[OPE-L] Review of Allen Wood _Karl Marx_ (Phil Gasper)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Nov 03 2005 - 11:09:11 EST

---------------------------- Original Message -----------------------
Subject: Review of Wood
From:    "Phil Gasper" <pgasper@NDNU.EDU>

International Socialist Review 44
November-December 2005

Allen Wood
KARL MARX, Second edition
Routledge, 2004
xlii + 302 pages  $34.95


In July, listeners of the BBC radio program "In
Our Time" voted Marx the world's greatest
philosopher by an overwhelming margin.
Ironically, Marx himself was rather contemptuous
of philosophy, famously declaring, "The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in
various ways; the point is to change it." Most of
his mature writings are on political economy and
contemporary events, and he rarely addresses
philosophical questions explicitly.

Yet in a broad sense of the term, Marx clearly is
a philosopher. As Allen Wood notes in his
introduction, "Marx is   a systematic thinker who
attaches great importance to the underlying
methods and aims of his theory and the general
outlook on the human predicament expressed in
it." Marx also explicitly acknowledges his debt
to both eighteenth-century Enlightenment
materialism, and the tradition of German idealist
philosophy that culminated in the work of Hegel.

Anyone who wants a better understanding of Marx's
philosophy can do no better than to begin by
consulting Wood's book, originally published in
1981. This second edition includes an additional
chapter (on capitalist exploitation) and a
marvelous new preface in which Wood explains why
Marx's ideas remain relevant in the twenty-first
century, and why the collapse of the Soviet Union
and its Eastern European empire (which he
describes as "experiments in rapid
industrialization under ruthless state
capitalism") in no way refuted them.

Wood, an eminent Kant and Hegel scholar now
teaching at Stanford, addresses five main topics:
alienation, Marx's theory of history, morality,
materialism, and the dialectical method. Despite
the complexity of the material, Wood's
discussions are models of clarity in which the
central issues and the debates about them are
lucidly explained. (This is especially noteworthy
since many discussions of Marxist philosophy are
impenetrable to the non-specialist, and sometimes
to most specialists as well.) Wood has a wide
knowledge of Marx's writings and quotes from them
frequently, often noting similarities and
differences with the ideas of other major

But Wood's book is not simply a work of
exposition. He frequently defends his own
interpretations of Marx's views, which are often
novel and sometimes controversial, but always
worth considering. His discussion of alienation-a
central concept in Marx's early works, which Wood
explains as "the failure (or inability) to
actualize one's human essential powers"-is
particularly clarifying. Wood argues,
convincingly I think, that Marx began by
mistakenly thinking that alienation is the
underlying explanation of everything that is
wrong with capitalism (for instance, the fact
that workers don't own the product of their
labor), but later came to regard it not as an
explanation but as simply a symptom of deeper

The most controversial of Wood's interpretations
concerns Marx's views about morality. Wood argues
that Marx does not criticize capitalism on moral
grounds, never saying, for example, that it is
unjust or that it violates workers' rights.
Indeed, according to Wood, Marx regards the
exploitation of wage labor by capital as just
when judged by the only applicable historical
standard, since "justice" in any society merely
means functional for the existing mode of
production. On Wood's view, Marx believes that
his historical materialist framework, in which
social existence determines consciousness,
implies that all morality-not just bourgeois
morality-is an ideological illusion. Rather than
making moral criticisms of capitalism, Marx
condemns it on the basis of what Wood claims are
non-moral values, such as its tendency to
frustrate "self-actualization, security, physical
health, comfort, community, freedom" for most

After Wood first published these views in an
article in the early 1970s, a virtual academic
sub-industry emerged to debate and contest his
interpretation. Some argued that Marx does make
explicit moral criticisms of capitalist
exploitation (which he sometime describes as
"robbery," for example); others that while he
explicitly rejects such criticisms, he is
implicitly committed to them anyway; still others
that Wood's conception of morality is too narrow
and that on a more reasonable understanding, Marx
does judge capitalism to be morally deficient.

Setting aside the issue of how to interpret what
Marx actually says, is it true that historical
materialism entails that morality is an illusion?
Sometimes tracing ideas back to their material
roots is sufficient to debunk them-this, for
instance, is why Marx is a critic of religion.
Religious beliefs, he thinks, can be fully
explained in terms of the material and social
circumstances that give rise to them, without
supposing that there is a supernatural reality to
which they correspond.

But Marx also thinks that scientific ideas can be
explained in the same general way, and this
rightly does not lead him to reject the notion of
scientific truth, even though science under
capitalism is frequently distorted by the
interests of the ruling class. In principle,
something similar might be true about morality,
as Wood acknowledges. This may have been what
Engels had in mind when he wrote, "there has on
the whole been progress in morality," but a
"really human morality   becomes possible only at
a stage of society which has not only overcome
class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in
practical life." On this view, while morality in
bourgeois society is systematically twisted, this
is not a reason for rejecting the moral point of
view in its entirety.

In fact, as a practical matter, it would be very
hard to do so. Should socialists try to drop such
concepts as "social justice" and "women's rights"
from their vocabulary? Marx rightly viewed mere
moralizing about capitalism's defects as a waste
of time, but a moral critique coupled with a
class-based analysis of how to change things, can
be a powerful force. People fight more
passionately for their interests when they
believe that justice is on their side.

The debate on Marxism and morality is far from
over, and I recommend anyone interested in
pursuing it, or any of the other topics mentioned
above, to read Wood's fine book. It helps to show
why Marx's ideas continue to resonate-which is no
doubt why he won that BBC poll.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Nov 04 2005 - 00:00:01 EST