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Why Marx’s Philosophy But Not His Economics Matters Now

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Peter Singer is a leading philosopher of ethics noted for his work on Utilitarianism and Animal Rights. Later in the year he will be discussing his work in these areas but today he gives us a tour of his thoughts about Marx following the publication of a new edition of his very short introduction to Marx. He talks about Marx’s move towards thinking about emancipation in terms of economics, the working class and alienation, his relationship to classical economic theories, the materialist theory of history, hand mills and steam mills, why Marx didn’t think we should just wait for the inevitable revolution, Marx’s critique of capitalism, what the obsolete Marxist societies in the near past tell us about Marx’s ideas, what contemporary China tells us, Piketty, Globalisation, the environment, Utilitarianism and what is and isn’t relevant in Marx for us today.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Peter Singer: It was more or less an accident. When I went to university I intended to study law, but an advisor from the law faculty looked at my results in high school and thought I might find law dry and boring. He suggested combining my law degree with an arts degree. I accepted that suggestion. That left the question: what would I major in? There was no philosophy taught in high schools then, but my older sister had a boyfriend who had studied philosophy at university, and he had talked to me about it. It sounded interesting, and I’d always enjoyed arguing about things – that’s probably why I had planned to do law – so I took Philosophy 1, and went on from there. I never did finish the law degree.

Marx: A Very Short Introduction

3:AM: You’ve written about Marxism. How did Marx move to thinking emancipation was an economic question rather than a philosophical or religious one as Hegel and Feuerbach suggested?

PS: Marx had a brief spell as a very young editor of a liberal newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, and in that capacity he wrote about practical issues like censorship, divorce law, and the economic distress of the winegrowers of the Moselle region. That may have influenced his thinking. But he first wrote about the economic basis of social problems in his essay On The Jewish Question, which is a review of two publications by Bruno Bauer on the question of civil and political rights for Jews. (Bauer, like Marx, was a Young Hegelian, one of a number of thinkers who were transforming Hegel’s thought in a more radical direction.) At the time, Prussia denied Jews the same rights as Christians. Marx’s essay has been attacked as anti-Semitic (although Marx himself was of Jewish descent) but I don’t read it that way. Marx, like Bauer, never doubts for a moment that Jews should have the same rights as Christians. What is true is that Marx accepts the then-dominant stereotype of Jews as excessively concerned with money and bargaining, and this leads him to suggest that the way to solve the problem of anti-Semitism is for society itself to move beyond money and bargaining. That was the first indication that Marx saw economic transformation as the key to transforming consciousness.

3:AM: And how did he conceive of the role of the working class in this process of overcoming alienation?

PS: He saw it philosophically, in a characteristically Hegelian way. The working class, or the proletariat, as he referred to it, is the antithesis of freedom, for it is propertyless, and is forced to sell its labour-power and do mindless factory work – and of course in Marx’s day, the working day was so long there wasn’t much time to do anything else. The condition of the proletariat is, Marx said, the complete loss of humanity and it can only meet its needs by a complete redemption of humanity.

3:AM: He’s approaching economics at first in a broader sense than might be expected from an economist – you say he ‘… wants to give a deeper explanation of the meaning and significance of the laws of economics.’ So what is his explanation of the laws he thinks he identifies and how does it result in his objection to classical liberal economics?

PS: Marx’s objection is that classical liberal economics treats as a basic law of economics something that is in fact an alienated form of exchange, one that is not inevitable, but the result of a certain stage of production. Classical economics does not look at the state of the economy in a historical manner. In this it is sharply different from Hegel’s thought, which understands each historical situation as a stage in human development that will eventually be transcended, until finally all contradictions are resolved and the end of history is reached. The economic system described by classical economists will, Marx claims, be overthrown. It will be replaced by a system that will resolve its contradictions and enable human beings to produce more, and to distribute what is produced in a manner that fully meets all human needs.

3:AM: How important was the development of his materialist theory of history for his subsequent thinking? In particular, what did it change or develop in his earlier thinking, and what does he mean when he talks about ‘alienation’?

PS: The materialist theory of history is essentially a story of alienation. Marx talks about various kinds of alienation, but the common element is that we – that is, humans collectively – have lost control of our lives. Our means of production determine our ideas and the nature of our society. Under capitalism, the working class must work to survive, but their labour enriches the capitalists, who use their profits to build new machines that enable them to produce more with fewer workers. Even the capitalists are alienated: they are forced to act as they do, lest competition from other capitalists put them out of business and push them down into the working class.

