About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft | From Socrates Meets Marx: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Founder of Communism

Print-friendly version


This book is one in a series of Socratic explorations of some of the Great Books. Books in this series are intended to be short, clear, and non-technical, thus fully understandable by beginners. They also introduce (or review) the basic questions in the fundamental divisions of philosophy (see the chapter titles): metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, ethics, logic, and method. They are designed both for classroom use and for educational do-it-yourselfers. The "Socrates Meets . . ." books can be read and understood completely on their own, but each is best appreciated after reading the little classic it engages in dialogue.

The setting – Socrates and the author of the Great Book meeting in the afterlife – need not deter readers who do not believe there is an afterlife. For although the two characters and their philosophies are historically real, their conversation, of course, is not and requires a "willing suspension of disbelief ". There is no reason the skeptic cannot extend this literary belief also to the setting.

This excerpt is Chapter 2 of Socrates Meets Marx.

SOCRATES: Perhaps it would be best for you to introduce your book first, to explain its context and its purpose, as if you were teaching it in a university classroom. I think you are much readier to lecture than to dialogue at this point, so perhaps this method would relieve that itch a bit.

MARX: Do you really expect me to respond to an insulting invitation like that?


MARX: Why?

SOCRATES: Because you are an egotist. And also because you have no choice: there is nothing else to do here.

MARX: Hmph! Well, I will take up your challenge.

The book we are about to explore is very short: a pamphlet of only 12,000 words. Yet it has changed the world, as I knew it would. It contains the essentials of Communism in these few pages. All the rest of my writing consists in additions or refinements to this.

I wrote it at age twenty-nine. Engels did not write a word of it. However, he supplied some of the ideas. The Manifesto corresponds to the first twenty-five questions in his Catechism. More importantly, he supplied most of the money to print it.

It is a Great Book because it finally solves the mystery of man and lays bare the most fundamental laws that have always governed human behavior. I did for man's history what Darwin did for the history of an- imal species and Newton did for the inorganic universe. It is the supreme achievement of human thought. I was the first to make history truly scientific.

All the philosophers, from Plato on, sought the "philosopher's stone", the world system, the formula. Each claimed to find it, but none did. Every time thought came to a halt before the timeless formula of some philosopher, the world moved on and refuted it.

Then came Hegel, who made change itself the formula. That was true, but not original: Heraclitus, even before your time, Socrates, had seen that "everything flows", like a river. He sought for the logos, the law or formula, for universal change; but it was not found until Hegel, who saw for the first time that logic itself moves with history, that truth itself changes according to the pattern of what he called the "dialectic": a thesis generates its own antithesis, and from this perpetual conflict emerges a synthesis, which then becomes a new thesis generating its own new antithesis, and so on until the final synthesis. Hegel, with unbelievable stupidity, identified this with "God", or "The Absolute" or "Spirit"--probably the three worst words in human speech and the three most harmful myths in human thought.

Heraclitus discovered the universality of change, or "becoming". Hegel discovered the logical form of it, the "dialectic". But I discovered its true content: matter, not spirit. Hegel thought that ideas caused historical conflicts; I found the causes in the real world. Ideas are only the echo or the effect.

Furthermore, within the real world I found the source of historical change, not in unpredictable individual characters or choices or passions, but in economic determinism. This was the key to making history a science: something predictable and controllable.

The forces of the dialectic of history are economic classes. Class conflict is history's engine.

I was also the first to show how the socialist, classless Utopia of which others had dreamed would grow like a flower from the plant of my present world. For once the number of classes is reduced to one--the proletariat--conflict is reduced to zero.

This is accomplished by the elimination of the only other remaining class, the bourgeoisie. The meaning of my era is precisely there: Capitalism had already reduced the plethora of classes that had characterized feudalism to just two, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Communist revolution will be the last great event in history, for it will eliminate the bourgeoisie, leaving only "the dictatorship of the proletariat", as I said in my Critique of the Gotha Programand elsewhere, that is, a society of perfect equality and justice, where "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all", and where, as I said in the same book, all things flow "from each according to his ability to each according to his need."

SOCRATES: That was a wonderful speech, Karl! It did exactly what it needed to do, in introducing your book. It was admirably clear and simple: even I could understand it. It was powerful and appealing: you are truly a great rhetorician. Lastly, and best of all, it was short.

MARX: So if you are satisfied, let us do it, not just think about it. Will you join the Party?

SOCRATES: Well, now, I think you will find some difficulty in organizing that kind of thing here.

MARX: I am not afraid of any challenge, even in my dreams.

SOCRATES: You don't understand.

MARX: What is the problem?

SOCRATES: Well, in addition to the little detail that we are not in your dream but quite real, we have one other little thing that we have to take care of before we can think about practicing your philosophy.

MARX: What is that?

SOCRATES: What do you think? What should you make sure of first, before you put any philosophy into practice?

MARX: That I have the money needed. Is Engels here, too?

SOCRATES: No, something more basic than that.

