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Never mind the size, feel the quality
on 11 February 2011
After reading the "Manifesto", Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" and Lenin's "State and the Revolution" anybody embarking on a study of Marxism should read this wonderful little book by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer before proceeding further with Marx's works and academic commentaries on them.
I particularly like chapter 6 (Alienation as a theory of history) and his account of the development of the theory of the materialist conception of history. However, chapter 10 (An appreciation) is especially impressive - or thought-provoking if you happen to disagree with his assessments. Singer argues that Marx deserves to be ranked with the foremost philosophers for two reasons: (1) his critique of the liberal conception of freedom, and (2) his analysis of human nature.
Marx provided the most important of all critiques of the liberal conception of freedom, which is "negative" freedom (freedom from) as opposed to "positive" (freedom to). It sees freedom as non-interference by the state or other individuals. It embraces laissez-faire economics because it sees the market as impersonal, and anyway many supporters of "liberal" freedom believe that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" produces the best possible result. Marx's objections to "liberal" freedom are:
* The interests of individuals are not necessarily the same as the totality of individuals (i.e. the community).
* Markets force us to compete with others instead of co-operating for the good of all.
* Allowing ourselves to be shaped by the market is not true freedom: planning the economy is the first step to controlling our own destiny which is true freedom.
Singer explains Marx's position very lucidly. He uses the example of people living in the suburbs of a city who can commute either by car or bus. As an individual I prefer to use my car instead of waiting for the bus. If 50,000 other people in the suburb do the same then the road is choked with cars and a 10 mile journey takes, say, an hour. Singer continues:
"In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely...Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus the roads would be empty and we would cover the distance in twenty minutes...The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one's interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality. The solution, obviously, is for us all to get together and make a collective decision."
Marx believes that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. We may appear "free" because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other people, but Marx thinks we are not free because we do not actually control our own society and will not do so until we collectively determine a planned economy.
Of course, Marx underestimated the difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of each individual in the joint endeavour of controlling society, but Singer is surely right to argue that Marx is the most important critic of the liberal conception of freedom and "it earns Marx a place alongside Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hegel as a major figure in Western political thought."
The other important achievement Singer identifies is Marx's view that human nature is not fixed. This tends to seem obvious to most of us now but it was not the case before Marx, who stressed the degree to which human nature alters in accordance with the economic and social conditions that prevail. Of course, his own optimistic view of human nature is probably false but that is a separate issue. As Singer observes: "Marx's view of human nature is now so widely accepted that a return to a pre-Marxist conception of human nature is unthinkable."
Definitely a book worth reading.