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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Is Kant Responsible for Marxism?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had a problematic relationship with Immanuel Kant. In their book, The German Ideology,  they harshly dismiss Kant as a bourgeois moralist:
The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionizing industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realization of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.
Further in the book, Marx and Engels dismiss Kant as a whitewashing spokesman for the German middle class. Here’s an excerpt:
The characteristic form which French liberalism, based on real class interests, assumed in Germany we find again in Kant. Neither he, nor the German middle class, whose whitewashing spokesman he was, noticed that these theoretical ideas of the bourgeoisie had as their basis material interests and a will that was conditioned and determined by the material relations of production. Kant, therefore, separated this theoretical expression from the interests which it expressed; he made the materially motivated determinations of the will of the French bourgeois into pure self-determinations of “free will”, of the will in and for itself, of the human will, and so converted it into purely ideological conceptual determinations and moral postulates. Hence the German petty bourgeois recoiled in horror from the practice of this energetic bourgeois liberalism as soon as this practice showed itself, both in the Reign of Terror and In shameless bourgeois profit-making. 
However, in the preface to Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels gives credit to Kant. He says: "We German socialists are proud that we trace our descent not only from Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, but also from Kant, Fichte and Hegel.” But in this case, Engels is mentioning Kant because he believed that Kant is the founder of German Idealism of which Marxism is an offshoot.

Marx and Engels owed a lot to Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel was in some areas inspired by Kant but he has also criticized the Kantian system. It is worth noting that the area of Hegelian philosophy from which Marx and Engels have benefitted has very little to do with what Kant has preached. Therefore case cannot be made that Kant inspired Marx through the medium of Hegel.

Kant developed a major part of his philosophy (including his three Critiques) before or in the early years of the French Revolution, whereas Hegel’s philosophy was to a large extent a post-French Revolution enterprise. Hegel was inspired by his experience of the colossal economic and political changes that the French Revolution brought to Europe. He was primarily a philosopher of the new world which came into being after the French Revolution. Marx and Engels too were post-French Revolution thinkers and it was easier for them to empathize with the Hegelian system.

The founder of the Soviet Union, V. I. Lenin too had a strong dislike for Kant's ideas. In his book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, he looks at Kant's works as a reactionary philosophy. He has devoted an entire section, "The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and From the Right," in his book's Chapter Four, "The Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-In-Arms and Successors of Empirio-Criticism," to criticizing Kant and clarifying that communism has been developed after philosophy moved away from Kant's idealism.

There is no evidence to make the case that Kant was the intellectual driver of Marxism. He was a classical liberal and he would be appalled by the Marxist doctrine.  

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