UC Marx and Engels Discussion


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In Week 1, we read works by Bacon and de la Mettrie, both natural philosophers who argued that we must look at the world as it exists in order to understand it. In the latter case, de la Mettrie went so far as to argue that, lacking evidence, we cannot even say that our mind/soul is separate from our body—which is to say the material world.

In Week 2, we read authors like Voltaire and Kant. Voltaire questioned the norms of society, mocking the irrational aspects of a Europe still dominated by nobles, priests, and received wisdom. Kant meanwhile argued that all people are capable of reason. Yet, in both cases, we also saw that these seemingly universal ideas were mixed up with assumptions about the racial and gendered nature of rationality. We also read Rousseau, who also argued that we are rational beings, existing in nature with no expectation of outside, unnatural intervention. In order to escape a world of individual forces bouncing against each other, canceling each other out, our best hope is to come together in a “social contract.” I suggested to you that we might even think of his solution as a “political technology” in so far as it helped individuals achieve something greater than themselves. 

In Week 3, we read Mary Shelley’s novel, written just a few years after the French Revolution (inspired by writers like Voltaire and Rousseu) and the Napoleonic Wars had come to an end. Seen from one perspective, the novel critiques how individual reason and ego, detached from consideration of others, can lead to terrible outcomes. Though this is hardly the only interpretation, it certainly resonates with aftermath of the French Revolution, when Shelley was writing …

Now, in Week 4, we move fully into the 19th century. Our readings this week include The Communist Manifesto in which Marx and Engels, similar to La Mettrie, look at material conditions and describe an inevitable historical process driven in large part by changes in production and technology. In Ernst Kapp’s writing, we find the argument that technology is actually an extension of ourselves, an “organ projection” that allows us to remake the world in the form of ourselves. In doing so, he suggests, we come to understand ourselves. Furthermore, in the lectures, we begin to touch on imperialism, which can be understood (following Marx and Engels) as a result of changing means of production/technology or (if you’ll allow me to make a big jump from Kapp) a “technology” of its own which allows Europeans to extend themselves around the world, to reshape other societies in their own image, and to understand themselves.

Are Marx and Engels right? Has industrial technology destroyed the feudal order? How? And why does it make the destruction of the bourgeoise inevitable? Do the arguments they make still apply to the present-day as well or are they only referring to their own time and place (c. 1848)? 

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