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.