Karl Marx’s Guiding Idea

by Emrys Westacott


“Nothing human is alien to me.” This was Karl Marx's favourite maxim, taken from the Roman writer, Terrence. But I think that if Marx had lived a century later, he might have added as a second choice the famous phrase sung by Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: “It ain't necessarily so.” For together these two sayings capture a good deal of what I think of as Marx's Guiding Idea, the idea at the heart of his philosophy that remains as valuable and as relevant today as in his own time. Let me explain.

Human beings have been around for a few million years, and for most of that time most people's material and social circumstances have been quite stable. The experiences of one generation were pretty much the same as the experiences of their forbears. In this respect the lives of humans were like those of other animals. Unlike other animals, however, human beings reflect on their lives and circumstances; moreover they communicate these reflections to one another. The result is religion, mythology, philosophy, history, literature, and the performing arts (all of which can arise within a purely oral culture), and eventually the natural sciences, and social studies of various kinds, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and political theory.

These diverse forms of reflection on the human condition perform various functions. One function is to explain why things are the way they are. For instance, the bible explains why the Israelites lived in Israel (God made a promise to Abraham, and kept it, enabling Joshua's army to conquer the land); the theory of the four humours purported to explain personality differences between individuals. Another function is to justify a certain order of things. Thus, the doctrine of the divine right of kings sought to justify the institution of a powerful executive who stands above the law. The doctrine that individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression is often cited to justify a policy of religious tolerance.

These two functions are sometimes hard to disentangle. For example, the alleged cultural inferiority of a people might be taken both to explain why they have been conquered and to justify that conquest as legitimate or even desirable. The “laws” of market competition provide an explanation of why some individuals and businesses do better than others, and these same laws are appealed to by those inclined to endorse the the outcome of the competition.

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