A Comparison of Platonic and Marxist Views of the Political, Essay Example
The visions of Plato (as spoken through the historical Socrates) and Marxism seem to present radically different versions of the notion of political utopia. For example, Plato’s system is most distinguished by its rigid segregation of classes and division of labor, despite its concern with justice as founding question in the Republic. In contrast, the Marxist approach views such divisions as precisely the reason behind the unjust state. Therefore it is the annihilation of this same division that is crucial for the realization of political justice. Thus, the two thinkers present two apparently irreconcilable positions about the structure of the ideal political state. At the same time however, both thinkers, despite these differences, can also be said to have a shared starting point in their inquiries. Namely, it is the question of justice and therefore social justice as a justice for the human being that guides both of their political projects. Just as the Republic begins from a questioning of the notion of justice, which eventually leads into a notion of social justice and the ideal city state, it can be equally stated that the Marxist political project also starts from a concern about the inequalities of the social structure. The various particular concepts of the Marxian analysis and its key ideas of class division, division of labor, and ideology, could not have been proposed without an underlying concern about what justice means. From the contrasting perspective, however, it can be suggested that such a concept of justice is explicit in Plato, while it is lacking in Marx. This means that while Plato begins from the inquiry into justice and develops a political model afterwards; Marx analyzes social and political structures. Yet since Marx starts only from this analysis, his position is weakened, since he cannot justify the need for political intervention (i.e., human rights, protesting for justice) without a simultaneous formulation of the meaning of justice: Marx’s theory lacks a reason of why justice is desirable and therefore what is justice. Arguably, the failings of various Marxist political projects in history can be explained in terms of a commitment to the Marxist theoretical concepts, as opposed to a commitment to justice and humanism that would provide the practical balance to Marx’s analysis. If we can say that a concept of justice is absent from Marx’s writings, it can also be said that his vision of utopia is the product of his economic analysis: it is the analysis of economics that leads to the conclusion that fundamental social inequalities exist. Yet such an approach fails to explain why Marx criticizes this same economic system, and thus his explicit political ventures in the form of the Communist Manifesto: If Marx was merely tracing the development of an economic structure and system throughout history, where would be the impulse to become politically active and initiate change of the system? In this regard, the fundamental advantage of the Platonic system is that it explicitly identifies the problem of justice as the bedrock of the analysis of the political, whereas the Marxist position remains unclear about justice. Hence, despite the compelling economic and social analyses provided in the Marxist literature, such analyses therefore remain incomplete because they lack a concern with this concept of justice, a concept that implies a social structure in which justice is constantly attempted to be realized. This concern is present in Plato’s system, regardless of its own limitations.
The Platonic political system, as it is expressed through Socrates in The Republic, emerges from the initial question of what is justice. The path this inquiry takes is crucial, because it is not merely answerable in the form of an abstract ideal. Plato writes that »you must not be content with proving that justice is superior to injustice; you must make clear what good or what harm each of them does to its possessor, taking it simply in itself.« (52) The path pursued to answer this question requires the examination of the political and social structures of the ideal state, since the notion of justice remains thoroughly blind if it does not have radically practical considerations. This justice must be made manifest in the practical realm to have any meaning. Yet that such an inquiry ultimately yields a city structure that is highly segregated, from the contemporary perspective it would also seem that the Platonic conclusion is wholly out of date. Namely, as critics like Popper have famously noted, such a system is the enemy of democracy, and what we contemporarily understand as equality. Such “totalitarian” elements appear in the “Ship of State” parable from The Republic, where the necessity of an able ruler is deemed crucial: “the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.” (178) Despite the apparent authoritarianism, Plato nevertheless emphasizes the competence of the captain. Namely, the captain must possess a greater goal, one which drives the entire expedition. It is therefore the philosopher king who corresponds to this function, since h/she maintains the greater goal of the entire expedition: the construction of the city state is determined by the investigation into justice, much like the captain investigates the stars to determine the right course. This is thus not a wholly exclusionary system, since no one is excluded from the captainship at the outset. Rather, the one who is qualified to be captain understands the greater investigation that inspires the entire venture, much like the philosopher king understands the greater concept that engenders a specific order of the state, to the extent that s/he is guided by a concept of justice. This concept serves, like the stars, as an orientation for the system: from this parable it can be read that the aim itself has not yet been determined, but takes the form of an investigation. This leads to a fundamentally open system, driven by the search for a concept of justice that inspires the various social formations that may or may not conform to this concept.
