Modernity refers to the period marked by inquisitiveness or refutation of the tradition. It pertains to prioritization of eccentricity, self-determination, formal egalitarianism, faith in inescapable social, scientific and industrial progress, and finally human perfectibility. On the other hand, enlightenment was the period in the western history stretching from mid seventieth century to the eighteenth century. The major features of enlightenment period include dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy and close relationship between politics and society. Emmanuel Kant was a philosopher who explained social order during the enlightenment period while Marx is associated more with modernity. Enlightenment paved way to modernity. It is argued that both Karl Marx and Kant were the two philosophers who dedicated their time in explaining social order in modern society. Kant observed that enlightenment, which is compared to modernity, pertains to overcoming self-inflicted maturity. His view was that enlightenment was inevitable given the nature of human inventions and innovations (Kant, 1996: 74). Kant was of the view that human beings had to use reason to overcome some of the challenges that affected them at the time. On his part, Karl Marx seemed to contradict the ideas of Kant by noting that the lack of maturity in the modern society was the main reason for the emergence of a social order characterized by material wealth (Tucker, 1961: 8). In the following discursive essay, the aim is to examine the extent to which Marx’s ideas supported, or contradicted, those of Kant as far as modernity is concerned.
Comparison of Marxism and Kantianism
Whereas Kant was of the view that enlightenment would be achieved through the application of reason; Marx adopted a different perspective that believed real enlightenment would be realized through a communist revolution (Fanon, 2008: 39). Marx was unable to understand why people would still aspire to exploit others yet they use reason in making decisions. He was against the idea of one class making use of the other to achieve economic, financial, political, and economic ambitions. The idea that application of reason would liberate or free human beings from bondage, as Kant envisioned, was simply an illusion, according to Marx. In this regard, Marx seems to offer a stronger argument, but his view on enlightenment is vague because he fails to offer a clear definition of what it means to be a human being.
From Kantian perspective, immaturity entails depending on others, especially in reasoning. Kant was against the idea of a section of the population over relying on the government, or any other group, for ideas and values. He wanted people to engage in reasoning to be able to generate ideas that would help them in solving basic problems (Perry, 1996: 92). He criticized scenarios where people would seek help from pastors, professors, kings, and authors to solve the most basic problems in their environments. Rather than wait for others to think for them, Kant advised people to analyze their social environments and come up with workable solutions. People were facing several problems because the decisions they were making were based on people’s views and principles (Marx, & Engels, 1998: 11). In the society in which Kant lived, people were unwilling to take responsibility, something that angered him so much. In his view, this was the root cause of immaturity because people never engaged in thought processes to find solutions. An individual’s failure to take responsibility makes one immature. Again, the type of immaturity is self-imposed. Kant went on to argue that freedom is closely related to an individual’s public life, and not the private life. Private life, according to Kant, includes professional role. Contrary to popular view, he saw pastors, civil servants, kings, teachers, and lawyers as people living private lives because they are representatives of their employers (Marx, & Engels, 2002: 61). For instance, he claimed that a public servant would never make a decision in the interest of the people; instead, the decision one would make represents the views and the desires of the employer.
Since public servants and other professionals represent the appointing authority, Kant advised that such individuals should not be given freedom to use reason since the individual is hired specifically to be doctrinaire, and to toe the party line. On the other hand, people living a public life should be allowed to make use of reason in making liberal decisions. His view was that a human being has the freedom to think radically in the public sphere. Unlike public officials, individuals living public lives have the obligation to apply reason apart from using it critically in a systematic fashion since the aim is to find the truth. He gave an example of a schoolteacher who should apply and follow the dogma set forth by the school board (Merleau-Ponty, 1969: 12). However, the teacher is allowed to make use of reason outside the school system. For instance, the teacher may critique, question, and dispute the school system. Kant advised that it is near to impossible for an individual to make meaningful contribution in society. He likened individual efforts to leaping over a puddle of mud. In this regard, he called on all the concerned individuals to join hands to agree to apply reason in solving problems. The role of the current generation is to ensure the future generation makes use of reason quite often in handling issues. If reason is applied frequently, it is likely to change the social principles of any given society, especially the principles and values related to governance. The government would have no option other than to respect the will of the enlightened people. Personal freedoms and the freedom to apply reason would be granted if people join hands to condemn the evil acts that governments perpetuate.
While Kant was optimistic about the role of political freedoms in enlightenment or modernity, Marx saw these political freedoms as the symptoms or the signs of lacking true freedoms. Marx arrived at this decision after looking at the material history where humanity is defined based on the totality of all social relations. Marx singled out the mode of economic production as the main obstacle to individual fulfillment. Marx criticized a mode of production that was based on class system. The dominant class, according to Marx, will never allow the minor class or the inferior class to make use of reason as Kant noted (Hegel, 1956: 45). He dismissed Kant’s ideas as idealistic because they failed to consider the realities of modernity. Marx observed that the enlightenment that Kant talked about materializes because of the specific mode of production, which was industrial capitalism at the time. In the capitalist production system, the owners of the means of production or simply the bourgeoisie exploit the workers or the proletariat with a sole purpose of generating profits. Marx observed that the owners of the means of production are able to generate profits because workers are not compensated adequately. The idea of political freedoms, as Kant observed, plays a critical role of fooling the laborers into believing that they are free when in real sense they are not. The idea of freedom forces individual laborers to think about their selfish interests rather than joining forces to overthrow the ruling class, which is responsible for their sufferings. Laborers are actually alienated from their true self as human beings, according to Marx.
In Marx’s view, actual freedom is achieved through a revolution not political freedom as Kant suggested. Marx was a strict materialist and his view was that material freedom was the most important as compared to political freedom (Hegel, 1976: 23). This means people should be empowered economically and financially rather than empowering them politically. In fact, he concluded that the only freedom that can exist is the material freedom since it would pave way for other forms of freedoms. Achievement of material freedom, according to Marx, is when people are no longer alienated from their true selves. Whenever an individual is forced to sell his or her labor to survive, such an individual would never be free. Absence of class conflict would lead to true freedom. Freedom cannot exist when people are still divided along class and ethnic lines. The dominant classes should come to the realization that their actions are hurting the inferior or minor class. They have to pay workers adequately and make them shareholders in the companies they own (Kojève, 1980: 86). If this does not happen, Marx suggests a revolution where the ruling class is overthrown and the workers nominate one of them to rule.
It is concluded that the ideas of the two philosophers are mesmerizing, but Marx’s understanding of being human is vague. Marx saw human beings as being interested only on material wealth and nothing else. Recent studies indicate that people are more interested in other forms of freedoms, especially political freedoms as Kant. Marx rejected the idea that people should apply reason in solving their problems. His view was that an oppressed individual cannot have time to think. Again, the ruling class cannot allow the working class to develop consciousness. While this might be true, the reality is people are allowed to reason and think freely. Without reasoning, people would be unable to address their challenges in the modern society. Kant’s position on the application of reason is valid.
Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. NY: Grove Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1956). The Philosophy of History, J. Sibree (trans.), London: Dover Publications.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1976). The Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kant, I. (1996). An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, Lawrence Cahoone (ed.). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell publishers, 1996.
Kojève, A. (1980). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit. NY: Cornell University Press.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1998). Selections from Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and German Ideology in Marx and Engels, On Religion. NY: Schocken Books.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The Communist Manifesto. NY: Penguin Classics.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1969). Humanism and terror: an essay on the Communist problem. Boston: Beacon Press.
Perry, M. (1996). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tucker, R.C. (1961). Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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