House of Marx's birth: The first house from the left
(photo taken when I visited it many years ago)
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, as Karl Marx’s 11th and last Thesis on Feuerbach reads. Has there been any philosopher in this world to whom these words apply better than to Marx himself?
This week, on 5 May, it is exactly 200 years ago that Karl Marx was born in the old town of Trier in Germany to a middle-class family. He would lead a life full of contradictions. Though being of bourgeois origin, he didn’t follow the interests of a man of bourgeois origin, despite his own theory. And though he was financially supported by his friend Friedrich Engels, who was a capitalist and who owned a large textile factory at Manchester, England, his aim was to bring down the class of the capitalists. Moreover, Marx did not change the world by leading the life of a political activist, but by leading the life of a full-blood philosopher and scholar: Just by interpreting the world he changed the world. However, others, like Lenin, Stalin, Ebert, Jaurès, MacDonald, Troelstra etc., would actively change the world based on Marx’s theory, although probably not always in the way Marx had imagined.
That’s what most people think of, when they think of Karl Marx: His political impact, and then his impact on communism in the first place, but also on social-democracy. However, his influence has been much wider. Marxist ideas have influenced feminism, economic theory, sociology and philosophy and who knows what more. Marx’s approach and method for studying society could (and can) be applied to many social fields. To restrict myself to my own fields of interest and to persons who had a direct impact on my ideas, in sociology many thinkers have been affected by Marx’s ideas without becoming Marxists, like Dahrendorf, C. Wright Mills and Giddens. In philosophy Marx’s ideas led to the critical theory of the Frankfurt philosophers like Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, which brought forth one of the most prominent thinkers of today: Jürgen Habermas. I want to mention also the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, who is famous for developing Marx’s idea of class consciousness. It’s striking that thinkers and activists outside the political field have been influenced by the ideas of the”Young Marx” in particular.
But the interest in Marx gradually faded away, till we see a “Marx Revival” around 1968. It was just then that I went to the university and started to study sociology. Are you surprised that therefore I begun to read Marx’s works as well? I read Capital, of course, but in the end only a little part of it. However, I did entirely read most of his well-known smaller works, like the Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology and The Eighteenth Brumaire. I read works about Marx, and I read works influenced by Marx, like those by the sociologists and philosophers just mentioned. Especially I read the works by Habermas and there has been a time that I bought and read everything he published. Habermas (together with Apel and Popper) led me also away from Marxist philosophical ideas by showing me the importance of analytical philosophy. Actually a bit strange for there are hardly two other kinds of philosophy that are as different as Marxism and analytical philosophy. But they could be combined in the mind of Habermas, so why not in mine as well?
Since 1968 the critical social thinking of Marx but also the contents of his ideas have been on the background – and sometimes more on the foreground – of political life in this world, even though they have often been deformed or even violated. In the 1970s and 1980s revolutions were often fought in the name of Marxism, but when we look back today and see what has come of them (like in Angola and Nicaragua) must we say then that finally they had nothing to do with Marxism? Or are they just the ultimate consequence of Marxism?Happily we still see also a positive inspiration by ideas that find their origins in Marxism, indirectly or directly: The discussion of the problems of globalization, the critique on the financial world and the banking system after the great financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Occupy movement, or – more concrete – Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 200 years after his birth Karl Marx is still alive and with his ideas we can still interpret the world in order to change it for the better, if we desire.