Karl Marx was arguably one of the brightest minds in the 19th century. He developed an idea together with his friend Engels, that the modern age is ripe for a revolution. This revolution is a natural outcome of human struggle. This struggle will produce an egalitarian society where there is no bourgeoisie and proletariat. His ideas were based not on the works of contemporary philosophers but the idea of Epicurus. Epicureanism is the belief that everything, the physical world, and the human soul are made up of atoms and space. This simplification allowed Epicurus to imagine a world where there are no rules and therefore no pain. Epicurus also added that the atoms are the source of sensation and in this world, the senses are the source of truth. Marx used these ideas to build his interpretation on how to achieve freedom and utopia.
In the year 1848, Karl Marx published his Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx & Engles, 1848). It is one of the most influential and controversial treatises ever written. This is because it was an that has the potential to turn the world upside down. It was written when Europe and the rest of the world struggled to understand the Industrial Revolution and its positive and more importantly negative impact. The Industrial Revolution can be traced back to technological breakthroughs in the 18th century. There was just an explosion of scientific knowledge and discoveries that would forever alter the way humans come to view the planet and all its natural resources.
The Industrial Revolution changed the way people consume products and at the same time manufacture goods. In the past, life revolved around agriculture. Agricultural products provided for the basic needs of man such as food, shelter, and clothing. The field where crops were planted and animals were grazed is the ultimate source of life. But being a farmer and working the land is not an easy task. Furthermore, there is no assurance that a hardworking man can produce enough food for his family and at the same time be able to make money out of his labor. Therefore, when the factories beckoned for the rural folks to come, farmers and agricultural workers from the rural areas came and brought their families with them.
The radical changes in technology encouraged many rural people to migrate to places where they can find work in factories. Almost overnight an industrial town was transformed into cities wherein thousands of workers congregate to look for jobs and bring their families with them. Thus, they created make-shift living quarters for they are new to the land and they have no money to buy the property or to construct decent living quarters. This prompted one historian to remark that industrial towns looked like dark hives where machines and men worked non-stop for twelve to fourteen hours. When there is shifting the factory can go on round-the-clock (Gillham, 2002). The new arrivals accepted what was offered they could not afford to be choosy at that point and so these industrial towns that later on were transformed into cities lacked the planning necessary to create an orderly and clean society.
The jobs offered at the factory can be considered more stable than farm work. As long as the factory worker was physically able to do the work then he can be assured of wages that in turn can feed his hungry family waiting for him at the end of the day. The only problem is that the worker must come to grips with a new social order. The worker is no longer free – especially if he is a former farmer and used to own a piece of land – he is now under the authority of a new master. This time around the master is not a baron or a prince, the new master is known by a new name – a capitalist.
Karl Marx saw something in this new relationship. He began to conjecture that ever since the beginning of recorded human history mankind has always been contending with social classes. This means that society has always been divided into classes. Common examples are: rich and poor; landed and the landless; rulers and their subjects; and intellectuals and the non-educated. Marx added that in his generation he had seen the emergence of a new dichotomy. He called the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The sharp mind of Marx realized the evolution of these so-called social class gradations into a synthesis. He argued that in critical times in human history a revolution can sweep a nation so that the old system is abolished and a new system will emerge.
The king-state society, for instance, was not sustainable in the long run according to Marx. The kings who were the absolute rulers occupy the other extreme and the slaves occupy the opposite end of the spectrum. These two opposites collided and a new one emerged to take its place and it is called feudalism (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). The evolution continued and the new society that was formed comprised of lords and serfs that in turn gave way to capitalism (Popkin & Stroll, 1993). Marx added that capitalism is not sustainable and it will break down further and this time around the revolution will create a classless society. While Marx and Engels wrote the philosophical basis for an egalitarian society, it was Lenin who took their ideas and attempted to create a classless society in Russia (Gamble, 1999). He succeeded in transforming the motherland to become the Union Soviet Socialist Republic but that was as far as he was able to go in terms of creating a society where there are no more classes and there is no more division between rich and poor.
It must be pointed out that Marx was not the sole author of the Manifesto. He had with him as co-author Friedrich Engels who was also a brilliant philosopher and a major source not only of inspiration but also of information when regards to the ideas needed to develop a masterpiece. But with regards to the underlying principles such as revolutionary praxis and transformation of society, Marx did not rely on the work of modern philosophers, but someone who was born more than two thousand years ago and his name are Epicurus.
He was born in 341 B.C. in Athens, Greece. The main basis for his idea is the belief that matter can be further reduced into solid and indivisible particles – or atoms – that cannot be seen or perceived (Konstan, 2009). These atoms could not be seen by the naked eye but at the same time, it has to have spaces for the atoms to move. So the idea is that everything can be simplified into atoms and space. This is not something that Epicurus was able to discover on his own. He merely borrowed the basic principles from Democritus, another ancient philosopher who thought of atoms a century earlier (Konstan, 2009). The genius of Epicurus is in taking this idea and then expanding it to create his version of psychology and ethics which will later be called Epicureanism.