3:AM: Should we take seriously his statement that the handmill gave us feudal lords and the steam mill capitalists? Isn’t this far too crude and exaggerated a claim to be taken seriously – and doesn’t it point to what some, like Ernest Gellner, would say was Marxism’s disastrous mistake, to argue that productive forces determined everything, rather than seeing them as one important strand alongside other forces such as coercion and ideology? Not having a theory of coercion meant that come the revolution, coercive forces found it easy to take control and there was nothing in the Marxist toolkit to stop them!

PS: I doubt that having a “theory of coercion” would have made any difference. The crucial mistake was that Marx had a fatally flawed view of human nature. Bakunin, Marx’s anarchist rival, saw that if you appoint workers to governing or administrative bodies, they cease to be workers, and start to represent the governing class. Marx rejected that criticism. He thought that if you change the economic structure of society, you change human nature. The Soviet Union proved that Bakunin was right. The abolition of private ownership of the means of production did not turn communist functionaries into selfless proponents of the good of all.


As for Marx’s line about the hand mill and the steam mill, it was certainly an overly simple statement of the materialist conception of history, as Engels later said. And in a long work known as the Grundrisse, Marx showed a much more sophisticated understanding of the interactions of various elements. But he never published the Grundrisse — until the second half of the twentieth century, it was unknown. The problem is that Marx wanted to claim that his theory is scientific, and the more you allow that the productive forces are just one causal factor, alongside others, the more difficult it becomes to prove, or disprove, the theory.

3:AM: If the Hegelian strand of his thinking is taken seriously then it seems capitalism will inevitably end and the working class will rule. This prompts the question ‘Why not just sit and wait rather than agitate?’ Shouldn’t Marxists not give to charities and make as much money as they can in the knowledge that nothing they do will stop the inevitable march to freedom?

PS: Marx himself rejected that view – he spent many arduous hours trying to advance the revolution. He may have thought that the revolution was inevitable, but by working for it one could make it come sooner, and thus bring an earlier end to the immense suffering that capitalism causes.

3:AM: Can you sketch for us the main points of his critique of capitalism and say whether you think it’s a viable approach to capitalism even now? I guess I’m asking the obvious question here: about economics was he right?

PS: Marx thought that capitalism would lead to more and more people becoming workers, without property, living barely above the level of subsistence, while the capitalist class got smaller and smaller. He thought that this would happen first in the most advanced capitalist countries, and that it would lead to a large and impoverished working class arising and overthrowing capitalism. He was clearly wrong about that. The working class in the most advanced capitalist countries is much better off than they were in Marx’s time, and communist revolutions have occurred exclusively in less developed countries, never in the most advanced ones.

Some Marxists have tried to defend Marx’s view by saying that capitalism became global, and the workers of developing countries are now the global proletariat. But if so, it is clear that they are not united and have no real prospect of overthrowing global capitalism. And anyway, the facts are that even for workers in developing countries, the number in extreme poverty is shrinking, not growing.

3:AM: The last century saw attempts to set up communist societies and China still calls itself one. What do you make of the mainly obsolete attempts of our near past? What do they tell us about Marx’s ideas?

PS: They tell us that Marx was really bad at prediction. He was wrong about the future of capitalism, he was wrong about what would happen when, after a revolution, workers took over government, he was wrong about the post-revolutionary decline of the coercive state, and he was wrong about the productivity of an economic system in which capitalism is abolished and the economy is run by the state or by committees of workers.

3:AM: Some, including the Chinese leadership, say that China is an example of successful Marxism – a socialism with Chinese characteristics. And when we look it seems to be pretty much what many Marxists were against – vast inequality, more billionaires than any other country including the USA – always held up as the monster capitalist society – a dictatorship, vast coercive forces, colonialism and so forth. Is China a reason for capitalists to be comfortable with Marx, and Marxists to be afraid?

PS: It is ironic that the clearest refutation of Marx’s predictions about a communist economy have come from China. As long as China had anything resembling a communist economy, it was a very poor country. After Deng’s economic reforms allowed capitalism back into China, hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty. That’s not a reason for capitalists to be comfortable with Marx – the real Marx – at all. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” doesn’t bear much resemblance to the socialism that Marx envisaged.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

3:AM: How relevant is the work of Piketty and his book on contemporary  Capitalism in understanding – and perhaps supporting – Marx’s insights? His belief that there need be no end to capitalism, and no mechanism for decreasing inequalities, seems to be brutally realist and makes scientific Marxism look naïve. Is that your understanding of this or do you think Marx would have not been bothered about ‘fairness’ and ‘equal rights because they were just obsolete verbal rubbish?

