Category Archives: Karl Marx and “Capital”

Marx’s thought in relation to human freedom and the concept of science

NEWTON / MAXWELL / MARX 1

A Dialectical World Cruise – Part 1Cover Image of Thomas K. Simpson's new book: Newton, Maxwell, Marx

Good news! The Green Lion Press has now released in a single volume three of my earlier essays, collectively titled Newton/Maxwell/Marx. Many of their themes are familiar to readers of this website, but these essays are extensive, and gathered in this way, with new introductions and an overall conclusion, they reveal surprising relevance to one another. These essays speak to our troubled world today.

Does Marx, for example, have anything to do with Maxwell? Not on the surface—but at some deeper levels, which the book calls dialectical, each lifts us out of the Newtonian world in which we have lived since Newton wrote. Let us call this tour of three contrasting world-views, a dialectical world-cruise!

Edward Abbott once wrote of a realm called Flatland, whose citizens—confined to life in a table-top—had no idea how flat their world-view might be. They had never viewed themselves and their confinement from outside. Now, no less than they, we too need fresh perspectives and new insights, if we are to take the measure of own confinement and our net of unquestioned habits of thought. Newton/Maxwell/Marx navigates these unexplored waters, becoming a dialectical journey between worlds of thought, each based on its own fundamental premises concerning, as we shall see, even the nature of science itself. In turn, our concept of the nature of nature has ramifying consequences for our beliefs concerning society and human freedom.

In these essays, each port of call is represented by one of the great works of our western tradition—so these thoughts are in one sense, rather timeless, than new. But this is to be a spirited, not a scholarly investigation. We are no mere tourists, but earnest inquirers. Our purpose is not that of the objective scholar, to know about the works, but of the free mind, reading as if their authors addressed their words to us to us—as indeed, in some sense they surely did.

Reading in this mode is itself an art, and calls for skills which collectively have been known as the liberal arts, because these are the arts meant to set our minds fee. Not surprisingly, then, these three essays concern three books read at St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, whose curriculum is designed to capture the liberal arts in the modern world. Our essays ion emerged from this cauldron, and first appeared in the pages of the Great Ideas Today, once an annual al publication devoted to critical studies of the great books and their corollaries in our time. I express my indebtedness to John Van Doren, then executive editor, who guided these essays to their first appearance.

Our three ports of call will be, to give them their full and proper titles: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – the philosophy of all the natural world—by no means that part we now call “physics”; James Clerk (inexplicably pronounced Clark) Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, and Karl Marx’s Capital. These works are in dialogue with one another—not literally, for the first two were far apart in time, and while Maxwell and Marx overlapped London for a time, and indeed shared an interest in lectures on mechanism, it would be hard to imagine they ever met! No: their dialogue is the more real for being conceptual—belonging to a world of ideas—and there, Newton/Maxwell/Marx will show, their ties are deep, and very real.

This set of essays, then, becomes a book for adventurous spirits, and in that sense may be a book whose time has come. People today are restless, questioning institutions which no longer make sense. Long-held assumptions are subjected to doubts reaching to the foundations of our societies and their economic systems. Even our sciences come into question, as in thrall to a limiting, encompassing world-view.

All this is of a piece with the dialectical sprit of our authors themselves: imperial in Newton’s case, gentle in Maxwell’s, boldly ironic in Marx’s – but in one style or another, each is a revolutionary, questioning the foundations of the world which surrounds them.

 A posting to follow soon will offer a brief synopsis of this Dialectical World Cruise.

Visit Newton /Maxwell / Marx 2

“Prometheus Unbound: Karl Marx on Human Freedom”

 It is very hard to find a space today in which to read Karl Marx with an open mind; long history, and fairly severe social bias, stand squarely in the way.  At St. John’s College, however, we read every author with an open mind, as if this work were directed to us personally.  Such an approach is generally disparaged by the academic world, but it does have the advantage of freshness, and of giving open access to original thoughts so often obscured by criticism.  This lecture, given to the college, is an outcome of such an open reading of Marx’s Capital.

What emerges is a vivid picture, grounded in a Hegelian sense of the dialectic of history, of a new stage of true human freedom – a picture which looks remarkably attractive today.   Capital is a complex work, and easily misunderstood.  It begins with a theory of the operation of capitalism, founded primarily in the traditional economic theory of Adam Smith.  What Marx brings to this, apart from a steady suggestion of irony, is a severely scientific logic: what is the source of profit?  What underlies the operation of this system, and what must happen, if these principles are indeed allowed to operate?  A fundamental law emerges, and the structure of Capital at this point is strikingly parallel to that of Newton’s Principia. 

These laws lead to a situation like that we see on a world scale today, of severe dichotomy between those in the world who have, and those who have-not.  At the same time, Marx is surprisingly full of admiration for the accomplishments of capitalism; his chapter on “Great Industry” is a paean of admiration.  He sees not only the economic disparity, but at the same time the achievement of what we would now call the accomplishments of the “global economy”: cooperative labor on a vast scale.  What is being born, he sees, is a class of workers, practiced in cooperation, who see the contradiction between the new flood of products and their own immiseration.    

This sketch cannot pretend to do justice to Marx’s argument.  What emerges, though, is important to emphasize.  Out of this contradiction arises, dialectically, a new possibility, and a new understanding of the meaning of human freedom.  In the tradition of Smith, spelled out in the historic phase of capitalism, is an individualistic, competitive conception of personal freedom.  What Marx sees emerging is a richer concept of freedom: personal freedom indeed, but enriched by the possibilities of social cooperation.  This is not contradiction, but the birth of a new paradigm of the free individual whose possibilities are expanded, not contracted, by a cooperative approach to the resources of society.  

Marx’s reasoning is carefully worked, and his conclusions ring true as we look at the world today.  I have argued elsewhere that we must learn to think in terms of holism, the whole as primary.  Marx tells us that is not suppression of the individual, but liberation from the trap we are in.  Marx is a classicist at heart: he gets his notion of society as primarily whole from Aristotle, and his sense of the birth of freedom from Aeschylus and the founding of the Athenian polis, before he draws on Hegel.  This is a line of thought which I find important and deeply persuasive, in a world and a planet being torn apart by competition and the perpetual war which we see that it breeds.  

It is time that mankind arrived at some better idea of ourselves, and of human happiness and true human freedom.  This may be a good time to be reading authors who think outside our too-limited box.