advocated social revolution of the masses to move toward his ideal society. He recognized capitalism as a necessary historical step, but did not see it as sustainable because it took too many things from too many people while giving too much to too few. Marx envisioned socialism as the first step after capitalism, where the government allocated resources to everyone and then, when the government was no longer needed, it would disband.

Human nature, however, very much gets in the way of this process. People in power tend to like being in power, and thus make many moves that keep them there. For object lessons, take a look at the numerous "Marxist" governments around the world today. Marx himself was disgusted by these variations on his work, and refused to acknowledge them as anything less than pedantic tripe.

In fact, Marx wrote letters in 1883 "to the French labour leader Jules Guesde and to Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law) — both of whom claimed to represent Marxist principles — accusing them of 'revolutionary phrase-mongering' and of denying the value of reformist struggle (Wikipedia)." These letters gave rise to the now-famous declaration that "If that is Marxism, then I am no Marxist."

What does the study of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their theories offer to Steampunk writers? Flavor more than anything, particularly for those writers who play in First-World Steampunk. Seeing as Marx was a prominent thinker during the timeframe, his socialist thoughts would be read by quite a few people. Maybe even some would be attempting implementation of the theories.

Of course, as with any political theory, the more interesting side for writers is how it can go wrong rather than how it can go right.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Misunderstanding human nature is Marx's fatal flaw, not just those who tried to "implement" his ideas. The theories of human nature are interesting, and vary over time as well. It's always fascinating how right (and sometimes how wrong) people throughout the ages have "understood" what it means to be human, and what drives us all. It is, of course, the basic question of philosophy.

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

You raise a good point. Marx's Utopian vision can't come to pass until the very nature of humanity changes. If that ever happens.

In reading about him for this post, I particularly loved his thoughts on social consciousness. theorized that was his more important contribution to philosophy.

L. T. Host said...

I see "Marx" and my eyes glaze over... not sure why, but I think it's time I learned a bit more about the man. Everyone sure talks about him a lot. Well, relative to other dead people, at least.

Adam Heine said...

"Of course, as with any political theory, the more interesting side for writers is how it can go wrong rather than how it can go right."

I dunno. I think we've seen how it can go wrong plenty. It would be interesting to create an alternate history where Marxism went right. How might the world react to such a country? What backlashes and misunderstandings would it create? Interesting...

Cynthia Reese said...

So true about it being more interesting when things go wrong ... or is that my old newshound self revealing itself?