By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Marx is the founder—or the greatest formulator, we could say—of an approach to evil that we must directly confront: the idea that “evil”, both what we name “evil” and whatever wickedness we do, is due to social conditions and material inequalities. Therefore it is contingent, not necessary; that this evil would be overcome within history, not at its end. Let us look at how this formulation of evil operated according to Marx.
Marx’s Idea of Evil
Hegel says that eventually history will make itself clear and everything will be seen to be for the best. Marx says that’s not true; what matters, though, is that evil can be fixed now. Certain forms of evil may be necessary in the development of capital across stages sociologically and economically, but that doesn’t mean that the development of capital is itself in some sense intrinsically requiring evil facts as part of its justification.
What is evil for Marx? It’s a structure of unequal social relations where some are able to gather wealth—what he’ll call “capital”—from the labor of others and to reinvest that wealth in ways that make those inequalities ever greater. Marx doesn’t think this is a new thing; he thinks this is going back thousands of years. Certainly at some point when everyone was in a tribe on land, there wasn’t that much wealth that people had. People were roughly equal in terms of the amount of wealth they had. But over time, and especially after industrialism, enormous concentrations of wealth were seen; and this wealth created its own rationale for how the world should be run.
Learn more about Western intellectual movements and traditional morality.
Wealth and Evil
Naturally, those who had the wealth learnt to enjoy its comforts, became accustomed to them, and wished to keep them. They grew concerned that others did not have these comforts and they wanted to keep others away. Disparities in wealth lead to disparities in power; far more than disparities in power lead to disparities in wealth. Material wealth for Marx is a social force and a social reality more fundamental than political power itself.
Marx thought that political power is nothing more than a device for securing those who have wealth to keep wealth, and ensuring that those who don’t have wealth can’t take it from those who do. It’s not necessary that those who don’t have wealth can’t get it; they just can’t get it from the people who have it already. How do they get wealth otherwise? Some social turbulence is possible, but realistically, Marx thought, effectively those people who have wealth are those who are likely to get more wealth in the future.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Inequalities of Wealth
The inequalities of wealth lead to all the differences of quality of life and cultural mode that lead people, Marx thought, to do wicked things, or not to do wicked things. Marx thought that understanding those facts, the underlying structures of what he thought was the logic of history, would be a more powerful motivator for effecting change than preaching to people in any way.
Furthermore, Marx was interested in understanding what was going to happen in history, not to guide the dynamics—for he thought that the dynamics of historical change were pretty much unstoppable—but in order to slightly and subtly shape them, shift their course moderately and best endure their process through our lives.
For Marx, evil is not simply just a consequence of material inequalities; evil also is strictly speaking a sheer accident.
Learn more about evil as a social construct.
Changing Society and Resolving Evil
Marx wants to say that changes in social conditions and material inequalities can alter or even do away with most evil. If we get the social structures right, evil will go away. If you get society organized in the right way, the transformations of human behavior that will enable us to exercise our skills in certain ways and delight in their exercise, those individual anthropological changes, those dispositional changes in the self, those will happen if we just get the social system right.
There will be accidents of nature, even a certain range of people who are insane, pathological; and perhaps even a minimal level of carelessness and common human thoughtlessness. But the really big evils, Marx thinks, such as young people worked to death in factories or mines, plutocrats throwing away enough food from their feasts to feed the hungry mouths for months, murder and killing within and between nations, criminality in the lower classes, alcoholism, drug abuse, sex slavery, all these would go away, because their basic cause—the disparity of wealth—would go away as well.
It’s important to see that when Marx talks about a “resolution,” he’s not talking about a philosophical resolution; he’s thinking of a resolution in terms of the practical disappearance of the concrete evil itself, not in terms of the disappearance of the cognitive problem of evil, the intellectual problem of evil. The crucial fact, he thinks, is that real concrete suffering is what must ultimately go away. The intellectual puzzle of evil is, for Marx, only a puzzle that grips us to the extent that we at least tacitly acknowledge that we cannot ourselves come to solve the practical problem.
Common Questions about Marx’s Conception of Evil
For Marx, evil is a structure of unequal social relations where some are able to gather wealth from the labor of others and to reinvest that wealth in ways that make those inequalities ever greater.
For Marx, political power, in fact, is nothing more than a device for securing those who have wealth to keep wealth, and ensuring that those who don’t have wealth can’t take it from those who do.
Marx believed that the real big evils—young people working to death in factories or mines, food being wasted by the rich, murder and killing within and between nations, criminality in the lower classes, alcoholism, drug abuse, sex slavery—all of these would disappear from our lives once the basic cause of it all, the disparity in wealth would go away.