Russell on Marx as Excessively Practical Messiah and Schoolman

In his sometimes cranky, often witty, and always erudite History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell paints deflationary portraits of many members of the Western philosophical tradition.  (Russell is particularly witty when dealing with Kant and Nietzsche; those treatments will soon form the subject of posts here). He also shows a rare talent for the artful digression, which I want to illustrate by pointing to a couple of his asides on Marx.

In a  chapter titled St. Augustine’s Philosophy and Theology, Russell, immediately after informing us that the eschatology of The City of God is “Jewish in origin, and came into Christianity mainly through the Book of Revelation” and that Augustine’s primary talent lay in bringing together the “sacred and profane history” of the Old Testament and relating it to the history of his time in “such a way that the fall of the Western Empire, and the subsequent period of confusion, could be assimilated by Christians without any unduly severe trial of their faith,” goes on to say:

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and unfortunate at all times. St. Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = Dialectial Materialism

The Messiah = Marx

The Elect = The Proletariat

The Church = The Communist Party

The Second Coming = The Revolution

Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists

The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth

I do not know if the analogizing of Marxism to a religion or the description of Marx as Messiah began with Russell–it certainly didn’t end with him–but I doubt if anyone has quite so deftly moved from a discussion of medieval philosophers to doing so.

Later, in a chapter titled Locke’s Political Philosophy, Russell, after noting that the labor theory of value is to be found in Locke, and may be traced back to Aquinas, quotes R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism:

The essence of the argument was that payment may properly be demanded by the craftsmen who make the goods, or by the merchants who transport them, for both labour in their vocation and serve the common need. The unpardonable sin is that of the middleman , who snatches private gain by the exploitation of public necessities. The true descendant of the doctrines of Aquinas is the labor theory of value. The last of the schoolmen was Karl Marx.

When Russell does get to discussing Marx directly, he is frank enough to admit that he finds Marx not philosophical enough:

Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings. He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to man.

Marx might have resisted the description of himself as a Prophet, and perhaps even as merely having inherited the mantle of an older tradition of philosophizing, but I doubt whether he would have reckoned it a serious criticism of his thought that it was all too tightly bound to man, to this earthly domain of concern.

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