When we were making up the list of our subjects for this project, we knew we wanted the name Marx included. The only problem was we weren’t sure which Marx. For a while we went with Groucho, under the impression that he must have said something about the meaning of life. What would a Jewish survey about the meaning of life look like without Groucho Marx on it? We confess, we couldn’t find anything of relevance that Groucho said that fit the topic so we had to go with our second choice, Karl Marx.
Many will ask, if you couldn’t find anything that fit the bill from Groucho, how on earth did you expect to find anything from Karl? Good question, especially considering that Karl Marx did not believe there was any meaning to life, at least in the ultimate sense that we have been addressing. He was the atheist’s atheist, believing religion to be not only a waste of time, but downright harmful. He was the epitome of a materialist, but not in the sense of wanting wealth and luxury and not caring about anybody else. He did not desire luxury - he was repulsed by wealth and cared deeply about the welfare of others. He simply put very little stock in spiritual activities. To Marx, what really mattered was material productivity – specifically how much control people have over their material well-being.
Karl Marx was a product of 19th century Germany. He was born in 1818 into a family that had recently converted from Judaism to Lutheranism for economic reasons (fairly common at the time). Marx received a secular education and was as atheist as they come. In the course of his considerable thinking into the economic and social theories of early 19th century German scholars, he drew vast conclusions about society, history, and economy. His ideas have become among the most debated and influential in all of human history. It is probably safe to say that Marx has generated more controversy than any other scholar of the human condition.
His central theory, from which communism and socialism spring, is that workers are being screwed in the eternal battle for survival. To Marx, survival meant making a living. He viewed history not through the lens of kings and wars and religions, but through the lens of workers and bosses. He considered the system of paying workers wages for their labor, while the ownership of their efforts belongs to those who pay them but did not do the actual work, to be both unfair and unproductive. He saw the capitalist system that had gained enormous power during the previous few centuries, as the cause of this unfairness. It was only with the (violent) overthrow of capitalism that the workers of the world, and the world itself, could finally realize their messianic destiny.
Two of Marx’ works have become classics of western literature. The first, The Communist Manifesto was an open call to violent revolution against the forces of capitalism. The second, Capital, is a virtually unreadable (except by experts or as a required text in a university). One has to really want to read it to get through it.
However, in some of his earlier writings, notably the so-called Paris Notebooks of 1844, we find some insight into Marx’ view on human nature and fulfillment. In one of these, entitled, ‘Comments on James Mill’, an economist of the early 19th century we find the following:
‘Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realized my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature. Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.’
It’s pretty tough to get through. Nobody said Marx was an easy read. What it boils down to is Marx spelling out the human advantages of workers using their control of making a livelihood as a means of finding fulfillment in life. Instead of workers being slaves to a system that they have no control over and no sense of accomplishment from the results of their labors, they are given the opportunity to produce as human beings. They can reap the fruits of their own labor and not merely receive a wage for it. Everybody works for the good of everybody else. Nobody works strictly for their own good, and certainly not at the expense of others. That is communism in a nutshell.
We all know that it didn’t work out that way. It was all a bunch of hot air theories that, looking back, appear remarkably naïve. But there was a kernel of truth lurking behind all that dreaming. That kernel can be seen in the above paragraph, in which Marx spells out the very human benefits of workers feeling satisfaction from their work. There are four essential benefits described in the paragraph:
1. Individualization – the ability to express one’s individual nature
2. Value as a human being – enjoyment that stems from satisfying the basic human needs of both the producer and the user
3. Communal contribution – knowing that one has helped another find fulfillment
4. Confirmation and realization – experiencing one’s essential nature in life
It all sounds quite theoretical, but when cut down to simple terms, it zeroes in on our essential human need to feel good about ourselves. We try to do this in individual life, in family life, and in community life, so why shouldn’t we also feel it in our working life. Who does not want to feel good about their job? Who really wants to go to work feeling like it’s a big waste of time that is nothing other than a way to put food on the table? This is really what Marx was shooting for – a method of universal job satisfaction. He rather naively claims that it is primarily through our work that we find fulfillment in life. While this may be true in a limited manner, it is certainly not the only way to feel fulfilled. But we must give him credit for highlighting the human need to feel self-fulfillment.
We all need to feel good about ourselves, to feel that we have accomplished something in our lives. Perhaps this is really a selfish need. Marx, however, takes that need and directs it towards improving society. It is difficult to cut through all the Marxist rhetoric and the negative image that communism has rightly earned, but still one may be able to catch a glimpse at one of its fundamental hidden truths. We need to feel good about ourselves. Is it really so terrible if we achieve that through helping others feel good about themselves?
This may not be what Marx had in mind when he went about fomenting revolution and grinding out his elaborate theories, but who cares? It’s a good idea, so let’s use it. If a carpenter can really feel great because the cabinets that he made for a couple have thrilled them to the core, what more can he ask out of life? If a saleswoman can help customers find the exact right outfit that they were looking for, and in doing so feels like she has served a vital role in human society, we should all be thrilled for her. If a health professional manages to make someone a little healthier, or enable them to live in a little less pain, and the patient can finally feel like a human being again, are they not deserving of praise as a restorer of faith in humanity? These, and countless other examples, are unwittingly living the Marxist dream. Materialism, if we deal with it correctly, can have a touch of spirituality.
That last line in the paragraph quote from Marx is particularly interesting: ‘Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.’ While it may be a great idea to identify our essential nature with our careers, it is nevertheless true that what we do in life does reflect, to some degree, our essential nature. It’s probably not the worst idea in the world to take Marx’ observation seriously. To some degree, what we produce in life, whether in the course of a job, or in the course of non-work related activities, says a good deal about who we are. The equation would read something like this: you are what you make. Another, more modern and less Marxist way of expressing that is: you are what you make yourself to be. That is your main product in life, what you make of yourself. This is our chance to make ourselves into who we want to be. It behooves us to produce something that is a credit to ourselves.
But this is not all that line says. It also mentions mirrors. We all want to know what we really look like. A physical mirror can only tell us so much about that important aspect of life. But there are many angles and aspects that are impossible to detect in a simple glass-coated mirror. We need a mirror that sees inside, under the surface of the skin. That mirror is our ‘product’. What we accomplish in life can be a window into the person that we truly are. This does not mean that so-called ‘successful’ people are somehow ‘better’ than ‘unsuccessful’ people. Success and lack of success are not necessarily our true products. They may be nothing more than the luck of the draw. Rather, it is how we have used the tools and the opportunities that we were given - how we acted upon them and how we reacted to the ups and downs of life, that we find our true nature. These are the barometer by which we should judge ourselves, the mirror through which we should study ourselves.
If Marx heard all this he may have screamed to high heaven, saying that we were getting sidetracked from the main cause, which was to ease the plight of the workers and put them into control of their own destiny. That was Marx. Most people don’t buy into that anymore, even if they once did. But most people do buy into the idea of feeling good about themselves. A great way to do that is to look for things in life that bring you fulfillment, for things that make your life feel like it is worthwhile. It may not be the ultimate purpose in life, but it sure makes life have a purpose.
Food for Thought
Why is it that it is so difficult to find fulfillment through work? Why do we always get caught up in the selfish elements of work that we lose sight of the spiritual benefits?
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