Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin

Karl Marx was a monumental figure. I knew that he spent years doing research in the library of the British Museum and wrote several dense volumes, as well as the Communist Manifesto. I didn’t realize that he was personally involved in left-wing politics. He was the leading revolutionary of his time, moving from country to country, attending meetings, writing letters, advising other communists and socialists throughout Europe, Russia and even the United States (he was even a regular contributor to a New York newspaper).

This is the 4th edition of Isaiah Berlin’s well-written biography of Marx, first published in 1939. Berlin, the famous British philosopher and historian of ideas, presents Marx as a brilliant thinker but a difficult person who devoted his life to bringing about the downfall of capitalism.

What is especially striking is that Marx strongly believed in gathering mountains of evidence in support of his political and economic theories. In that regard, he was a social scientist and an empiricist. Yet he labored in support of an idealistic vision of a future after capitalism that seems terribly unrealistic.

It was conceivable that the proletariat would rise up against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie, especially if a group of revolutionaries could seize power, as they surprisingly did in Russia (of all places). But it was a tremendous leap to think that the state would eventually wither away and the workers would create a functioning communist society. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is an ideal that sounds rational and even practical, but Marx doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to how such an ideal would be implemented. At least, Berlin never gives the impression that Marx spent much time thinking about the communist future. He was much too busy trying to overcome the capitalist present.

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