When it was time for a young Karl Marx to choose a career, he was not thrilled by the prospect of becoming a professor of philosophy. He craved something more engaged, more participatory, more visceral. Looking out at the world, he saw plenty enough wrong. And he knew that he was smart enough and educated enough to do something about it.
“I was greatly disturbed by the conflict between what is and what ought to be,” he writes, aged nineteen, in a letter to his father. Considering the problems the world faced, he began to find his studies sterile and said that his desk might as well be“filled with sand…” Philosophy should DO something he thought, and with this realization, “a curtain had fallen, my Holy Of Holies had been shattered, and new gods had to be found.”
This was a road-to-Damascus moment. “There are moments in life,” he writes his father, “which mark the close of a period like boundary posts and at the same time definitely point in a new direction.”
But even as this uncertainty roiled inside him, he was determined to remain calm and survey his options, convinced that “out of calmness alone can great and beautiful deeds emerge.”
The option Young Marx chose was to take the path leading away from the philosopher’s ivory tower and toward the more worldly and engaged role of a critic-at-large.
“The immediate task of philosophy” he states, is to criticize law and politics, and to work “to overthrow all conditions in which Man exists as a degraded, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being.”
His course decided upon, Young Marx leapt into his work with all his vigor, quite certain of his opinions and talents from the very start. He scrawled his philosophical vocabulary for yards, going on about “alienation” and “being” and “antimonies” and “Hegelian syntheses.” Though much of what he says is brilliant historical interpretation and insight, much is also the spoutings of a young man freshly graduated from philosophy school, lots of meaningless big sounds– the philosophical version of a pop song– all impressive enough until you realize that all these phat beats and looped (Hegelian) samples add up to no more than a bunch of nutty confections. When Young Marx boldly states that man’s work separates him from his true being by operating outside the parameters of his essence– well, I don’t know about you, but I smell the fresh ink of a college diploma nearby.
As a critic –and definitely not a builder of society– Young Marx is quite content to topple falsehoods without offering new truths to replace them. It is not his job, he says, to declare, “here is Truth, kneel here,” for he feels it is not the place of a critic to tell people what they should do, but rather to enlighten them as to why they are doing the things they already are. The critic must “explain to the world its own acts” and lead humanity to a “self–understanding” of “its struggles and wishes.” Young Marx plans “to attempt to help the dogmatists make their dogmas clear to themselves.” At this point, the Young Marx (unlike the older Marx) is not issuing any call-to-arms, but is instead publishing what he calls a “confession“– not his own, but humanity’s.
Young Marx never attempts to CONSTRUCT anything. Like the Hulk, him wanna smash. He has decided that his role is to disabuse society of its conceits and to fight a campaign of “relentless criticism of all existing conditions.” And he goes about his work with brass knuckles and a switchblade. Critiquing other thinkers of his day, he is biting, sarcastic, and pitiless. There is humor there, but it’s the humor of a boulder falling on a cartoon coyote. There is wit there, but it is bitter– more rubbing than drinking alcohol. He prefers, instead of entering the muddy fray himself, to lob bombs from the bleachers.
Young Marx contends, in his Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of The State, that a philosopher-critic has no business actually answering questions– but should instead work to replace the old questions with new ones… “True criticism, therefore, does not analyze the answers but the questions,” he says in an article written around the same time as his Hegel critique.
When demolishing the articles or books of other authors, one of Young Marx’s stock tricks is to invert the attacked author’s statements to score palpable hits. If an author says a man rides a horse, Young Marx may rejoin that, actually considering how expensive horses are to maintain, the horse rides the man. That sort of thing.
Stylistically, Young Marx is a writer rolling-out vast boring plains of paragraphs periodically punctuated by earthquakes and lightning. One problem I have with Young Marx is his tendency to paraphrase– in long sections– other writers, but without clearly delineating the division between the paraphrase and his own sentiments.
Also… I simply don’t trust Young Marx’s paraphrasing… he’s comes off as much too hungry to set-up the impending strike, much too tempted to twist a phrase or tweak a word to better fuel the blaze he wishes to start.
It is not until his late twenties that Young Marx begins to grow seriously interested in economics. When he does, the British economists seem his main source for economic theory– Adam Smith appears primary, followed by Ricardo and Say.
I have by no means read ALL of Marx, old or young, but it seems as if the only philosopher, economist, or social activist that he did not eventually turn against was ENGELS. For whatever reason, Marx seems not have felt challenged by Engels. And in fact, Marx’s best writing comes when Engels is collaborating with him (The German Idealogy, which I will examine in a later post, is a great book).
Before later turning against Proudhon, Marx credited the French thinker with redefining the social question of poverty. Before Proudhon, no one had very deeply questioned the fundamental characteristic of the modern economy– namely, the dichotomy between the vast holdings of real estate and capital by some- -and the life-stunting lack suffered by others. Many thinkers and socially conscious persons had considered the question of how best to alleviate the worst effects of poverty, but they assumed poverty, itself, to be something akin to the weather– there’s not much we can do to change it, so we just have to deal with it the best we can. It was Proudhon who first emphatically blamed private property, itself, as the root cause of poverty– an idea, which you may have guessed, will exert a powerful influence over young master Marx…
Other posts on YOUNG MARX by Hammering Shield…