Marxism: an Introduction to a Misunderstood Philosophy

We have been conditioned to associate Marxism with authoritarian political doctrines and corrupt economical policies. Many dictators and criminals of war have self-identified as Marxists and have used Marxist philosophy to justify violence and exploitation. Marxism is one of the most misunderstood philosophies and hence it is important to re-introduce it to the masses. This article introduces some of the key elements of Marxist philosophy and illustrates them with quotes by Marx himself and by other philosophers who have followed his method.

Marxism is a call for action and unity

Before being a philosophy or theory about what the world is, Marxism is a call for changing the world. The one truth about the world that Marxism takes for granted is the following: we created the world and we are re-creating it. We should therefore take up our role as creators and we should always remind ourselves that history does not happen independently of us but through us:

History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims (Karl Marx, Holy Family)

The corrupt and powerful few plan history, they use their resources and power to impose their history on us, they exploit our labor and energies to create the history that they want to create. Yet without our labor and our compliance, their history cannot happen. This is what the workers’ strikes have proven and continue to prove. When workers unite, greedy employers lose the power to exploit them: workers go on strike, production ceases, employers negotiate and change the workers’ conditions. When armies unite with their people and refuse to follow the orders of corrupt dictators, corrupt dictators are stripped of their power and are overthrown by the people. Strikes and revolutions reveal that when we unite we can subordinate history to our will: “workers of the world, unite!” Marxism is a call for unity.

Marxism is a rejection of indifference and fatality

Our unity allows us to impose our will on history, our indifference allows the oppressors to impose their history on us. In both cases, we are responsible. The atrocities that are happening around us are our creations. Atrocities happen because we let them happen. Our indifference to the suffering of others contributes to maintaining and consolidating the very conditions that cause this suffering. Our indifference puts us on the wrong side of history, the oppressor’s side. In his seminal essay ‘Indifference’, Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci warned of the dangers of indifference:

Indifference plays an important role in history. It plays a passive role, but it does play a role […] What happens, the evil that touches everyone, happens because the majority relinquish their will to it (Gramsci, Indifference)

Oppressors continue to oppress because we let them oppress. Fellow human beings continue to suffer because we are indifferent to their suffering. It is for this reason that Gramsci expressed his hatred for indifference.

Our indifference creates in us an illusion, the illusion that the world is separate from us, that the suffering of others is caused by processes that are independent of us, but the fact is that history does nothing by itself. Fatality is an illusion:

few hands, supervised by no-one, spin the web of common life, and the masses shut their eyes, because they do not care; and thus we believe it is fatality that ravages everyone and everything, and we believe that history is nothing but an enormous natural phenomenon (Gramsci, Indifference)

Marxism is a call for rejecting the illusion of fatality. History is regulated by us, by our actions and choices.

In Marxism thought and action are inseparable

Because it is a call for action, Marxism is a philosophy where thought and action cannot be separated. In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Marxist philosopher Paulo Freire noted:

When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

The practice of Marxist philosophy cannot solely consist of idealistic practices (thinking, reading, and writing); when words are not accompanied by action they become empty. To reach higher and superior forms of thought we need a social and ideological order that supports higher forms of thoughts, we need a new world that inspires us to think of new possibilities, new ways of being, and new ways of knowing. We need to both think about the world and change the world. And by changing the world, we change ourselves. I cannot change myself without changing my surrounding because it is my surrounding that makes me who I am. I cannot reach higher intellectual heights in an environment that functions to undermine critical intellectual activity. Intellectual change requires social change:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).

Louai Rahal is a PhD candidate in the faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. I am also an instructor in the teacher education program where I teach courses about diversity in education and human development.

References

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gramsci, A. (1910). Indifference.  Antonio Gramsci: Selections from political writings1920, 17-18.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). The Holy Family, or, Critique of Critical Criticism Against Bruno Bauer, and Company.

Marx, K. (1976). The German ideology: including theses on Feuerbach and introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Pyr Books.

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