Karl Marx

Week of: 
October 19, 2004
What is it: 

The ideas of Karl Marx vie with those of Rousseau, Locke and Jefferson for shaping the politics of the twentieth century. Are Marx's ideas of real philosophical value and interest, or simply relics of interest only in trying to understand the benighted century we have left behind? John and Ken divide their labor with Jonathan Wolff from University College London, author of Why Read Marx Today?

Listening Notes: 

Karl Marx's philosophical views influenced much of recent thought. Three of his most important ideas are his theory of economic value, historical determinism, and his notion of alienation. His idea of alienation is the state of workers when they are disconnected from the product of their labor. Workers are not alienated from their labor when they engage it freely and autonomously. Communism is supposed to prevent the alienation of workers from work. But, what's so bad about alienation? Ken introduces the guest, Jonathan Wolff, professor at University College London. Marx thought that under the capitalist system, everyone, even the capitalists, is subject to alien forces beyond their control. He thought that everyone loses under capitalism.

Wolff thinks Marx's ideas about essences should be understood in terms of potentials. Marx's dialectical materialism was the idea that the world is material stuff and that humans make the world through their labor. Marx was very critical of religion. He thought it deluded the masses and distracted them from reality. Marx's idea of surplus value is key to understanding alienation and market forces.

Why is Marx important today? Wolff thinks that one of the reason to read Marx is for his criticism of capitalism which he illustrates with Marx's idea of the concentration of capital. Do the failures of communist states undermine Marxist ideas? Do the successes of quasi-socialist states, such as the Scandinavian countries, vindicate his ideas? What would Marx think of states that claim to be socialist? Wolff points out that Marx thought communist structures would arise in capitalist systems. What would Marx think of automated production lines? He would probably be critical of it not increasing the worker's leisure time.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 05:02): Amy Standen interviews Josh Kornbluth, a comedian and communist, about life as a communist and being brought up as a communist. 
  • Conundrum (Seek to 48:00): Peter from Portland calls in with the worry that issues in the media are always presented as having only two possibilities, for or against. Why are they framed in this way? Would offering a greater range of possibilities or clearer distinctions between action and issues help?

Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy, University College London

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