Marx and the Limits of Politics

In his 1844 “Critical Marginal Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform'”, Karl Marx criticizes socialism as limited political activity. Marx conceived of a social revolution as involving the whole society, beyond the political class:

The more powerful a state and hence the more political a nation, the less inclined it is to explain the general principle governing social ills and to seek out their causes by looking at the prinicple of the state, i.e. at the actual organization of society of which the state is the active, self-conscious, and official expression. Political understanding is just political understanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable it is of comprehending social problems. The classical period of political understanding is the French Revolution. Far from identifying the principle of the state as the source of social ills, the heroes of the French Revolution held social ills to be the source of political problems. (412-3)

In many ways, Marx anticipates the critique of the public sphere in Kierekgaard’s 1846 Two Ages. In Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason, Allan Megill has shown how the “Critical Marginal Notes” actually signals Marx’s abandonment of epiphenomenal “politics” (61). ‘Anti-political’ critiques such as the ones Marx and Kierkegaard issued at the birth of the bourgeois public sphere have become less commonplace, either because the political class has expanded, or because it is difficult to imagine an Archimedean point for social action beyond the political public sphere…


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