Certainly, the Marxist system contains an implicit concept of justice. Its analysis does not only address the economic system and the teleological conclusion of the eradication of social injustice. If this were case, a text such as The Communist Manifesto and the intervention into the political would be totally unnecessary. At the outset of The Communist Manifesto it is made clear that a struggle is at stake, one that requires active participation: »It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meed this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself.« (473) The theoretical conclusions reached by Marxism are accompanied by a pragmatic political message that makes clear the goals of the movement. Yet this gap between the practical and the theoretical, namely, the gap between the necessity of practical action and the conclusions reached by the theoretical, remains unanswered. If the theoretical, despite the soundness of its argument, requires the practical, how can one account for this requirement? It would appear that this gap between the two can be most readily explained in terms of the absent concept of justice in Marxism. This means that if the theoretical conclusions identify a moment of injustice, i.e., we live in a society with unfair class structures, then the practical attempt to defend these theoretical conclusions and create a new social structure can only be commanded by an appeal for justice and the commitment to a greater good. Yet it is precisely a legitimatization of political action that is missing. Therefore, the basic communist premise, declared as “The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (473) makes a claim about the persistence of social injustice that has characterized history as a whole. All societies manifest a form of this opposition between the classes of ownerships and the classes of the laborer. Regardless of the credibility of this analysis, the necessity to intervene on behalf of one side of the struggle remains clear: it is a commitment to equality. Hence, “the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with clash antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.” (474) The Marxist theoretical project is simultaneously a practical project that opposes such forms of classes and forms of oppression. But accordingly, where is the theoretical elaboration of justice that would explain the necessity to intervene in the course of history?
It can be argued that such a lack of a concept of justice – essentially a lack of an ethics and humanism – led to the various wrong turns in the development of the communist state. The historical atrocities committed by communist regimes suggest that their belief was in the force of the theoretical argument itself. Without this concept of justice it becomes difficult to understand clearly to what extent such activism is necessary: for human beings or for the system itself? It can be suggested that such a criticism is found in the works of the anarchist Bakunin, who discerned a need to break with Marx because of exactly such a de-emphasis on human beings, and thus life, within Marxist theory. Thus, in the text “Critique of Marxism”, Bakunin writes, “Idealists of all sorts, metaphysicians, positivists…uphold the priority of science over life.” (283) The emphasis on theory within Marxism can be understood as precisely such a prioritization of science over life. The notion that “science is over life” entails that all social arrangements can be understood from the cold gaze of objective science. Yet this distancing is a distancing from life, from the proletariat classes whose life Marxism claims to improve. Bakunin is quite explicit to where such an approach will lead: “The Marxists are aware of this contradiction, and realizing that government by scientist…will be, notwithstanding its democratic form, a veritable dictatorship.” (287) This dictatorial element of the Marxist vision is consistent with the absence of a concept of justice and thus a commitment to life over science, as this is a dictatorship of a Marxist theory, irrespective of the concerns of life. Such a missing element of justice can be said to explain the missteps of communism. The practical approach that accompanies the theoretical approach is merely used to support the theoretical conclusions, as opposed to helping improve everyday existence with a commitment to the value of everyday existence and the rights of people. This is not to reject the strength of the Marxist analysis and its identification of clear inequalities between classes throughout history. Rather, since Marxism lacks this concept of justice, a concept that guides the entire Platonic system, it becomes difficult to explain the need for practical action in the name of communism itself. Without this concept of justice, such practical action, as Bakunin identified, is merely the justification of the accuracy of Marx’s theoretical analysis.
Certainly, the Platonic system appears to be more opposed to what is commonly understood as a democratic and free state in our times. Yet, the Platonic system is entirely geared towards the lives of the people who inhabit it. It attempts to address their concerns, and since it remains humanist in character, the organizations of society Plato proposes try to solve fundamental tensions in society and avoid future tensions. This is not to suggest that the Platonic system represents an ideal state. Yet because it begins from an inquiry into justice, its ultimately humanistic goals of improvement of the lives of its citizenry are clear, irrespective of the accuracy of conclusions reached.
At the same time, such an approach allows the system to be more flexible, as the question concerning justice in The Republic itself remains open: it is guided by such a humanistic principle, which makes it dedicated to a vision of justice, yet a vision that can be constantly revised and improved upon. The Marxist viewpoint and its historical analysis combined with its absence of this humanistic idea become too rigid and ultimately too alienated from the real concerns of the proletariat in order to function. This is not to reject the Marxist analysis in its entirety. It is rather the suggestion that a concept of justice must guide these theoretical structures, so that they do not remain entirely oblivious to the life they attempt to explain. It is this dedication to life and the attempt to think justice that makes the Platonic system more compelling, as it stresses its desired goal while leaving open the possibility for new formulations of the elusive justice it seeks to achieve.
Bakunin, Mikhail. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism.
Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto.
Plato. The Republic.
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