PS: For just the reasons you mention, Piketty is no Marxist. He thinks that the working class will slowly become richer, in absolute terms, even while the gap between the working class and the capitalist class widens. Piketty’s work does provide grounds for trying to reduce inequality, but it doesn’t provide any support for Marxism.

3:AM: Is Globalisation something that Marx foresaw?

PS: Yes, he did see that capitalism was extending its reach all over the world. But he imagined that this could lead to a worldwide united proletariat opposing capitalism. Tragically, nationalist feelings have proven far stronger than class-based ones.

3:AM: Does Marx have anything to say about the environmental crisis? He seems not to have worried about economic productive forces in terms familiar to us now through global warming and the 6th mass extinction and the like. And his work was about human liberation and didn’t seem to have concerns for other species? Do these blindspots and others, such as its helicopter view about the overthrow of the whole capitalist system, show Marxism to be nowadays actually a reactionary philosophical position, justifying people not trying  piece-meal reforms and largely opting out of urgent contemporary issues of inequality, immorality, climate change, animal welfare, prison reform, racism, sexism and all the other obviously important issues facing us – all in the name of systemic change?

PS: To describe Marxism as “a reactionary philosophical system” is too harsh, because there is no doubt that Marx had progressive aspirations, seeking the good of all human beings, and especially those who are most exploited. It’s also true that he has made an important contribution to our understanding of the role that economic forces play in shaping our ideas, our social structures, our religious beliefs, and our politics. And of course you can’t blame him for not knowing about global warming, though his materialist theory of history may be useful in understanding the lack of strong action against climate change. When it comes to the role that the fossil fuel industry plays in the politics of climate change, what we are seeing today, especially with the role of the Koch brothers on American politics, is very much what a study of Marx would lead us to expect.

On the other hand, Marx’s whole approach, like that of Hegel and Kant, was strongly human-centered and shows no concern for the environment. That is an important weakness, and perhaps even more important is, as you indicate, that Marxism is often seen as providing a justification for refusing to do things that would be highly effective in helping people in extreme poverty. Very often, when I speak about effective altruism, and what we can do, at very little cost to ourselves, to assist people in extreme poverty, someone will say that we should not be assisting charities, no matter how effective they may be, because we need to overthrow capitalism first.

Whether we like it or not, Marx’s predicted revolution to overthrow capitalism, hasn’t happened, and doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. It would be much better to work now to do the most good we can, by means of the piece-meal reforms you mention, and to be active in combating the great moral problems of our time, including climate change, extreme poverty, and the vast quantity of avoidable suffering experienced both by humans and by nonhuman animals.

3:AM: What does Marxist thinking share and does it or can it interact with the great secular ethical system developed in the same time period – utilitarianism?

PS: Marxism shares with utilitarianism a broad concern for reducing suffering and promoting richer, more rewarding lives for everyone – that comes out very clearly in Marx’s descriptions, in Capital, of the lives of workers, as well as in his brief remarks about communism. But utilitarianism, unlike Marxism, makes no dubious predictions of factual claims. It is a purely ethical system. You can feed in whatever facts the evidence supports and utilitarianism will still have something to say about what you ought to do. So whereas substantial elements of Marxism are based on factual claims that we now know to be false, that can’t happen to utilitarianism.

3:AM: As a take home, can you say what we learn about our contemporary situation through the philosophy of Marx? How relevant is the philosophy for us now?

PS: I’m glad you asked specifically about the philosophy of Marx. Because I think that neither the economics nor the theory of human nature are relevant now. But the core philosophical vision – which the young Marx described in terms of alienation, and for the older Marx underpins the materialist conception of history — is still relevant. Marx saw that collectively we do not control our own destiny. Individually, we make choices that advance our own interests, but the collective effect is to bring about outcomes no one wants and which make us all worse off. The fact that Marx’s solution to this problem is mistaken does not mean that the problem isn’t real, or that we should not seek a better future in which we overcome it.

3:AM: And for the curious readers, can you recommend five books that would take us further into your philosophical world?

On Liberty

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

The Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics

Freedom and Reason

R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Reasons and Persons

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 26th, 2018.