MARX: There is nothing more basic than that.

SOCRATES: Yes, there is.

MARX: That I have the power base? Fear not; I shall create it.

SOCRATES: No, something else.

MARX: Associates? Organizational skills?

SOCRATES: Something about the philosophy rather than about you. What do you want to be sure a philosophy is?

MARX: Dynamic? Radical? Progressive? No? You still shake your bulbous, ugly head! Challenging, engaging, galvanizing to action? No? Flattering, perhaps? Sly and clever and winsome? No? Original? Creative? Interesting? No, still! Surely you are not suggesting that it be comfortably traditional? No, again. What, then? I give up this demeaning guessing game. What are you after? Tell me the secret. What is the occult quality that you demand in a philosophy before you will put it into practice?

SOCRATES: I was thinking of truth.


SOCRATES: Is that your only reply? That one little syllable?

MARX: But practice will reveal that, Socrates. Truth always emerges, eventually, from the process of history, the dialectic. Truth does not come outside of action and before it; it comes in action and as the result of action.

SOCRATES: Is that so?

MARX: It is so, I assure you.

SOCRATES: So it is true that truth only emerges from the process?

MARX: Yes.

SOCRATES: And are we in the process now, or are we outside it and at its end?

MARX: We are in process.

SOCRATES: And truth is not before this process, or outsideit, but only emerges from it?

MARX: That is what I said. You have a very short memory.

SOCRATES: Then, since we are only in the process and not outside it, how can we know what is outside the process?

MARX: We can't.

SOCRATES: We are like fish, then, in the sea, who cannot fly above the sea like birds.

MARX: Right.

SOCRATES: So we cannot know what is or is not outside the process, just as a fish cannot know what is or is not outside the sea?

MARX: Right again. You are beginning to understand my point, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Then how can you know that there is no truth outside the process?

MARX: What? What's that you say?

SOCRATES: If fish cannot know what is outside the sea, they cannot know what is notoutside the sea, either. So if we cannot know any truth outside time, we cannot know that there is no such thing as truth outside time, either. But you said you did know precisely that: that there is no truth outside time.

MARX: I will not let myself be tricked by some philosopher's abstract logical argument and diverted from the real into the ideal. All your own ideas, Socrates, including that static logic of yours, too, are nothing but the product of your pre-industrial peasant-aristocrat-conservative social order.

SOCRATES: And yours?

MARX: All ideas are the products of social conditions.

SOCRATES: But your social conditions, including your education, were thoroughly bourgeois. If ideas are nothing but products of their social order, your Communism must be a thoroughly bourgeois idea.

MARX: I need not answer your pitiful logic, Socrates. It is impotent. You seek in vain to slay the juggernaut of history's dialectic with the weapons of words. 'Words are mere shadows, spectres, ghosts.

SOCRATES: Including your words, Karl? Are they also spectres?

MARX: You keep doing that, Socrates! It is a most annoying habit.

SOCRATES: Isn't that image--that of a spectre--exactly the one you used for your own words, or your own ideas, namely, Communism, in the very first line of your book? Here it is: "A spectre is haunting Europe-the spectre of Communism."

MARX: I must warn you, Socrates, that your habit of throwing other people's words back at them will not win you many friends. It will only win arguments.

SOCRATES: My purpose here is not to win friends, or to win arguments, either, but to be your helper, if not your friend, by being a mirror held up to your mind so that you may know yourself.

MARX: Are you so nave as to expect me to believe you are my helper when you subject me to such torture? And to expect me to accept it as in my own best interests?

SOCRATES: Yes, indeed. Unless you want to be a comic figure instead of a serious one. For I can think of nothing more comic than a philosophy that does not account for its own creator. A philosophy without a philosopher--now that's a paradox.

MARX: Is your task here to dissect me or my book?

SOCRATES: Only your book, for now. But that task is a means to the higher end of knowing yourself. Are you ready to begin?

MARX: Go ahead, do your worst, Socrates!

SOCRATES: No, Karl, I will obey my mother instead of you: she always told me to do my best.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

On Writing and Apologetics | Talking with Peter Kreeft
Seducing Minds With The Socratic Method | An Interview with Peter Kreeft
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | From Socrates Meets Sartre | Peter Kreeft
The Point of It All | From The God Who Loves You | Peter Kreeft
The Divinity of Christ | From Fundamentals of the Faith | Peter Kreeft
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand The Bible | Peter Kreeft
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | From The Philosophy of Tolkien | Peter Kreeft
Abortion: What Can Be Done? | Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
The Question of Hope | From Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing | Peter Kreeft
On Spiritual Warfare | From The Screwtape Letters | Peter Kreeft

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College who uses that dialog format in a series published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far, Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy 101 by Socrates, Socrates Meets Marx, Socrates Meets Machiavelli and Socrates Meets Sartre.

Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. His most recent Ignatius Press books include You Can Understand the Bible, The God Who Loves You, and The Philosophy of Tolkien. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.)

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius