When Spinoza Met Marx. Experiments in Nonhumanist Activity

Contribute by: prof. Tracie Matysik, Associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and Fellow of the Brian F. Bolton Professorship in Secular Studies.

Tracie Marysik, When Spinoza Met Marx. Experiments in Nonhumanist Activity, Chicago University Press, Chicago 2022.

Karl Marx was a fiery revolutionary theorist who heralded the imminent demise of capitalism, while Spinoza was a contemplative philosopher who preached rational understanding and voiced skepticism about open rebellion. Spinoza criticized all teleological ideas as anthropomorphic fantasies, while Marxism came to be associated expressly with teleological historical development. Why, then, were socialists of the German nineteenth century consistently drawn to Spinoza as their philosophical guide? Tracie Matysik shows how the metaphorical meeting of Spinoza and Marx arose out of an intellectual conundrum around the meaning of activity. How is it, exactly, that humans can be fully determined creatures but also able to change their world? To address this paradox, many revolutionary theorists came to think of activity in the sense of Spinoza—as relating. Matysik follows these Spinozist-socialist intellectual experiments as they unfolded across the nineteenth century, drawing lessons from them that will be meaningful for the contemporary world.

The scene: early wintry months of 1841, a young, somewhat sickly doctoral student sits at his desk in Berlin, painstakingly penciling into his notebooks lengthy passages from classical philosophers. This twenty-three-year-old Karl Marx has just finished his doctoral dissertation on Epicurus and Democritus, a project that immersed him in ancient Greek theories of atoms and movement, material determinism and contingency. In these notebooks, however, are extensive passages in Latin. It seems that the voracious mind of the young Marx had wandered into seventeenth-century philosophy, landing in particular on the Theological-Political Treatise (henceforth TTP) of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), the Dutch Jewish philosopher-and professional lens grinder-of Portuguese descent. Indeed, the transcriptions from Spinoza’s writings take up more space in the dissertation notebooks than those of any other author, save the ancients themselves.

There are forty-four handwritten pages on Spinoza, compared to twenty-four on Aristotle, sixteen on David Hume, twelve on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, fifteen on the more contemporary Karl Rosenkranz, and fifteen on Italian grammar.’ If this scene is a reminder that Marx was in many ways typical of academically interested students in nineteenth-century Germany, moving casually between Greek and Latin classics, ancient and contemporary philosophy, it is also a reminder that he was always tuned into the most fashionable intellectual currents of the day. He would spill ample ink in coming years working through the philosophy of Georg W. F. Hegel, the intellectual heavyweight of German philosophical circles in Marx’s youth, just as he would on Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and many others. And his immersion in Spinoza’s philosophy was central to that intellectual context, for Spinoza had become a “German classic’ by the beginning of the nineteenth century, a staple of the philosophical diet that students of Marx’s generation were consuming.

Spinoza’s specific role in Marx’s intellectual formation nonetheless remains something of an enigma, since the transcriptions fill his notebooks without commentary. In his public writings, Marx never confronted Spinoza directly in the way he did his immediate contemporaries; and the existing references are few and scattered across his oeuvre. Moreover, Marx and Spinoza make for an unlikely pair, at least on the surface. If Marx was the fiery mid-nineteenth-century revolutionary theorist who interpreted capitalism in its historical development and heralded its imminent demise, Spinoza was the contemplative seventeenth-century philosopher who had preached rational understanding as a counter to rash action and who had voiced skepticism about open rebellion or radical political change.


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