Monday, 26 February 2018

Of heroes, Marx and my left wing youth!

Reading and writing about Marx is a nostalgic experience for me. As a young man communism held great appeal to me. Perhaps it was the naiveté of idealistic youth or maybe the desire to cut through the complexity of a harsh world by believing in a Marxian utopia brought about by Dialectical Materialism? Whatever the reason, Marxist thought is deeply ingrained in my psyche.

Karl in 1882 (source: Wikipedia)
My fascination with the left wing intellectual tradition was furthered during my college years in the 1980s. In the 1980s, it was considered fashionable for professors to adhere to left wing intellectual ideas. Many spoke of their ‘communist’ ideals as if they were a badge of honor ... and, yes it surely was!

Hence, when I was asked to write a paper on Enlightenment, Kant and Marx for a course titled, ‘The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 1)’ it brought back fond memories of philosophical intellectualizing as a student!

My paper is reproduced below.

Marx: an Outgrowth of Enlightenment Thought

Karl Marx (1818-83) was an Enlightenment figure. Marx reached radically different philosophical conclusions about society and the human condition from those put forward by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) almost a century earlier. Nonetheless, there is little doubt Marx used reason to develop his arguments; arguments which he put forward to encourage the betterment of the world.

Kant, a central figure of the Age of Enlightenment, in his work “What is Enlightenment?” said “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity."[1] Stated another way and in line with the course syllabus Enlightenment is defined as a “project to make the world more of a home for human beings through the use of reason.”[2]

For Kant, always trying to walk a middle path between evolution and revolution, the use of reason had limits. For example, Kant made a conscious distinction between knowledge which may be gained by reasoning and experience, through the ‘scientific’ realm and knowledge which humans are unable to grasp through experiential / scientific terms (e.g. faith or religious beliefs). Kant referred to the former, i.e. scientific process, etc. as the phenomenal side while the latter, i.e. “a posited object or event as it appears in itself independent of perception by the sensesas the noumenal world.[3]

For Kant, the noumenal world is where faith resides. In other words, faith in the religious scriptures and beliefs cannot be validated through the use of reason. However, that does not necessarily mean God does not exist because religious ideas and structures exist only in the noumenal world, not the phenomenal world. Therefore, the existence of God and / or other supernatural forces cannot be determined via scientific reasoning.

Statue of Marx and Engels in Shanghai, People's Republic of China (Source: Wikipedia)
To be sure, Marx had far less place for religion in his philosophy. Often famously quoted as saying “it [religion] is the opium of the people,” Marx also wrote passages suggesting religion is an illusion and acts as an obstacle to humans’ achieving their true state of happiness.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.[4]
For Marx improving human society and the human condition lay in economics. Using dialectical reasoning as the basis for his interpretation of contemporary (mainly English) economists, Marx’s economic determinism model postulated that economic forces determine, shape, and define all political, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological aspects of a civilization.[5]

Coupled with Marx’s belief in historical materialism which stated that history was a constant class struggle between those in power (who also owned / controlled the means of economic production) and the oppressed labor force responsible for production, Marx asserted all aspects of society, including religion, culture, law, etc. were determined by economic forces.

Consequently, for Marx (and his later writing partner Engels) to improve human society a revolution was required. A revolution would overthrow the existing order, especially ownership of the means of production, by which the bulk of oppressed humans suffered alienation and, hence, remained unhappy. The Communist Manifesto authored by the Marx-Engels duo in 1848 highlighted these beliefs with a call for revolutionary action across Europe.

Kant and Marx did not share many philosophical similarities. Unlike Kant, Marx did not believe in gradual change. Marx was a revolutionary while Kant called for gradual change. Through the notion of noumenon Kant made space for religion in his philosophy. On the other hand, Marx dismissed religion as one means through which a ruling class maintained society’s status quo.

Despite these differences Marx was undeniably a figure and a product of the Enlightenment. Why? Marx believed that the use of reason, a central notion in the definition of Enlightenment, will improve the world and better the human condition. However, unlike Kant and other philosophers Marx was inspired by English economics, German philosophy, and French radicalism to believe the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from history is that of inherent contradictions in the economic means of production which will ultimately only lead to one place: a communist revolution.

[1] Immanuel Kant on What is Enlightenment. Retrieved on February 8, 2018.
[2] Professor Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan University. The Modern and the Postmodern (I). Week One, Lecture One transcript.
[3] Noumenon, Merriam Webster online dictionary. Retrieved on February 8, 2018.
[4] Karl Marx,  Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right as quoted in Marxism and Religion. Retrieved on February 8, 2018.
[5] Professow Mark Bowles, Economic Determinism and Karl Marx: Definition & History. Chapter 3 , Lesson 32 transcript. Retrieved on February 8, 2018.

Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at

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