All too frequently Marxist enthusiasts argue over a ridiculous question: Was Karl Marx an ordinary ‘philosopher’ or a divine ‘prophet’? The question itself is defective because it demands that issue is taken with the terms in which it is put and thus suggests a necessary split between philosophers and prophets. Could Marx not have been both?
Since this ‘prime-question’ immediately gives birth to a problem – this ‘necessary split’ – it is important, at the very beginning, to clarify the connotation which the word ‘prophet’ carries. If a prophet is solely a person who makes accurate predictions of future events, Marx cannot be crowned a prophet as his ultimate prediction of a stateless global communism has yet to come true; although we have witnessed isolated showers of perverted Marxist theories applied in individual cases of regional governance, the global force of communism has yet to storm the planet. In short: “working men of all countries” have not united.
Since we, Marx’s readers, do not possess the prophetic power of foretelling the future, we must accept that the future is largely unknown to us – it is open, undetermined – and therefore we are not in a position to denounce Marx as a simple charlatan; his predictions ‘might’ be proven to be prophecies in the course of history.
Marx’s principal weapon which mediates the “lightning of thought [which strikes] deeply into [the] virgin soil of the people [transforming them] into men,” is the revolutionary and prophetic style of his prose, perhaps at its most obvious in the Communist Manifesto where he grasps the pen-pole with both hands as the words soar from the pages like sparks when a sword is drawn. The power and confidence of the text is twin to the encouragement of a general’s call of war as he rides before his army and eggs on his soldiers in the moments before the onset; the industrial armies of the bourgeoisie, i.e. the proletarian labour-class, must be mobilised in the echo of Marx’s communist call.
The purpose of the Communist Manifesto is to orientate the reader towards a certain future. This is manifested in Marx’s constant use of the tense of absolute present – in which what is desired is presented as if it were already the case in order that it might become so; the edge of Marx’s argument would simply become blunt and pointless if he were to sheathe it in a scabbard of ‘maybes’, infect his manuscript with doubt, render his radical assertions useless and poison the mind of his followers with confusion and mistrust. The Communist Manifesto was written as if its vision of the future is assured, precisely because it is not.
A connection, between Marx’s revolutionary predictions and his methodology for setting of a communist revolution, has now been unveiled. In order to make his future predictions accurate, i.e. in order to reach a utopian communist state, Marx had to arm his proletarian class of labourers with the arsenal to reach this utopia – and in order to reach it, the proletariat must first be aware of its possibility – the seed of the communist vision must be planted in the seedbed of proletarian understanding before it can bloom. “Clearly the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, and material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.”
In Concerning Feuerbach, Marx was infuriated by Feuerbach’s assertion that materialism – an idea Marx associated with human needs and interests and hence with conflict and action – should only be ‘interpretive.’ If human activity is not considered ‘objective’ it has to be considered static, stable and immune to the effect of the Communist spirit. But just as the words of the grey monk provoked the theological revolution of the reformation, “so it is now the philosopher in whose brain the revolution begins. “
In Concerning Feuerbach, Marx explained the philosophical reasons which had induced him to give up philosophy and dedicate himself to the study of capitalist social order. He claims that “Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from thought objects but [Feuerbach] does not conceive human activity itself as ‘objective’ activity. […] Hence, [he] regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judicial manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity.”
“The philosophers have only ‘interpreted’ the world, in various ways; the point is to ‘change’ it.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx therefore makes prophetic philosophically founded predictions in his capacity as a revolutionist – not as a philosopher.
For Marx, the future is rooted in the past. Just as we know that the sun will rise tomorrow because it rose yesterday, social classes will fight one another just as they have done ever since natural wealth was originally divided among them. Throughout history “[f]reeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” This historical analysis of constant and repetitive class-struggle is Marx’s window to the future; since this conflict has always happened before, it will continue to happen. Marx’s historical materialism looks for the causes, developments and changes in human societies in the way in which humans collectively make the means to life, thus giving an emphasis to history, economics and politics through empirical analysis. But if Marx’s descriptions of social conditions are only applicable with regards to future circumstances in so far as the basic social-structure of ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’ does not change, he can not be called a prophet and his assertions must rather be considered sociological than prophetic.
But according to Marx the class-fight is not lineal throughout the eternity of time. At a point in history, in the shadow of certain social circumstances “it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class of society and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.” This is the point when the oppressed snatches the power from the hands of his oppressor – the point when Marx makes prophetic predictions.
But we have to take Marx’s claims about the necessity of future events with a pinch of salt. Just as forecasts of meteorologists and climatologists are always tested in the ‘open’ future, Marx’s sociological and historical predictions are predictions of times to come. The universal reign of communism may be realized tomorrow, or in a thousand years, and if so, Marx travels from the platform of a common sociological weather-forecaster to the divine throne of a prophet. In short – his integrity is protected by future eternity and thus we can never allow ourselves the luxury of labelling him a charlatan.
One day objects will fall up instead of down. Prove me wrong!