Karl Marx: Failed Materialist

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Karl Marx labeled his intellectual output “ideology” in order to distinguish it from both religion and ‘philosophy’. The latter is, as he saw it, the other-worldly brainstorming of people like Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, etc. ‘Ideology’ is necessarily abstract, its being in the realm of ideas, but Marx used that term to emphasize the down-to-earth, real-world, materialist nature of his efforts.

The centerpiece of Marx’s effort was his “dialectical materialism.” He claimed that it was a “scientific” explanation of how social relations among human beings — the nature of society, its structure and functioning — had developed and would develop over time. My point (here) is not that there is some serious flaw in dialectical materialism as an idea, but that it was not truly materialistic, that Marx’s entire intellectual effort was as bound up in extra-material suppositions — beliefs — as the efforts of any philosopher, ever.

According to Marx, dialectical materialism had taken humanity from a state of “primitive” communism, in which the goal of society was limited to physical survival — subsistence — but there was no private property and an equitable distribution of the material output of the group. It would take humanity to materially developed communism, in which there would again be no private property and there would again be an equitable distribution of material output of society. At that point, however, ‘society’ would be universal — there would be no different groupings among people — and in the place of mere physical survival there would be material abundance, with abundant time for leisure, art, thought, and play.

The driving force of the dialectical movement is, in the end, lust — lust for wealth and power. Those lusts cause one social class to seek to exploit other classes, who seek to gain the power to become the exploiters rather than the exploited. For reasons that need not detain us, Marx saw the “proletariat” as the final class to attain dominant political power, but because of its inherent nature one that would usher in socialism then communism, ending the cycle of exploitation.

Those kinds of lusts are what all religions have said cause human beings to do bad things. In dialectical materialism those lusts manifest themselves among groups — social classes — not individuals per se, but the basic motivation driving human behavior is the same.

Moreover, the distinction between an ‘equitable’ distribution and one that is not brings equality into the picture. “Equality” can only be a belief, an extra-material supposition. Marx did not even attempt to ‘prove’, materially, that human beings are morally equal, that they have equal entitlements or claims that must for any reason be taken seriously by all other human beings.

A moral equality among human beings also underlies exploitation as an evil. If people are not morally equal, exploitation — even slavery — is not a moral wrong.

So Marx was not really a materialist. He was an equalitarian.

For those who are Marxists because of both his supposed materialism and his actual equalitarianism, who like that he paints an equalitarian picture of ‘good’ human social relations without (overt) reference to any moral code, take heart. There is a truly materialist way to get there from here: real justice.

Real justice provides an ethic of justice that involves no beliefs. It follows from observation within material existence. Applied it the governance of society, the ethic of real justice would maximize liberty, reinforce political democracy, and transform the outcomes for society of the existing economy — any existing economy.

Real justice has three conditions of justice for the economy. The more of those that are met, the more just an economy will be.

The first of those is the extension of liberty to the economy. People must be free to choose how and to what extent they will participate in it (though all able adults not yet of retirement age would be expected to make a productive contribution).

The second condition of justice for the economy in real justice is to apply the “democratic distributive principle” to money. That could be accomplished in the institutional context of the existing economy — any existing economy. It would ensure that every adult (except able adults who chose not to make a productive contribution) would have a minimum income equal to the existing median income (or perhaps some other extant standard), thus eliminating poverty. (In a household with at least one dependent child living there, one parent or guardian could as easily as not be paid that income to work in the home.)

The third condition of justice for the economy in real justice is the absence of exploitation. That could be achieved with an extended version of the democratically distributed income, such that everyone employed in any business or government office would be paid that income. There would be an impermeable barrier between the revenues of any economic entity with at least one employee and any individual employed in it (to include the owners of businesses).

The monetary paradigm that a democratically distributed income would have associated with it is scalable: any nation could adopt it, or any group of nations. For that matter, all nations could (eventually) share a single, unified, homogeneous monetary system.

further reading:

Real Justice: Goodness without Limit” (here in Medium)

For Crying Out Loud, Accept That A Solution Actually Exists” ( a “3 min read” — including options for further reading — also here in Medium)

“RE-FORMING THE MONETARY SYSTEM” on my Web site, ajustsolution.com (Page: real justice /economics — scroll down to it)

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice