What people are doing wrong about socialism

Left-wing extremism

Prof. Dr. Armin Pfahl-Traughber

Prof. Dr. Armin Pfahl-Traughber

To person

Dipl.-Pol., Dipl.-Soz., Born in 1963, is a full-time lecturer at the Federal University of Applied Sciences in Brühl with a focus on extremism and the history of ideas, lecturer at the University of Bonn with a focus on political theory and editor of the Yearbook for Extremism and Terrorism Research (Brühl).

A presentation of the basic positions in terms of content and an analysis of the extremist potential

In a BBC poll of the greatest philosopher of all time, Karl Marx landed at number one on the list in 2005 with 28 percent. Nevertheless: The ideas of Marxism also have central elements that are compatible in form and content with dictatorial systems.

Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz. (& copy AP)

In a survey by British television BBC, where viewers were asked about the greatest philosopher of all time, Karl Marx landed in 2005 with just under 28 percent by far in 1. In the same year, "Der Spiegel" brought him on its front page, provided the headline "A Ghost Returns. The New Power of the Left". Apparently Marx is on the rise again and by no means only on the political left. However, an ambivalent picture can be discerned in the interpretation: On the one hand, it is considered a classic of social science analysis of society, which published fundamental contributions to the development of the history and functioning of capitalism. On the other hand, his works also contain highly ideological elements, which made him an intellectual model for left-wing extremist aspirations and communist dictatorships. The present essay aims to describe its basic positions in terms of content and to critically point out its extremist potential.

The methodological problems of the Marx representation and interpretation

However, there are some methodological problems associated with the ambivalent and fragmentary character of the publications by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Your writings, available in forty volumes of the "Marx-Engels-Werke" (henceforth cited as MEW), by no means contain a substantively developed and stringently structured political theory. There is also no precise description of the path to a socialist system or the conditions in a strived for classless society. Both made a rather general and cursory statement on this. This explains to a large extent why Marx and Engels were interpreted politically ambivalent: Humanist philosophers such as Erich Fromm as well as totalitarian dictators such as Josef W. Stalin, social democratic reformers as well as communist revolutionaries referred to their writings. In this respect, from a scientific point of view, both uncritical homage and blanket condemnations are forbidden.

The criticism of idealism as a view that is unrealistic

For Engels, the starting point for turning to socialism was the knowledge of the poor living conditions of workers in Great Britain, for Marx the critical examination of the idealism of the most important German thinker of the time, Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831). This assumed that the ideas determined the social and historical development. Marx and Engels commented on this from their perspective: "In stark contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here one ascends from earth to heaven. That is, what people say is not assumed to imagine, to introduce oneself, not even from the said, thought, imagined, imagined people, in order to arrive at the real people; it is assumed from the really active people and from their real life process also the development of ideological reflexes and echoes this life process represented "(MEW vol. 3, p. 26f.).

Dialectical thinking as a methodical principle of philosophy

On the other hand, another aspect of Hegel's methodical philosophy was adopted by Marx and Engels for their theory: the principle of dialectics. In general, this can be understood as thinking in terms of opposites. In contrast to popular beliefs, the world does not consist of finished and finished things and facts. Developments are also not one-dimensional and straightforward. Rather, a constant process of debate and change must be assumed. In this perspective, dialectics is "the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought" (MEW, vol. 20, p. 131f.). Here opposites constantly collide, which should merge with one another in a higher unity. According to Hegel, a thesis is followed by an antithesis, which both lead to a synthesis, from which a thesis with an antithesis and further synthesis is formed as a constant process of renewal.

Naming materialism as a philosophical alternative

Marx and Engels contrast the criticized idealism with their materialism. This assumes that the ideas are not independent phenomena of the mind, but are reflections of the material conditions. Because the ideal is nothing else "than the material implemented and translated in the human head" (MEW, vol. 23, p. 27). The social conditions in the past and present are therefore primarily shaped by the state of economic and technical development, ie the "productive forces", and the social interaction in production, ie the "production relations". The latter also centrally determines the perceptions of the respective individuals: "It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness (MEW, vol. 13, p. 7). Accordingly, play for thinking and People perceive their social position in the production relations - ultimately belonging to a "class" - a central role.

The relationship between "base" and "superstructure" in a society

In this way, Marx and Engels divided society into a decisive "base", that is, the economic relationships and the economic structure, and into the secondary "superstructure", that is culture, morality, politics and religion. They are concerned with the "simple fact that people first of all have to eat, drink, live and dress before they can engage in politics, science, art, religion, etc. so that each time the economic development stage of a people or a period of time forms the basis from which the state institutions, the legal views, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have developed "(MEW, vol. 19, p. 335). Accordingly, the "base" causally determines the "superstructure". So an economic change also leads to a political change: "With the change in the economic basis, the whole immense superstructure is slowly or more rapidly overturning" (MEW, vol. 13, p. 9).