Since everything is made up of atoms and empty spaces, Epicureanism posits that the human body is also made up of the same material and a lot of empty spaces in between. But he even went further by saying that the soul is also made up of atoms (Konstan, 2009). Then he went a little further that the soul atoms are scattered all over the body and these atoms are the reason why humans have sensations, particularly the feeling of pain and pleasure (Konstan, 2009). The dispersal of the soul atoms outside the body means that the body is no longer active and could not feel anything – it is dead. Epicurus then concluded that after death there is no afterlife because the soul atoms escape the body after the person’s demise.
Based on these arguments, Epicureanism concludes that there is no punishment after death and more importantly humans are geared to minimize pain and to maximize pleasure (Konstan, 2009). In his philosophy notebooks where he wrote his insights regarding Epicureanism, Karl Marx pointed out that feelings and perceptions are standards of truth (Marx, 2003). Marx also added that sensations are not only true but are devoid of reason and incapable of memory (Marx, 2003). Marx expanded on it by saying that the material is better than the ideal. In other words what is in this world, in the present, what can be felt is more important than abstract ideas like righteousness, goodness, etc. When Marx adhered to Epicurus’ idea that the ultimate struggle is to minimize pain and to increase pleasure then Marxism was set for a collision course with a capitalistic society.
The deplorable conditions in the industrialized world and the squalid living conditions in the cities prompted men like Karl Marx to protest against inhumanity and injustice. Philosophers like Marcuse and Horkheimer, using the ideas advanced by Epicureanism, tried to deepen their understanding of how man has come to a point where they have lost their freedom. Marcuse argued that repression and submission are a part of human existence and to break free from it man has to understand that he deserved to be free (Marcuse, 1987). On the other hand, this is easier said than done because the dominant group or the ruling class is also the one who would like to perpetuate the oppression of the people.
These leaders make the community work as a unified whole. These leaders may be oppressive but they are important components of society. When it comes to religious leaders they too are part of a system that not only maintains the status quo but also made sure that the guilty should pay for their transgressions. If liberty means going against established authorities, a paradigm shift is needed and this is where Epicureanism comes in. The idea that there is no punishment after death can be a very powerful argument to storm the castle and to bring down the tyrant. It can even be an idea that can encourage suicide attacks because it was already pointed out that life is without meaning after death.
Epicureanism also highlighted not only the need to increase pleasure and freedom from pain; it also talked about freedom from fear. Epicurus traced the root cause of fear in the anxiety created by the idea of the afterlife. By removing this huge stumbling block, Epicurus argued that man can be freed from this paranoia about death and the judgment that follows afterward. Marcuse clarified that the need for emancipation is not only due to the hardships and the injustices that man has experienced under the authority of the tyrant, emancipation must also bring utopia to this world (Abromeit & Cobb, 2004). Utopia is only possible if fear is absent.
Another major insight of Epicureanism that without a doubt also influenced Marx is the idea that pleasure and pain are related to activity or motion. Peace or tranquility can be achieved by being still. But joy and delight can only be achieved in motion (Marx, 2003). This means that to change pain into pleasure, motion is required. The environment will never change by meditating or by the mere discussion of words. To change the world, man has to learn to move and man has to have activities that will change the status quo. This was used as a basis for revolution.
Horkheimer is helpful in this regard. He has taken the idea of the need to act and developed it further to explain why man needed to do something to improve his environment and the social conditions that made life difficult. Horkheimer argued that “rational action” is inherent in man and that he can adapt and respond with the appropriate reaction to solve baffling problems (Horkheimer, 1974). This concept Horkheimer was able to expand by stating that in the modern world man has access not only to vast psychological resources but he has also access to a new way of material production (Horkheimer, 1974). He went on to say that in the modern world life is being controlled by a minority and worse no one can escape their influence.
Horkheimer also said that although life is more complicated today than compared to those who lived in the 16th century for instance, on the bright side, man has experienced freedom. But this freedom is a two-edged sword. Horkheimer argued that man has so much freedom that has become a slave to the things that he had created. Epicureanism said that there is no god and that there is no afterlife. This idea was supposed to free man from tyrants and social forces that try to limit his pursuit of happiness.
The idea of Karl Marx to use Epicureanism to create an argument against capitalism was successful – at least on paper. When he preached it to Europeans it was Lenin who took hold of it and tried to fashion a classless society based on the ideas of Marxism. He went as far as transforming the country into one big commune but it proved to be unsustainable and even destructive (Gamble, 2003). In the aftermath of the failed experiment Marxism produced a different breed of liberal thinkers who argue in favor of freedom and equality. To some extent, the world adhered to some of the basic principles of Marxism which is to abhor the creation of a society where the elite members lord it over the commoners.
