From one of my mailing lists:
Marxism is the legitimate successor to the best humanity produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
I don’t exactly disagree with the writer of this, but there’s something blockheaded about it, which disturbs me.
Old Karl is one of three thinkers born in the 19th century whom I deeply admire; the other two are Darwin and Freud. And for Karl, at least, I also feel an intense personal fondness. I just like the guy. I think that tossing back a few beers with Karl would have been fun, and I’m not so sure about that with respect to the other two.
‘Best of the nineteenth century’ seems right, though it was, overall, a hell of a bad period; and therefore, perhaps, the phrase, though no doubt well intended, is in fact fainter praise than the Moor deserves.
What struck my eye was the three sources my correspondent listed: German philosophy, English political economy, and French socialism. Talk about unpromising materials! And yet my correspondent is right, up to a point: these were the books Karl had on his shelf.
All these confluent streams are shallow and polluted, and yet old Karl, swimming in such insalubrious waters, came up with notions that can still set us thinking, and even acting.
What bothers me, perhaps, about my correspondent’s phrasing is an implicit suggestion that Karl winnowed out the bad and kept the good; that his activity was, so to say, redactive.
This couldn’t be more wrong. All the bad stuff about Karl is the nineteenth-century stuff; the belief in ‘progress’, for example. That comes from ‘English political economy’. And all the stuff that’s completely unreadable and incomprehensible comes from German ‘philosophy’. And all the dated polemics — which are, admittedly, fun to read — come from French socialism.
So where did the good stuff come from? I have my own thoughts on the subject, but I’d like to hear yours.