Marxism was proven to be ineffective and unable to defeat capitalism but in some way, it has influenced many to think that they are not beholden to anyone and that there are no rules that exist except those that help minimize pain and increase the likelihood of pleasure. This has become the new religion of the 20th and 21st centuries. Horkheimer was correct in pointing out that man is empty and when he thought that he was free, he is not. This time around there are no Kings and tyrants that limited his every movement, he is limited by the system that he has created, a world that could not exist without the use of manufactured goods. The means of creating goods and selling them is the new god. Life and everything else depended on the continuous production of goods as well as their consumption by everyone. If someone will successfully destroys this process then the whole planet will suffer. There is a need to re-examine Epicureanism. It is not the solution to man’s problems. Even when philosophers tinkered with it and tried to improve it the result was still a disaster.
Marx was influenced by the social forces and the radical changes that were occurring in Europe in the 19th century. No one can deny the transforming power of industrialization but for Marx and many like-minded philosophers. They can help explain why the man was never created to work in dirty factories and to come home to equally squalid living quarters. When these workers brought their families to the industrial towns the world has seen a different kind of poverty and oppression. This time around poor families was reduced to nothing in the dog-eat-dog world of the cities.
They had no choice but to adjust. While some of them had their freedom and the ability to make money on the farm. They sold this right to have a more secure means of earning a living. The boom in the manufacturing industry created the idea that it would be better to work in the city than to do backbreaking labor in the rural areas wherein no one can know the outcome of that intense work. It seems a practical idea to move to a place where wages are guaranteed as long as the worker can continuously offer his body to work as tirelessly as the machinery.
Marx said that this is time to initiate class struggle. He argued that there is no other option. The continuous evolution of society has ensured that a revolution will occur and when finally the working class will come to the realization that they are no longer bound by any social conventions and religion then they can aspire to be free and to be happy. Marx’s ideas are brilliant to look at on paper but it seems that is almost impossible to apply them in the real world. Perhaps one way of understanding its flaw is to re-examine the foundations that he used to create the philosophical argument.
Epicurus was working as a true empiricist and he was correct in his deductions that everything can be simplified into atoms and empty spaces. His ideas became controversial when he tried to go beyond his limits and jump from the physical world into the spiritual realm. He had no business doing so because he cannot perceive. But Epicurus reasoned out that just like the atoms, man has no way of perceiving, and yet the expert use of logic has allowed humans to discover that atoms are real. In the same way, it seems also possible that that man can explain the life-giving force that sustains man, and the same life-giving force is absent in death.
The ancients said that life is from a spiritual being that passes through another realm after death. In that realm God is present. This idea has been the major foundation of religion. Realizing that religion was used to control and dominate man Epicurus reasoned out that since there is no soul, only atoms and empty spaces, the way that tyrants and oppressors come to dominate human beings is unnatural and therefore wrong. They must eliminate these ideas so that man will no longer have to contend with pain but will only enjoy bliss.
Aside from abandoning beliefs and trusting in the senses, Epicureanism did not offer clear directions on what to do next in the attempt to experience true happiness minus the dreadful experience of suffering and anxiety. Marx said that it is to revolution and the destruction of the older to be replaced with the new. But decades of communist rule have proven this argument false. It is impossible to destroy a hierarchy of leadership. Even in Lenin’s Russia, the Communist Party was the ruler of the people. The poor people living in the countryside did not experience the egalitarian society that was promised. The poor continued to work for those who are in power. There may be no ostentatious display of wealth but it was clear that those who made decisions, lived a much more comfortable life than the peasants.
It can even be said that Epicureanism and Marxism did not only fail but it backfired. This time around man can block from his mind the displeasing thought of life after death or the necessity of religion in their lives. But it has created emptiness, purposelessness in being. If this universe is only composed of atoms and the void then what is the point of working every day just to be transformed into nothingness after death. The mere look at the eyes of a child will suggest that Epicurus and Karl Marx missed something. The happiness experienced by two people who are happily married is a direct assault against Epicureanism. This world is not only about senses, perception, and atoms. There is more to life than these.
The goal of Karl Marx was to initiate a revolution that will result in the emancipation of those who suffered under the hands of a system that reduced them to nothing. Their freedom was taken away from them in a subtle way. They were not a conquered people. The workers were willing drones and they exchanged liberty for the chance of receiving daily wages. Their attempt to create a life where there are no problems backfired. This is because their employers now own them. Their lives are now dictated by the availability of jobs as well as the money that they can earn from working. Their lives have become meaningless. It was reduced to nothingness. Freedom and bliss were never achieved. Epicurus and Karl Marx had to rethink their theory.
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